1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica

Robert Mayhew discusses a timely evaluation of heroic science's contemporary relevance

September 20, 2012

Climate change scientist Chris Turney enters the crowded field of centennial studies of the conquest of the South Pole with 1912, a work that in fact studies the rather less chronologically precise "moment" of Antarctic exploration efforts in the era 1909-13. We now know, as Robert Falcon Scott et al. did not (although their work would contribute to the discovery), that the Earth's magnetic field "flips", reversing its polarity from time to time. Turney's book addresses its subject matter conventionally enough at the outset, but performs two interesting "flips" of its own that make it worthy of the general reader's attention.

Turney starts on familiar ground, addressing the efforts of Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen that constituted the "race for the pole". We even get a new analysis of why Scott died in March 1912, with two points emerging. First, Scott laid his last major fuel and food dump for the return leg some kilometres short of its intended location at 80 degsS, owing to problems with his dogs. Had it been laid where intended, Scott would have survived. Second, and more controversially, Turney shows that the Royal Geographical Society hushed up evidence that one of the other return parties, led by Teddy Evans, Scott's second in command, took more than its share from the depots, leaving Scott's team woefully short of nutrition and fuel at each stage of its return leg.

And yet, as Turney notes, his real ambition is not to reopen agonised Edwardian debates about why Scott died but to emphasise the scientific achievements of these expeditions. In this, Turney is of course placing Scott's work as that to which his own scientific efforts are a lineal successor. And yet on the same ground, Edward Larson's 2011 book An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science is more successful, both in terms of the scientific detail offered and the historical context and brio with which it is delivered.

At this point, we reach the first "flip" performed by Turney. According to him, the real scientific hero of 1912 is neither Scott nor Shackleton, nor even Amundsen, the familiar trio of Antarctic historiography, but Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australian/New Zealand venture of that year. As Turney writes: "Mawson's venture gave the world its first complete scientific snapshot of the new continent", ushering in the sort of polar research that would be key to unlocking the role of Antarctica in Earth surface history and in the contemporary climatic regime. Mawson, we discover, never aimed to reach the South Pole at all, seeing this as a distraction from the true scientific work needed.

Instead, he took a team of 19 scientists with him (whereas Scott, despite the scientific credentials of his project, took only 10) and researched a wide range of issues: the possibility that land bridges had once connected Antarctica with Australia; the oceanography of the Southern seas; magnetism; the atmospheric issues affecting radio transmissions; and a host of other issues besides. Mawson also displayed the same sort of heroic feats of endurance as the familiar trio, returning from one venture as the last survivor, having to bind the frozen soles of his feet back on each day with lanolin cream.

Lionising Mawson is not some form of Antipodean parti pris on Turney's part. On the contrary, it is part of a broader strategy that suggests that once one focuses on science rather than the race for the pole and its tragic outcome, the explorers who converged on Antarctica after Shackleton's 1909 venture need to be reassessed. If Mawson's was the most scientific project, Turney also sees scientific achievements emerging from other expeditions that traditionally have been neglected, or to the extent that they have been remembered at all, derided. Thus, the Japanese venture led by Nobu Shirase produced more data about the size and nature of King Edward VII Land than any other, while the German expedition led by Wilhelm Filchner was more ambitious still, unlocking many of the geographical mysteries of the Weddell Sea area as well as making significant contributions to understanding the oceanography of the Southern Ocean. Even the abortive Scottish expedition of William Speirs Bruce - a venture that, like that proposed in the US in the wake of Robert Peary's disputed success in reaching the North Pole in 1909, never left harbour for lack of funds - had a role to play, with Bruce offering key scientific and logistical advice to a number of parties who did make it to the Southern Ocean. And while emphasising scientific achievements, Turney does not neglect the human side of these voyages, recalling that Filchner, for example, spent much of his voyage in fear for his life thanks to the psychotic captain of his vessel, Richard Vahsel. Filchner himself would go on to challenge to a duel someone who questioned his competence.

Turney's first historical flip, then, shows us that it was a great concourse of scientific ambition that opened up the Antarctic to modern scrutiny, not simply the derring-do of a few familiar figures. By rehabilitating the broader cast who ventured into the Southern seas as the first decade of the 20th century drew to a close, we get a better sense of what drove them and of their achievements, which are signal. And it is the sum of their achievements that leads Turney to his second flip. For where contemporary scientists tend, in rather self-satisfied vein, to see themselves as subsequent to and more sophisticated than heroic predecessors such as Scott and Mawson, Turney is not so sure. On the contrary, as he concludes: "I fear we've taken a wrong turn."

Why? Scott, Mawson et al. conducted detailed scientific enquiries, but it was also incumbent on them to engage with the public, both to raise the funds that bankrolled their expeditions (although, as Turney notes, none of them set sail on a sound financial footing in 1912 and many were still paying off the debts decades later) and to highlight their achievements in the form of newspaper articles and popular books recounting their exploits. Thus, the scientist-explorers of a century ago seamlessly traversed the boundaries between science and its public dissemination, an issue that has become so contentious in our era. Where various governments and funding bodies today develop clumsy incentives to diffuse science to "end users", this was simply an expected part of the craft a century ago. In parochial British terms, Scott had one heck of a research excellence framework impact case.

In fact, of course, matters were by no means as simple as this: as Turney notes, the scientific findings of Scott's voyage were still being published decades later, while Turney's benchmark expedition, Mawson's, completed its scientific investigations only in 1947, when some 22 volumes had been published. Our contemporary masters would surely have hurried Mawson and his ilk to publish faster or perish. And yet surely Turney does have a point here: in an age where the public still focuses on "Climategate" scandals and the denial of widely accepted scientific truths, there are indeed lessons we can learn from Scott and Mawson. It is to Turney's great credit that he can so convincingly show their contemporary relevance, even as he recreates their long since surpassed scientific achievements.

The Author

Author and media figure, polar explorer and professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, Chris Turney was born in Inverness, Scotland.

"I now live just south of Sydney in a small village called Austinmer, with my wife Annette and two very chatty children, Cara and Robert," he says. "'Austi' is a small, friendly place backed by rainforest and fronted by fantastic surf. The year-round sunshine and great coffee helps - although all this may make some readers slightly nauseous." As an amateur surfer, he confesses, "I'm hopeless. I've been at it for years and the best I can say is that it's a pursuit in avoiding drowning. Great fun though!"

Turney owes his interest in science to his parents, "who have a real love of the environment and always encouraged my brothers and me to go outdoors and discover - although in hindsight I suspect this was so they could have some peace and quiet. They instilled in us a great curiosity about the world. I just wanted to keep learning, and being an academic became the dream job."

His favourite readers "are those who wouldn't normally pick up a science book and then tell me how much they enjoyed it. Rather than telling people they should learn science because it's good for them, I believe ripping yarns, quirky characters and the odd scandal are a great way to excite the public. If I can engage people, I've done my job."

Turney founded the eco-firm CarbonScape, which uses microwaves to produce activated carbon. "It came out of a dreadful teenage experience when I blew up a microwave while attempting to bake a potato. I've been very fortunate since then to work with a fantastic team in New Zealand who have worked tirelessly to take the technology forward. Microwaves offer a dial-up capability that allows us to turn biomass waste into charcoal (helping to strip carbon out of the air) or other products including green fuels, fine chemicals and activated carbon. We've just made it on to a shortlist of six out of 508 entries for the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. You can vote at http://www.greenchallenge.info."

1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica

By Chris Turney

The Bodley Head

368pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781847921741 and 9781448138739 (e-book)

Published 6 September 2012

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