Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Space

Where No ENFP Has Gone Before, Part II

brain

(For Part I, go here)

I first took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) when I was a junior in high school. This was a good time to take it since, like most sixteen-year-olds, I was self-absorbed enough to think I should spend more time trying to figure myself out.

The test labeled me as an ENTP: Extroversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving.

I was a clear extrovert, someone who Jung describes as gaining energy from the world around them, or in my case, trying to set fire to the world around them. Introverts like Jung find energy through reflection. Thinking first, acting second. An interesting idea.

I also tested strongly intuitive, or as the MBTI would observe, I gathered information as concepts and abstract patterns rather than as concrete, immediate facts available to the senses.

One axiom of the MBTI is that personality types are stable, more or less. As this idea goes, the psyche sets up basic patterns of gathering, interpreting, and acting on information quite early, by age three or four.

Yet critics of the MBTI such as Paul Matthews point out that people who take the test often get different answers. My testing history confirms this as well. In high school, the MBTI tagged me as a thinker rather than feeler,  deciding issues on logical and consistent premises.

When I took the test again last week, I had swung over to the feeling side of the spectrum, making decisions based upon personal association or empathy more than general principles. That a person’s psychological type seems squishy, mutable over time, is one of many criticisms leveled at the MBTI, one that challenges its claim to measure meaningful psychological differences.

Still, my MBTI evaluation has been stable other than that, particularly in the final category of  perceiving/judging which evaluates how people process information. Strongly judging individuals tend to like settling matters and, as a result, gather information in order to make decisions and tie up loose ends.

Those with strong perceiving tendencies (of which I am one) gather information like rodents in November, amassing it without end. Perceivers are the hoarders of ideas, stowing and revising them even though it keeps things unsettled. They have messy desks.

Driving on Rt 6 in Wellfleet last week, my wife Michele (an INFJ)  wondered how her students might type characters in her lit courses. Ahab would have to be an INTJ. The Great Gatsby? ESFP I think.

The conversation brought me back to a post I wrote last year about The Explorer Type.  At the time, I was thinking about how certain explorers, such as Roy Chapman Andrews and Louis Leakey, took on similar cultural personae: popular outsiders who contributed to, but were not a part of, the academic establishment.

Was there something deeper here? A psychological type that lay behind the public persona?  The ENTP personality type (Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) is often labeled “The Inventor-Explorer.” Other analyses of Myers-Briggs tag INTP (Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceving) as the rightful home of this type. Yet what spotty data exists on this subject shows that real explorers, such Chuck Yeager and Alan Shepard, test as ISTPs (Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving).

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard

Then again, test pilots and astronauts offer a narrow field of explorers. Reading Goethe and ranging over the mountains of South America, would Alexander von Humboldt have been an ISTP? Never. An ENTP if ever there was one.

Nor should the military discipline and technical demands of modern spaceflight necessarily point to controlled, process-oriented types such as ISTPs. The world’s most famous astronaut is a confirmed ENFP.

James Kirk: A Confirmed ENFP

An ENFP seeks out new worlds.

See for yourself.

Take a quick MBTI assessment here.

Type profiles are available here.

Other posts on exploration and personality:

What Kind of Explorer Are You?

Call Me Starbuck

Maybe I Was Wrong

Visions of Exploration

The Augustine Committee on Human Space Flight, July 2009

The Augustine Committee on Human Space Flight, July 2009

In these dog days of August, NASA is feeling the heat. The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (aka Augustine Committee) is now spell-checking its final report for the Obama Administration about the direction of U.S. space policy. With talk of exploration in the air, Dan Lester (astronomy research scientist, University of Texas-Austin) and I thought it was a good time to take a closer look at the different meanings of exploration and their use by policy makers. The full article on the subject, “Visions of Exploration” is now out in the journal Space Policy and available here.

Here’s an excerpt:

The historical record offers a rich set of examples of what we call exploration: Christopher Columbus sailing to the New World, Roald Amundsen driving his dogs towards the South Pole, and Neil Armstrong stepping into the soft dust of the moon. Yet these examples illustrate the difficulty in pinning down exploration as an activity.

If we define exploration as “travel through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it” we exclude Columbus, whose discovery was serendipitous rather than purposeful. We would also have to exclude Amundsen and Armstrong, and indeed many of the pantheon of explorers, who tended to dash across new terrain rather than investigate it systematically.

Even more expansive terms such as “discovery” sometimes offer a poor fit for the object of modern expeditions: did Robert Peary discover the North Pole in 1909, an axis point that Greek astronomers knew about 2500 years ago? Not in any meaningful sense of the word. Students of exploration, then, must make peace with this uncomfortable fact: “exploration” is a multivalent term, one which has been (and undoubtedly will continue to be) used in different ways by different people. Geographical discovery, scientific investigation, resource extraction, and high-risk travel are activities tucked inside this definitional basket.

Because of exploration’s multiple historical meanings, policy makers and administrators have often used this history selectively and out of context. Specifically, policy statements cite the history of exploration in order to make two points: first, that humans are compelled to explore, that curiosity about the world is an innate attribute of our species; and second, that this compulsion has expressed itself most fully in the United States, where exploration has moved beyond matters of trade and settlement to become a part of national identity, a symbol of American idealism, enterprise, and self-sufficiency

Let’s take these ideas in order, starting with the human impulse to explore. We cannot deny that the history of our species is a history of motion. We are all the children of travelers: of long migrations out of Africa, oceanic crossings and continental traverses. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans spent most of their prehistory, from 120,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE, on the move.

Possible human migration routes out of Africa ~100,000 BCE based on DNA evidence, courtesy National Geographic Maps

Possible human migration routes out of Africa ~100,000 BCE based on DNA evidence, courtesy National Geographic Maps

We bear the marks of these migrations: in the foods we eat, the languages we speak, and the places we live. Indeed, we carry traces of our itinerant past inside of us: in our dietary preferences for foods salty and sweet, our peculiar anatomy and physiology, and our unique mitochondrial DNA, which, read carefully, offers us a road map of our ancestors’ paleolithic travels.

Yet these facts, so well established, tell us little about motives. Human curiosity has a long and storied history. Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by stating “All men possess by nature a craving for knowledge”, an observation borne out in the earliest works of human literature.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that humans traveled primarily, or even incidentally, because of curiosity. During the long millennia of our prehistory, the most obvious reason for travel was survival, following seasonal animal migrations, escaping harsh weather, avoiding predators and, perhaps, other humans.

Evidence points to exploration – in all of its incarnations of meaning – as a cultural or political activity rather than a manifestation of instinct. History’s most celebrated voyagers — Pytheas, Zhang He, and Columbus — sailed from nations with imperial ambitions. As Stephen Pyne points in his survey of the ages of exploration, “There is nothing predestined about geographic discovery, any more than there is about a Renaissance, a tradition of Gothic cathedrals, or the invention of the electric light bulb.” (Pyne, “Seeking Newer Worlds,” in Critical Issues in the History of Space Flight, 2006)

The notion that exploration expressed deeper impulses, such as wanderlust or curiosity, came much later, during the Enlightenment, when voyages took up the systematic practice of science: gathering specimens and ethnographic data, observing celestial events, and testing geographical hypotheses. These expeditions expressed a genuine curiosity about the globe, yet they elicited state sponsorship only because rulers saw political value in discovery expeditions, a form of “soft power” statecraft that could enhance national prestige rather then add to colonies or imperial coffers.

James Cook's 1773 Expedition to Tahiti

James Cook's 1773 Expedition to Tahiti (in background: HMS Resolution)

If eighteenth-century audiences came to accept the lofty trait of curiosity as a driving force behind voyages of discovery, nineteenth-century audiences found deeper impulses behind humanity’s urge to explore. In particular, the Romantic Movement gave rise to ideas central to the ethos of modern exploration; first, that discovery is a process that includes, but is not contained by, practical pursuits. While geographical discovery, science, and resource extraction all have their parts to play, exploration has an intangible, ineffable quality that cannot simply be reduced to logical goals. The second idea (which follows closely from the first) is that the value of exploration is tied to the subjective experience of the explorer, a symbol of the nation at home.

Maybe I Was Wrong

Summit of Denali, courtesy of Exposed Planet

Why do people climb 8000-meter mountains? Free-solo the Eiger? BASE jump the Eiffel Tower? Motives are tricky things.

My work on Arctic explorers gave me a way to think about it.

Nineteenth-century explorers had their own answers to the “why” question. In the 1850s, when U.S. exploration of the Arctic began, explorers defended their missions by describing all of the commercial benefits that would accrue from their expeditions: new routes to Asia, new whale fisheries, new technological innovations in ship design. (Interestingly, NASA features a similar-sounding set of commercial benefits when it justifies its current plan to return humans to the Moon and Mars).

Then, in the 1880s, explorers changed course, justifying their exploits by anti-commercial motives: we explore because it is impractical. We explore to escape the strictures of the civilized world. We explore for the sake of exploring. Or, in George Mallory’s translation for mountain climbing, “because it’s there.”

George Mallory

George Mallory

In the language of day, the explorer had succumbed to “Arctic fever,” a term used over and over again in the last decades of the nineteenth century to describe the seemingly irrational behavior of explorers in putting themselves at risk:

“The northern bacilli were in my system, the arctic fever in my veins, never to be eradicated.” Robert Peary, 1898

“The polar virus was in [my husband's] blood and would not let him rest.” Emma DeLong, 1884

Explorers are ” infected with the same spirit.”  Frederick Cook, undated

“Arctic enthusiasm is an intermittent fever, returning in almost epidemic form after intervals of normal indifference.” McClure’s Magazine, 1893

As I tried to make sense of “Arctic Fever” for my book Coldest Crucible, I concluded that all of this talk of fevers was just another means to show purity of motive:

The disease may seem to be nothing but a playful literary metaphor, but it had serious functions. Arctic fever located the urge to explore in the human passions. It was a condition that afflicted the heart against the better judgement of the mind, operating beyond conscious control. Why should anyone attempt to reach the North Pole when it served no useful or scientific function? Because -explorers claimed- they felt irrationally compelled. In this way, Arctic fever masked rational motives for voyaging north, namely, the promise of celebrity and financial reward.

While explorers spoke about their irresistible compulsions, they were simultaneously working out huge publishing contracts, product endorsements, and lecture fees.  At the time I wrote my book, it seemed to me that all of this talk of instinct, true spirit, experience of the sublime, etc. was just a matter of bait-and-switch: finding motives that would impress paying audiences and would hide the true, mercenary motives behind them.

I haven’t abandoned this line of thinking entirely, but after reading the first chapter in Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, I think I need to revise it.

coffey-book

Coffey’s book is about the effects of extreme adventure on the people left behind: spouses, parents, and children who have to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. She starts her book with interviews of adventurers who talk about their motives in putting themselves at such risk.

“Endurance, fear, suffering cold, and the state between survival and death are such strong experiences that we want them again and again. We become addicted. Strangely, we strive to come back safely; and being back, we seek to return, once more to danger.”  Reinhold Messner

“I was totally possessed. The experience was like some inner explosion. I knew  it would somehow mark the rest of my life.”  Wanda Rutkiewicz

Coffey’s list of climbers who speak about this compulsion is impressive. It extends beyond the elite, celebrity climbers such as Messner and Rutkiewicz to include those who do not have agents, publishing contracts, or product endorsements.

I am realizing that it’s not enough to label this exploration “fever”  as merely a savvy form of marketing. It is clearly a psychological manifestation too, one that Coffey links to the impact of extreme risk on biological factors such as adrenaline and dopamine.

Coffey also describes the way that such extreme experience can have, ironically, a quieting effect on adventurists, making them feel less moody, more even-keeled, more able to focus on the present moment. Indeed, more than one climber described climbing as an escape from distraction, a way to concentrate on the task at hand, to live in the moment, to experience things more fully.

At times, it made me wonder if there a common psychological profile for elite climbers. The frequency of people referring to attention and distraction sounded very similar to interviews conducted by Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book, Driven to Distraction, a book about attention deficit disorder (ADD).

driven-to-distraction

The point here is not to throw out one label in order to replace it with another. But Coffey’s book is making me realize that my work on the history of exploration should not only play out at the level of nations, empires, commerce, and popular culture.  I need to make room for the individual, a tangled world of emotion, experience, and behavior.

I know that many of you are thinking  “No duh! This is standard stuff for climbing books.” True enough: Will power, spirit, fear, endurance, ecstasy: the meat and potatoes of adventure literature. But cultural historians are trained to think of personal motives as ultimately unknowable, a black box that should not be opened. To psychoanalyze the historical subject is like touching the third rail in the subway. Dangerous terrain.



Why Expeditions Fail

Vasco da Gama by Gregorio Lopez, 1524

Vasco da Gama by Gregorio Lopez, 1524

It almost goes without saying that exploration is dangerous work. Vasco da Gama left for India with 180 men. He returned to Portugal with 60.  John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage resulted in an impressive 100% fatality rate.  Even expeditions to places well-mapped and long-traveled carry risk. Planning an ascent of K2 in the Karakoram Range? Chances are better than 1 in 4 that you will die in the attempt.

K2, Karakoram Range, India

K2, Karakoram Range, India

Where does danger lurk? One immediately thinks of physical and biological hazards, of gale-force winds, hull-crushing pack ice, capricious avalanches, & malarial fevers.

But these forces are only efficient causes, the sharp edge of the reaper’s scythe.

The Sinking of the Jeannette, based on sketch by M. J. Burns, 1881

The Sinking of the Jeannette, based on a sketch by M. J. Burns, 1881

When 37 Americans died in two Arctic expeditions from 1879-1884, it was clear to everybody that the men died from  starvation and exposure (well, mostly: one man drowned and another was shot for stealing food). But most Americans looked beyond these causes to contributing factors, to poor ship design and faulty relief efforts.

Yet if we look more closely, we see that, more often than not, the expedition party itself is largely to blame for its own failures. Reading the historical record, it becomes clear that one of the most difficult tasks of expeditionary life was not weathering the elements but enduring one’s peers. The 1870 Polaris Expedition to the North Pole fell apart when its pious and imperious commander Charles Hall suffered convulsions (and ultimately died) after drinking arsenic-laced coffee  (probably prepared by his disgruntled science officer).

Elisha Kent Kane

Elisha Kent Kane

For most of the nineteenth century, Elisha Kane was America’s celebrity explorer, a man revered for his eloquence, cultivation, and high-mindedness. Most of Kane’s men, however, thought he was an insufferable prig. Indeed, more than half of his crew turned against Kane in the Arctic, attempting to escape the Arctic without his approval. Almost all of this was hidden from public view, expunged from the narratives of the expedition written by Kane and his men.

The Kane Party, 1854

The Kane Party, 1854

Still one gets subtle glimpses, even from Kane’s own work. The image above was published in Kane’s best-selling narrative of his expedition, Arctic Explorations. In the scene, Kane sits in the center, surrounded by his officers. Kane looks weary and somewhat annoyed, staring down to the right. On the right, two of his officers stare forward towards the viewer, looking at different points. On the left, two other officers are engrossed in conversation, one with a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Whispering about plans perhaps? Indeed, the only one in the scene looking admiringly at Kane is his dog. Or perhaps he’s just hungry.

These might seem like sepia-colored anecdotes from long ago. But expeditions continue to live or die on the ability of their members to get along, to communicate well, and to improvise effectively when things go wrong.  Such is one of the findings of Michael Kodas who wrote about last year’s debacle on K2.

Artist rendition of Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) leaving Earth orbit

Artist rendition of Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) leaving Earth orbit

With this in mind, I wonder how much “unit cohesion” is on the minds of NASA’s administrators as it plans its mission to Mars. Two years is a long time to spend in a capsule with one’s mates, even with DVDs.

Less is More

NASA officials petition Congress, 2009

NASA officials petition Congress, 2009

No one can predict what next year’s federal budget will hold in store for NASA. A medium-term recession will put pressure on Congress and the next president to make cuts in the space program. Neither John McCain nor Barak Obama have spent any political capital embracing President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, though McCain’s on the record as supporting it. Obama has made sounds about delaying it, diverting funds into science and engineering education. Whether there is any money left to divert, cuts at NASA are now a likely scenario. After all, it’s hard to imagine a trillion-dollar program for space exploration holding up during a prolonged economic downturn. Meanwhile, reports from the Ares rocket research and development program have not been promising. The shuttle fleet is scheduled to go into retirement by 2010 and American astronauts will become dependent upon third parties to get them into space.

But perhaps there is something positive to be gleaned in all of this bad news. As the Mars rovers and Phoenix lander have proven, unmanned exploration is comparatively cheap. Moreover it has been productive to space science. Relying upon the Russians Soyuz to shuttle Americans to the International Space Station may not be in the best interests of the United States long-term, but it has paid off in other ways already. As John Schwartz wrote in the New York Times last week:

Those who work side by side with their Russian counterparts say that strong relationships and mutual respect have resulted from the many years of collaboration. And they say that whatever the broader geopolitical concerns about relying on Russia for space transportation during the five years when the United States cannot get to the space station on its own rockets, they believe that the multinational partnership that built the station will hold.

A Russian Soyuz transport in low earth orbit

A Russian Soyuz transport in low earth orbit

Among many free-market thinkers, economic downturns are useful insofar as they eliminate, albeit painfully, failing or inefficient businesses and modes of production. If this is a viable model for business, might not it also hold true for the U.S. space program? Forced to downsize and become more efficient, NASA would turn its attention to those lower cost projects that had been secondary priorities during the boom years. Perhaps with all of this talk of international space collaboration, depleted budgets will finally provide the incentive for long-term collaboration. I do not know enough about economics or NASA politics to know if this will happen, but it’s good to have sunny moments when the forecast is calling for so much rain.

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