Posts tagged ‘history of science’

February 16, 2022

The Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

by Team Riverside

Paperback, W H Allen, £9.99, out now

cover of the book The Madhouse at the End of the Earth

The Madhouse at the End of the Earth is an engrossing account of a journey to Antarctica in 1897.  One thing after another goes wrong for the crew of the Belgian whaling ship the Belgica, and they get stranded for the whole of the winter darkness, their ship frozen in a sea of ice.

Among those on board is a doctor, Dr Frederick Cook, who will later be imprisoned in his native USA for fraud.  But as those on the ship suffer the effects of cold, dark, and malnutrition, his innovation and care keeps his colleagues alive.  As things get worse, and the Captain withdraws, Cook seems able to turn his hand to anything.  One part of the story that stayed with me was Cook creating a treatment for crew members suffering from scurvy and depression (among other things) of standing unclothed and in private in front of a fire.  As Sancton notes: “His wild idea to have his ailing shipmates stand naked in front of a blazing fire is the first known application of light therapy, used today to treat sleep disorders and depression, among other things.”

The Madhouse at the End of the Earth works in many different ways.  It’s a story of adventure and survival, failures of leadership, and physical and mental courage.  It contributes to the history of medicine, as Sancton discovers that Cook’s case study is still used by Jack Stuster, a behavioural scientist who works with NASA, among others.  As a study of how people cope, or don’t, under extreme strain, it is fascinating.

Also on the unlucky ship is Roald Amundsen, later famous as an epic Antarctic explorer in his own right.  The insight given here into his early life is intriguing.  He emerges as stoic in himself, and unbending in his attitude to others.

Sancton evokes the harshness of the Antarctic landscape and the claustrophobia of the trapped ship very well.  “Where the water ended, the snow began, as if the ocean had risen half way up the Himalayas”.  The descriptions of sounds of rats eating the crew’s limited food are suitably revolting.  His impressive use of archive materials including the ship’s logs, crew diaries, and accounts published later by those who had been on board lends credibility to his review of the psychological states and emotions of those he is writing about.

He notes the colonial context to this journey, namely Belgium’s grotesque history in Africa at the time of the expedition.  I was troubled by the title, uneasy about the use of ‘madhouse’, but I eventually felt it made sense for the time Sancton was writing about.

I read it over two days while on holiday, and felt lucky to have the chance to race through it.  Because the story was unfamiliar to me, despite my having read a lot about Antarctic exploration, I tensely awaited each new development.  It held me till the last page.

Review by Bethan

June 23, 2021

The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

by Team Riverside
The Gospel of the Eels

Paperback, Picador, £9.99, out now

I was speaking a couple of years ago with someone who was helping with a citizen science project which was monitoring eels in London rivers. They would empty a trap set for the eels, measure them, and release them.  They were told by the research lead that they did not need to take a photo of the eels each time.  “There are lots of things we don’t know about eels, but what they look like isn’t one of them”.

The Gospel of the Eels goes after these mysterious animals, explaining that there are large parts of the eels’ lives that remain unknown to science, including exactly where and how they breed.  What is clearer is that European eels are in danger of becoming extinct, and that urgently solving some of their puzzles might help protect them even though something might be lost with their mystery.  Svensson quotes Rachel Carson: “And as they passed through the surf and out to the sea, so they also passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge”.

Svensson is interesting on eels’ impact on modern life. Sigmund Freud spent time early in his career studying eels, and Svensson makes a good case for this influencing his later theories (‘Sigmund Freud and the eels of Trieste’ is possibly one of my favourite chapter titles ever).  He spots eels in literature, including work by Graham Swift and E.T.A. Hoffman.

Among the natural history and current science, Svensson recalls eel fishing with his father as a child.  Some of the fishing detail is frankly revolting to a non-fishing person, but the experiences become a place to explore his relationship with his father. Svensson notes that life for working class families like his in Sweden changed hugely during the last half of the twentieth century: “… it had become possible for a road paver and day care worker mum, my parents, to live a life that was different in every way from the lives previous generations of the working class had known”.  He finds that attending to eels leads him to pay better mind: this reminded me of some of the arguments made by Julia Bell in Radical Attention (https://peninsulapress.co.uk/product/radical-attention).

The premise of The Gospel of the Eels sounds strange, but it is not strained or annoying.  It’s well-translated popular science with memoir, and a pleasure to read.  Why gospel though?  When science lacks answers, faith can fill the gap.  Perhaps if we can fix things for the eels, we can start to fix things for ourselves. 

Review by Bethan