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Originally published Saturday, July 9, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Book review

'Empire of Ice': The scientific quests of the Antarctic explorers

In "Empire of Ice," Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Edward J. Larson looks at how dedication to science powered many of the Antarctic's most daring expeditions.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science'

by Edward J. Larson

Yale University Press, 326 pp., $28

Leaving in the pitch black of the Antarctic winter of 1911, Edward Wilson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Birdie Bowers set out to find penguins. They were part of Robert Falcon Scott's second Antarctic expedition. To reach the birds, they man-hauled two sledges carrying 750 pounds, which often led to them having to relay the overweight sledges, so that for each mile advanced, they walked three. Moonlight provided a little light, but still they dropped into unseen crevasses and bumped into ice hummocks. And it was rather chilly, with temperatures dropping to minus-75.8 degrees F.

When they arrived at the penguin colony, the men built a stone hut, covered by a canvas tent. They were able to collect a few birds and eggs before a blizzard hit. Trapped for days, Cherry-Garrard wrote that the wind "sounded like the rush of an express train through a tunnel." Everything was frozen, and when the wind took the tent, the men had to cower in their exposed bags.

Their return trip to their base was even worse. Having had little success at the penguin colony, they had to man-haul 16 hours a day in mostly darkness, and Cherry-Garrard's jaw chattered so violently he shattered all of his teeth.

This "worst journey in the world," as it came to be called, was not the only time Wilson had risked his life to observe Antarctic penguins. He had studied the birds on Scott's previous expedition. But all of the hardships were worth it because "they did it for science," writes Edward J. Larson, in his new book, "An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science."

Writing about Scott's and Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expeditions is a cottage industry. New books analyzing everything from the men's leadership abilities to how and why their reputations have changed appear regularly.

To his credit, Pulitzer Prize-winner Larson offers a new take by looking at how science drove many of the expeditions. As he did in previous books such as "Summer for the Gods" and "Evolution's Workshop," Larson combines careful reading of the primary documents, a thorough knowledge of the players, and first-rate writing to produce a compelling book. That having been said, this book's main appeal will be to those already familiar with the expeditions and those interested in the history of science.

My only complaint is the maps. I appreciate that Larson used historic maps from the expeditions, but they are very hard to read and often filled with too much surplus data. The photographs, however, are a nice addition.

The men took their research seriously, often making incredible sacrifices in the name of science, whether it be meteorology, biology or geology. They did so in part because they were British and felt that as citizens of the leading nation of the world, it was their responsibility to be the first to penetrate the unknown realms, to study them, and to write lengthy descriptions of what had been found.

Larson effectively argues that although some may look derisively back at Scott and Shackleton as relics of the Edwardian age, their scientific work should be considered as "modern and forward-looking enterprises." After all, Antarctica has become "fundamentally a place of science," and these expeditions led the way.

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