It is rather too easy for us in the early 21st century to feel a certain disconnection from heroic narratives of exploration, for in our age most such feats of endurance all too easily appear absurd and pointless. Thus when the British explorer David Hempleman-Adams ditched his first attempt to be the first to cross the Atlantic in an open-basket balloon in 2002, he invoked a famous line from Ernest Shackleton: "A live donkey is better than a dead lion."
Shackleton penned this line to his wife, ruminating on the events of 1909 when he turned back just 112 miles from the South Pole. By contrast, Hempleman-Adams had not actually left the American landmass and, even if he had, it is at best opaque why this particular feat might have mattered to anyone. To this, for all who can remember, could easily be added the bathos of Richard Branson's repeated ballooning blunders and braggadocio.
This sense of disconnection can easily be projected backward on to the history of exploration, and it is tempting to cast the exploits of figures such as Robert Falcon Scott as - with apologies to Shackleton and Hempleman-Adams - those of a dead donkey. We all know vaguely (and six- and seven-year-old children in the UK are still routinely taught) that Scott quixotically tried to reach the South Pole in 1911 by man-hauled sledges and died on his return trek, whereas the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen more sensibly used dog teams and succeeded. Amundsen, a native of high latitudes, is seen as having been in tune with this most unforgiving of environments; Scott is seen as blimpish and benighted, the Edwardian male dinosaur of a best-forgotten brand of imperial jingoism. Tales of derring-do just don't seem to resonate in an age where travel is commonplace and there is precious little left to explore.
Enter Edward Larson, whose enlightening and entertaining new book, An Empire of Ice, seeks to rescue the exploits of Edwardian derring-do from the condescension of posterity by showing us how much more there was to what his subtitle refers to as the "heroic age of Antarctic science". His key point is that, contrary to the exploits of the Hempleman-Adamses of our age, Antarctic exploration was not about feats of endurance in and of themselves, but was instead tied to key debates in the development of a range of scientific disciplines from terrestrial magnetism and geology, to evolution and global oceanography.
This is not tendentious historical hair-splitting; on the contrary, Larson convincingly shows that this is exactly how Scott's and Shackleton's contemporaries assessed exploration. Thus the sometime president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham (who is otherwise rather unfairly cast in this book as an outmoded bore), was chiming with the thought of his age when, discussing the history of Antarctic exploration in 1912, he chose not to discuss Amundsen and "mere dashes" to the Pole, preferring to concentrate on "true" - by which he meant scientific - "Antarctic explorations".
Having established the currency of this Edwardian binary of dashes and explorations, the bulk of Larson's book goes on to look at the work of Shackleton's 1907 Nimrod expedition and of the two Scott expeditions that sandwiched it in 1901 and 1909, each chapter tracing a thread of scientific enquiry that the three expeditions addressed. To allay readers' fears, it should be noted that this book is anything but a laborious history of science wrapped in suitably thick Antarctic clothes; Larson is a compelling narrator with an ear well attuned to melodious prose and a historian's keen eye for telling details.
He neatly captures, for example, the clashing egos of Scott and Shackleton: "with only one pole, even Antarctica was not big enough for both of them". Likewise, on the death-defying return from Scott's "Farthest South" of 1902, the team would read Darwin's On the Origin of Species to one another amid blizzards and while suffering from near starvation; as Larson wryly notes, this was "survival of the fittest indeed". The book is peppered with such moments of insight, combining great storytelling with archival nous.
The most compelling thing about An Empire of Ice, however, is the scientific currents of Antarctic exploration it highlights. Again and again, Larson shows how the feats of endurance that have become enshrined in the lore of polar exploration were driven by scientific goals.
As one example among many, take the question of the apparent obsession with emperor penguins that both of Scott's expeditions displayed. It is easy to cast this as a parable of absurd, pointless failure, and as prefiguring one narration of Scott's own death on the ice in 1912. On that fatal second voyage, a three-man team set out hauling 750lb of food and equipment in the permanent polar night to reach the rockeries where the penguins nested. Temperatures plummeted to -76degC, the team's tent was destroyed and the explorers had to construct snow huts to avoid death. One of them, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, found that his teeth chattered so much that all of them shattered.
The result? The savage conditions forced the team to retreat to base camp, only three penguin eggs the richer. And yet Larson tells us a different tale by asking a beguilingly simple question: why were Scott's scientific teams obsessed with emperor penguins? The answer lies in the debates over Darwinian evolution that raged at the time, in which it was thought that the species might be what Scott's chief biological adviser, Edward Wilson, described as "the most primitive, behindhand birds in existence".
If that was the case, the birds might well solve riddles about the pathway of global evolution, particularly if Ernst Haeckel was right in his argument that individuals recapitulated in their embryonic state the course of species evolution. Thus Scott's teams were driven to extremes of endurance in the effort to collect eggs, embryos and adults. After the event, Cherry-Garrard vividly recalled the excitement of the science, despite his dental destruction: "We were witnessing a marvel of the natural world. We had within our grasp material which might prove of the utmost importance to science; we were turning theories into facts with every observation we made."
By the time we reach the tragic moment of Scott's death on the ice in March 1912, we as readers know, thanks to Larson's marvellous book, why the three remaining members of the party, all else cast aside to speed their desperate dash for food stores, were found to have retained all their notebooks and some 35lb of geological samples when their bodies were recovered eight months later. Reverting to Shackleton's binary comparison, Scott's men were beasts of geological burden at their bitter end, but they also died as lions for scientific endeavour.
An Empire of Ice, then, reinvigorates derring-do by showing us the nobility of the enterprises of Scott and Shackleton in terms that, while emanating from their own age, can resonate with ours. For, as Larson intimates in his epilogue, the achievement of these men viewed aright is anything but quixotic and irrelevant. If Antarctica "took on aspects of a holy grail" at this time, a century later that space remains a sanctuary for science, and a region that has been sheltered from the winds of commercial and imperial exploitation.
That all this began with the efforts of Scott and others must force us to reassess the blimpish stereotypes of Edwardian exploration. And if Larson's revisionist history helps us to see the worth of preserving that sanctuary in the face of ever-mounting pressures, his reworking of tales of derring-do really will, dare one say, "do".
Edward John Larson is university professor of history at Pepperdine University, where he also holds the Hugh and Hazel Darling chair in law. He gained a bachelor's degree in history at Williams College, a master's and a PhD in the history of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and holds a juris doctor degree from Harvard Law School.
He received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for history for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, and in 2000 he delivered the George Sarton Memorial Lecture at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.
An avid traveller, Larson has taught in Austria, China, Chile, France and Ecuador. His time in Ecuador allowed him to indulge his interest in bird-watching while co-teaching Pepperdine's overseas summer programme on the Galapagos Islands. He also likes hiking, although his main hobby is making jam.
He says he is "that rare American who is not a Churchill fan and did not watch the royal wedding", and looks forward to trips to the UK and the Republic of Ireland "if for no other reason than for pints of your brilliant British bitter and Irish stout".
An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science
By Edward J. Larson
Yale University Press, 344pp, £18.99
Published 30 June 2011