Science Talk

Dying for Science: The 100th Anniversary of the Doomed Scott Antarctic Expedition

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Larson talks about his article "Greater Glory" in the June issue of Scientific American on the forgotten science of the doomed Scott expedition a hundred years ago

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Larson talks about his article "Greater Glory" in the June issue of Scientific American on the forgotten science of the doomed Scott expedition a hundred years ago. Web sites related to this episode include Greater Glory and Edward Larson's page on

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on May 26th, 2011. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast:

Larson:          When they dump everything and are sort of racing back to get to the final depot, they haul those 35 pounds of fossils all the way to when they die.

Steve:          That's Edward Larson. He's a professor of history and law at Pepperdine University and a prolific writer. Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. His latest work is Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science, and he has an article called "Greater Glory" in the June issue of Scientific American on the little-known scientific expedition aspect of the race to the South Pole between Scott and Roald Amundsen. On May 23rd Larson was in New York City to lecture at the Explorer's Club; we got together just before his talk. At the conclusion of the interview, I will tell you how to access his Scientific American article on the Web at no charge for a limited time.

Steve:          Well, the story has everything in it. It's got adventure, it's got, unfortunately, tragedy, it has this, kind of, incipient understanding of plate tectonics, that's implied, it has evolutionary theory. How did you wind up getting interested in this story?

Larson:          I got interested in this story because of the science part. Of course, I love adventure like everyone else, and the trip to the South Pole, being of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry myself, of course Amundsen always has been a hero of mine; Scott is a fascinating man. So I always liked the story just for the adventure. But as a historian of science, what really drew me to write a article and to write more, a book on it, is because of the science. Because that's what people haven't understood. The story is so good because of the tragedy. The race to the pole is so exciting. That is what most of the historians and most of the popularizers focus on. And what they leave behind is this incredible rich array of scientific research of what Scott's team was doing and Shackleton's team were doing before him, and this is where the evolution comes in and the new theories of geology, new research on geology, a re-understanding of climate and how the Antarctica is at the centre of a global system. Really those early scientific expeditions, which we remember as a race to the pole, really that's where ecology was invented in many ways, because they realized that the world was a global system in many ways based on the Antarctic, and they found evidence of the climate change that we are now experiencing; that's what got me so interested in the story. The legend is great, the adventure is great, but what really is of lasting significance is the science, and I wanted to add that to the story.

Steve:          When I am old enough where when I was a kid, Scott was still, you know, had this fame still attached to his name and this heroism and again the tragic aspect because he does not live through the mission. But I doubt kids today hear much about Amundsen and Scott.

Larson:          We don't hear about them as much in the United States. Of course still in England and in Europe, especially in England, Scott is very well known and in Scandinavia, Amundsen is very well known. People do generally know a little bit about the South Pole, and they know a little bit about the story, because it has lived on. But interestingly, when if you're old enough, you do remember Scott as a hero because that was the legend that was created out of England, because they wanted heroes. But by the later part of the 20th century especially after a book called Scott and Amundsen went back and looked it over again, they began then to view Scott that he was a bungler, that he had insisted in man hauling, pulling the sledges himself, while the Norwegian sailed down there with dogs, had an easy trip down and back, very efficient and very well run. Shackleton, who was a rival in the entire enterprise, his star rose; he became synonymous with leadership. It's partly from his later expedition where his ship went down and he had the magnificent voyage back, captured in Endurance, and his own book, South.

Steve:          And the movie with Kenneth Branagh; he really had it going about 10 years ago.

Larson:          Amazing stuff. And so in a way, Shackleton and to a lesser extent Amundsen eclipsed Scott's star mostly, and Scott had been reduced to the level of being a bit of a bungler. You can capture it in a way, that one time there were four pictures of Scott in the National Portrait gallery in England, which is sort of their pantheon of heroes—they're all gone. Shackleton is still up but Scott has gone. Well what allowed that to happen was leaving the role of science out.

Steve:          Right. The Norwegians, they just wanted to get to the South Pole, so they could travel light. But Scott had this scientific enterprise in mind also, so that necessitated all the other stuff they were carrying.

Larson:          He had a huge team; he had 33 people down there. They were off on a variety of other expeditions. Many of their best men were involved in doing other things: trying to hunt for fossils, studying glaciers and glacial movements, studying climate, studying penguins.

Steve:          That's another amazing thing about the article. They already were thinking about something that's still controversial in some circles today—it's pretty much been decided—that is that birds evolved from reptiles. Again that was something that was not accepted until fairly recently, but there were people on that expedition looking for evidence for that connection.

Larson:          The idea was out there. Biologists had suggested maybe birds came from reptiles. T. H. Huxley had suggested that in the late 1800s. One of the main goals of the expedition, one of the reasons why it was funded by the British government and backed by the Royal Society, was to look for just that evidence. Because they thought back then that penguins were the oldest form of most ancient species of birds. And penguins were very little known, certainly the emperor penguin was literally unknown before Scott's first expedition, and they wanted to go down there and study penguins, study the penguin lifestyle, study the penguin life cycle, and try to see if there was evidence in these penguins of a connection to reptiles—basically that they might have been a living fossils as it were. So they were looking into those questions, which was right on the cutting edge of science. It wasn't just, they weren't just collecting a few specimens on the side. They were actually trying to conduct scientific research. And this, even though Scott himself wanted to get to the pole and Scott himself was a leader—he wasn't a scientist himself—he became interested in the science. He had teams that he had to provision and he had to send out, and many of the men that were on his expedition to the pole, the group that went all the way to the pole, many of them had already been taxed by earlier trips before they were going to the pole to go out and study penguins or to go study glaciers or do other work. One of them, Wilson, was the scientific chief and zoologist. In contrast with Amundsen, there were nine of them down there, every one of them was focused 100 percent on getting the team to the pole. They were focused—that's one of the strengths of focus. If you want to study leadership there's many lessons you can learn from Amundsen: He had a goal, he knew how to get there, and he had a brilliant trip down, a brilliant trip back. He gained weight on the trip.

Steve:          That was an amazing part of the story. These guys are running around on Antarctica, it's 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and this guy actually gains weight.

Larson:          Well, they had too much food. They left food at these depots, and they weren't eating, they couldn't use it all, they were so well supplied, so well planned. In contrast of course, Scott starves, he runs out of food on the way back. So, certainly Scott made some mistakes, but he was doing a variety of things. And in so many ways his expedition, and before that Shackleton's first expedition and before that Scott's first, they were very similar to modern scientific enterprises. And they really created a longer legacy, because somebody would have gotten to the pole some day anyway. It's a great accomplishment, it's a great feat, but it doesn't have lasting significance. Whereas the science that was done by these early expeditions, they laid the foundations for the research that's still going on today, and that's, of course, what most people are doing in Antarctica now is scientific research.

Steve:          Tell the story of the search for this particular plant fossil, because what I found really fascinating about it was, it was in part an effort to debunk a creationist notion, but it also assumes that the continents had to have been together at one point.

Larson:          That's one of the interesting stories that come out. Again there are many bits of science, just like when we send a spacecraft to Mars or to the Moon or just to go into orbit, we try to pack a lot of different scientific experiments on that same one so that all added together they can justify the expense. Well the British were doing the same thing. And among those things that they were looking for, they were looking for better studies of glaciers, they were looking for climate, they were looking for oceanography, they were looking in a lot of different areas; they were looking at of course penguins and possible connections with reptiles and links, birds with reptiles. But one of the added things and this was partly because T. H. Huxley and then Joseph Hooker were involved. Now, Joseph Hooker was head of the Kew Gardens and a very close friend of Charles Darwin—the last survivor of his inner circle as it were—and in the 1870s one of the arguments used against Darwin's theory while Darwin was still alive was the fossil record shows that there was a particular sort of broad-leafed flora, a broad-leafed fern-like plant that was discovered in the fossil record of Africa, South America and Australia. Now, it appeared to be about of the same age and so creationists would say this is evidence of a progressive creation, that God created these things. Because there was no way for this particular plant to get to those three different places, these three different areas in the southern hemisphere and to be about the same, that would have evolved if there had been evolution or it would have had to start somewhere and a simpler form had to be discovered. So what Darwinism is,  the evidence for evolution is what's called hypo-deductive, that is you come up with a hypothesis and then you go down and see if it works. That's evidence for evolution. Darwin said, there must be a continent down in the South Pole. Now at that time no one knew, before these expeditions no one even knew there was a continent down there; they knew there were some islands but they thought it could be, just as easily be, like the North Pole where there are few islands like Baffin Island and Greenland but then there it's open ocean. They had no evidence that there was a continent. Darwin said that there must be a continent which was once warmer—so not only did he hypothesize there was a continent —but that was once warmer and this type of flora had evolved there and spread from there over land bridges or some sort of connections to the southern continents. So that was his hypothesis, and Huxley remembered that and Hooker remembered that. And so when the effort began building to send an expedition to the Antarctic continent, to actually winter there, they got on the board and they pushed hard; and Huxley died before it happened, but Hooker remained alive and was on the planning committee. And he pushed that one of the main goals was to try to find this flora. That would mean proving that there was a continent down there that was once warm enough to evolve a different form of plant life. And so Scott's first expedition went down, the so called Discovery expedition in 1901, and they found that there was a continent down there and they found rocks that looked like they suggested there might have once been plant life but no distinct fossils. Well, Shackleton goes next. He had been on the first one but he took his own expedition in 1906, and he took better scientists and better geologists, and they discovered plant fossils in coal seams, beds of coal in Antarctica. So not only did they establish it was a continent but that it was once warm enough to harbor enough life to have produced whole beds of coal and a lot of distinct fossils. So they have gone a long way but they still didn't find this particular type. And so what happened was, when Scott went back down they were specially looking for this, because that would basically strike down one of the creationists' arguments. And so they were looking for this. And various teams were out, he had many teams out doing research, and they found a vast array of fossils, fossilized trees, but they still didn't find this particular one. What's so amazing and fitting, touching in a way, is on that death march back from the pole, when they were running out of food, running out of fuel, when it was dicey whether they would even make it back—of course with them was Edward Wilson who was their science chief and a biologist—on the one place on the whole trip back that's not totally covered with ice, they come down Beardmore Glacier and there are some cliffs that stick out; there are some mountains when they were coming down Beardmore Glacier but half way back there were some exposed cliffs. And he spotted what looked like very suggestive fossils. So they went somewhat out of their way and they geologized for a day—remember they were dying, they have scurvy, they're injured, one of them is going to die just a couple of days later, they're short on food—but they spend a day geologizing and they find this particular fossil. The first time they found this particular type of fern, they bring it back, when they dump everything and are sort of racing back to get to the final depot, which they don't make, Wilson insisted they kick those fossils with them, 35 pounds, so they hauled those 35 pounds of fossils all the way to when they die. And so when the party comes the next year, the search party to find their remains, they find with them the tent and the three men in there, they find the sledge with the fossil remains, which include this long-sought plant. So it's an amazing story that pulls it all together.

Steve:          Do you draw parallels in the book by any chance to the space program? the two kinds of efforts seem to have a lot of parallels?

Larson:          There are some in the preface, in the beginning materials, the comparisons with how they're similar, in the sense that they both had a goal. I mean what did we really want to do in the space program? Well, we wanted to get to the moon, and John Kennedy set us that goal, and that was a national prestige. And for Britain that was similar; they wanted to get to the South Pole, they wanted to get there first. But just like our space program did science along the way; at every step it was doing science, it was collecting rocks, it was studying, scientists were preparing challenges for them and puzzles for them; that was the same way that the British went about this. The government funded the expeditions and it supported it, so did the scientific organizations like the Royal Society and the Royal Geographic Society, and they gave it a scientific agenda. So in that way there are the definite parallels, and it was similar to the importance for the British morale and British spirit. Of course the one difference, which makes it a little problematic, is the fact that, what if the Russians had just barely beat us without doing science? And that is, sort of, what happened to the Brits. So there was quite a bit of animosity and anger in England, even though in United States and the continent of Europe there was tremendous admiration for what Amundsen had done. In Britain there was a tremendous sense of he had not gone about it fairly in the proper British way. Of course they didn't know Scott had died for another year; Amundsen had come back and they thought Scott was still down there doing science. And so all the papers and newspapers and magazines were writing, "Well, he may not have gotten there first, but he did it right, he is going to come back with all this incredible science." Scott wrote touching letters to his family, to his wife, to the British people, while he was dying in the tent; and they were so well written—Scott was a beautiful writer. And World War I was coming, the Great War, and for the British government and the British people and British leadership, it became more important to play up that heroic death, that sacrifice for the country, because that's what so many were going to do. And so the science was dropped out of the story for 80 years. And it was certainly dropped out during the Great War and instead they talked about, look at Scott dying’ and there were a lot of comparisons made then to the many Brits who were shot in no-man's land and left to die in between the lines. And they would use Scott as an example: Think how heroically Scott died those last eight days in that blizzard. And that became the story, and so when the futility of World War I set in, that this was a meaningless war and meaningless carnage; when that finally set in—which really didn't fully set in until the 1950s or '60s but began setting in earlier—Scott, since he was so tied with that, he was seen, well his was just as much folly, his was just as much foolishness. Well if you take science out, it was like World War I: courageous but maybe misguided. But if you add the science to it, then you got a modern story that resonates in the 21st century.

Steve:          And we should point out this the 100th anniversary, and what made me think about the space program connection, in addition to the obvious parallels about going places that are exceptionally dangerous, hostile and no one has ever been; this is one of—as I said, I am old enough so that when I was a kid we still heard about Scott, and I realized it's not exactly the same amount of time by any means, but it's getting close to from when I was a kid back to 1911, to now in comparison to the space program. So it's kind of mind boggling when you look at it that way, to me anyway that, you know, you jump 50 years in one direction and you go from Scott to practically the moon; and you go another 40 years, and here we are today wondering what we're going to do next because we don't even have a space, a particular vehicle at the moment.

Larson:          It does force one to think about how far we've come that 100 years ago—you're right, it was 100 years ago in December 1911 that Amundsen reached the South Pole—so that means 100 years ago today, we still had not reached the South Pole; and it was only 101 years ago we reached the North Pole. To think that is so recent—of course, we later found out that they didn't even make it to the North Pole on that one but that's beside the point. The point is, that is so recent that there were places on Earth we hadn't reached and that then in the next 100 years we reached to the moon, and we're making all this progress in space. Personally I wish we would get back into space exploration because I, like you, grew up in that period, and to me people like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong were real heroes.

Steve:          John Glenn was a god in my house when I was a little kid.

Larson:          And he has lived up to that expectation. No one, unlike Scott, no one has ever debunked what he has done, no one ever debunked what our space program did. And it was leading us into ways that lifted us all up. And frankly I, if you would have asked me when I was a boy watching John Glenn or watching Neil Armstrong when I was in high school land on the moon, I would have thought we would be on Mars by now, and I am frankly I am disappointed that we are not. But of course, I like these adventures; that's why I like the story of getting to the South Pole. I like the story of humans reaching always further, and whether it be geographical places like the South Pole or the moon, or greater knowledge in science in understanding of how nature works; to me it's all tied together and that's why this was such a great story for me, and that's why I wrote this book, An Empire of Ice.

Steve:          The full text of Edward Larson's article, "Greater Glory" is being made available free for a limited time to fans of Scientific American’s page on Facebook. If you're not already a fan, it's easy to do. Just go to Also check out Larson’s other books, including a small volume that I have read called Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. It's really good. Well, that's it for this episode. Get your science news at where you can check out our image gallery on the latest erupting Icelandic volcano. As somebody tweeted on Twitter the other day—well, where else are you going to tweet?—anyway, "Whenever a cat walks across a keyboard, it gives an Icelandic volcano a name." For Scientific American’s Science Talk, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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