Stalwart reviewer Duncan Lawie contributed this review of Susan Solomon's The Coldest March, the epic tale of an early and tragic polar expedition, not long after returning from an Antarctic trip of his own. (Imagine spending New Year's en route to the southern ice.) Duncan's been cooking up some other things lately, too -- like an interview with Science Fiction writer Ken Macleod and a review of the LotR movie from a "bookist" perspective.Susan Solomon is a senior scientist at NOAA , and an acclaimed one. In 1986 she led a scientific expedition to Antarctica to investigate the causes of the ozone hole; she subsequently received the USA's National Medal of Science for her insights. Whilst working from such locations as McMurdo Station, Solomon had the opportunity to see the bases and places discovered in the early years of the twentieth century. This led her to a new "hobby." Solomon became interested in the history of Antarctic exploration and in the disjunction between the common belief in Scott's incompetence and the apparent perceptiveness of his and his party's own writing. As an atmospheric scientist, Solomon decided to embark upon the exercise of tracking down the weather data of the era and testing it against data subsequently collected.
The Coldest March is the outcome of Solomon's interest in her hobby. It is, in essence, a history of Captain Scott's voyages to the Antarctic, a story which has been told many times in the decades since Scott's death. Yet, never before has the history been focused through the lens of true science. Science was held in high esteem by these Edwardian explorers and is the continuing basis for human occupation of the Antarctic. Solomon's close attention to the meteorological record becomes genuinely interesting as it is possible to make an intelligent comparison between the historical data and the automated data collection of recent decades. The modern route to the Pole from McMurdo Sound is close to that used by the British explorers 90 to 100 years ago. Whilst few attempt the journey on the ground, automated weather stations are vital for US Antarctic Research Program flights in the region. This data, collected every ten minutes since 1984, provides a statistically significant basis for investigation.
The technical substance of what Solomon has to say in this book first reached publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper co-authored with Charles R. Stearns. Those few dense pages form a scientific data quality check and comparison, with the conclusion that the March of 1912 was significantly colder than the average, that Scott's weather forecasters had collected sufficient data to have a good idea of what that average was and that the unexpected cold was a primary factor in the deaths of the party returning from the Pole. These cold facts have been expanded into a solidly researched history of Scott's Antarctic career, with a strong focus on the collection and interpretation of weather data.
The basic point of this book should prove within the grasp of anyone capable of interpreting a graph. The historical issues, however, require a larger context. The book approaches the debate on Scott through the clever technique of "the visitor". At the start of each chapter, there is a vignette offering a view of the modern Antarctic experience which parallels the main subject of the chapter. In this space, Solomon can provide informal commentary and bind the historical discussion with description of the achievements and misunderstandings that are still possible after over 40 years of continuous human occupation of the continent. The visitor provides an access for the modern reader to a well known story. Scott's Pole party arrived at the South Pole in January 1912, five weeks after Amundsen. He and his four companions died on the return journey, Scott, Wilson and Bowers only 11 miles from a supply depot. At the time this tragedy quickly became a heroic example; some modern writers have considered Scott's whole Antarctic experience closer to farce. The heritage of the expedition often turns on the perceived reputation of Scott himself; this book reflects positively on Scott and his colleagues, principally because of the primacy of doing good science in their work. Nevertheless, it acknowledges the mistakes made by both Scott and his rival and recognises the strengths of each party. It is a decent account of the so-called "Race to the Pole", providing a setting in which the relevance of the weather thesis to Scott's death can be fully developed and strongly argued. By dredging bare facts to the surface, The Coldest March has rendered almost every published history of the period out of date.
Each generation seems to find its own vision of Scott. Solomon sees him as a frustrated scientist and, at its centre, this book is a celebration of scientific method. It is tempting to think that the author has seen most strongly the elements of Scott that a modern scientific mindset might wish to find -- as earlier generations have praised him as a heroic exemplar of the British Empire or damned him as a middle class bumbler. Countering this are the words of members of Scott's own scientific party, many of whom relished his ability to ask the right question. Coming from such an original perspective, and providing genuinely new information, this is as significant a book as Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, published 80 years ago. The Coldest March is a wonderful (re-)introduction to the Matter of Scott.
You can The Coldest March at Fatbrain. If this review interests you, perhaps you'll enjoy the Coldest March website. More information, incuding sample chapters from the book, are available at Yale University Press.