Scott's Legacy



Kevin Fong looks beyond the failure of Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole and focuses instead on the scientific legacy of Scott's explorations of Antarctica between 1901 and 1912.

In recent years, much has been written about Scott the polar loser and bungler. But that personalised narrative ignores the pioneering scientific research and discoveries which transformed Antarctica from an unknown quantity on the map into a profoundly important continent in the Earth's past and present.

Before Scott and Shackleton trekked across the vast ice sheets in the early 1900s, no-one was sure whether there was even a continent there. Some geographers had suggested Antarctica was merely a colossal raft of ice anchored to a scattering of islands. The science teams on the three British expeditions made fundamental discoveries about Antarctic weather and began to realise the frozen continent's fundamental role in global climate and ocean circulation. They discovered rocks and fossils which showed Antarctica was once a balmy forested place. They mapped the magnetism around the South Pole for both science and navigators. They found many new species of animals and revealed the extraordinary winter breeding habits of the penguins.

Antarctic historians such as Ed Larson and polar researchers such as David Walton of the British Antarctic Survey explain how the motivation for Scott's two expeditions and Shackleton's Nimrod expedition was a mix of colonial ambition, scientific exploration and displays of national prowess. In fact many historians suggest that Scott's final bid to claim the South Pole for the British was handicapped because the expedition was doing too much science.

The dedication to scientific discovery is most poignantly revealed by fossils that Scott's party collected after their disappointment of being beaten by Amundsen and a few weeks before they froze to death trudging across the Ross ice shelf. They found a particular plant fossil which had been one of the Holy Grails on the early explorations of Antarctica's interior. As Peta Hayes of the Natural History Museum explains, it proved an hypothesis raised by Darwin among others that all the southern continents were once linked together. The fossils were also important evidence to support the new and controversial theory of Continental Drift - a theory which now underpins the entirety of modern Earth science.

Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

Amundsen may have beaten Scott to the South Pole, but science was the real winner.


Amundsen may have beaten Scott to the South Pole, but science was the real winner.

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Can the heroic age of Antarctic exploration show us the way back to the Moon and onto Mars?

One hundred years ago, Scott reached the South Pole. However, more than four decades passed before people went back there. On the Moon, Neil Armstrong took his leap for mankind in 1969 and it has been fifty years since the last astronaut left the lunar surface. Presenter Kevin Fong talks to space scientists and historians to find out if Robert Scott's Antarctic exploits provide a road map for future human exploration of the Moon and the planet Mars.

Kevin's quest entails an examination of the underlying geopolitical motivation behind both South Polar exploration and the effort which took humans briefly to the lunar surface. But what would get us back to the Moon and onto Mars - would it be political rivalry, science or transport that was cheap enough?

In times of economic austerity (in the West at least), what scientific questions are important enough to justify exploration of the Moon and Mars? The six short Apollo visits to the lunar surface were enough to crack the mystery of how the Moon itself formed - namely that a Mars sized planet crashed into the early Earth. The molten rock that was blasted into orbit by that collision coalesced as our lunar neighbour.

Sending astronauts back to explore the rocks of the Moon could solve the most important mysteries about the early Earth - when did life first evolve and under what sort of conditions? On the Earth itself all the clues have been obliterated by eons of erosion and continental drift but on the inert Moon there may well be fragments of the primordial Earth on the surface. These fragments were flung there 4 billion years ago when giant space rocks crashed into our young planet, kicking up ejected debris.

As for Mars, the big questions are, is there life there now or did life ever evolve there? If it did originate on Mars, how different was it from life on Earth? If we found life did not arise there, we might wonder whether we are really alone in the Universe.

Kevin asks whether we need to send human explorers rather than expendable robots to tackle these great scientific and philosophical prizes. Assuming that people will do a much better job, who will get them there. Will it be NASA joining forces with the Chinese and Indian space agencies? Or might it be the likes of Elon Musk, founder of the private rocket company Space X - a and space entrepreneur who has been described as a cross between Bill Gates and Howard Hughes.

Among Kevin's interviewees are Elon Musk and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmidt, the only geologist (so far) to walk and collect specimens on the Moon.

Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

Can the heroic age of Antarctic exploration show the way back to the Moon and onto Mars?

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Can the heroic age of Antarctic exploration show the way back to the Moon and onto Mars?