Celebrations of First South Pole Expeditions

This winter will mark 100 years since explorers first reached the South Pole within weeks of each other — Roald Amundsen on December 14, 1911, and Robert Falcon Scott on January 17, 1912. Commemorations, exhibits, and books are expected; some events have already begun and at least one book published.

Norway will celebrate two anniversaries in 2011, Amundsen’s successful expedition to the South Pole and the birth of Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen 150 years ago. Some 130 events are planned in Norway and abroad.

British explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton and their sponsors were motivated more by scientific interest than the glory of reaching the South Pole first, according to Edward Larson, author of a new book on the expeditions, An Empire of Ice (Yale University Press, 326 pages, $28). With the deaths of Scott and his four-man team on their return from the South Pole, public attention turned more to the courage they showed as they died one by one than to the new knowledge gathered by them and other members of the expedition. Politicians used the deaths as examples of serving one’s country and to rally support for their causes.

A professor of history and law at Pepperdine University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Larson calls his book “neither a paean to Shackleton’s leadership nor a critique of Scott’s choices.” The publisher says the book “offers a new perspective on the Antarctic expeditions of the early twentieth century by looking at the British efforts for what they actually were: massive scientific enterprises in which reaching the South Pole was but a spectacular sideshow.” Scott, the publisher points out, has been portrayed as a “a dashing incompetent who stands for little more than relentless perseverance in the face of inevitable defeat.”

Most of the 32 explorers Scott took with him were British scientists. They found that Antarctica was a continent not an archipelago, learned that emperor penguins lived on sea ice, and retrieved fossils that would show a warmer climate in the past.

One of Scott’s explorers, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, wrote his own account of the purpose of the expedition, the accomplishments, and the discovery of Scott’s frozen body — The Worst Journey in the World, available online in Project Gutenberg. His worst journey could have been the one he made with the expedition’s biologist, Edward Wilson, to find embryos of emperor penguins. Scientists back in Britain thought the embryos would provide the link between dinosaurs and birds. Cherry-Garrard, Wilson, and Birdie Bowers had to find the penguins in the Antarctic winter (June to August) when the birds incubate their eggs. They had to travel 130 miles to find the penguin colony on sea ice in minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit and build an observation post in a blizzard. Their teeth cracked from chattering in the cold, but they pickled embryos in alcohol and took them back to London.

The three men were the first to witness the emperor penguin’s huddles, its behavior during hatching, and the care the bird gives to the chicks. Cherry-Garrard’s book describes life and work at the base camp in preparation for the South Pole expedition and the long wait for Scott’s return. While some believe Scott’s choices in sledge hauling, clothing, and rock gathering were causes of his return party’s demise, others note that unexpected cold weather (10 degrees Celsius below normal for three weeks) and a blizzard accounted for the team’s inability to reach the nearby store of supplies on the return trip. Otherwise, they would have probably reached the base camp.

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30 Lectures by Distinguished Astronomers

Thirty non-technical talks on the latest ideas and discoveries in astronomy are now available as audio and video podcasts free of charge through the web and ITunes – http://www.astrosociety.org/education/podcast/.

Speakers include:
* Frank Drake, who began the experimental search for intelligent life among the stars,
* Mike Brown, who discovered most of the dwarf planets beyond Pluto (and whose humorous talk is entitled “How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming”),
* Natalie Batalha, project scientists on the Kepler Mission to find Earths around other stars, and
* Alex Filippenko (national professor of the year) on finding black holes.

Recent topics added to the offerings include: multiple universes, Saturn’s moon Titan (with an atmosphere, rivers, and lakes), our explosive Sun, and whether we should expect doomsday in 2012.

The talks are part of the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures, jointly sponsored by NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the SETI Institute, and Foothill College. The four organizations have offered six free public lectures per year for the last 12 years, with the audience ranging from 400 to 900 people. Recent talks have been recorded and made available free of charge as a public service thanks to an anonymous donor.

Earthquake Resources

With the recent earthquakes in Colorado and Virginia it seemed timely to share some of the previous blog posts and other Middle School Portal 2 (MSP2) resources on earthquakes and plate tectonics. The US Geological Survey website tells us that earthquakes are occurring all the time, but it is both their intensity and the depth at which they occur that determines the effect and damage they can cause. The site also has a very interesting FAQ section on earthquakes. In addition, the MPS2 Resource Guide on Plate Tectonics is an excellent primer on this subject with many high-quality resources. Also, you may want to revisit a previous blog post on this subject related to the earthquake in Japan entitled Disaster in Japan.

A Corpse Flower Named Woody

Joan Leonard, coordinator of OSU’s Biological Sciences Greenhouse, said a story about her soon-to-bloom corpse flower, named “Woody,” has gone global. The Dispatch published this story about the amorphophallus titanum on Saturday.

Also called the corpse flower for it’s intense rotting meat smell, Leonard said it’s gathering quite a following. Students have reported hearing foreign language news reports, and it hasn’t even flowered yet.

People can track the corpse flowers progress by visiting the website or watching on their webcam. The university has already posted visiting hours for the plant, which is set to bloom in early May.

AAAS Testing Gives New Insight on What Students Know and Their Misconceptions

The new AAAS website (http://assessment.aaas.org) presents detailed information on how a national sample of middle and high school students answered each question, along with an analysis of both their correct and incorrect responses to assess whether students truly understand the science concepts they are being taught. The site also features information on hundreds of misconceptions students have about everything from the size of atoms to whether all organisms have DNA.

Knowing these misconceptions and how pervasive they are—which is not typically part of the analysis of test results from state testing or from leading national and international testing organizations—can help teachers improve instruction and better design their own test questions

In addition to the test questions themselves, the website includes data on student performance by gender, grade level, and whether or not English is the student’s primary language. Each question typically was answered by at least 2000 students in field tests involving school districts across the nation. In 2010, for example, more than 90,000 students in 814 schools participated in the field tests. Project 2061 researchers also conducted on-site interviews with students to gauge the effectiveness of the questions.

Read more about the new website at http://www.project2061.org/research/assessment.htm.