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Book and Media Reviews
November 23/30, 2011

An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliation: Michigan State University, East Lansing (rootbern@msu.edu).

JAMA. 2011;306(20):2271-2272. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1725

Most readers will know of the competition between the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the British explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton to reach the South Pole between 1901 and 1913. A relatively unknown aspect of the British expeditions—although it was their stated purpose—was scientific research. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Edward J. Larson recounts the scientific aspects of these expeditions.

To raise money to fund their expeditions to Antarctica, both Scott and Shackleton appealed to the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society. These institutions insisted that scientific research be the primary goals of any exploration of the southernmost continent. In fact, in 1900 it was not even established that Antarctica was a continent, so geologists and paleontologists were assigned to each expedition. Biologists were assigned as well, although the assumption (proven false by the last expedition) was that there was no plant life on land and the biologists would spend all their time collecting aquatic specimens and the few mammals, such as king penguins and seals, that inhabited the ice packs. Meteorology was another major focus of each expedition, as were magnetic observations, because compasses were still a major means of navigation at the time, and the wandering of magnetic poles as well as changes in local magnetic fields created real hazards for seamen. Reams of scientific data resulted from each expedition and were summarized in dozens of illustrated volumes and hundreds of scientific papers.

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