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Robert Falcon Scott’s Centennial

Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole 100 years ago, too late for glory and doomed to die on ice. Was he a tragic hero or a bumbling fool?

It was January of 1912. Captain Robert Falcon Scott led the Terra Nova expedition of men to the South Pole, hoping to be the first. Instead, he discovered that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beat him to it by a month or so.

Captain Scott and four other men didn’t survive the tough journey home and died on Antarctica, about 11 miles from a food and fuel stop. Their bodies were discovered in November of 1912, along with their journals, letters and various samples they’d collected for science.

Scott became a British icon, the very example of the stiff upper lip. As Rudyard Kipling would say, Scott made a heap of all his winnings and risked it “one turn of pitch-and-toss.” But he suffered bravely, and that somehow speaks to a great many.

Then along came a new look at the Terra Nova expedition, and Scott’s reputation took on a few dents. He went from being a hero to being an ill-equipped, unprepared glory hog who screwed up enough to kill a bunch of his own as well as himself. 

Roald Amundsen, long in the shadow of Robert Falcon Scott despite being the real first guy to reach the South Pole, was said to be better and smarter than Scott — the true hero of discovery.

The rivalry continues to this day.

But Scott’s reputation has swung back around to being good again. Defenders say, okay, maybe he made some mistakes, but the pace he set allowed the expedition to gather lots of valuable specimens that increased our knowledge of the world.

This month in London the Natural History Museum has an exhibit on Scott’s Last Expedition.

A companion to that can be found at the BBC’s History Magazine here. They have a slideshow with some of the artifacts from the Terra Nova, including this egg shell from an Emperor Penguin:

Read the Who2 biography of Robert Falcon Scott, and the Who2 biography of Roald Amundsen. And while you’re at it, read the Who2 biography of Ernest Shackleton.

A nice recap of Scott finding Amundsen’s tent at the South Pole is here at the New York Times Learning Blog. The PBS companion to Secrets of the Dead has a good story, too, and reading about Scott at Cool Antarctica will lead you to stories about the other expeditions to the South Pole.

The BBC has pieces on other celebrations of Robert Falcon Scott, one in Plymouth (includes a video) and one in Wales.

Meanwhile, as we celebrate the centennial of Scott’s and Amundsen’s discoveries, a team of scientists is working on Antarctica at Lake Vostok, drilling a 4000 meter hole in the ice to break into what is considered the third largest (by volume) lake in the world. This giant lake beneath the ice has been locked away all by itself for at least 3 million years, and possibly for 30 million years.

Scientists expect (hope) to find microbes there that have undergone an evolution completely unlike the rest of life on the planet. That is, provided they don’t muck it up when they break through and contaminate the lake with our own modern microbes and whatnot. The plan is to get really close to the liquid water, hoping whatever pressure there doesn’t make the lake explode back up into the bore hole.

Then they’ll drill a smaller hole and melt the remaining ice with a sterile silicone solution and let some of Lake Vostok up into the bore hole. They return next year to take an ice core sample of that, and then they look for life forms. “Like going to the Pacific Ocean and putting a sampling bucket over the side of a ship and saying this is what the Pacific is like,” said one scientist. Still, that’s pretty exciting stuff. A lost world and all.

To learn more about Lake Vostok, here’s an hour-long documentary.

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