Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Expeditions

Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (book review)


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

Untitled 1

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


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.

neptune orbit

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.”)


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


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. 

Greely’s Pendulum, Part 2 of 2

House at Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island, 1881. Photo credit: NOAA

House at Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island, 1881. Credit: NOAA

Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island, November 1881

            Only after Adolphus Greely had directed his men to build their long bunk house at Fort Conger, when the long night of winter had descended on Lady Franklin Bay, did he direct the party to begin preparations for using the Peirce No. 1. Greely was a man who, much like Israel, was comfortable with data collection and precision instruments. He had overseen the creation of a vast telegraph network in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, becoming the Army’s top meteorologist. Perhaps this was a reason for the close bond that grew up between the two men. Greely identified a site on the north side of the house, a space sheltered under a canvas lean-to, where the pendulum could be placed.  A party began digging the holes and pouring the Portland cement piers that would anchor the instrument. Digging frozen ground in the dark at -30°F wasn’t pleasant work and even Greely, not inclined to complain about conditions, described the process as “tedious and trying.” The men built an ice house around the pendulum frame to protect it from the elements and to stabilize its temperature. They placed a glass window with the wall in order for Israel to record measurements without entering the ice house. Only then did they remove the pendulum from its tin shroud and long wooden case. There, they hung it to swing in its dark, frigid chamber.[1]

Adolphus Greely

Adolphus Greely

            The delay in setting up the pendulum was deliberate. Peirce had recognized that the Arctic winter offered special advantages for pendulum use.  The frozen ground firmed up the support of the concrete piers, reducing the flexure of the frame that might change the duration of the pendulum’s swing. In winter, the frigid Arctic air was very dry, reducing humidity that would deposit moisture on the pendulum, skewing its weight. Finally, the depth of winter would also bring greater consistency of temperature, important to limit any expansion or contraction of the metal itself.[2]

            Yet for Israel, the difficult work was only beginning. The relative simplicity of the Peirce No. 1 belied the complexity of Peirce’s instructions. The Superintendent had given Israel a daunting list of requirements for the pendulum’s proper use. Israel needed to swing the pendulum within a very specific range of motion: not larger than 25/1000ths and not smaller than 5/1000ths of the arc radius. The pendulum had to be swung for ninety minutes, reversed, and swung again for thirty. This series needed to be repeated multiple times, so that the total time of pendulum measurements reached six hours a day.[3]

            In addition to marking each swing over time, Israel had to record temperatures as well. Since the thermometer couldn’t touch the pendulum, Peirce directed Israel to set up thermometers near the top and the bottom of the instrument, making sure that each did not vary perceptibly from one another or over the time of the swing. Finally, Israel had to measure the flexure of the frame itself, which Peirce instructed, could not vary more than 1/200th of a millimeter. Although the glass window allowed Israel to measure each swing from the comfortable distance of the house, he still had to swing the pendulum, measure temperature, and look for microscopic flexures of the frame. In the end, Greely records that “for sixteen days in January 1882 he diligently swung Peirce Pendulum No. 1 in a specially constructed ice shelter.” After the sixteen-day series was complete, the pendulum was placed within its slender wood box and sealed once again in tin, to wait for its transport home with the party in the summer of 1882. The entire sequence of the pendulum experiment, from Peirce’s training to Israel’s execution had been meticulously planned and executed. For Greely and his party it represented a triumph of science over sensationalism, one that would contrast sharply and tragically with the catastrophe that followed.[4]

Cape Sabine, Ellesmere Island, 1884

            The expedition that came to relieve the Greely Party at Fort Conger in 1882 was turned back by ice. Greely and his men, despondent at the lack of relief, overwintered for a second year and waited for the arrival of a second relief expedition in 1883. Yet this expedition, too, failed to reach Fort Conger, crushed by pack ice in the southern reaches of Smith Sound. As it became clear that the second expedition was not going to arrive in 1883, Greely made preparations to evacuate Fort Conger and travel south in small boats.[5]

The Greely Party Leaves Fort Conger, 1883. Credit: NOAA

The Greely Party Leaves Fort Conger, 1883. Credit: NOAA

            The forced retreat created a dilemma for Greely and his men. It was crucial to return the pendulum to Washington so that it could be inspected and swung again by Peirce, confirming the measurements taken at Fort Conger. Yet the pendulum in its tin case and wooden crate added over forty kilograms of dead weight to an increasingly desperate escape effort.

            Greely hoped to find stores near Cape Sabine left by the relief expeditions. Yet arriving at the southern reaches of Smith Sound, the party found few provisions. With little hope of finding more food, the party would now have to carry the pendulum as they dragged their boats over the pack ice. Greely took the issue to his men:

I informed the men that I was unwilling, much as I wanted to save that instrument, to lessen their chances of life by hauling it longer, unless all concurred, and that it would be dropped whenever they wished. Not only was there no objection to keeping it, but several of the party were outspoken in considering it unmanly to abandon it. Such a spirit is certainly most credible.’[6]

          The men continued to carry the pendulum, stripping off the tin shroud to reduce weight. Eventually, they cached the Peirce No. 1 on Stalknecht Island, just off the shore of Cape Sabine. While it had functioned as a precision instrument in Washington and Fort Conger, the Peirce No. 1 now became a rescue beacon for relief ships entering Smith Sound, its long box anchored as a tower to the rock cairn to make it more visible, a note tucked within the rocks giving the party’s location on Cape Sabine.

Rescue Beacon. The Peirce Pendulum Rock Cairn on Stalknecht Island. Credit: NOAA

Rescue Beacon. The Peirce Pendulum rock cairn on Stalknecht Island, 1884. Credit: NOAA

During the winter and spring of 1884, the members of the Greely party slowly succumbed to starvation. On 27 May 1884, Israel began speaking quietly of home, his mother’s cooking. He became delirious and died. Greely, who shared a sleeping bag with Israel during their final desperate months, wrote that he “learned to love him like a brother.” When Greely conducted Israel’s burial, he edited the Christian service to make it consistent with the astronomer’s Jewish faith.  Twenty four days after Israel died, a rescue party under the command of Winfield Schley arrived at Cape Sabine where they found Greely and six men close to death, the last survivors of the twenty-five men crew. Schley had expected to find Greely further north at Fort Conger, but his men saw the cairn on Stalknecht Island and went to investigate. There, they found the tall pendulum in its box, still projecting upwards from the rocks.

Washington D C., August, 1884

            Thousands of well-wishers turned out in Portsmouth New Hampshire to welcome Greely and his men home.  The day was filled with speeches and a parade of over two thousand. Speaking of the value of the expedition, Senator Eugene Hale of Maine told the crowds, “Nothing dims its record. There was no insubordination, no blundering, no losing of the head.” Hale’s remarks were premature. As he spoke, evidence was emerging that some members of the party had resorted to cannibalism in their final months at Cape Sabine. The press also discovered that the Greely party was riven by conflicts, especially during the long retreat from Fort Conger when Greely’s officers had almost relieved Greely of his command. As these discoveries swirled in the pages of the popular press, Greely defended himself, the bravery of the party, and the expedition’s commitment to science.[7]

            Key to this defense was the party’s unanimous decision to carry the Peirce No. 1 out of the Arctic despite its weight. Greely chronicled this event in his final report, and it also appeared in the Coast Survey report as well as popular press accounts. As a result, the pendulum gained symbolic importance. It was at this moment, ironically, that Peirce began to question the instrument’s scientific value. He had measured the pendulum at the Coast Survey Building in late 1884 and observed that its length and mass had changed significantly since 1881. As a benchmark of Israel’s Arctic measurements, then, the pendulum seemed useless. Greely was furious, defending himself and Israel in a letter that he attached to Peirce’s report. Yet the long brass bar yielded results of a different kind. While it may have failed to measure the contours of the earth, in the eyes of many nineteenth-century Americans, it offered something more valuable in return:  a measure of scientific spirit and manly character, one that protected Greely and the reputation of the expedition party in the decades to come.[8]

[This essay was published by the journal Endeavour in December 2012: 36(4):187-90]

[1] Greely quoted from Three Years of Arctic Service: An Account of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, 1881-1884 (New York, 1894) 1:119.

[2] C.S. Peirce, “General Instructions for Observing Oscillating Pendulums,” (1881) from The Peirce Edition Project, http://www.iupui.edu/~peirce/writings/v6/W6ann/W6ann30.htm

[3] Ibid.

[4] Introduction, Writings of Charles S. Peirce: 1886-1890 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 6: xxx.

[5] Guttridge, Ghosts, 151-199.

[6] Greely,  Arctic Service, “Arctic Journal” dated 17 Sept 1883. 1:509-10

[7] Eugene Hale quoted in William McGinley, Reception of Lieut. A. W. Greely, U. S. A., and His Comrades, and of the Arctic Relief Expedition, at Portsmouth, N. H., on August 1 and 4, 1884 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884), 35.

[8] Rebecca Herzig writes about the value of hardship in the Greely Expedition in Suffering for Science (Rutgers University Press, 2005), 64-84. Also see “The Magnetic and Tidal Work of the Greely Arctic Expedition,” Science 9 (4 March 1887): 215-217; Editorial, Science 4 (1 August 1884): 94; Daniel Gilman, “Reception of the Greely Arctic Explorer, Lieutenant Greely, U. S. A.,” Johns Hopkins University Circulars 4 (March 1885): 54.