Reviews

Friday, December 03, 2004

MUSEUMS

The Snowman Cometh

An icebreaker, Inuit wit, and a diet of dog opened the path to the North Pole

By Brad Lemley 

Courtesy of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum

Robert Peary (left, aboard the ship SS Roosevelt in 1909) embarked on eight expeditions and lost seven toes in an obsessive quest to reach the North Pole. “I must have fame,” he wrote to his mother.

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum

Hubbard Hall, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

207-725-3416

academic.bowdoin.edu/arcticmuseum/

Snow covers the roads, ice bursts the pipes, and arthritis throbs in the knuckles—another winter approaches, and who needs it? But a visit to the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum on the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, reminds those of us who live in the North that frigid weather really does build character, and southerners really are sissies.

In other words, it’s an afternoon well spent.

In 1909 intrepid Bowdoin grad Robert E. Peary led what was probably the first expedition to reach the North Pole. An explorer named Frederick Cook claimed to have gotten there a year earlier—the controversy over who was actually first continues today—but Peary, assisted by fellow Bowdoin alumnus Donald B. MacMillan, documented his trip more extensively, and many historians give his mission the nod. The museum, established in 1967, celebrates that pole conquest and Bowdoin’s 140-year history of Arctic studies.

Today, when any tourist can plunk down about $10,000 and be flown to the pole, few people realize how the quest to reach it once inflamed the public mind. “At the turn of the century, we knew less about the North Pole than we did about the moon, because we could at least see the moon,” says Susan Kaplan, the museum director. A 1904 map on display simply shows a tantalizing blank space where the pole should be. Another exhibit shows Peary’s flinty visage on a collector’s card that was tucked in cigarette packs. Peary and MacMillan “were the astronauts of their day,” says Kaplan. “We have film footage that shows literally thousands of people coming to the docks to greet MacMillan.”

Small at 4,000 square feet, and intimate—one gallery is low ceilinged to simulate the hold of the Roosevelt, Peary’s icebreaker—the museum evokes the age of adventure, when manly men dared and often died in far-flung places. The centerpiece is an actual wooden dogsled that made the assault on the pole. Remarkably, it is held together with leather strapping rather than nails. “The terrain was so rough, the dogsled needed to be able to twist or it would fall apart,” says Kaplan. A nearby film exhibit shows the rough-and-ready way in which the native Inuit repaired the sled—they shot holes in the runners, through which more lashings could be tied. Also on display is a list of the daily food ration per man: a pound of pemmican (made of dried beef, beef fat, and raisins), a pound of dry biscuit, four ounces of condensed milk, and a half ounce of dried tea leaves. At mealtimes, the first three ingredients were usually mixed together with melted-ice tea to form a goopy mass. When rations ran low, we are informed, the men ate their dogs.

Peary and MacMillan succeeded because they melded the best of turn-of-the-century American technology with the sophisticated skills of the Inuit: They wore Inuit clothing, learned their language, copied their sled designs, and hired many of them as guides and hunters. In fact, largely forgotten in popular history is that MacMillan, hobbled by frostbitten feet, did not make the final push to the pole. That team consisted of Peary, his assistant Matthew Henson, and four Inuit men: Egingwah, Ootah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah. But MacMillan went on to make some 30 Arctic trips, his last when he was nearly 80, and attended the opening of the museum at age 92.

As a Mainer, I felt myself bonding with these dashing chaps who stomped across the frozen wastes to immortality. Inscribed over the museum’s exit is Peary’s motto, Inveniam viam aut facium, meaning, “I shall find a way or make one.” I shall invoke it next time I shovel the driveway.


BOOKS

Echoes of Extinction

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird
The Race to Save the Lord God Bird

Phillip Hoose

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20

Tasmanian Tiger: The Tragic Tale of how the World Lost Its Most Mysterious Predator
Tasmanian Tiger: The Tragic Tale of how the World Lost Its Most Mysterious Predator

By David Owen

The Johns Hopkins University Press, $25

Courtesy of the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

The ivory-billed wood-pecker, as drawn (after it was shot) by ornithologist Alexander Wilson.

The giant ivory-billed woodpecker, which could peel a tree like a banana with its bone-white bill, once haunted the old-growth bottomlands of the American South but was last spotted in Cuba in 1987. The thylacine, a hyena-size marsupial predator with long jaws and a spectacular gape, roamed freely on the island of Tasmania until the Europeans arrived around 1800. The last documented specimen died in captivity in 1936.

Alas for these majestic creatures, their narrow ecological niches were no match for human greed. The ivorybill—dubbed the Lord God Bird because its almost three-foot wingspan led observers to exclaim “Lord God, what a bird!”—subsisted mainly on beetle grubs found under the bark of dead or injured trees and succumbed in part to a post–Civil War fad for ladies’ feathered hats. The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, so called for its striped fur, once sat atop a food chain isolated for millennia by miles of ocean. Colonial sheep farmers, blaming the thylacine for stock losses, crowded it out of its range. Irony pervades both tales. Many 19th-century

Courtesy of the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery

This baby thylacine, about three months old and just starting to grow hair, is preserved in the Tasmanian Museum. The skins of the striped marsupials were sometimes sewn together into rugs.

naturalists, including John James Audubon, collected and killed hundreds of ivorybills in pursuit of their research. Likewise, bounty hunters in Tasmania sold thylacines to zoos as far away as London and New York, even though the animals never bred in captivity.

In their impassioned and strikingly parallel chronicles of loss, Phillip Hoose and David Owen reveal that scientists haven’t entirely given up on either creature. In 1999 the Australian Museum announced a complex plan to clone the thylacine with DNA extracted from a 140-year-old pup preserved in alcohol. In 2002 Cornell researchers used high-tech listening devices to search for signs of the ivorybill in a Louisiana swamp. The most promising evidence, loud ringing cracks first thought to be the ivorybill’s signature pecks, turned out with computer analysis to be nothing but rifle shots.

Paradoxically, the extinction of the Lord God Bird and the Tasmanian tiger spawned a conservation ethic that may have spared countless other species a similar fate. One ivorybill searcher, Richard Pough, helped found the Nature Conservancy, which has preserved 100 million acres of critical habitat worldwide. In Tasmania, remorse over the thylacine’s annihilation played a role in the decision to preserve over a quarter of the island as one of the world’s largest intact temperate wildernesses.

Matthew Power

BOOKS

Unending Mystery: A Journey through Labyrinths and Mazes
Unending Mystery: A Journey through Labyrinths and Mazes

David Willis McCullough

Pantheon, $24

In order to experience New York City’s most understated memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, visitors have to hunt for it. A grove of cedars in Battery Park, a short walk from Ground Zero, conceals the Labyrinth for Contemplation. Those who duck beneath the boughs encounter a path carpeted with clover and mugwort, traditional healing plants. The path doubles back and changes direction before spiraling toward a central circle, inviting meditation on a tragedy with consequences as convoluted as the design of the maze.

As David McCullough reveals in this engaging history, the Battery Park labyrinth continues an artistic tradition that began in ancient times. People around the world have used labyrinths and mazes as symbols of life’s complications. Greek mythology featured a labyrinth prison so complex that no one could find a way out until wily Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, slipped a ball of string to her lover Theseus, who unwound the thread behind him and later used it to retrace a route toward escape. In the Middle Ages, worshippers who walked stone labyrinths in cathedrals like Chartres first turned left, the direction of the damned, then right, toward the saved, changing course many times before arriving at the center and eternal salvation. In the computer age, games like Doom require players to negotiate a complex tangle of passageways in order to vanquish enemies.

Whether built on virtual playgrounds or palace grounds, McCullough concludes, labyrinths and mazes appeal to us on two levels. They are puzzles that engage our minds as well as apt physical embodiments of the journeys we all face. Their twists and turns acknowledge that life is chaotic and difficult yet simultaneously offer hope since we know a solution is inherent in the design. This is why the labyrinth is such a fitting memorial to the World Trade Center victims: Its structure compels us to keep moving ahead in the wake of disaster, however meandering the path may be.

Elizabeth Svoboda


BODY ARMOR

The U.S. military may possess the most advanced weaponry in the world, but it has proved no match for roadside explosives in Iraq. Rigged to detonate 155 millimeter howitzer shells, these homemade bombs can tear limbs from soldiers’ bodies. Kevlar vests protect torsos, but a quarter of all injuries incurred in the war affect the arms and 35 percent the legs. After visiting amputees in a military hospital in January, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England ordered the Office of Naval Research and its labs to develop body armor to envelop soldiers’ limbs. The result is new lightweight armor made from one of the world’s strongest fibers, Dyneema. Spun from polyethylene molecules that are 15 times stronger than steel, the fibers are layered in sheets, each one stacked at a 90 degree angle to the next. Unlike the yarn in woven fabric, whose crossover points reflect the shock waves of an impact, the layered fibers rapidly absorb and spread explosive energy. Thin and flexible, the $1,000 Dyneema suits weigh less than 10 pounds and protect vulnerable femoral arteries, nerve bundles, and joints. The armor will be available to outfit convoy crews in Iraq in early 2005.

Dan Dubno


EXHIBITS

Avatar of the Enlightenment

The Newtonian Moment: Science and the Making of Modern Culture

The New York Public Library

Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York City

Through February 5, 2005

www.nypl.org

Courtesy of the New York Public Library

In a handwritten notebook (left) Isaac Newton drew an image of his eyeball after inserting a bodkin behind it.

 

In the mid-1660s, Isaac Newton performed upon himself a grisly experiment, which he documented in meticulous detail (above). To investigate the anatomy of the eye and its ability to perceive color, he inserted a bodkin—a sharp instrument for making holes—between his eye and the bone, “as neare to ye backside of my eye as I could & pressing my eye with ye end of it . . . there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles.” On display for the first time in the United States, the original notes from the experiment appear in a magnificent exhibition of models, drawings, manuscripts, and books (including a self-annotated first edition of Newton’s Principia) at the New York Public Library.

The Newtonian Moment chronicles a time when—in the words of curator Mordechai Feingold of Caltech—science went from being “small potatoes” to a major part of the culture. Newton himself was nearly deified when he published his groundbreaking ideas on gravity, mechanics, and light, and intellectuals raced to bask in his glory. Among them was Benjamin Franklin, who commissioned a portrait of himself in which a bust of the great man appears to glower at him. (As a 19-year-old in London, he had sought a meeting with a then aged and frail Newton but was rebuffed.) Others published popular interpretations of Newton’s theories; they include the picturesque Newtonianism for Ladies by the Italian philosopher Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764) and a tiny book for “young gentlemen and ladies” on “the Newtonian system of philosophy” by Tom Telescope, a nom de plume of John Newbery, the 18th-century children’s writer.

Newton was a man of strong convictions. He was a genius who invented calculus as a student at Cambridge during a 1665 outbreak of plague but failed to publish his findings; an egotist who would later covertly convene a committee to accuse his rival Gottfried Leibniz, an independent originator of calculus, of plagiarism; and a heretic who rejected the Trinity but was deeply religious (one fascinating document on display is his hand-drawn reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, based on biblical units of measurement). Drawing on Newton’s own works and the words of his contemporaries, the Newtonian Moment reveals a man who reached “the acme of human possibility” while remaining, nonetheless, just a little creepy.

Josie Glausiusz


SCIENCE BEST SELLERS

1. Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr., HarperCollins

2. The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us, and What to Do About It

By Marcia Angell, Random House

3. The Last Run: A True Story of Rescue and Redemption on the Alaska Seas

By Todd Lewan, HarperCollins

4. All Fishermen Are Liars: True Tales From the Dry Dock Bar

By Linda Greenlaw, Hyperion

5. The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean

By Trevor Corson, HarperCollins

6. The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes

By Dean H. Hamer, Doubleday

7. The Cloud Garden: A True Story of Adventure, Survival, and Extreme Horticulture

By Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder, Lyons Press

8. Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

By Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith, W. W. Norton

9. Bush Versus the Environment

By Robert S. Devine, Anchor

10. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

By Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf

Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers

GEAR

Courtesy of Z-CoiL

Z-CoiL Shoes

www.zcoil.com

If you fancy a car with state-of-the art coil springs, you’ll have to shell out $200,000 for a Ferrari Challenge Stradale. But for less then $200, you can own another sort of coil spring suspension—on your shoes. A pair of Z-CoiLs may look a little goofy, but the steel springs beneath the heels act as shock absorbers that can, say the manufacturers, reduce the pain of ailments from arthritis to heel spurs. Scientific research seems to bear them out. Two studies, one at the University of New Mexico and the other at Sandia National Laboratories, concluded that Z-CoiLs distribute weight far more evenly over a runner’s feet than brand-name cushioned shoes and also provide 50 to 100 percent more cushioning. The overall effect is to reduce the impact—equivalent to one-and-a-half times body weight when walking and three to four times when running—when feet collide with the ground. During a jog or fast walk, the shoes make a city street feel like a bed of firm moss.

Jon Luoma


CALENDAR

Courtesy of Antenna/Pomegranate Communications

The ECOlogical Calendar, 2005

Antenna/Pomegranate Communications, $14.99

www.ecologicalcalendar.info

In the eyes of Chris Hardman, a creator of the ECOlogical Calendar, the old Gregorian year is passé. Chopped artificially into months and weeks, it says nothing of cyclic birth and death, the change in day length or the true age of the universe. So Hardman has designed an alternative calendar divided into four panels—one for each season—that show not only the days of the year but the phases of the moon, the ebb and flow of tides, and the blossoming, thriving, and fading of life. In the summer panel above, three of the season’s brightest stars—Deneb, Altair, and Vega—form a triangle at the top; the moon reaches its apogee in early August; ripe cherries and birdberries burst forth, and a young salamander breathes with gills underwater. Gone are the old names for the days. Instead, running along the panel bottoms, are their poetic alternatives: ThistleCricket, PlumpCherry, RubyThicket, and 362 more.

Marcel Pacatte


WE ALSO LIKE . . .

Football Physics
Football Physics

By Timothy Gay; Rodale, $21.95

Physics professor Timothy Gay of the University of Nebraska invokes Newton’s laws and more to explain every aspect of football, from the angular momentum of a tossed ball to the wave properties of crowds. Find out why hard-shell helmets reduce tackle pressures, allowing 300-pound linebackers to knock opposing players down but not out.

Maia Weinstock

Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis
Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis

By Eli Zaretsky; Alfred A. Knopf, $30

Neurology may now be the best way to  investigate the brain, but during the first half of the 20th century psychoanalysis reigned supreme. Historian Zaretsky traces psychoanalysis back to its pre-Freudian roots and argues that its major contribution was to show that unconscious motivations could drive not only individuals but also societies; indeed, “even great nations can suffer traumas, change course abruptly, and regress.”

Josie Glausiusz

Biting the Hand That Starves You: Inspiring Resistance to Anorexia and Bulimia
Biting the Hand That Starves You: Inspiring Resistance to Anorexia and Bulimia

By Richard Maisel, David Epstein, and Alisa Borden; W. W. Norton, $35

Anorexia and bulimia are more than just eating disorders, say the authors, practicing psychotherapists. Promoting a radical new therapy, they liken the diseases to the torture endured by prison camp inmates and encourage victims, with the aid of first-person narratives, to resist the voice of their inner dictator.

Anne Haas

O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm
O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm

By Jonathan Margolis; Grove Press, $24

Tracing the quest for sexual pleasure back to the discovery of a prehistoric, 70,000-year-old chunk of ocher “lipstick” found lying in a South African cave, Margolis argues that the female orgasm serves an evolutionary purpose: By helping to propel sperm through the cervix, it may increase the chances of conception, and it could also cement parental bonds.

A.H.

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