Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Interview on New Books Network

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Two years ago, I found the New Books Network on I Tunes, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Specialists talk to authors about their new books in interviews that last an hour or more. These lo-fi podcasts sound a bit warbly, but the results are intellectually high-audio, offering broad-ranged and fine-grained profiles of books that outmatch the offerings of the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, or specialist journals. It is a book geek’s guide to paradise, and it has become one of my  favorite tools for vetting books that I can enjoy in podcast form or want to read in full. 

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Given my love of the network, it was a real pleasure to talk to University of British Columbia historian and NBN interviewer Carla Nappi about my own book The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Nappi is the Terry Gross of the NBN world, a worldly & whip-smart scholar who carefully reads every book she discusses in her author interviews (now numbering over 300). That these books cover the range between Biomedical Computing and the Tokyo Zoo demonstrates Nappi’s exceptional range across the fields of  East Asian Studies and Science, Technology, and Society. Thanks Carla & NBN. The interview is available in I Tunes and on the NBN website.

 

Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (book review)

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Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series spans 500 volumes, taking up subjects from Beauty to Relativity to Wittgenstein. As we lose ourselves in ever expanding information networks, the brightly coloured paperbacks have become the researcher’s Lonely Planet, a pocket guide to topics that require some navigation. While the series covers some of the same ground as other reference sources insofar as they chronicle events and basic principles, their real value lies in the perspective of their specialist authors who, in addition to detailing facts, take on the central issues and controversies of their subjects.

This is hard to do in 35,000 words. It is especially hard to do with exploration which spans history and prehistory and crosses disciplinary boundaries from history, geography and anthropology to literary theory. From what perspective can all of these topics and approaches be surveyed in 130 pages? Is it possible to give appropriate scope to the subject as a whole and still say something meaningful about the explorer, the subaltern, the contact zone or the encounter?

In Stewart Weaver’s hands, yes. Written with a deft touch, his account of exploration gives scope while still finding room for subjects that require special detail and analysis. Beginning with a reflection on the idea of exploration – a term that after all this time is still difficult to pin down – Weaver establishes a central theme of the book: exploration is much more than a history of travels and conquests. “Far from expressing an eccentric wandering urge on the part of some rugged visionary, [exploration] is the outward projection of cultural imperatives shaped and elaborated back home” (7).

Chapters follow on travel in human prehistory, ancient exploration, the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, the Imperial Age and extreme exploration in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While histories of exploration commonly focus on European and North American activities, Weaver provides numerous accounts of non-Western explorers: from Polynesian navigators venturing into the Eastern Pacific and the peripatetic adventures of Ibn Battuta to the magisterial voyages of Zheng He into the Indian Ocean. Important subjects receive concentrated focus. The Columbian voyages of the late 1400s, which transformed Atlantic peoples on three continents, is given considerable attention. The voyages of James Cook in the Pacific, the long five-year trek of Alexander von Humboldt through the Americas, and the western expedition of Lewis and Clark are also given room.

All of this makes A Very Short Introduction to Exploration a very useful text: accessible for a quick overview of events but also deep enough for a close examination of important episodes. For this reason, it is an appropriate work for lay readers, university students, as well as researchers seeking to contextualise their projects. Researchers will also appreciate Weaver’s nuanced knowledge of exploration scholarship. In general, Very Short Introductions avoid footnotes and restrict references to a short section in the back matter. Still, Weaver manages to infuse his chapters with the flavour of contemporary debates about exploration.

One example of this is his treatment of Alexander von Humboldt. Of the famous Prussian explorer – known in the world of nineteenth-century science not merely for his travels in South America, but for his virtuosity in representing nature graphically and holistically –Weaver provides a portrait that goes beyond a simple play-by-play of his travels. A hero in the Victorian Age, Humboldt (the subject of a special issue of Studies in Travel Writing Studies in Travel Writing, 2016 Vol. 20, No. 1, 116–117 edited by Peter Hulme in 2011) became a contested figure in the 1980s and 1990s during the postcolonial turn for being an agent of empire, doing the bidding of the Spanish crown in its attempts to maintain control over its restive colonies. Given the restrictions of the format, Weaver cannot name names, but he is clearly referring to the work of Mary Louise Pratt and others who put forward this critique of the explorer in the early 1990s. Yet he does not stop there, describing a new interpretation by Aaron Sachs and Laura Dassow Walls that recovers Humboldt from being a mere agent of empire. In their works, he emerges as a pioneer of civil rights and human ecology. 

This is only one example. David Northrup’s theory of “Globalization and the Great Convergence” informs Weaver’s discussion of prehistoric exploration, Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s views are put forward in his treatment of Columbus, and even the findings of molecular biologist R. P. Ebstein – whose work on the dopamine D4 receptor raised the idea of an “adventure gene” in the late 1990s – is described in analysing the motives behind exploration. One senses, in these new biological approaches, that we have returned full circle to the late nineteenth century when “Arctic fever”, “mountain madness” and other metaphorical maladies were diagnosed as behaviours innate to our species: a will to explore. 

Ultimately, while Weaver allows room for the effects of biological imperatives on exploration at both the level of the species and the individual, his emphasis is clearly on culture as the engine of expeditionary zeal, the driver of imperial encounters as well as quests to conquer “the extreme”. Still, the vast reach of exploration across the ages, encompassing so many human actors, activities and motivations resists easy generalizations. Weaver is too nuanced a thinker and too careful a historian to make epic pronouncements, but in this pocket-sized grand tour of human travel across the centuries, he offers a small one: “Exploration is always surprising; it defeats expectations,
challenges certainties, even opens eyes from time to time” (9).

Originally published as “Exploration: a very short introduction,” Studies in Travel Writing, 20:1, 116-117, DOI: 10.1080/13645145.2015.1136093

Book Talk at the Explorer’s Club on 3 May

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I’ll be giving a talk at the Explorers’ Club about my new book in Boston on 3 May. Social reception at 7pm. Lecture at 8pm. More info here.

 

A Theory You’ve Never Heard of and How it Changed the World

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I gave a TEDx talk two weeks ago  about my new book, The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent, which will be coming out in January with Oxford University Press. TED talks are supposed to be short. It was a challenge to figure out how to convey the key story line of the book in 15 minutes. I hope it works. Let me know what you think.

The Search for Planet X

On 14 July 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to Pluto, passing within 6000 miles of the dwarf planet. As the piano-sized machine begins to stream high-resolution images of Pluto back to earth (which even the Hubble telescope perceives as a murky blob) I thought it would be a good to take a minute and consider the story of Pluto’s discovery in the early decades of the twentieth century.

At this time, Pluto was known as Planet X. Like most stories of discovery, the story of Planet X seems straight-forward at first, then gets more tangled the deeper one digs. It is worth disentangling. The story of Pluto reveals a bigger story about scientific discoveries and the difficulties of attributing credit.

Here’s the straight forward part. On 18 February 1930, Clyde Tombaugh sat in the Lowell Observatory and compared photographic plates taken of the same patch of sky on different days. He was looking for a misalignment of objects from plate to plate — something that would indicate the motion of a comet, asteroid, or planet against the backdrop of stationary stars. The density of stars on the plates made this a nightmarish task — a celestial Where’s Waldo with millions of objects to consider. Yet with the assistance of a blink comparator — a machine that strobes two images back and forth repeatedly — Tombaugh perceived a tiny object moving across the star field. He had discovered a distant planet circling the sun, one forty times more distant than the earth. 

This was Planet X. Since the discovery of Neptune in 1846, astronomers had searched excitedly for planets in more distant orbits. Much of this excitement grew out of the way Neptune had been discovered. In the year before it was sighted by Johann Gottfried Galle, Neptune had been predicted by Urbain Le Verrier based upon irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. Put simply, Uranus did not seem to be behaving in accordance with Newton’s laws of motion. At one point in its orbit, Uranus moving faster than predicted. At another point, it moved more slowly. The strange behavior could be explained, Le Verrier argued, by the existence of an planet beyond Uranus that exerted a gravitational pull upon the seventh planet. Le Verrier’s prediction proved correct.

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As Uranus circles the sun on the interior orbit, the gravitational force of Neptune accelerates it at point a, then decelerates it at point b. These perturbations led Le Verrier to predict the existence of Neptune before it was observed in 1846.

This was the kind of discovery that brought astronomers to the edge of rapture. Finding Neptune did not arrive by luck or serendipity. It did not appear from some brute process of sorting and observation. It was predicted by the powers of human calculation. It became visible through Le Verrier’s feat of mathematical prediction. He had summoned it, and it had appeared. French physicist Francois Arago marveled at this. “He discovered a planet through the point of his pen.”

Inspired, astronomers began looking for irregularities in Neptune’s orbit as well. Meanwhile, others looked to the orbital radii of comets, which they believed might also point to the influence of a distant unknown planet. By the late 1800s, the astronomical community had become a roadside revival for the prediction of trans-Neptunian planets. As Morton Grosser points out in his 1964 Isis article “The Search for a Planet Beyond Neptune,” the quest for the trans-Neptunian planet “was a kind of celestial grail, and repeated failures to find it seemed to attract new searchers rather than to discourage those already seeking.” (It’s interesting to note that, at exactly the same time, polar explorers were approaching the North Pole with the same giddy attitude and language; see for example Elsa Barker’s 1908 poem “The Frozen Grail.”)

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Percival Lowell

In 1915, Percival Lowell tried to weigh the merits of these multiple predictions, all of which were based upon different sets of observational evidence. The exercise was a daunting one, yet in working it out, Lowell seems to have crossed a threshold in his own thinking about his craft, one that makes him sound more like a philosopher of science than an astronomer hunting for planets.

The theory of a planet cannot in the nature of things be exact; and this for three reasons: 

1) The observations on which it is founded are necessarily more or less in error;

2) The theory itself may be more or less imperfect

3) An unknown body may be acting of which perforce no account has been given

Nevertheless, Lowell came down to earth long enough to make a prediction of his own. Planet X did exist. It could be located in a an orbit of forty-three astronomical units (where 1 au = distance between the sun and the earth). In mass, it would be twice as big as the earth. Lowell died in 1916 but the quest to find Planet X continued. When Tombaugh found the flickering spot of light in his blink comparator in 1930, it seemed to be vindication for Lowell’s prediction. When the name “Pluto” was offered by 11-year old Venetia Burney from Oxford England, it found approval at the Lowell Observatory. The name — representing the Roman god of the underworld — seemed suitable for a planet that was so cold, dark, and distant. Moreover, the symbol of the planet would be cast as ♇, which also functioned as a monogram for Percival Lowell.

Yet from the very beginning, Lowell’s status as discoverer was controversial. Astronomers noted that while Lowell’s prediction was in the neighborhood of Pluto’s position, it wasn’t an exact fit. Nor was it clear that Pluto was big enough to exert a gravitational effect upon Neptune big enough to explain the irregularities of Neptune’s orbit. In 1951, a paper by V. Kourganoff vindicated Lowell’s prediction, and there matters stood until 1978 when astronomer Robert Sutton Harrington of the US Naval Observatory determined that the mass of Pluto, at 1/500th the mass of the Earth, was too small to influence the orbital path of Neptune. Lovell’s prediction — through no fault of his own — fell short according to errors in observation, the first point in his 1915 article.

Accordingly, the discovery of Pluto did not follow in Neptune’s footsteps, because it was discovered as a matter of luck rather than of prediction. It seems that Tombaugh was looking at the right place, at the right time, but for the wrong reasons. So should Lowell be stricken from the record of Pluto’s discovery. Should we rename this icy dwarf planet according to other names proposed in 1930: Zeus, Minerva, or Cronus?

Then again, would Tombaugh even have been looking for Planet X if Lowell had not made such a persuasive case for finding it there? Certainly there was a degree of luck in finding Pluto. Yet, it was a discovery that also required powerful equipment, careful practice, and a dogged conviction that Lowell was right. In this, Pluto takes its place next to a number of scientific and geographical discoveries — from Columbus’s “discovery” of America” to Kepler’s search for a divine planetary arrangement. Unlike Neptune’s “discovery at the point of a pen,” perhaps Planet X’s epitaph should read “Look long enough and you will find it.” 

Book Review: Inventing the American Astronaut

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So many books have been written by and about astronauts that it doesn’t seem like there is much left to cover. Yet Matthew H. Hersch breaks new ground in Inventing the American Astronaut (Palgrave Macmillian, 2012) by examining the evolution of the astronaut as a professional class. Space history, as Asif Saddiqi points out in “American Space History: Legacies, Questions, and Opportunities for Further Research,” too easily falls into a number of familiar plot lines — the hero quest, the Cold War race, the triumph of American technology, or the restless spirit of human exploration — all of which drive professional historians completely crazy. Why? Because these plot lines often dictate the direction of the narrative rather than the details of the subject itself.

Hersch doesn’t fall into this trap. The creation of the astronaut corp, he makes clear, could have unfolded differently. Early NASA administrators thought that test pilots — comfortable with technology, accepting of risk, and rigorous in their shakedowns of new planes — would make the best candidates for spaceflight. Once these test pilots entered the astronaut corps, flying the missions of the Mercury Program, they gained authority as popular heroes, influenced the design of spacecraft, and entered the NASA ranks as senior pilots and administrators. Thus established, the test-pilot astronaut became the benchmark by which future candidates were measured. Space scientists, by contrast, were generally ranked lower than test pilots and waited longer for flight assignments. While NASA’s 1958 charter put a priority on “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space” science was of secondary importance on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Moreover, the narrow demographics of military test pilots — almost all of whom were white and male — became the demographic of the NASA astronaut as well. Only in the 1970s and 1980s would this begin to change as women, minorities, and non-test pilot astronauts entered the ranks with the Space Shuttle.

Behind the scenes, astronauts endured hardships that extended beyond the risks of spaceflight. The selection process was highly competitive, but also mysterious. It was unclear which skills — physical, intellectual, interpersonal, or psychological — were most important for obtaining a mission assignment. Once astronauts flew in space, their public and professional cache increased dramatically — as well as their opportunities for future missions. Rookie astronauts, by contrast, lived more precariously  — never knowing for certain whether or not they would receive a flight assignment. So while the public viewed astronauts as cool-headed professionals, the reality was less inspiring. The Astronaut Office,wrote NASA engineer Homer Hickam, was producing “bureaucratic combatants with warped personalities” (162).

If this sounds like more like Dilbert than Deep Space 9 it is because Hersch has a larger point, one that he makes convincingly: the astronaut represented a late 20th century professional class, one that demonstrated many similarities to earlier 20th century professionals, particularly middle-class engineers. Even at 25,000 mph, these rocket men could not escape the gravitational pull of the workplace, a force that shaped the arc of their careers from Johnson Space Center to the Sea of Tranquility.

Some Things I’ve Been Working On

Antarctica Icebound Ship

The fate of the Australasian Antarctica Expedition — still stranded in pack ice off the coast of Antarctica — got me thinking about the value of reenacting expeditions. I wrote an opinion piece on the subject for National Geographic. Getting trapped in pack ice isn’t always a bad idea. In 1895, Fridjof Nansen intentionally sailed his ship Fram into the polar pack ice in hopes of reaching the North Pole. While he fell short, he achieved a new “Farthest North.” I will be speaking about this subject on an episode of Mysteries at the Museum, airing on 2 January at 9pm (EST).

I have two longer pieces just out in edited collections: one reassessing the life of notorious North Pole explorer Frederick Cook in North by Degree: New Perspectives on Arctic Exploration, and another reflecting on the long relationship between “Science and Exploration” in Reinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World.

Last year, I helped the curators at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport CT identify an old sleeping bag in their collection — one that is connected to the rescue of Greely and six of his men in 1884. I’ll be giving a public talk about the subject “The Greely Expedition: A Tale of Triumph and Tragedy in the Arctic.” at the Barnum on 23 February at 2pm. 

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