What Did You Do On Your Summer Vacation?
Reading the new book “Krakatoa” by Simon Winchester, is proving to be a joy. The publicity on the book promised a comprehensive telling of the events surrounding the Krakatoa eruption on August 27, 1883 (still the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history). And that topic is fascinating enough on its own. But as a bonus, a particularly interesting story line in the history of science is presented, in all its unrestrained, lurching, and unpredictable glory.
Understanding how the Krakatoa explosion happened depends on understanding plate tectonics, the theory of which resulted from observations made independently in the fields of biology, geology, paleontology, cartography, and meteorology. These many paths traveled over the last 150 years in order to reach the graceful, grand conclusion are concisely and fascinatingly told by Winchester.
The key scientific discoveries occurred in the Victorian era, when men from the Western world (primarily the British Isles) studied at the great universities, then scattered across the globe making observations, conducting experiments, collecting samples, all the while suffering hardships, risking their reputations and fortunes, and quite often their lives. All for nothing more than the pursuit of knowledge.
The ultimate benefit these men hoped for was traveling through London on a cold winter’s night, standing in front of their colleagues at the lecture room of the Linnean Society’s headquarters in Piccadilly Circus, delivering a paper with a name like “On the General Geographical Distribution of the Members of the Class Aves, With A Particular Interest in the Islands Around New Guinea,” and receiving ..... approval.
No wider fame and certainly no great fortune was realized or expected. All they desired was to reveal the truth and thus gain the the approval of this small, often jealous group of fellow scientists. And even if you had the advantage in being right in your thesis, approval was not guaranteed.
German explorer and meteorologist Alfred Wegener first proposed the now accepted theory of continental drift in 1915. To which the majority of his colleagues responded with comments like, “Anyone who valued his reputation for scientific sanity would never dare support such a theory” and “Utter damn rot!”
Wegener’s approval wouldn’t occur until long after his death, proof of his theories wasn’t achieved until the mid-1960s. However, shed no tears for Wegener. Yes, being recognized as a genius in your own time does have its advantages (ask the Atmoizer for how that feels). But the mere pursuit of truth in the physical sciences also provides its own rewards, including travel to exotic locations and physical adventure.
As an example, take Simon Winchester, the author of "Krakatoa," who in 1965, during a summer break at Oxford, participated in gathering what is considered conclusive proof of continental drift. After seeing an ad on a bulletin board, he volunteered to serve with an expedition traveling to an unexplored part of east Greenland. Despite having no relevant experience or training, he was accepted.
The team was sent to take basalt rock samples, which contained small crystals of iron-oxide compounds. When these basalt rocks were in their molten, plastic phase (30 million years ago), the iron oxide crystals acted as small compasses, perfectly aligning themselves with the magnetic poles of the Earth. Once the rock solidified, these micro-compasses were frozen in place.
Fast forward 30 million years, a team of Englishmen arrive, drill into the ground, drag rock samples into the light and show that these magnetites are indeed not pointing at the magnetic poles. And there you have it - conclusive evidence of continental drift.
Scientific conclusions like that are exciting stuff. But not half as exciting as the process of getting there. Read Winchester’s account below and think about how you probably spent the summer between your junior and senior years in college engaged in antics more suitable for a Girls Gone Wild video.
.....our little red ship began bucking and cracking her hull through the thick and wind-scoured pack ice. From then on, as we went higher and higher above the Arctic Circle, every subsequent moment, every experience, became vivid, intense, unforgettable. We landed on a remote beach on the iron-bound coast of the immense, mysterious island. We climbed, in brilliant sunshine, the ice wall and then the crevassed length of a fast-moving, mile-wide glacier. We spent weeks camping high on the ice cap. We rappelled down sheer walls of black basalt. We skied scores of miles over snow none had ever been before.
We learned to speak the Danish-Inuit linguistic blend called Greenlandic. We grew beards, we grew strong, we became bronzed by the perpetual midnight sun. And when the season was ending, and the dark and the cold crept in, we would thaw our boots out each morning over the Primus stove and watch as our hot washing water, when we tossed it into the air, fell back as a mist of perfect snowflakes.
What happened in that glorious high Arctic summer still remains paramount as the purest of adventures, the dream of every schoolboy everywhere. Despite my having subsequently lived a life of fairly unremitting world wandering ... that two-month expedition to [Greenland] has never once been matched.