Monday, March 21, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

 “DISPATCHES FROM CONTINENT SEVEN – An Anthology of Antarctic Science” edited by Rebecca Priestley (Awa Press, $55)

As a non-scientific person, I am a great fan of books, written by people who know what they are talking about, which explain science to me in accessible but non-patronising language.  Popularisation (what the French call “vulgarisation”) is what I am getting at here. To make the broader public aware of physics, chemistry, maths, biology and genetics, geology, astronomy and so forth, we really need people who fully understand the language of science, but who can write the non-specialist language of the ordinary interested reader.
For this reason, I enjoy the work of Rebecca Priestley. She is a graduate, not in a hard science, but in the History and Philosophy of Science. She is therefore in an excellent position to mediate between scientists and educated non-scientists. She has the sophisticated habit of not belittling the way past ages looked at certain contentious scientific topics, and she does not assume that our current understandings of the physical universe are definitive. These merits were on display in her very readable study of New Zealand’s relationship with atomic energy Mad on Radium, which I covered in this blog a bit over three years ago. Rebecca Priestley also contributes a regular Science column to the New Zealand Listener.
In Dispatches from Continent Seven, Priestley has compiled an expansive (400-plus page) anthology of scientific writings about Antarctica by explorers, sojourners, geologists, biologists, astronomers and others. The 48 selections cover nearly 250 years. They begin in 1773 with James Cook writing about his journey into the Antarctic Circle, and end in 2015 with the American research biologist Kathryn Smith verifying global warming in the form of invasive and predatory crabs, from warmer climes, that have now moved in on the Antarctic shelf and threaten indigenous species.
Gregory O’Brien’s jaunty opening poem “The Frozen Pages” is dedicated to Rebecca Priestley and tells at length an amusing anecdote which serves as a conceit to link Antarctic exploration with literature. In her Introduction, Rebecca Priestley explains how she has made her selection of texts, and the quality of being good literature comes into it:
I made many lists – of scientists whose writings I wanted to include, of key events and discoveries, of iconic species and landscape features – but in the end my selection came down to one thing: Was it a good story?” (Introduction, p.xxvii).
Some pieces were commissioned. All were by scientists, or by those (like some of the early explorers) who first brought back reports on scientific matters. Many sources were consulted. One was Veronika Meduna’s Scienceon Ice [reviewed on this blog in 2012].
The selections that make up Dispatches from Continent Seven are divided into four sections.
The first part is “Unknown Land”, giving extracts from the writings of those who first approached the Antarctic continent – from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries – but did not get beyond its coastal fringes.
It presents a familiar cast of characters:
James Cook observes “snow and sleet, which froze to the rigging as it fell, making the ropes like wires, and the sails like boards or plates of metal” (p.6) and many “ice-mountains” before his conclusion that there is a continent somewhere beyond the ice barrier. The Russian Bellingshausen in 1820 is the first to verify the existence of a southern continent beyond the ice and is apparently the first to discuss the merits of eating penguins. In 1840 Dumont D’Urville names Adelie Land after his wife, claims the land for France, and toasts this discovery with a bottle of the finest Bordeaux. But he also takes geological samples back to the best Parisian geologists, which justifies his work as true science. (A really scientific explorer was the great Dumont D’Urville – see my review of Edward Duyker’s excellent and capacious biography of him in Landfall #229). At about the same time the American Charles Wilkes, intrigued by the icebergs and the great ice barrier, is the first to speculate on how much the dirt and rocks embedded in icebergs can tell of the solid land from which they have been wrenched. Then in 1841, James Clark Ross, with his ships Erebus and Terror, sails close to the two volcanoes (one active, one dormant), which he names after his ships. One of the delights of his account is the absolutely matter-of-fact way he describes (p.41) what must have been an awesome sight to his crew – Mount Erebus in eruption.
Part Two, “The First Antarctans”, takes us into the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration, from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s. This was at first the imperialistic age in which men strove to “conquer” the pole for the honour of their nation, or to beat the “furthest south” of earlier expeditions. But there was an increasing amount of science involved in such voyages of discovery, and an increasing determination to set up stations, on the ice or on cold rock, as bases from which lengthy scientific observation could be made. So there are more “Antarticans” – people who actually sojourned on the frozen continent as opposed to largely observing its ice and coasts from the decks of ships.
Let me confess that it was from this section that I found the most readable (and poetic) prose. Consider Frederick Cook (the American who was later widely belittled for his claim to have reached the North Pole first) describing in 1898 the aurora australis:
The aurora, as the blue twilight announced the dawn, had settled into an arc of steady brilliancy which hung low on the southern sky, while directly under the zenith there quivered a few streamers; overhead was the southern cross, and all around the blue dome there were sparkling spots which stood out like huge gems. Along the horizon from south to east there was the glow of the sun, probably reflected from the unknown southern lands. There was a band of ochre tapering to gold and ending in orange red….” (p.50)
Leopold McLintock sounds something like a textbook as he explains the proper way to use sledges in frozen terrain. But Edward Wilson, part of Robert Falcon Scott’s earlier (1901-04) “Discovery” expedition, opens our eyes to an alien world in which explorers play the harmonium and sing hymns and carols lustily to celebrate Christmas Day far from home and observe all the civilised niceties (although Wilson’s own obsession is birds, so his extract gives detailed observations on nesting penguins).
In this “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration, the most wonderful oddity is the extract concerning a German scientific expedition in 1903 in which one Professor (of Geography) Erich von Drygalski of Berlin ascended to 500 metres in a tethered balloon over a frozen ice shelf, measuring air pressure and humidity and presumably becoming the first person to see part of Antarctica from the air. By the time we get to the extract concerning a Swedish expedition of 1902, we are fully into the scientific age. Professor Otto Nordenskjold and his team from Uppsala University were the first to start a systematic search for Antarctic fossils and evidence that eons ago the continent was verdant and forested land. Says Nordenskjold:
The collections of fossils we have brought home will be the thread which will gradually lead to discoveries enabling us to form a picture of the chief feature of the Antarctic regions, from the Jurassic period to our own times. And it must be remembered that it is a continent which has thus been opened to scientific investigation and a continent which, during the period of the Earth’s development just named, was not an icy waste but a land with luxuriant vegetation and extensive coasts, where maybe many types of animals and plants were first developed that afterwards found their way as far as to northern lands.” (p.89)
Meanwhile, a member of Nordenskjold’s expedition tells us of the joys of eating penguin eggs and skinning and frying seals’ meat.
The absolute frustration of some early modern science is reflected in the account of Professor Edgeworth David (in Shackleton’s 1907-09 “Nimrod” expedition) of trying to pinpoint the location of the south magnetic pole using a device called a “dip circle”, and often being foiled by contradictory readings. From the same expedition, the biologist James Murray, armed with his microscope, discusses his examination of “extremophiles” – tiny creatures capable of surviving in extreme conditions. And then there is Apsley Cherry-Garrard (in one of Scott’s expeditions) giving an account of a tortuous, hazardous journey to find fresh emperor penguin eggs for scientific study. (The book from which Cherry-Garrard’s account is extracted is one of the few real literary classics of Antarctic exploration, The Worst Journey in the World.)
There is a mildly humorous side to early zoological investigations in the Antarctic. George Murray Levick’s 1912 account of the rough mating and copulating habits of Adelie penguins was, we are told, considered so indelicate and explicit that it was hidden from view for many years lest it offend delicate sensibilities. Hardly surprising given that it tells of randy male Adelie penguins quivering and masturbating when unable to find female mates, bonking immature chicks (and killing them in the process) and turning momentarily homosexual and bonking each other when all the females are unavailable.
Much more is packed into this “early scientific” period, climaxing in Admiral Byrd (in the early 1930s) spending five months alone in an ice-bound hut signalling to the world in inexpert Morse code. Only at the very end of this section is the first New Zealander introduced into the book, with an extract by the zoologist Graham Turbott who, in 1952, undertook a study of the types of seal that are truly indigenous to the Antarctic. (His photograph of the teeth of the crab-eater seal is one of the highlights of this book – surely the most strangely-shaped teeth that a mammal ever had.)
Part Three, Titled “A Continent for Science”, takes us from the International Geophysical Year, in 1957-58, to the present. In the International Geophysical Year the Antarctic was declared “a continent for science”, military activities were banned, and numerous nations began to set up permanent bases. For the first time, women scientists were part of the story. It is notable that the fifteen readings Rebecca Priestley chooses for this recent history are more exclusively focused on the science – though not without anecdote and good humour.
The expedition into the Dry Valleys by Colin Bull and his team (originally based at Victoria University of Wellington) yields up the most haunting photograph of this volume, the shot of biologist Dick Barwick photographing a mummified crab-eater seal, which has strayed into the valleys. The text by Colin Bull is a jocular and cheerful diary-like account of the expedition. There follow studies by various hands of the Weddell Sea penguins; of the survival of tiny krill (essential for the survival of blue whales); of hunting for fish fossils in the Antarctic mountains; of examining the turbidity of water in the lakes of the Dry Valleys; of the “katabatic” winds that batter parts of the continent; of the inside of emperor penguin eggs; of the verification of the existence of huge mountain ranges – taller than the European Alps and formed millions of years ago - now buried beneath kilometres of solid ice; of making a scientific dive beneath a frozen lake; and of physicists at McMurdo Sound investigating high-energy neutrinos and cosmic rays.
I emphasise that none of these selections is written in academic prose although, occasionally and inevitably, a little scientific jargon comes into them. All are written in the first person and basically describe or celebrate the personal experience of each scientist involved. The tone is usually that of a person revelling the worth of the work being done and making good-natured comments on the extreme difficulties that the inhospitable environment often imposes.
The fourth and final part of this anthology is titled “Global Barometer” and most – but not all – of its ten selections are related to the topic of global warming (anthropogenic or otherwise) as reflected in the scientific laboratory that is the Antarctic. As Rebecca Priestley notes in her introduction to this section:
The atmospheric CO2 that’s warming our atmosphere and oceans in affecting ocean chemistry too. Ocean acidification, often called ‘the other CO2 problem’, is creating increasingly inhospitable conditions for many Antarctic marine species. At the same time the warmer temperatures – in sea and on land – are inviting to new species, such as the kings crabs that are marching towards the Antarctic along the ocean floor, or the grass seed and insects arriving as stowaways with unwitting Antarctic scientists and tourists. Antarctica has becomes a global barometer for change, and much of the research there is now focused on understanding the extent of this change and what it might mean for the future. Sediment and ice-core drilling projects are helping scientists learn more about past climates and the changing extents of the major Antarctic ice sheets over time as predictors of possible futures for us in a warming world.” (pp.304-305)
The very nature of Dispatches from Continent Seven as an anthology has tempted me – not for the first time on this blog – to adopt a dry bibliographic approach and simply to list for you the book’s contents. I hope I have made it clear that nearly all the selections meet Rebecca Priestley’s criterion of “telling a good story”.  This is an excellently browsable bedside book, and I am abashed only that I do not have the space to expound on its many photographic illustrations and on the poems that occasionally appear en route, most of them providing commentary on prose selections Priestley has made. 

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