Lecturing on the History of Science in Unexpected Places: Chronicling One Year on the Road

by Edward J. Larson

Waking up near midnight with a need to visit the restroom, I decided to go on deck for a quick look about. For all I knew we were still sailing below the Antarctic Circle, but it was February 3, 2015, and so the midnight sun had passed and it was finally dark outside. I climbed to the chart room and went out the door onto the bow of the National Geographic Explorer, our expedition ship with 130 passengers and over half that many crew members aboard. As the history of science lecturer, I was part of the crew. The view that night took my breath away.

The ship was slowly cruising–one might better say gliding–through a shimmering sea salted with small icebergs, bergy bits, and growlers eerily illuminated by a full moon dead ahead about ten degrees above the horizon. Half the passengers–probably all that were awake–lined the ship’s railings transfixed by the scene. No one spoke. It did not seem as cold as it was; I had not put on a coat and never thought to get one. The dark water created an absolutely flat, mirror-like surface that flowed ahead to a distant shoreline studded with jagged, glacier-covered peaks. Before us, the moon, nearby icebergs, and more distant mountains reflected so perfectly in the water that pictures taken that night looked the same up-side down as right-side up. This, I learned, was Crystal Sound, so named because British scientists once studied the formation of sea-ice crystals on its surface. We were 66º23’ South Latitude, eight miles north of the Antarctic Circle.

Earlier that day I had lectured at the old British Antarctic Station on Detaille Island 13 miles south of the Antarctic Circle. Built in 1956 as Base W for the British Antarctica Survey and manned–yes, there were no women–for five years, this station served as a year-around post for topographical mapping, geological research, and meteorological data collection. Each summer, dogsleds would carry the researchers hundreds of miles across the nearby Antarctic Peninsula. Quickly abandoned after ice prevented a supply ship from reaching the station with essential provisions in 1959, Base W has remained frozen in time with hundreds of artifacts left on the shelves, tables, and store rooms. It looks today just as it did in an earlier era of polar scientific research, which I was able to lecture about from behind a bar still stocked with 50-year-old Scotch bottles and adorned with an official-looking picture of a young Queen Elizabeth. So few and trusted are the visitors to this remote site that no one even locks the door when they leave.

So began a year of traveling widely to lecture about the history of science that took me to all seven continents and across all five oceans in just one calendar year: 2015. Everywhere I went there was interest in our subject. The stars simply aligned and a sabbatical intervened to allow me to do it in a single year. A very quick plunge into the Great Southern Ocean off the Antarctic Peninsula–a dare accepted by about one in four passengers–would be the first of my dips that year into all the world’s five oceans.

My 2015 Antarctica trip began in mid-January, when I flew to Argentina for the first of two consecutive trips from Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel at the southern tip of Argentina by ship to the Antarctic Peninsula. That meant four crossings of the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties (all overrated at least on these trips) on a small but sturdy ship that once served as a Norwegian Hurtigruten ferry and was later converted for polar service by Lindblad Expeditions and adopted for its National Geographic Society partnership. The Beagle Channel also meant lectures by me in South America about Charles Darwin, Robert Fitzroy, and the kidnapped native Fuegian that Fitzroy called Jemmy Button (because he was allegedly bought for a button). From what I could tell, the Yaghan people scarcely have it better today than 180 years ago, when Fitzroy brought Button back to Terra del Fuego, where he promptly discarded his English clothes and religion.

March took me to Australia and then across the Indian Ocean to South Africa on the first of two trips around the world during the year. First stop was Brisbane, Australia, on the Pacific Coast where Peter Harrison had invited me to lecture at the University of Queensland on the modern creation-evolution controversy. One of that University’s best known graduates is the Australian-American creationist Ken Hamm–founder of Kentucky’s Creation Museum and the worldwide “Answers In Genesis” outreach program–so the topic was a perfect fit in sunny Brisbane despite the lack of any visible dinosaurs roaming among current students. We tend to think of young-earth creationism as a distinctly American product, but Australia can teach us otherwise. Queensland once even adopted a balance-treatment law for teaching creation and evolution in public schools, so it is at least up to date with Tennessee. I’ll be back in Australia next July, and I’m hoping Peter will have me back despite these observations. Tennessee still welcomes me despite my remarks. Indeed, I was there this year for the 90th anniversary of the Scopes Trial–which remains America’s most famous trial. (Summer for the Gods: the gift that just keeps giving.) Then it was on to Perth on the Indian Ocean in Western Australia and aboard a ship bound for Mauritius, Reunion Island, Madagascar, Mozambique, and South Africa. Here I lectured on nineteenth century oceanographic research, the discovery of early hominids in South Africa, East Africa, and Indonesia; climate change; Darwin and Wallace; the dodo bird and problem of extinction in the region; and more from my books on early science in the Antarctica and Galapagos Islands. Islands are islands after all, whether they are in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean. Including various earlier talks and classes in the United States, that meant five continents, four hemispheres, and three oceans down before the vernal equinox–but who’s counting.

April was reserved for travel in the United States focusing mostly on a book that I’d published last year about George Washington’s retirement years. Scientific farming was part of this story, but so was nation building. During this month I lectured at the New York Historical Society, Mount Vernon, Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Club, Hampton-Sydney College, the University of Georgia, and Los Angeles’s elegant Jonathan Club (with historian Daniel Walker Howe). Then on May 8, I joined Janet Browne and others giving lectures in honor of Daniel Kevles at Yale University. Spring in New Haven–well, what can you say? The pizza was superb.

In May, it was back to Argentina for three weeks in Buenos Aries to teach a summer short course for my university and lecture at the University of Buenos Aries. The course and some lectures dealt with the history of eugenics, scientific racism, and human rights in the twentieth century. Other lectures covered Darwin in Argentina. One political issue here: Should Darwin’s time on what he called the Falkland Islands count? Argentina’s new fifty peso note suggested that it should, as that bill celebrates the Falklands (or Isles Malvinas) as part of Argentina. But my trip to the Falklands suggested otherwise, as the 3000 people there seem determined to remain citizens of a British Overseas Territory. Of course, most of them are of British descent and collectively they enjoy the 10th highest per capita income in the world–tied with residents of the Arab Emirates and two-and-a-half times higher than Argentinians. Hoping to be foxier than the Falkland Islands Fox, which was already rare by the time of Darwin’s visit and soon went extinct, I included the Malvinas when lecturing about Darwin in Argentina but spoke only of him on the Falklands when speaking on the islands.

Summertime and the living is easy, even in the Arctic where the sun didn’t set for over a week of my stay. This speaking trip began on July 10 in Iceland, where I met with some of the genetic researchers investigating that island’s human population. The small country is a high-tech haven and its people seem as interested in the history of science and technology as in indie rock music–well, maybe not quite as interested, but close. Then it was back on board a ship, this time from Akureyri, Iceland, into the Arctic Ocean’s Greenland Sea, Barents Sea, and White Sea to lecture on early polar exploration, the history of climate change research, and the future of geoengineering. Stops at Murmansk and Archangel brought me face to face with Soviet era Russian technology. The beauty of January in the Antarctic Peninsula was matched by the beauty of July in sailing the coast and fjords of Norway. Experiencing them in the same year strikes home how much warmer and greener it is at 70 degrees north latitude than 70 degrees south. Having taken my son along south, I now took my daughter along north. Both gained somewhat more admiration for having a historian of science for a parent. From Norway, it was one stop in England with Open University historian of science Jim Moore before heading back to the United States and the start of classes for the fall semester.

During my time in Europe I realized that I had already visited six continents and five oceans during 2015 with five months left in the year and an outstanding invitation from Noah Efron to speak in Israel. Israel may not be located in what most of us think of as Asia, but technically it falls within the continent’s boundaries. October would complete a grand slam of the continents. Noah chairs the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, but also has remarkably broad contacts with historians throughout the region. By the time I arrived, he had me scheduled to speak not only about science and religion at Bar Ilan and the history of modern creationism at University of Tel Aviv but also about the history of eugenics at Hebrew University.

Worries that a trip to Israel scarcely qualified as a visit to Asia became irrelevant in September, when organizers of the Beijing and Shanghai Literary Festivals offered to pay my expenses to speak in China on my latest book. That meant flying directly from Israel to China–there are three non-stop flights per week for those wanting to know, and my plane was packed. Going around the world in ten days, with stops only in Israel and China, disorientates any normal person’s sense of time and place. At least it did mine, and I view myself as fairly normal. My body had no idea when to sleep or eat, but I got a lot of work done at odd hours. If the lectures did not go well, I would be the last to know. Everyone seemed happy enough and my hosts kept trying to feed me the oddest things at what seemed like the oddest times. Most of the meals seemed to involve fish with their heads still on. At least the fish were fresh, but I never feel quite comfortable when my dinner is looking back at me. In China, book festival organizers added lectures for me at two colleges on, of all contrasting topics from my list of topics, science and religion at one and early Antarctic scientific research at the other—yet the lecture halls were equally full with over 400 students at each, all listening to me in English without a translator and many asking challenging questions.

Traveling all the way this time by air on three non-stop flights plus one high-speed train trip from Beijing to Shanghai, the world seemed sadly small. Taken upon my graduation in 1979, my first trip around the world was with a backpack and without a planned itinerary. Taking small hops here and there by plane, train, car, bus, and ferryboat, with the occasional hitchhike, I made that circuit in four months with stops in some twenty countries and only one lingering case of dysentery. I had never been out of North America before, and the world seem so very large and exotic. Now it seems small and homogeneous. Of course, that time I had lost all contact with home from the moment I left Seattle to the time I returned to it with long, shaggy hair. This time I checked my email daily and did not need a haircut. Spending Halloween on the Bund and at a college in Shanghai suggested just how much the world had shrunk in the past quarter century. Chinese students and young professionals were dressed in the same costumes that I would have expected to see in Los Angeles. When I first visited that country, everyone dressed like Mao and rode a bike. Older men had white hair. Now most were dressed more stylishly than me, cars created monumental traffic jams, and I don’t remember a gray hair.

Back home by November 2, I had visited seven continents and fifteen countries since January and no more foreign trips planned. My domestic lecturing continued, however. During autumn, George Washington reappeared for the Library of Congress’s Madison Council, the Jamestown-Yorktown Historical Society, and the Morristown Book Festival. On behalf of the International Society for Science and Religion, I spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in Salt Lake City on issues in the history of science and religion. My lectures for the year concluded in December with one on Scopes Trial at the Minnesota Historical Society. By then, I will have done my best to spread the word of our profession–finding interest at every stop for the history of science. Every lecture had been invited with all expenses paid. People around the globe want to hear about the history of science so long as we package it well. After all, no topic is more important or relevant for the world’s future.

The Madison Council event in October was especially significant for me. I owe my dissertation largely to work done with a stack-access pass into the bowels of Library of Congress, and I welcomed the chance to return. The event itself–a semi-annual affair for large donors–was remarkable. Held in the Library’s aptly named Grand Hall, it featured a private concert by Anne Akiko Meyers playing the Library’s 300-year-old “Kreisler” Violin built by Giuseppe Guarneri, viewings of some of the Library’s rarest holdings, readings by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and my Williams College classmate Michael Beschloss, and me being interviewed by billionaire philanthropist David Rubinstein, who chairs the Madison Council, just gave a building’s worth of money to my daughter’s college, and seems to know an astonishing amount about everything. Pulling me aside before the interview, David asked about my background for his introductory remarks. When I said that I had both a PhD in the history of science from Wisconsin and a law degree from Harvard, he looked puzzled. After commenting on the money to be made in law, he observed, “You must have an understanding wife.” Thinking back over the prior year, while agreeing that my wife is awesome, I replied that, except for grading papers and attending faculty meetings, I was doing precisely what I’d want to be doing even if I didn’t need a job. Still, it will be nice to get back to more a normal year in 2016.