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In Race To South Pole, Scott Lost ... Or Did He?

Jul 2, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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The early 20th century was the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Teams of explorers from multiple countries were fighting to be the first to reach the South Pole.

The man who would ultimately get there first — in December 1911 — was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. He went with a small team and a pack of sled dogs. At the time it was seen as humiliating defeat for Britain and its team led by Robert Falcon Scott.

Britain's Royal Geographic Society reluctantly invited Amundsen to London to address a gathering in late 1912 in what was supposed to be a ceremony honoring his achievement.

The head of the society, Lord Curzon, presided over the event. In his new book An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science, Edward Larson gives this account of what happened:

"In his closing remarks following the banquet, Curzon added, 'I almost wish that in our tribute of admiration, we could include those wonderful, good-tempered fascinating dogs, the true friends of man without whom Capt. Amundsen would never have got to the Pole. Then, as Amundsen remembered it, Curzon turned toward the Norwegians and added the phrase, 'I therefore propose three cheers for the dogs.'"

Amundsen never forgot the slight, but history vindicated him: It was Scott who was eventually regarded as a failure.

Forever Changing Science

In his book, Larson argues to the contrary — that Scott was the real hero because of the scientific work he did along the way.

"Scott's entire expedition was part of a large scientific enterprise. He had teams fanning out throughout the Ross Sea area of the Antarctic, while Amundsen simply achieved getting to the Pole, which is a human achievement," Larson tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Scott's work forever changed science, Larson says; along with explorer Ernest Shackleton, Scott discovered the concept of global ecology.

"They discovered global warming," he says. "They discovered that Antarctica was indeed a continent at one time and that it had been warmer with warm plants and animal life in the past."

The team also made smaller discoveries, for instance, that the Emperor Penguin bred during winter, in the coldest environment of any bird species. Team members almost died conducting the research.

"Part of the group that went with Scott to the Pole led by Edward Wilson ... made this remarkable effort in the coldest temperatures that had ever been recorded," Larson says, "to go in the middle of winter, which means total darkness ... to collect eggs so that they could study the embryos of those eggs to determine their evolutionary history."

Re-Examining A Hero

Scott's team did eventually reach the South Pole, but it was 35 days after Amundsen's team had arrived. Scott's team turned around, but they didn't make it back.

When their bodies were discovered eight months later, much of their research was preserved, including the "holy grail" of fossils: the Glossopteris. The Glossopteris was a type of fern that helped bolster Darwin's theory of evolution, which was at the time under attack.

Larson says the fossils showed that the southern land mass had at one point been connected, "and that this particular type of ancient fossil had evolved first in Antarctica and then spread out. As the world got colder, it had moved north into South America, Australia and Africa."

Scott was at first considered a hero, but ultimately remembered almost as a failed leader, as someone who wasn't able to manage his expedition and lost the race to the South Pole.

"But what's beginning to happen now with some other books and this one is to show that as long as you're focusing on just getting to the Pole, well of course, Scott failed," Larson says. "But if you look at the broader, in context, of what he was trying to accomplish, and you see the type of scientific expedition that he mounted, it was really a remarkable effort, far beyond anything that Amundsen even attempted."

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An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science
By Edward Larson
Hardcover, 326 pages
Yale University Press
List Price: $28
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