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A chilly reception
A Very Short Introduction
By Klaus Dodds
144 pp. Oxford University Press
Reviewed by David E. Hoekenga, MD
Why read a very brief introduction to anything? Perhaps because the subject is of only slight interest, or perhaps the reader hasn't time to really delve into the subject. In any case, the OUP has published 232 Very Short Introductions (VSIs). The first in 1955 was entitled Classics, and the most recent The Antarctic. In between they published The Marquis de Sade, Choice Theory, The Blues, and Nothing (whose contents one can only imagine). Along the way they published 35 volumes about -isms, 13 volumes of -ologies, and 26 volumes about philosophers. Oxford seems proud of the series, for in a slender 4” by 6” volume they list all the titles in the beginning of the book and again at the end. (This required a total of 10 pages.)
A friend described the VSI series as upper-class answer to volumes such as Antarctic for Dummies.
However, this volume by a professor of geopolitics first defines Antarctic, a job that is trickier than it seems because the continent doubles in size every winter. Also the place is covered almost universally by an ice shelf one mile thick, making permanent landmarks elusive. This made exploration both frustrating and dangerous before GPS.
The chapter on discovering Antarctica is one of Dodds's best. He succinctly goes from first 'land' sighting by an Estonian named Bellingshausen in 1820 to Roald Amundsen's arrival first at the South Pole in December 1911. Robert Falcon Scott arrived 33 days later but died on the way back to his base camp.
My favorite polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, is also mentioned. He got within 110 miles of the Pole in 1909, came back, got his ship Endeavour crushed in the ice, but managed to escape without losing a single man!
Dodds's geopolitical bent is on display where he discusses the seven countries claiming territory in Antarctica, and the much contested treaty of 1959 that make this the first continent for only 'peaceful purposes', scientific research, and conservation of plants and animals.
In cursory fashion, Dodds points out that eight species of whale, six of seal, eight of penguin and six of albatross live there. All are directly or indirectly supported by 500,000,000 tons of krill (small shrimp about 2.5 inches long), which many believe is the largest biomass on earth.
Those interested in the seventh continent might instead read Antarctica by Jeff Rubins or Antarctica: The Blue Continent by Lynn Woodworth. For a smashing adventure, try Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctica Expedition by Caroline Alexander.