Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Publishing

Mr X

There is a scholar, call him Mr X, who received his training within the academy, but who found it wasn’t enough. He wanted more: to move outside of his wonky circle of colleagues, to engage the public, to communicate ideas in a manner that was artful as well as illuminating.

While his peers wrote difficult books and debated obscure issues at their meetings, Mr X took part in the communication revolution that was bringing academic ideas into greater contact with the wider world. He wrote shorter pieces for broader audiences, telling one colleague “Publish small works often and you will dominate all of literature.” So when Mr X was offered a position far away from his bustling city home, he took it, feeling that his community was no longer defined by geography but by ideas, communicated through the new social technologies.

The new social technologies wern’t blogs or Web 2.0 applications, but the pamphlet and the salon. Mr X is not Steven Jay Gould or PZ Myers but Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, an 18th century French explorer and polymath who led a geodetic expedition to Lapland in 1736.

Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis. Notice Maupertuis' left hand flattening the globe.

Maupertuis is usually remembered as the scholar who described the actual shape of the earth by measuring a degree of arc at high latitude. In so doing, he helped settle a dispute with French cartographer Jacques Cassini over whether the earth was prolate (that is, longer along its N-S axis), or oblate (longer along its diameter at the equator). Cassini believed that the earth was prolate like a lemon. Maupertuis, following in the footsteps of Newton, helped prove that it was oblate like a jelly donut.

A prolate spheroid

An oblate spheroid

Yet as Mary Terrall points out in her book The Man Who Flattened The Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences of the Enlightenment, Maupertuis’s most interesting work takes place back home as he tries to make a name for himself in this new theater of conversation, a world that connects elite academies and educated polite society.

As I read about the radical effects of social technology on academic writing and reputation today, I wonder: how much of this is really new? Perhaps the boundaries between elite institutions and general public have always been squishier than we’ve made them out to be. Blogs and twitter feeds feel so new, so world changing, because they have in fact changed the world we live in, the way we communicate with friends, peers, and random passers-by. Yet it’s bound to feel like this. The flood feels strongest when you’re standing in the middle of the stream.  The story of Maupertuis makes me think that it is a seasonal event, a spring flood that returns with some regularity, the latest iteration of social technology (and sociable science writing) that probably dates to the printing press. Vive le café.

Fallen Giants Wins the Banff Book Award

fallengiantscover08

Congratulations to Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, winners of  the 2008 Banff Mountain Book Award for Mountaineering History.  Their excellent book, Fallen Giants:  A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes , does not merely chronicle the harrowing ascents and colorful personalities of high-altitude climbing. It also offers a look at mountaineering as a cultural project that blossomed in the 19th and 20th centuries. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am friends with Stewart and an acquaintance of Maurice).

Maurice Isserman receives Banff Award from Mike Mortimer

Maurice Isserman (left) receives Banff Award from Mike Mortimer (right)

David Chaundy-Smart, editor of Gripped Magazine, states:

Tilman speculated that a chronicle of the “fall of the giants” of the Himalayas would not be as interesting as chronicles of the failed attempts. He never anticipated that Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver would eventually paraphrase him in the title of an exhaustive and entertaining history of Himalayan mountaineering. This is a standard-setting work that credibly accounts for the struggle to summit the 8000 metre peaks with a seamless discussion of politics, economics and the development of climbing technique backed by a mind-boggling list of sources.

If this isn’t enough to satisfy your Himalayan appetite, visit the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Tibet Album. Here you’ll find a collection of British photographs in Central Tibet from 1920-1950. The collection totals 6000 photographs by Charles Bell, Arthur Hopkinson, Evan Nepean, Hugh Richardson, Frederick Spencer Chapman, and Harry Staunton among others. Taken together with Everest expedition photos of the Bently Beetham Collection (listed in my links and profiled here), one gets a vivid picture of British-Nepali-Tibetan encounters in the early 20th century.

Field Force to Lhasa 1903-04

Cecil Mainprise Diary, photo from blog: Field Force to Lhasa 1903-04

You can also find the journal of Cecil Mainprise, medical officer of General Sir Francis Younghusband’s expedition to Tibet in 1903, dutifully published in blog form by his great nephew Jonathan Buckley.

Reading all of this material may give you a bit of altitude sickness. Best to descend for a while and acclimatize.  I’ll be here with more after the New Year.

Interview with Beau Riffenburgh

Beau Riffenburgh

Beau Riffenburgh next to a bust of Sir Douglas Mawson at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, AU

History of exploration was just becoming a hot topic in the Academy when I started my graduate work in the mid-1990s. Academic interest attached itself to post-colonial studies, focusing on regions of the globe where Europeans and Euro-Americans had done most of their empire-building: Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic World.

The world of Polar exploration, however, remained quiet, a terra incognita of historical scholarship. Meanwhile, non-academic historians were churning out polar books in droves, on Robert Peary, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and others. I suspect that all of this attention caused academic historians to shy away even further, to view polar exploration as suspect, a popular rather than serious subject of inquiry.

It was in this environment that Beau Riffenburgh published his pathbreaking book Myth of the Explorer. Here was a scholarly approach to a “popular” subject, in this case a behind-the-scenes look at the most sensational explorers of the Victorian World. Riffenburgh’s book shattered explorers’ claims to be men of a different world, men built of a different mold. It showed how deeply embedded these men were in the world they left behind, in their values, their careers, and their financial dealings.

Myth of the Explorer thus offered academic historians a bridge to the other side, a way of approaching the sensational explorers with a different set of aims, a different list of questions. Although it is now out of print, Myth of the Explorer remains an essential resource for historians of Victorian exploration and it is cited in the works of Robert Kohler, Felix Driver, Graham Burnett, and Felipe-Fernandez Armesto. Its influence certainly extends to my own book Coldest Crucible.

It is a pleasure to welcome Beau Riffenburgh to Time to Eat the Dogs.

Your first book Myth of the Explorer looked beyond the heroic images of explorers slogging it out in the field to examine explorers’ actions back home, particularly their financial dealings with the popular press. This was a very different kind of exploration book when it came out in 1993. What led you to the project and your approach to it?

I long had been fascinated by exploration, particularly of the polar regions and Africa. I decided after working a number of years in publishing to go back for a PhD just because I wanted to spend several years researching something that really interested me. I had previously earned an MA in journalism, and also had strong interest in the history of the press. My PhD thesis, upon which Myth of the Explorer was based, allowed me to use these two interests to look at the other. Since the press played a significant role in sponsoring, promoting, and creating an interest in exploration, it seemed logical to use the press of the time as a vehicle through which to view exploration. At the same time exploration could be a subject by which to test several hypotheses that I had about the way the growth and use of sensational journalism is generally presented in studies of the history and development of the press.

How was it received?

In general, the book was received very well by reviewers. It was published by a small publisher, but it interested Oxford University Press enough that they sought it out to publish in paperback. I would like to think that it helped influence a number of scholars who have done studies since then.

You served as Publication director for the NFL in the 1980s, writing a variety of books about American football. Did your work for the NFL reveal to you any links between modern sports and 19th century exploration?

I was the senior writer for NFL Properties, the publishing and licensing branch of the NFL, and I essentially was director of historical research. I can’t say that my work there revealed any particular links between sports and exploration, but the switch between the two is not as bizarre as it initially sounds. I was one of several people around the country who conducted a good deal of research on what was sometimes known as the Ohio League, the informal grouping of professional football teams in Ohio and a few surrounding states before the founding of the NFL in 1920. This included many of the teams that went on to join the NFL, such as the Canton Bulldogs. I would like to say that the foremost scholar in this field, and one who is a marvellous researcher, is Bob Carroll, an independent researcher who lives in Pennsylvania and was the key founder of the Pro Football Researchers Association.

Anyway, the main point here is that much of this research was carried out by carefully going through old newspaper accounts of football games in order to obtain data held there but seemingly otherwise lost. When I began my PhD, I continued using nineteenth-century newspapers as my primary data source, and was able to use essentially the same collection methods. In other words, although my subject matter changed dramatically as I went to exploration, my methods remained similar, so it was not a huge change in what I had done before.

The Heroic Exploits of the World's Greatest Explorers

Exploration Experience: The Heroic Exploits of the World

In recent years, you have published a number of trade books on exploration. Your latest book, Exploration Experience: The Heroic Exploits of the World’s Greatest Explorers (National Geographic Society, 2008) combines your essays with reproduced documents, photos, and artifacts from famous expeditions. How did the experience of writing Exploration Experience and these exploration books differ from writing Myth of the Explorer?

My two major books of the past five years have been Nimrod (published in the US as Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition) in 2004 and Racing With Death in 2008. The first was the first account of the first expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, the British Antarctic Expedition (1907-09), on which he attained a farthest south. The second is an account of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expeditions, primarily his Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-14), on which he made perhaps the most amazing Antarctic journey ever. Both of these are scholarly books, written after extensive research in the archives where original materials are held, but, hopefully, written in a manner than will appeal to a general reader. I believe strongly that there is nothing stopping a book from being both scholarly and interestingly written.

Douglas Mawson - Antarctic Explorer

Racing With Death: Douglas Mawson - Antarctic Explorer

Exploration Experience is a different type of book, in that it is heavily illustrated and contains, as you mention, memorabilia from numerous expeditions. Moreover, it is an attempt to give a look at the overall history of exploration, touching on the highlights rather than giving extensive detail about any one expedition. It was fun to write because it includes accounts of exploration in Asia, South America, Australia, and other areas that I had not written extensively about previously. The text is not one long narrative, but rather shorter highlights about different expeditions, so it is a totally different — but equally enjoyable — writing technique.

These differed from Myth of the Explorer in that they were more aimed at a general audience, whereas all along I felt that Myth of the Explorer would be more appropriate for a more specialist audience. I would like to think that all of them are enjoyable reads, but I think it is safe to say that Myth of the Explorer was not something that would grab the exploration enthusiast so easily as my more recent books.

Myth of the Explorer offered a sober, often critical portrait of Victorian explorers. Trade books on exploration, however, tend to be more forgiving of explorers’ motives and actions. Do you feel any tension in moving from one genre of writing to the other?

No, I try to follow the academic process throughout. I collect and analyze data and then present it in a fashion that I feel is fair, hopefully unbiased, and hopefully interesting. Nimrod, once to the ice, is, I hope, an exciting tale of adventure, but the materials for it were still compiled carefully and following the same “rules” of research as Myth of the Explorer. Since I have been writing and editing for a living for more than 25 years, stylistic changes in books are not excessively difficult to make, as shown by the fact that I have written a different book on a different aspect of the Mawson story in a different style. I hope it will be coming out in a year or so.

As an American living in England, you’ve had ample opportunity to compare national cultures. Do Britons and Americans think differently about exploration?

I can’t say that I think folks in Britain and the us think differently about the processes of exploration, but there tends to be a different emphasis perhaps. Regarding the polar regions, older generations in the UK grew up with the story of Robert Falcon Scott as something that everyone knew, and he was a great imperial hero, along the lines of Livingstone or Gordon. Perhaps because of this, and because of the Shackleton connection, in recent decades the Antarctic tends to have been a stronger general interest than the Arctic. The greatest American polar hero, on the other hand, was Robert E. Peary, an Arctic explorer. So although this is a huge generalization with all of the weaknesses that can be expected to accompany it, one finds a bit more Antarctic interest and knowledge in the UK and a bit more Arctic interest and knowledge in the US. This has somewhat changed with the Shackleton-mania that swept through the US and with the growth of tourism to the Antarctic, but it is at least a broad difference. And none of this is to say that neither country had any interests in the other region, as obviously Byrd was a great American hero and the British had any number of Arctic expeditions. Similarly, most Americans will learn more about Lewis and Clark and other explorers of North America, while many folks over here will be much more familiar with African exploration, for which many British explorers were key figures, such as Livingstone, Burton, Baker, etc.

What do you think about the United States’ current Vision for Space Exploration, a plan to send astronauts back to the Moon and ultimately to Mars?

I think that space exploration is very exciting. However, I do think that it is a totally different process than the exploration that was carried out in the nineteenth century. Then, to a great extent, it was based on man’s heart, will, and personal strength and determination. Now the man going into outer space would play a key role, but a very different role, since he is a part of a much larger package that requires a great deal more technological involvement. I think that much of the shift has been from man’s inner strength to his intellect.

What’s your next project?

I am currently working on a follow-uo to Exploration Experience that concentrates on polar exploration, using the same format. I am also hoping to write a lengthy book about an explorer in a totally new (for me) area of the world, but I have been asked by the potential publishers not to discuss it at this time.

A mystery to whet the appetite. Beau, thanks for speaking with us.

Thank You FHSA

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This morning the Forum for the History of Science in America presented me with their 2008 Book Prize for my book The Coldest Crucible. Officer Paul Lucier presented the prize:

On behalf of the membership and officers of the Forum for the History of Science in America, it is my pleasure to announce that the 2008 Forum Prize Committee has unanimously agreed to award this year’s book prize to Michael F. Robinson for The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture, published in 2006 by the University of Chicago….this is a history of science of a very different sort. Instead of focusing on how the explorers collected specimens or tried to map the icy unknown, Robinson explains, in very clear and refreshingly concise fashion, how the Arctic and its explorers tried to collect sponsors and funding, and how they tried to present themselves and their expeditions as relevant to a large public.

My last time in Pittsburgh was in 1998, also at a History of Science meeting. It was the occasion of my first academic paper. I read it, hunched over a podium, to four elderly men in varying states of consciousness. I was tense, the paper was dry, but I don’t think anyone was awake enough to notice. The paper made me wonder why I spent so much time working on these subjects when no one was ever going to read or care about them.

It feels particularly good, then, to receive this award in Pittsburgh (at the same hotel no less). Thank you FHSA! Thanks too to for the generous write-ups in the Hartford Courant and the University of Hartford’s UNotes Daily.

A Blog of One’s Own

I have tried to avoid the question “why blog?” here at Time to Eat the Dogs. It’s not a bad question. But it’s one that academic bloggers seem to be drawn to like seals to herring. Most non-academic bloggers do not feel so compelled. Why the obsessive interest?

The kind answer: academic bloggers, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, spend much of their time in the Academy scrutinizing the mysterious ways of human culture. As blogs become part of culture,  it’s almost instinctive for the academic to ask “why are we doing this?”

Less kind: self-interest, or more accurately self-protection, compels academics to explain their bloggish ways.  As much as the Academy is a place of learning and critical debate, it is also a place steeped (some might say stratified) in tradition. Nowhere is this more true that in writing and publishing. From their first days as graduate students, academics are trained to understand the intricacies of publishing: the hierarchy of peer-review journals, the differences between academic and trade presses, the proper format of query letters, the dilemmas of annotated footnoting. Blogs have no place (yet) in this universe of words.

Indeed, in the great publishing chain-of-being, blogs rank near the bottom, somewhere between Mad Magazine and the Hallmark card. Not that blogs inspire anger or animosity. After all, why get worked up over something that doesn’t matter? No, for the unblogged academic majority, I suspect, the “web log” connotes something trendy, frivolous, and self-absorbed (and indeed, these connotations sometimes apply).  When I mention to colleagues that “I blog,” I am met with patient smiles, as if I said “I cross-dress.” Nothing illegal or suspect, just a too little outré.

In short, I think academic bloggers answer the question “Why blog?” more for the benefit of their disbelieving academic colleagues than the general public. This is why authors asking “Why I blog?” sound as if they are answering the question “Why am I a Bolshevik?”

So what inspires me to wade into this issue now, after having avoided it for six months? I just read two excellent discussions of the “why blog” question from fellow historians of science Ben Cohen and Will Thomas. Both pieces take the question to new, interesting places.

In “Why Blog the History of Science?” Cohen maintains that academics find many motives to blog, but that they ultimately fall somewhere on an axis with broad communication on one end and novel contribution on the other:

Those who write a Web-log (“blog”) find themselves somewhere along that axis, either with the belief that they are generating and/or influencing public conversation or with the motivation to explore a given subject in depth.

Cohen concludes that his own motives are not fixed, that he slides back and forth along the axis depending on the topic and intended audience. As such, Cohen blogs with a number of different goals in mind: pedegogical, civic, and intellectual.

In Blogging as Scholarship Thomas uses Cohen’s piece as the starting point to further examine “the insider blog” which Thomas sees as a “laboratory of scholarship.” Over the centuries, universities have developed a number of ways for scholars to communicate with each other (via journals, seminars, and conferences) which do not require logging into WordPress or Blogger. But Thomas points out some of the ways that blogs extend or amplify the useful functions of scholarly communication (which he identifies as articulation, speculation, recovery, and criticism).

Time to Eat the Dogs probably rests somewhere between Cohen’s cabinet of curiosity blog The World’s Fair and Thomas’s more inside-baseball blog Ether Wave Propaganda.

Cohen and Thomas nicely cover the spectrum of academic blogs as tools of public and professional communication. Yet there is also a personal dimension to academic blogging, one that keeps me posting even when the other objectives seem abstract or distant.

1. The Blog as Writers’ Workshop. I credit graduate school with honing my critical faculties as a scholar, teaching me a great deal about historical subjects, and giving me various methods for studying them. I also credit it with distorting my voice as a writer. Not to blame it all on graduate school. In truth, my professors valued good writing and pushed me to deliver solid, jargon-free prose. Yet even this wasn’t enough to keep me from becoming assimilated into the collective, Borg-ian voice of the discipline, a voice that academics integrate into their own writings almost unconsciously.

Learning the Discipline

Learning the Discipline

Blog writing, even within the disciplines, seems to follows looser conventions. Some of this, perhaps, comes from the expectation that blogs are supposed to be more free-wheeling. I think it also comes from the pacing of blog writing. I try to write about three posts a week. This has made it easier to keep limber as a writer, especially during the semester when the demands of teaching shut down bigger projects. It also makes it difficult to over-write (as was often my problem in graduate school). My blog has forced me to write faster, to speak more plainly, and to get to the point more quickly.

2. A Blog of One’s Own. Virginia Woolfe lamented the restrictions placed upon women writers, restrictions which kept them away from the writer’s table to attend the demands of spouse and family. We live in a different world than Woolfe’s, yet the dilemma of writing vs. family remain. I wrote most of my dissertation without kids. I have three kids now and it seems impossible to think of my next book unfolding in the same way as my first one. There will be no more obsessive twelve hour days in the archives, no six-month writing fellowships far from home. But blog writing takes place in the corners of the over-stuffed life, an hour at lunch or in the late evening. These scraps of time always feel insufficient to take on the leviathan book projects that sit on my shelf, but they are enough to write 300 words about an item of interest.

3. The Great Uncoiling. As the items of interest pile up, I feel like my work is taking on a breadth that I have long sacrificed for depth. I entered graduate school with a surfeit of interests. But after taking a master’s degree, I began the long, slow spiraling-in on the subject that would become my thesis, the monograph that would eventually make me an expert in the narrow and the arcane. Blogging has offered me a way of unwinding the process, of venturing outward, testing the ground, roaming somewhere else, and testing it again. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve taken on issues that fall outside of my areas of expertise. In a sense, it feels like I am returning to 1995 and 1996, years when I read far, wide, and ecumenically as a masters student. Even then, I thought of this peripatetic reading as the means to an end rather than an end in and of itself. Still the journey was thrilling and, in retrospect, necessary. So here I am again, spiraling out, with blog as muse, dilettante, co-pilot.


The Dust-Free Blog

Posts seem tidy things when they see the light of day, capped by neat titles, tucked into single columns. But bloggers everywhere share a dirty secret: this sort of writing is a messy business, profligate in its use of words and images, throwing off bits and scraps faster than the butcher’s apprentice. Seventy posts have left me with all sorts of unfinished business: links that never make it to the right hand column, half-written posts that remain unpublished, category listings that do not get updated. So I have done some housecleaning today. Mostly you can see the work on column to the far right. There is a new category of links: Online Archives which have primary source materials on travel and exploration. There are a number of Library of Congress collections here, some travel writings by Isabella Bird, the NOAA archive on 19th century oceanography books, and some visual archives including David Rumsey’s online map collection and the JPL’s NASA image archive. The “Complete List of Posts” has been updated through yesterday and I’ve added some links to my online research and talks on the “About” page.


Saturday’s Big Stories

In the news for Friday and Saturday:

Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang opened the hatch of his Shenzhou 7 and took a brief stroll in orbit Saturday. This makes China only the third country in the world, after the United States and Russia, to have completed a space walk. More to the point, it demonstrates that China is ramping up for some of the heavy lifting required of long-term space projects (e.g. space stations and moon missions) which would require people moving outside of spacecraft for construction and repair projects.

Why are such journeys outside of spacecraft called “space walks”? It’s an interesting choice of words since there is no real walking as far as I can see. “Space crawl,” “space climb” and “space float” would all be more accurate if less pithy.  We must scout out the etymology of the term. It strikes me that NASA and cold-war space enthusiasts would like “walking” because it is far more active, self-directed and dignified verb than floating and crawling. Another question, what are the Russian and Chinese terms for these ex-craft jaunts?

The New York Times Book Review features Bruce Barcott’s write up of Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s new book Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. I’m only a couple chapters in, but Fallen Giants promises a comprehensive, socio-cultural look at high-altitude mountaineering in the last 150 years. Despite the vast heap of books written on the history of mountaineering, this type of project is sorely needed.

Deep Sea News has now made the move to Discovery Blogs.

In other news:

There was a presidential debate.

The world economy is in free-fall.



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