People and Antarctica

Over the past two weeks I’ve been reflecting on the SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) conference  that was held up in Auckland at the end of last month, trying to tame the thoughts that continue to tumble by in fast forward as if driven by a katabatic wind. What have I learnt? How do I pin it down? Where do I start?

The answer, I’ve realised, is with the people. People lie at the heart of my area of interest for several reasons – as a researcher, I look at representations of Antarctica that have been created by people; as a lecturer, I talk about people and our interactions with the southern continent; and as a person myself, it’s the human connections with the other people – glaciologists, biologists, science communicators – that really bring their disciplines alive. Each person’s insights come from a slightly different angle, and each one adds bit by bit to the white patchwork of a place that exists both physically at the bottom of the world, and, more importantly, deep within our own minds.

One of the themes that came through from the SCAR conference was a need for stronger science communication, and for better communication across and between disciplines. For me, that is a really heartening thing to hear. As a humanities scholar, I am acutely aware that nothing we do exists in a vacuum. Antarctica is set aside as a place for peace and science, sure. The science we undertake is funded because we think it is important, but that word ‘important’ is loaded with objectivity. Important to whom? In what regard? And for what political reasons? That’s the frame.

Then there is what lies inside the frame, and we talk about the science itself. One challenge laid down during the opening session was to be able to explain your project to an 11 year old. I had the privilege of meeting many people, particularly APECS members, who could do just that, presenting their complex experiments in a relevant and engaging way. It’s about building connections with people, and sharing your knowledge with – you guessed it – people.

I really hope we can find a way to let these new and emerging voices hone their inner Kenneth Branagh and project to the far corners of the global science community. That community, as I have learnt through recent conversations, twitter threads, and blog posts (like this one by Victoria Metcalf), can be hard to break into. There is another side to this, though. Victoria also notes that ‘in many ways the Antarctic science community is ahead of other areas of science. Science on the ice has always had a tight relationship to policy, territory and politics’

Those of us studying Antarctica are in a unique position, in that we are all looking at the same remote and icy place in different ways. This offers a model for a new way of doing research, and has the potential to bring the term ‘interdisciplinary’ out of the buzzword dictionary and into a real-life workable model. One where people talk to one another. Now, wouldn’t THAT be radical…

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