Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Lessons From The Last Frontier, Part I

Here is an account of an era in U.S. exploration. You will probably be familiar with the details:

The United States finds victory in war, increasing its power and reputation on the global stage. Still it remains locked in competition with international rivals. One rival, in particular, has become adept at the geopolitics of exploration, boosting its international standing through dangerous, breathtaking expeditions that capture the world’s attention. Despite the success of the United States on the battlefield, then, it lags behind in the theater of discovery.

Eventually the President of the United States makes an appeal before Congress: the country should enter the expeditionary race for reasons of science, humanity, and national prestige. Yet before this goal is realized, he dies in office. The new course is set, however, and the resources of the federal government enjoined. American military personnel lead the first expeditions, albeit with considerable input from civilian and scientific agencies.

After early missteps, the United States becomes the world leader in this new theater of discovery. Its geopolitical rival bows out of the fight. Yet at its moment of triumph, America seems to lose its way. The ultimate goal is reached, but it struggles to find new missions at the frontier. Two missions end in disaster, leading to intense criticism of federal agencies by press and public. The scientific community grows restless too, frustrated with mission priorities that tilt towards heroism, politics, and flag-waving rather than basic research.

Eventually the United States government begins to ramp down its discovery missions, unable to justify the risks and expense to a public that has grown frustrated, and at times disinterested, in the project of exploration.  Increasingly the mantle of exploration passes to wealthy individuals and private corporations.

If this seems like an account of the Space Age, it is really a history of the Polar Age, a period that witnessed intense U.S. exploration of the Arctic Regions from 1850 to 1910. Here are some extra details to the chronicle above:

When the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War in 1848, it gained territory, but still trailed other powers, particularly Britain, in international prestige. One way that Britain had gained this prestige was through geographical discovery – from the Pacific voyages of James Cook to the Arctic search for the Northwest Passage by James Ross, John Franklin, and others.

"The Great Race." Late 19th century cartoon of John Bull and Uncle Sam

Indeed, it was in sending an American expedition to search for John Franklin, who had gone missing in the late 1840s, that President Zachary Taylor hoped to include the United States in the project of Arctic exploration, an activity that had greater symbolic heft internationally than expeditions to the American West. Expeditions to find Franklin and explore the high Arctic met with broad support from elected officials, scientists, and the public, even after Taylor died suddenly in 1850.

The Search for Franklin. Published the 'Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep' 1880s. Credit: Science Photo Library

After explorers established Franklin’s tragic fate in the 1850s (he and his party on 129 men perished in 1848-1849), the goal of Arctic exploration shifted to geographical discovery, particularly the Polar Sea and the North Pole. Yet expeditions by George Washington DeLong (1879-81) and Adolphus Greely (1881-1884) resulted in the deaths of thirty-seven Americans. These catastrophes led to a great deal of soul searching by Congress, the press, geographical societies, and the general public. In particular, scientists had grown weary of supporting expeditions that returned very little in the way of usable data. By the early 1900s, then, the age of federally supported Arctic expeditions was over. The “Race to the Pole” relied entirely upon wealthy patrons, Arctic clubs, and commercial ventures.

The Loss of the Jeannette (under the command of George Washington DeLong) 1881

Why do I emphasize these parallels between Arctic exploration and space exploration? Because polar exploration offers a better analogy for the American space program today than the others regularly invoked by NASA and the space community. While astronauts are routinely compared to Columbus and Lewis and Clark, they are closer in roles to Elisha Kane, Robert Peary, and other explorers of the high Arctic. As much as space has been described as a New World and a New Frontier, it bears greater similarity to the Frozen North, not simply as an extreme environment but also as a geopolitical project, a subject I will take up in my next post.

The Greely Expedition

Front page of the London Illustrated News, 23 Aug 1884

On Monday 31 January, PBS will air a documentary called “The Greely Expedition” on American Experience. I served as an advisor on the project. Organized in conjunction with the first International Polar Year, the Greely Expedition was supposed to represent a new kind of Arctic exploration, one focused on international, collaborative science rather than pell mell dashes to the North Pole. In the end, however, the expedition signaled the end of serious collaboration between Arctic explorers and scientists for decades. Here’s an excerpt from my Greely chapter in The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture.

In June 1884, Commander Winfield Scott Schley cruised the waters of Smith Sound searching for Adolphus Greely and his missing party of American explorers. Greely had been in the Arctic for three years, establishing a scientific station at Lady Franklin Bay as a part of the International Polar Year. Two attempts to relieve Greely, in 1882 and 1883, had failed and Schley’s expedition represented the last reasonable chance of finding the Greely party alive. When one of Schley’s men discovered a note from Greely giving his location at Cape Sabine, Schley sent John Colwell and a small party to find him. Arriving at the site, Colwell found Greely along with six other emaciated men, survivors of the original party of twenty-five. In his narrative of the rescue, Schley described the scene:

Colwell crawled in [the tent] and took him by the hand, saying to him, “Greely, is this you?” “Yes,” said Greely in a faint, broken voice, hesitating and shuffling with his words, “Yes – seven of us left – here we are – dying –  like men. Did what I came to do – beat the best record.” Then he fell back exhausted.[i]

Rescuing Greely at Cape Sabine, Albert Operti

"Rescuing Greely and His Comrades at Cape Sabine" by Albert Operti

Schley was not on the beach himself and relied upon the reports of his men to piece together events. Yet his narrative, published almost a year after the return of the survivors, soon gained authority as a true-life account of the dramatic rescue. The New York Herald excerpted it liberally in its reports about the expedition. Later reminiscences, such as Munsey’s Magazine’s 1895 account of the expedition, presented the scene exactly as it had appeared in Schley’s narrative. Even David L. Brainard, one of the seven survivors of the Greely party, used Schley’s dialogue word for word in his 1929 account of the expedition, as well as in a more candid narrative that he published in 1940. Yet others on the beach recalled the meeting differently. One member of the rescue party reported that Greely first asked him “if we were Englishmen.” Another remembers Greely chastising them. “If we’ve got to starve . . . we can starve without your help . . . we were dying peacefully until you came.” Maurice Connell, one of Greely’s men, was unconscious at the time of the rescue. Yet for him the published account of Greely’s words did not ring true. In the margins of Schley’s book he wrote: “‘Give us something to eat!’ more probably.”[ii]

Whether or not Greely, delirious and close to death, uttered his pithy remarks is unclear. What is clear is that the scene Schley described offered a far more respectable image of Greely and his party than the ones that circulated for months in the popular press upon Greely’s return. Immediately after the return of Schley’s rescue expedition, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other papers deluged readers with lurid stories about the Greely party’s demise on Cape Sabine. They uncovered Greely’s execution of a man for stealing food. They reported on rumors of cannibalism among the party and discussed charges by Greely’s men that he was inept as a commander. Schley’s account did not erase the impact of these revelations, but arriving in the wake of the reports, offered a means of capping the well of controversy, as its extensive use later suggests.

Adolphus Greely

The controversy that engulfed Greely after his return eclipsed his expedition’s scientific work. Billed as the most ambitious research mission ever sent into the Arctic, Greely’s expedition marked instead the end of serious collaboration between scientists and Arctic explorers in the nineteenth century. In the decades to follow, explorers occasionally promoted their voyages as research expeditions, but their words had little bearing upon their expeditions or campaigns. New patrons of Arctic exploration freed explorers from having to appeal to the scientific community to raise funds or lobby Congress. From the point of view of scientists, Greely and other explorers had abandoned their research missions in order to give allegiance to new masters, private patrons and press moguls who cared little about Arctic science. Schley’s account of the rescue only underscored the point. Greely declared to Colwell that he “did what I came to do – beat the best record,” but he had not entered the Arctic to do anything of the kind. In fact, organizers of the Greely expedition had hoped quite the opposite: that Greely and his men would turn their backs on dangerous and irrelevant dashes to the North Pole, focus on methodical research, and embrace the collaborative spirit of the International Polar Year. To his credit, Greely carried out much of this research at first, but he eventually turned his attention to the geographical dashes so disapproved of by international organizers. Greely’s words on Cape Sabine, true or apocryphal, only confirmed suspicions that science had also been a casualty of his expedition.

The claim that the Greely expedition marked the end of explorers’ serious collaboration with the scientists stands at odds with most historical accounts. Because Greely brought back the most comprehensive and systematic set of observations ever produced by Americans in the Arctic, historians have often held it up as a sign that U.S. scientific exploration had come of age. For historian of science A. Hunter Dupree, the Greely expedition “laid the groundwork for a really scientific interest in Arctic and Antarctic problems.”The wealth of data collected by Greely and his men has led William Barr to revisit the events of the expedition in hopes of illustrating its scientific importance. Expedition historian A. L. Todd agrees, calling Greely’s official narrative “one of the most important source books of arctic data available to the world of science.” Focused on quality of expedition data, however, these works leave unexamined the reactions of scientists, press, and public back home. Fixing our attention here, we see a different picture emerge: a diminished role for science in Arctic exploration, a waning collaboration between explorers and researchers, and a decline of scientific rhetoric in expeditionary campaigns.[iii]

The reasons for this change extend beyond the expedition. Greely and his rescuers may have sown the seeds of controversy by their actions in the Arctic, but these actions only bloomed into scandal because of important cultural and institutional changes back home. That science fell victim to scandal after Greely’s return reflected a new trend in newspaper journalism that put a premium on critical, often sensational, reporting. This was a far cry from the 1850s, when reporters generally avoided controversy in their attempts to portray Arctic explorers as American heroes. By the 1880s, however, writers proved far more willing, even eager, to expose expedition scandals even when it came at explorers’ expense.

The estrangement of explorers and scientists also grew out of changes in the patronage of Arctic exploration. Whereas Henry Grinnell had encouraged his explorers to campaign as a way of raising funds and creating broad coalitions among scientists and the public, the deep pockets of new patrons such as the New York Herald made such actions unnecessary. Flush with funds and backed by promotional power of their patrons, explorers had little need to campaign. Greely took his orders from the Army Signal Corps, not the popular press, but many of the effects were the same. With his expedition already organized and underwritten by the Corps, Greely felt no incentive to write, lecture, or rub elbows with scientists or other groups in the months before his departure. As a result, Greely established few of the personal bonds with scientists and others that had so benefitted Elisha Kane and helped to insulate him from his critics…


[i]. Two of the twenty-five members of the expedition were native Greenlanders, Jens Edward and Thorlip Frederick Christiansen. Quotation is from W. S. Schley, The Rescue of Greely (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 222.

[ii]. “The Rescue of Greely,” New York Herald,” 26 March 1885; Frank Lewis Ford, “The Heroes of the Icy North,” Munsey’s Magazine 14 (1895): 296; David L. Brainard, The Outpost of the Lost: An Arctic Adventure (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1929), 312; Brainard, Six Came Back: The Arctic Adventures of David L. Brainard (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1940), 301; “if we were Englishmen . . .” comes from Charles Harlow, “Greely at Cape Sabine,” Century Magazine (undated) in Adolphus Washington Greely Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. “If we’ve got to starve . . .” is from Frank B. Copley, “The Will to Live,” American Magazine, February (1911): 502-3. “‘Give us something to eat!’” comes from newspaper clipping “Sergeant Connell”, 31 May 1885, Box 74, Greely Papers, Library of Congress.

[iii]. A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957), 193; William Barr, The Expeditions of the First International Polar Year, 1882-83 (Calgary: University of Calgary, 1985); A. L. Todd, Abandoned (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961).

Guest Writer: Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Cultural anthropologist Gerald Zhang-Schmidt argues that the modern terra incognita is found in the mysteries of culture rather than the frontiers of space.

Blank Spots on the Modern Map

Exploration seems a thing of the past. All that’s left is the frontier of space, but “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is the domain of science fiction (at least so far). Nowadays, if you want to become known through adventure, you have to run up mountains or be the first to traverse all of a continent running. Yet these are physical feats, not feats that serve the purpose of discovering something new. The blank spots on Earth, the “here be dragons” have been visited. The adventurous traveler must content himself with other perils: the local who serves him dog to eat. There are no more dragons. In fact, nowadays, there may be tourists there, and an internet café just around the corner.

Local Market in Xiangtan, Hunan

Only too often, though, the familiarity hides other kinds of blank spots. In this age of tourists and adventurers, cultural anthropologists are a case of people in-between. Traditionally, they were quite close to explorers. Cultural anthropologists, of course, have sought out exotic peoples rather than peculiar geographies; reaching an uninhabited North Pole has no use when you seek to understand human cultures, after all. They also have different methods: it is standard practice to conduct long-term fieldwork with one group of people, not range far and wide. Anthropologists’ acceptance of “cultural relativism” has also, at times, separated them from explorers: one needs to understand a cultural phenomenon from within the logic of the society it belongs to, not interpret and judge it from the perspective of one’s own cultural background.

Still, cultural anthropologists were oftentimes quite public figures, rather like explorers, becoming well known for bringing back news of “the other” and their exotic ways. The whole fascination of the discipline, after all, came from the stories of persons who went out to live among other – maybe “primitive,” maybe just different – peoples and regaled us with stories of how diverse and wondrous human diversity is. Even when Japan experienced its economic boom of the 1980’s, a large part of the fascination was their different ways of thinking and acting (expressed even in popular culture, e.g. the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice,” or Michael Crichton’s novel – and the movie adaptation of it – “Rising Sun”). Recently, China has taken over the role of the powerful, yet mysterious, Asian rival that is increasingly close, yet strangely different.

Here we come full circle to how today is different: one can no longer go out to many places where no tourist has tread before. In fact, because of globalization, the traveler feels as if she has seen the world already, and while many places are still fun to visit (if exotic enough), there is nothing truly new.

Yet, even as the formerly exotic “Other” has come increasingly close – with economic globalization, with international migration – it is all the more unknown. It is even rejected for being too close for comfort, if it does not meet our terms of engagement. You find “Chinese” food virtually everywhere, but adapted to the local palate rather than how it is in China (and not just by omitting dog from the menu); you find “American culture,” but it’s really just Hollywood and McDonald’s, blue jeans and pizza.

It may not be possible to go out and find something new that will make one known as the first person to have seen it. However, the exploration of blank spots of our own personal knowledge, hidden by the superficial familiarity gained from TV and internet, has become all the more important, and worthwhile – and it is a whole treasure trove of possible experiences: about other peoples, about this planet’s ecology, and often beginning with our own cities and neighborhoods. How well do you know the people and paths in your community or the species that dwell in your own backyard?

Zhang-Schmidt in Hong Kong

Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is a cultural anthropologist and ecologist from Austria, specialized on East Asia. For the last two and a half years he has been living in China, working as German lecturer while researching and writing on what it means to be “at
home… in China”
. He is also working on the ecology of happiness and has an enduring fascination with chili peppers and their cultural-culinary significance.

Even Better Than the Real Thing

X-15 attached to a B-52 bomber prior to release.

We’re free to fly the crimson sky
the sun won’t melt our wings tonight
take me higher
you take me higher

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” U2

In 1996, professor Richard Bartle wrote that explorers “try to find out as much as they can… mapping [the world’s] topology.” Bartle was not talking about astronauts or cavers, but gamers.  A developer of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), Bartle challenged the idea of MUDs as games in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they were complex social environments that attracted different players for different reasons: to gain points, to socialize with others , to kill opponents, or to explore the game environment.

Richard Bartle

To call a basement-dwelling, pajama-wearing gamer an explorer might seem absurd. There is difference between exploring virtual worlds and real ones. Still Bartle’s paper raises interesting questions. Is an explorer defined by places traveled, by worldly action? Or is “explorer” an identity, something that exists as a mode of personality? If the latter, does the real world matter at all? If so, how much? What is the role, if any, of simulation within the field of exploration?

This last question may seem better suited for science-fiction literature than sociology. The sci-fi world is populated by virtual travelers: Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game, Neo of The Matrix, CLU of Tron, Henry Case of Neuromancer, and Jake Sully of Avatar. The list is long.

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix

Yet simulations exist in the “real world” of exploration too. NASA conducts a number of “analog” expeditions: in the desert, in the Arctic, and underwater to provide training and allow trouble-shooting for other missions. Says NASA:

Analogs provide NASA with data about strengths, limitations, and the validity of planned human-robotic exploration operations, and help define ways to combine human and robotic efforts to enhance scientific exploration.

They have other functions too. Anthropologist Valerie Olson points out that analog missions function as justifications for the broader idea of human spaceflight. The analog mission community tend to see these simulations as more “real” than others, authentic human programs rather than robotic expeditions or computer simulations.

The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), for example, takes pride in the danger and scientific rigor of each expedition. Says one NEEMO technician “This is a real and real shit happens.” [Quoted from Olson, “American Extreme: An Ethnography of Astronautical Visions and Ecologies,” Ph.D Thesis, Rice University, p. 63]

NEEMO's Aquarius Habitat

Yet “mere” computer simulations also contribute to modern exploration in ways that cannot be ignored. X-15 test pilots such as Neil Armstrong (yes that Neil Armstrong) used flight simulators to train, preparing themselves for the difficult conditions of hypersonic travel 65 miles (100 km) about the earth.

In the end, however, simulators could not adequately prepare pilots for the challenges of flying in the upper atmosphere. At lower altitudes, the X-15 behaved like a plane, and pilots relied on wing surfaces to steer through an ocean of air. At higher altitudes the X-15 acted like a rocket,  and pilots used reaction thrusters to change direction. Moving from one set of controls to the other at the boundaries of space, however, proved extremely difficult especially when traveling 4000 mph (6500 kph).

X-15 cockpit

Engineers at North American solved this problem by placing one of the X-15 flight simulators (the MH-96) into the X-15 itself. The pilot would, in effect, fly the simulator. The simulator then translated the pilot’s actions to the aircraft. As Steve Mindell writes in his book Digital Apollo:

The MH-96 could cause the “real” X-15 to fly like an “ideal” one, which would make it behave exactly the same under all flight conditions, from the vacuum of space right down to the ground. It would automatically mix the reaction controls and aerodynamic controls, so that the pilot only needed one control stick, whether flying in the atmosphere or in space, or during reentry. [Mindell, 58]

In short, simulators were not just for practice: they were an integral part of the mission itself. As for the test pilots, they were not entirely unlike the pj-clad gamer holed up in the basement. Humans can only survive at the boundaries of space by being protected from space. While the pilot/astronaut is going to places never traveled, she is doing so cocooned within a space suit, cockpit, and environmentally controlled capsule. Says Mindell:

The X-15 was an unusual craft to fly. The pilot could not see the nose, and he could not see the wings. His full pressure suit wrapped him up tight and isolated him from the outside world. He could not feel or touch anything directly other than the suit and gloves. He could smell nothing other than the pure oxygen he was breathing. In [test pilot Milt] Thompson’s words, “I was in my own little world. I was comfortable and secure and protected from harm.” [Mindell, Digital Apollo, 54]

This is the irony of exploration technology in general, and simulation technology in particular: they allow us to go longer, further, and faster even as they prevent us from experiencing such feats directly. They take us higher into universe even as they keep it out of reach.


Science and Exploration

"The Artist in His Museum" Charles Wilson Peale (1822) credit: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

I’ve been slow to update the past two weeks, due to the collision of teaching and writing projects. One of these projects, an essay for an edited collection, looks at the relationship of science and exploration in historical context. I’m including the first paragraphs of the intro below, just so you don’t think I’m playing foosball.

Westerners began to think differently about exploration in the nineteenth century. Whereas they once talked about it as a fascination, a symbol of progress, they began referring to it a “fever”: something rampant, contagious, and immune to reason.[1] During this period, explorers poured out of Europe and the United States for regions remote and dangerous. Some raced to the limits of latitude, to stand first at the polar axes.

"David Livingstone" Life and Explorations of David Livingstone (1880)

Others set off for the equatorial regions seeking lost tribes, lost cities, and lost explorers. Survey expeditions mapped the American West, inventoried the ocean depths, and facilitated the “Scramble for Africa.” States sponsored some of these efforts. Museums and universities sponsored others. Meanwhile private adventurers set off to write, photograph, and hunt their way through the world’s remaining terrae incognitae.

Three Years of Arctic Service, Adolphus Greely (1886)

Taken together these activities produced oceans of text: articles, technical papers, and personal narratives. One writer for Nature, buried by stacks of expedition literature waiting to be reviewed, wondered what was driving the process. Did exploration fever grow out of a deeper love of science, a “craving for knowledge by stronger stimulants than can be obtained by books” ? Or was it —as the metaphor of fever implied— beyond human control, an affliction activated by some instinctive desire, “a remote ancestral habit which still clings to us.” If it was the latter then science would seem to be artifice, a veneer applied to expeditionary endeavors in order to mask true motives, deeper and atavistic urges that lured explorers up mountains and into malarial jungles.[2]


[1] Robinson, Michael, The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 159-164; Robinson, “Maybe I Was Wrong” http://timetoeatthedogs.com/2009/01/29/maybe-i-was-wrong/

[2] “Two Amateur Explorers,” Nature 13: 264 (3 Feb 1876)

Exploration Roundup

Old Montreal

Notes from Montreal
Montreal: place of cobblestones and canals, of spicy Pho and this year’s History of Science Society (HSS) meeting (and Philosophy of Science Association meeting, PSA).

The conference was my introduction to the Toronto bloggers who are tearing through the HSS/PSA neighborhood. I met Jaipreet Virdi who writes From the Hands of Quacks and Aaron Wright, author of False Vacuum. Justin Curtis and Mike Thicke from The Bubble Chamber were also in attendance but we didn’t cross paths. To all of you: keep up the excellent work!

Of the travel and exploration panels I attended, I was most impressed with a talk by Christopher Parsons (University of Toronto) on 17th century French settlers in North America. He argued that these settlers organized species according to a generalized “folk taxonomy.” While exploration scholars often highlight reports of marvels and wonders, Parsons described the reverse: settlers cataloging new plants and animals according to the most general and conventional of categories.

A Short Rant
One thing I also appreciated about Christopher’s talk was the way he delivered it: framed by issues, guided by images, and given from notes. Some other presenters did not do these things adequately: giving little context,  offering no images or outlines, and reading from the text.

I don’t understand this.

Most historians make their living by teaching. Most of the ones I know are attentive, innovative, passionate teachers. They care about communicating ideas. They engage their students and foster their interests in history.

What happens when we go to conferences? What force transmutes vibrant instructors into paper-reading scholastics? Who decided that the best way to present one’s ideas was to sound like a medieval instructor lecturing at the University of Paris?

I’ve heard many arguments for why academics read papers: “It’s the only way to fit my material into 20 minutes.” “I need to be precise.” “I get too nervous to go from notes.””I can write my papers in a conversational style.”

All of this may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that someone speaking from notes is easier to understand than someone reading from a text; the words and cadence are more natural and, I think, better able to carry the weight of a complex argument. I don’t have hard data on this, but consider this: most of us would recoil at the idea of reading a lecture to our students. If we wouldn’t suffer this upon students, why do it to our peers? What’s the point of maximizing time, precision, or peace of mind if, in the process, we lose the attention of our audience?

Ethics of Exploration
In other news, Peter Stanford challenges the heroism of modern day adventurers in his article in the Independent (Thanks to Richard Nelsson for alerting me to this). The article complements longer treatments of this issue by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild) and Maria Coffey (Where the Mountains Casts Its Shadow).

Spaceflight
Curtis Forbes, writing at The Bubble Chamber, discusses the discovery of the exoplanet Gliese 581g and the hype its generated in the media as the “Goldilocks Planet.” Forbes convincingly argues that the eagerness to imagine this world as an earth-like place tells us more about culture here than environmental conditions there. Meanwhile, Cosmic Variance has raised questions about the concentration of space science funding into the James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled to replace the Hubble Telescope in 2014.

As NASA enters the post-Constellation era, I think we will be seeing a lot more debates about science and space funding.


Academics vs. Explorers

Last week explorer Mikael Strandberg published an interesting post on his blog about Academics vs. Explorers . The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration.  I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration.

Mikael Strandberg

Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, academics usually approach their subject matter from a specific viewpoint or research methodology. For example, anthropologists, field biologists, archeologists, and historians all have different frameworks for understanding the world and its peoples. Information obtained from explorers (or other fields) often doesn’t fit very well within these frameworks and, therefore, remains difficult to integrate. Most travelers and explorers, by necessity, need to approach new peoples and new regions with versatility, sensitivity, and creativity. They do not have the time to settle in one place the way an anthropologist does. They cannot carry thousands of pounds of equipment the way archeologists do. They cannot afford to set up their travels as controlled experiments.

Neil Armstrong: subject & expert

Second, academics often don’t know how to categorize explorers. For example, as a historian of exploration, I am interested in the culture, experience, activities, ideas, and biases of explorers. This is the subject of my research. Working with explorers is exciting for me because it sometimes gives me insight into the historical expeditions that I focus on in my work. But it can sometimes also be uncomfortable because I don’t know which hat to wear. Am I a colleague listening to a fellow expert in the field? Or am I an anthropologist, analyzing my subject for information about his or her ideas, beliefs, and behaviors?

Still I think that academics and explorers would benefit from closer contact.

One way explorers might help professionals in general (and academics in particular) is in thinking outside the disciplinary box. Sometimes my greatest insights come from sources far removed from my field of expertise in the history of science and exploration. As Will Thomas has pointed out at Ether Wave Propaganda, historians sometimes forget that their “subjects” are often sophisticated observers of events and their place within them.

One way that explorers might benefit from academics is in looking at exploration more critically. I often hear travelers and explorers speak about exploration in rather visionary terms: as a way of escaping overly commercialized and routinized life in order to find a “core” self….or as a deep-seated, instinctive behavior that humans express in order to achieve their full humanity. While these ideas are inspiring, they don’t really conform with data on the history of explorers and exploration.

Christopher Columbus, Robert Peary, and NASA astronauts all reached “new worlds” far away from the civilizations they knew. Yet all of them remained deeply invested in the practical and personal payoffs of exploration back home (eg. fame, glory, professional advancement). My research leads me to believe that the desire to explore flows as much from the influence of modern culture as it does from our innate drives or inner curiosity.

In the end, however, I am fine if academics and explorers don’t see eye-to-eye as long as they keep talking to each other face to face.

For other posts here on related subjects see:

The Myth of Pure Experience
The Problem of Human Missions to Mars
The Explorer Gene

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