Polar certainties

Here’s something I wasn’t expecting to be reading about this week — the search for meteorites at the South Pole.

Polar Light, by Barry LopezHarper’s Magazine
These field quarters are a National Science Foundation (NSF) deep-remote cold camp, in the Transantarctic Mountains, 220 miles from the South Pole. We’re encamped near the base of Graves Nunataks, an isolated set of mountain peaks standing proud of a massive ice sheet. (“Nunatak” is an Iñupiaq word, imported from the Northern Hemisphere, describing rock exposed above an ice sheet.) Except for our cookstoves we have no source of heat, and the four men and two women in our party have been here for nearly two weeks. Our camp is at the edge of the Polar Plateau that forms Antarctica’s vast interior, an ice cap four times the size of Greenland, a region of the world I have been chronicling for the past thirty years. On this frigid summer day in mid-January, 1999, the six of us are many hundreds of miles from any other human, except for those at the South Pole.

Once taken in hand and placed under a microscope each meteorite is revelatory. The overwhelming majority of them come from the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, and are so distinctive, one from the other, that scientists have been able to create a kind of geography of the asteroid belt, a geologic map that allows them to push deeper into our still hazy understanding of how the solar system evolved. In short, every meteorite represents an important contribution to the unraveling of the mystery of Earth’s origin. Therefore, though the six of us will find only 186 meteorites, our weather-compromised effort will still be viewed as successful.

But it was this image from the article that I first saw on the TYWKIWDBI blog that caught my eye, as it reminded me of that looping mathsy animation I found earlier. It’s a multiple-exposure photograph showing the sun orbiting the South Pole one afternoon, through the night and into the next morning — a midnight sun.

Time doesn’t stand still, even at the South Pole. Towards the end of their expidition, the scientists ponder the shift to the more quantative, less hands-on approach they’ve noticed over the years.

Back in ­McMurdo we’ve both witnessed changes as the hallways of the old science building, perennially crowded with camping gear, have given way to the antiseptically tidy and brightly lit hallways of the Crary Science and Engineering Center. The corridors of the building buzz with the ceaseless clicking of keyboards, a kind of white noise, accompanied by the electronic beeps that signal a task has been completed or information is now awaiting retrieval. The numerical results of a theoretical approach, of someone’s plumbing the nimbus of numbers surrounding a little-understood event, are both esoteric and arcane; and the speed with which they’re produced, and the sheer volume of them, is intimidating. The process suggests that knowledge has been obtained, but in fact there is not much more here than staggering specificity and a quantity of numbers significant enough to support statistical probability. Massive data sets, for some, represent irrefutable truth, or insights that transcend previously established boundaries, but the data might be no more than intensely self-referential. Impressive but unconvincing.

The belief that one can reach a state of certainty, about anything, acts as a goad for those who regard the anomalies that inevitably turn up in their data not as a caution but as an inconvenience.

“I had a theology professor once,” I say to John, “who told us that religion was not about being certain but about living with uncertainty. It was about being comfortable with doubt, and maintaining the continuity of one’s reverence for a profound mystery.”

I’m not sure John hears me. He is reclined on his sleeping bag with only his lower legs visible to me past a pile of gear. Perhaps he’s fallen asleep. It’s been a long day.

“We gain deeper knowledge,” he finally responds. “But no guarantee that we’re any closer to wisdom.”

A sentiment still necessary today, as shown by Content Catnip in one of her quotes from Svend Brinkmann’s recent book, Standing Firm: Resisting The Self Improvement Craze.

Comforting thought: Doubt is a virtue, certainty is blinkered tunnel visionContent Catnip
In essence, certainty is dogmatic, whereas doubt has an important ethical value. Certainty’s ‘I know’ can easily lead to blindness. Doubt on the other hand, leads to openness, to other ways of acting and new understandings of the world.

Antarctica is certainly a remarkable place. It’s strange to think that we knew more about the far reaches of the solar system than the bottom of our own planet. Perhaps you fancy a trip there yourself? No problem — if you have a spare $50,000 or so. Best be quick, though.

Miles of ice collapsing into the seaThe New York Times
The acceleration is making some scientists fear that Antarctica’s ice sheet may have entered the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration. Because the collapse of vulnerable parts of the ice sheet could raise the sea level dramatically, the continued existence of the world’s great coastal cities — Miami, New York, Shanghai and many more — is tied to Antarctica’s fate.