June 2007

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Ending in Ice: The Revolutionary Idea and Tragic Expedition of Alfred Wegener by Roger McCoy

Alfred Wegener's name is far from instantly recognizable, but his idea of "Pangaea" -- first theorized in 1912 asserting that the continents were once joined into a single land mass that later split apart and drifted into their current positions -- is. Geologists of the day decried his conclusions and refused to believe them. Ultimately the “continental drift” theory would become accepted and Wegener would receive high praise, but it would be long after his death in Greenland, where he died while leading an ice core sampling mission in 1930. Unlike so many polar explorers who merely wanted to be first or furthest, Wegener actually sought scientific truth in the North. He was tireless in his dedication to geology and meteorology and remained determined even in the face of derision and disrespect. Roger McCoy was clearly captivated with Wegener and recounts his life in Ending in Ice: The Revolutionary Idea and Tragic Expedition of Alfred Wegener in great detail while largely allowing the man to speak for himself.

Interestingly, the novelist Clare Dudman also wrote a book about Wegener, One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead. In her lyrical portrait of the scientist’s life, she reaches into his heart and head and imagines feelings and compulsions that might have driven him on his scientific path. The weight of McCoy’s book is upon Wegener’s discoveries while Dudman dwells heavily on relationships. The Alfred Wegener in One Day is the scientist as perceived by the novelist (the New Yorker commented in its review that, “Dudman artfully channels Wegener’s voice so convincingly that her book reads like an artifact of Old World Exploration”), but in reading her book the voice I heard was more of Dudman than Wegener. This probably can not be helped, it is a novel after all. Is it because it is easier to read the passages such as this from one of the Greenland journeys:

I stand up and look around. Our only hope is food, but all I have is a gun and a lifeless hillside. Already I can feel the anger dying away and losing power. We have to live. We have to eat. Gloe whimpers and collapses on my feet. He doesn’t see me lower the gun.

No one asks where the meat comes from.

Rather than the more direct truth: “They were nearly exhausted and had no more provisions. With regret they shot the last dog and cooked it.”

The end result is the same; the sled dog was killed and eaten and moments later a clergyman from a nearby trading post (attracted by the shot) arrives to save them. But in Dudman’s passage, Wegener is conflicted and even heroic -- he alone knows that it is the friendly dog that is eaten. In McCoy’s passage, the dog dies so the men can live, simple and brutal but also familiar to anyone who has read polar tales. And really, the dog is not the point in McCoy’s book -- it is why Wegener was in the Arctic and what he learned there that really matters. And that is where the two books diverge.

McCoy pays a great deal of attention to the time Wegener spent in Greenland on each of his succeeding missions -- both as an expedition member and later as a leader. He is intrigued by what the explorer sought to learn and how he hoped his accomplishments would bolster existing research. In easily readable text and accompanying maps and photos, McCoy lays out the manner in which Wegener sought to prove his continental drift theory and also measure ice ages and climate variations. The epic story of his death in the snow is told through the lives of those who saw him last and survived. McCoy had a wealth of material to draw on, but the loss of the final diary (the author imagines it was taken by the man who was with Wegener in the end but was lost along with him some unknown distance from the body) makes his final days a mystery. He likely died of heart failure, as his wife believed decades later. After his fellow scientists found his grave, they reburied the body, leaving him in the place that had captivated him for so long.

Ending in Ice continues for several chapters after Wegener’s death, however. McCoy covers the scientific success of the last expedition and what happened to its other members. He also reports on the accomplishments of Wegener’s wife in the years after her death (she died in 1992 at the age of 100). She continued to write about her husband’s work, including a book of his “diaries, letters and her own memories” in 1960. All of this information was drawn on by McCoy, allowing him to have as complete a picture possible of this fascinating man.

Finally though, it was not Wegener’s words but his continental drift theory that has endured. It was not until the 1960s that geologists began to consider it again, and using oceanographic data learned during WWII, a case was built in support of Wegener’s ideas. This later research, and the men who drove it, makes up the book’s final chapters, providing an excellent overview of geologic advances in the latter part of the 20th century, and showing just how a theory like Wegener’s had to be re-proved. McCoy rightly shows that opposition to it in the beginning was largely due to its revolutionary nature, quoting one participant of the 1926 American Association of Petroleum Geologists conference convened for the sole purpose of discussing Wegener’s theory: “If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis we must forget everything which has been learned in the last seventy years and start all over again.” The thought of starting over -- even it was in the right direction -- was too much for Wegener’s contemporaries, and it would take new scientists to finally embrace his conclusions.

Alfred Wegener is the sort of historical figure who belongs in the classroom -- his life and death would brighten any earth science class, and the simple way in which he found a solution for one of the planet’s enduring mysteries is heartening to all armchair scientists everywhere. Ending in Ice might not have the same poetic nature that Dudman’s book possesses, but it most certainly is a compelling historic account. Both books are a testament to Wegener’s enduring legacy but it is McCoy’s that has stayed with me. He did not have to imagine what lay in Alfred Wegener’s heart; it was obvious to the biographer from the way the man lived and died just who he was, and that is the story he tells so beautifully.

Ending in Ice: The Revolutionary Idea and Tragic Expedition of Alfred Wegener by Roger McCoy
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195188578
178 pages