Antarctica is all about the science

The Big Chill was a brilliant session about Antarctica. The able and amiable Chair was Ed Butler who knows a bit about this place as the manager of Antarctic Science, Antarctica New Zealand.

Prof Chris TurneyChris Turney is the Professor of Climate Change at the University of New South Wales, and has a particular interest in past and future climate.

Chris talked about his book 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica. In 1912 there were five polar expeditions – The Brits, Norwegians, Australians and Kiwis, Germans and Japanese all went there “to do science”.

Chris loves the ripping yarns associated with the expeditions. There was mapping and scientific measurements – and another layer of personalities and conflict. The German team imploded, there was even “Teutonic threats of duels” and it descended into “real Lord of the Flies stuff”. But the science was invaluable and revealed Antarctica’s involvement in intrinsic ocean circulation.

Veronika MedunaVeronika Meduna is a scientist and journalist and her latest work is Science on Ice: Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica. She spoke about Antarctica’s importance in big global systems and how its 4 km thick ice cap “hides an archive of information”. Drilling reveals information on a time beyond even the last days of the dinosaurs.

Rebecca PriestleyRebecca Priestley has a PhD in the history of science. She is working on an anthology of Antarctic science writing to be published next year. Her latest book is Mad on Radium – New Zealand in the Atomic Age and it features an Antarctic component. There was a nuclear reactor at McMurdo in the 1960s called “Nukeypoo”. Given that half of the stuff freighted into Antarctica is fuel, it is understandable that another energy source was trialled. The uranium 235 fuel sources for Nukeypoo were delivered via Lyttelton.

The panellists were asked about science writing. Chris noted that sometimes long accepted anecdotes could be revealed as untrue when you do research. Veronika enjoys uncovering individual bits of science, and then thinks about bringing it all together in one thing. Rebecca said you’ve got to be passionate, but you also have to know when to stop: “It’s as much about what you leave out as what you leave in”.

How do these writers make science accessible? Veronika thinks it becomes readable by including the characters as well as the science. Chris agreed “People are interested in people.” He finds Twitter and social media useful: “trying to encapsulate what you’re doing in 140 characters focuses the mind”. Rebecca likes to employ analogies: “metaphors are often a really great way of describing science”.

The panellists agreed on the concept that Antarctica is “the monitoring station for the health of the planet”.  It “still fuels the imagination” and is “the biggest place where science is the main currency”. They explored the current state of the ice caps.

I think anyone who went to this session will now have these books on their “Damn! I must absolutely read this” list. Bravo science whizzes.

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