Wednesday, July 31, 2013

22: Where snowman has gone before

Between about 1900 and 1916, we had what's known as the golden age of polar exploration, when adventurous types from assorted leading nations developed an urge to go off to the farthest and coldest points on the Earth and freeze themselves solid for years at a time.
Sometimes they had a consignment of scientists with them, which helped give those enterprises an edge of genuine worth-while-ness, but the thing that fired up the public, the funding governments, private backers and, on the whole, the explorers themselves, was the kudos of being able to say they'd gone as far away as it's possible to go and gone there first.  
Concerning the South Pole, three names loom large in these tales: Amundsen, who got there first, Scott, who got there a narrow second and died on the way back, and Shackleton, who never got there at all. There's an edge of bitterness connected to all three.
Amundsen's ambition was always to be first man at the North Pole, and he borrowed a ship on the understanding that he was going that way, but in the meantime Robert Peary made the claim that he'd reached it, so Amundsen boldly headed south with the goal of taking the other pole instead.
Scott, however, was already down there with an expedition, and it was generally considered - by the British at least - that it was only right and proper for the British to get there first.
There was some justification for this. The British had been mapping and exploring the Antarctic for about ten years by this time, and had already made a couple of game attempts at the pole. Most of what was known about that side of the continent - the lie of the land, the climate, the wildlife and geology - came from British expeditions. It seemed unfair for foreign interlopers to suddenly turn up and take advantage of groundwork laid down by others. (They did have the courtesy to land a couple of hundred miles along the ice shelf and navigate a new route, however.)
Amundsen had the advantage of having lived among Eskimos and knew a lot about how to get around and survive on the ice. Scott was an old school British naval officer who would never dream of doing such a thing. Consequently, while Scott was pottering about trying to persuade primitive tractors and mangy Siberian ponies to haul his sledges as well as rather disagreeable dogs, Amundsen only had dogs and knew how to use them to best effect (before shooting them and feeding them to each other, incidentally - something Scott balked at). In addition, Scott felt he was there to do scientific work, which possibly held him up a little.
The net result of all this was that Amundsen got there first and got home safely. Scott, thanks to a combination of  poor decisions, once-in-a-lifetime bad weather and and mile after mile of a gritty ice surface that they had to drag their sledges over inch by painful inch, died along with his team just 11 miles short of a vital supply cache. Fortunately his tent was found, along with all his team's notebook including Dr Edward Wilson's meteorological and geological observations, which along with the expedition's other research, was still proving its value over half a century later.
Amundsen got the glory, but his expedition didn't add an atom to mankind's store of knowledge.
On the other hand, if Scott had known just one thing that Amundsen had learnt from the Eskimos, - that if you spit on the runners of a sledge and let it freeze, it will pull smoothly over a surface of coarse ice instead of sticking and dragging, things might have turned out differently.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

22. Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci, who lived around 1500-something, is remembered for two things - scribbling down a lot of very clever ideas in a notebook in back-to-front writing, and for painting the Mona Lisa, the most famous portrait ever, with its enigmatic smile... personally I think she looks a little smug.
The clever ideas: Along with other things, his notebooks contain sketched ideas for how to build helicopters, gliders, and (just to show he was thinking ahead) parachutes. Although somewhat underdeveloped - the helicopter sketch shows a big helical propeller being pushed round in circles by four big chunky blokes - a tough way to get it up to the required speed - the principles are sound. But none of these ideas get beyond a first draft. If he'd built the helicopter he might have deduced that air is too thin for a man-powered helix to act upon effectively, but that it would have a fighting chance in water if you had some sort of gearing system in place. He might then have gone on to invent some sort of pedalo, in which case he could have set up a franchise operation all down the Italian Riviera, but there's no record of him doing any such thing. (Actually I'm guessing there but I think it's a safe bet.)
So it seems to me that, genius though he was, he just wasn't a completer-finisher.
Clearly he kept getting distracted by something. Perhaps that's what that cheeky smile is all about.
Maybe if he'd had a shed....

Monday, July 29, 2013

21. World War One

I've decided to dispense with chronological order from now on and just write whatever comes to mind. It's my blog, I'm allowed to do that.

So - First World War.  The name refers to the fact that it was the first of a series of world wars, not a war that only concerned the First World, as in 'First World problems'. If that's what you understood it to mean, you probably think it was a lot less serious than it actually was. Even so the name is a bit deceiving - the geographical area most associated with the First World War was about a hundred miles long, a hundred yards wide, and (with tragic symbolism) six feet deep.

It's often been said - probably - that there would be fewer wars if those who went round starting them were made to fight them themselves, instead of recruiting legions of less fortunate and less empowered individuals to do it for them. Though kings had to go off and fight in the old days and things were just as bloody then, so perhaps that's just a hollow platitude. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine a well-groomed general with a waxed moustache and a cultivated taste in sherry sticking it out for long in a cold muddy trench, rats scampering between his feet and bullets whizzing over his head, for much more than a week, without thinking 'why are we doing this again?'
It's well documented that those who were stuck with the job would have been quite happy to settle the whole thing over a game of football, even on a freezing cold day in December. Letting people run the show when they don't have to participate is a bit like gambling with someone else's money. These days the losing generals would probably get million pound bonuses.
Perhaps that's unfair to the generals, who after all were under the orders of their respective governments, who in turn were honour-bound to side with each other on account of treaties written up in another age, when wars between European nations meant a fairly swift series of colourful cavalry charges and a lot of stirring tales to inspire the kiddies with in later years. Nobody expected the long-drawn-out misery and factory-like slaughter that they got... which just goes to show how careful you need to be about starting things that might turn out to be hard to finish.