exploration

Book review – Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice

8-minute read

Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen loom large over the history of Antarctic discovery. In their shadow, however, hides a lesser-known story. Some 70 years prior, three nations were locked in a race to discover what was at the South Pole. Professor of Environmental Humanities Gillen D’Arcy Wood here tells their story and sets it against a majestic backdrop: a deep-time history of how Antarctica became the icy wasteland it is now and shaped the Earth’s climate in the process. The clever twin story and electrifying prose of Land of Wondrous Cold caught me off-guard; I simply was not expecting this book to be this good.

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8-minute read

Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen loom large over the history of Antarctic discovery. In their shadow, however, hides a lesser-known story. Some 70 years prior, three nations were locked in a race to discover what was at the South Pole. Professor of Environmental Humanities Gillen D’Arcy Wood here tells their story and sets it against a majestic backdrop: a deep-time history of how Antarctica became the icy wasteland it is now and shaped the Earth’s climate in the process. The clever twin story and electrifying prose of Land of Wondrous Cold caught me off-guard; I simply was not expecting this book to be this good.

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Book review – Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

7-minute read

I will happily shoehorn a Monty Python reference into any conversation, but in this case historian Walter Scheidel beat me to it. What did the Roman Empire ever do for us? It fell and never returned – and with it, it paved the way for modernity. That, in one sentence, is the bold idea Scheidel puts forth here. And rather than ask why Rome fell, he has far more interesting questions for you. Why did nothing like it arise ever again in Europe? Why did it arise in the first place? And how did this influence the way Europe came to dominate the world much later? Escape from Rome is a brilliantly subversive book that offers a refreshingly novel look at how Europe got to where it is now.

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Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

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Book review – A Polar Affair: Antarctica’s Forgotten Hero and the Secret Love Lives of Penguins

7-minute read

This has to be a story worthy of the name “scoop of the century”. Penguin biologist Lloyd Spencer Davis has been studying mating behaviour in Adelie penguins since 1977, carefully documenting how penguins are far from the paragons of monogamy that they were long held to be. That is until 2012 when an unpublished manuscript comes to light showing that somebody beat him to the punch… by more than six decades! A certain George Murray Levick carefully documented the same penguin antics that Davis would later build his career on. But who was this Levick? And why did he never publish his observations? Join Davis for a most unlikely story of polar exploration, penguins, and perversion.

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Book review – The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey Into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

6-minute read

Like Antarctica, Greenland is one of those places that exerts an irresistible pull on my imagination. As journalist, historian and The New York Times Magazine feature writer Jon Gertner makes clear in The Ice at the End of the World, I am not alone. This solidly researched reportage chronicles both the early explorers venturing onto Greenland’s ice sheet and shows the reasons it plays a starring role in research on climate change. Some books ought to come with a warning about how binge-read-worthy they are. This is one of them.

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Book review – Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean

6-minute read

The Southern Ocean, that vast body of water that flows unhindered around Antarctica, has to be one of the most forbidding oceans on our planet. Its latitudes are referred to by increasingly unnerving names the gale-force winds that have terrorised mariners since they first set sail here – the roaring forties, the furious fifties, the screaming sixties. Its waters are so cold that they are actually below freezing in places, with only their salinity preventing them from freezing solid (fish here have evolved antifreeze proteins!) As a consequence of these extreme conditions, this region has long remained unexplored. But, as historian Joy McCann shows, explore it we did. Brace yourself for a gripping piece of environmental history, marked by heroism as much as hubris, and curiosity as much as cruelty.

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Book review – Origins: How the Earth Made Us

Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.

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Book review – The Ethnobotany of Eden: Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative

When I reviewed the book Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, one of the reasons that was discussed as to why we should protect nature was the possibility of undiscovered pharmaceutical drugs. Seasoned ethnobotanist Robert A. Voeks shows that this so-called jungle medicine narrative has a long history. Though partially true, it equally contains parts myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia. However, if you are expecting a sceptical critique of superstitious indigenous practices – I was initially wondering whether the book would – no, this book delivers something far more interesting. Without belittling traditional knowledge, Voeks instead exposes the flaws in our interpretation and delivers a nuanced and fascinating ethnobotanical history lesson to boot.

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Book review – Erebus: The Story of a Ship

They say you should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case, it was the very attractive cover that drew me to read Erebus: The Story of a Ship. Michael Palin, known equally for his early work as part of the Monty Python troupe as for his travel documentaries, here tells a riveting story from the golden age of polar exploration. A tale of high-spirited British imperialism, marine camaraderie, a warship that wasn’t, and the enduring mystery of a vanished Arctic expedition.

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Book review – Land Bridges: Ancient Environments, Plant Migrations, and New World Connections

Before plate tectonics became an accepted idea in geology, Lyell’s doctrine of uniformitarianism still ruled supreme (see my review of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century for a short introduction). A corollary was that the continents supposedly had always been where they are now. One observation scholars had to explain away was that the same fossils occur on both sides of the various oceans. Looking at maps, some people noticed the thin strip of land connecting North and South America and concluded that land bridges must have formed and sunk beneath the waves at just the right times in history to enable migrations (see Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth for more details). As explained in The Tectonic Plates are Moving!, we know better nowadays. Nevertheless, the concept of land bridges is still alive and well today, and palaeobotanist Alan Graham here introduces five of them, exploring their effects on biogeography, climate, and human history.

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