The Arctic Grail

The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole, 1818-1909

by Pierre Berton
The Arctic Grail

“He had, apparently, sat down quietly in the snow, leaned back against a rocky projection, and, impassive and unemotional to the end, quietly and perhaps gratefully awaited death.”

Thus Pierre Berton describes the denouement of Salomon Andrée’s ill-fated attempt at reaching the North Pole by balloon in 1895. He and his team left Spitzbergen on July 11th and were aloft for barely a day before the balloon began dragging along on the ice. By the 14th they were stopped and forced to trek south hoping to reach the Franz Josef Land archipelago. But ice drift forced them back towards Spitzbergen where they finally made it ashore on a outlying island with little hope of rescue, and where they ultimately died. Their story would have been lost altogether had not the crew of a whaling ship discovered their remains in 1930, complete with diaries and photograph negatives.

Berton’s book is the definitive guide to the Arctic’s great age of exploration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is replete with detailed maps outlining all of the major expeditions.

Not all the stories are quite as grim as Andrée’s of course; most are quite heroic. Still, Berton does not spare criticism of those who refused to adopt the means and techniques of survival that the native Inuit demonstrate, so it is by no means a mere collection of hagiographies.

» Posted: Friday, December 31, 2004 | Permanent Link

Population Implosion

Foreign Affairs Magazine
A great essay on the Global Baby Bust from the May/June 2004 Foreign Affairs is finally on-line. There are some astonishing statistics about how the world’s population median is shifting dramatically, even in the 3rd World.

The tone of the article is perhaps too negative. As mentioned in an earlier entry, if the Black Death in Europe could have been the impetus of so much beneficial technological and social change, perhaps a gentler decline in population in the coming years could yield similar effects, without the suffering felt in the 14th century.

See also the United Nations online World Population Prospects Database. There are a number of ways to explore the data to examine how the population of different regions could change depending on specific assumptions.

» Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2004 | Permanent Link


No! Cover
Although it’s probably heresy to say so in some quarters, I’ve always found They Might Be Giants to be vaguely annoying. While I can appreciate their musicianship and find their lyrics clever it’s just not the sort of music I’d choose to listen to.

But it’s their “childishness” that can make them so appealing to some - like my son. My wife picked up their 2002 album “No!” for our 4 year-old for Christmas and he couldn’t possibly be more delighted with it. Anyone that can make my child that happy is okay by me.

They’ve setup a website for the album here.

There’s a good interview with TMBG about “No!” at NPR here.

» Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2004 | Permanent Link


The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America, ca. A.D. 1000-1500

by Kirsten A. Seaver

The Black Death and the Transformation of the West

by David Herlihy
The Black Death
The Frozen Echo

These are two books on very different subjects that both challenge conventional theories behind certain catastrophic events: the Black Death and the end of the Greenland colonies.

Seaver presents compelling evidence of English and Portuguese contact with the Norse’s Eastern Greenland colony into the late-15th century, which is well after the last documented contact in 1408. For example, trade with the colony was extensive enough that the Greenlanders continued to adopt European fashion trends.

She finds it more than a coincidence that the Greenland colony came to an end just as the exploration of the North America was starting. Her theory is that enough young colonists either emigrated directly to North America or else embarked with traders or explorers that any remaining population was unsustainable. While the theory is interesting, there is as yet no evidence that this in fact happened; still, it provides a framework for further work. Many had doubts about the Vikings sagas until the site at L’Anse-aux-Meadows was discovered in 1960.

Herlishy’s book is really a short set of transcripts from a series of lectures he delivered in 1985. He argues that the Black Death didn’t emerge from “Malthusian” pressures on the population. While there were waves of famine, the population had in fact remained stable for over a hundred years prior to the onset of the epidemic. The Black Death was just the first, most explosive episode in a wave of epidemic that lasted for decades. By the time they finally subsided in the early 15th century, the population was less than a third of what it was in 1340.

Herlishy also claims that the dramatic drop in population was the impetus behind much technological and social change. With so fewer people, he claims, productivity-enhancing technology needed to be developed make up for the loses.

» Posted: Wednesday, December 29, 2004 | Permanent Link