Music Mondays: By Endurance We Conquer

Once more, it’s Music Monday!

Today: the somewhat weird relationship between exploration, daredevilry, and science.

This is By Endurance We Conquer, the opening track from Science From an Easy Chair (the 2015 album from Have Gun, Will Travel).

The album tells the story of the 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,led by Ernest Shackleton (I’ve actually linked to the whole album here, if you have the time). The lyrics of By Endurance We Conquer are actually Shackleton’s justification of the expedition:

The first crossing of the Antarctic continent
From sea to sea, via the Pole,
Apart from its historic value,
Will be a journey of great scientific importance.

It’s a claim you’ve heard before: crossing Antarctica, or putting a man on the Moon, or climbing that unclimbed peak, or conducting the highest ever parachute jump, is often presented as if scientific advances are an important goal. They aren’t. They may happen (we have indeed learned quite a bit about the lunar surface from the Apollo samples), but they aren’t the point. All those undertakings are exploration, or daredevilry, or most often some combination of the two. In fact, if science were an important goal, then the daredevil feat of exploration would usually be a very inefficient way of accomplishing it. Imagine, for example, that the cost of the Apollo program had been put into the base budget of the US National Science Foundation – many, many, many times more science would have resulted.

Science From an Easy Chair is a terrific album, but there’s nothing about science in the remainder of the lyrics. Of course there isn’t: Shackleton’s words about science ring hollow partly because words like that are (almost?) always hollow. (They also ring hollow in a way that’s more specific to Shackleton’s particular expedition – in which the Endurance soon became stuck in pack ice, later sank, and the remainder of the expedition had everything to do with survival and rescue and nothing at all with exploration or science. It is, to be fair, an astonishing story of survival and rescue.)

So: By Endurance We Conquer is a song about science – but it’s not a song about science as a process, or science as knowledge. It’s a song about how science sits in society, and gets used sometimes as a justification for doing something we want to do for some other reason (in this case, mostly, showing off.) Or at least, it used to. Because as much as I’m complaining about science being used this way, it could be worse – and arguably, it is. More recently, science seems to be seen by a distressingly large fraction of the populace (and worse, political “leaders”) not as a reason to do something, but as an enterprise to be avoided at all costs. (Horse deworming medicine, anyone?).  I guess I’d love to go back to the days when you could misuse science as a way to make an otherwise dubious enterprise more appealing to the public.

Enough about science for now.  Here’s this week’s I-just-like-it bonus, from the Scots-Canadian singer-songwriter David Francey. This is Paper Boy, from The Far End of Summer (2001):

It’s Labour Day today, and in my books Labour Day marks the end of summer. So, this is the last instalment of Music Mondays, at least for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series. If you know a song about science I haven’t linked to, please mention it in the Replies!

© Stephen Heard  Sept 6, 2021

Image: Endurance in pack ice, photo by Frank Hurley, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales; public domain via Wikimedia.org.


*Although I’m complaining about this, I guess it’s better than the more modern situation, in which science is seen by a distressingly large fraction of the populace not as a reason to do something, but as an enterprise to be avoided at all costs. Horse deworming medicine, anyone?

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