Due to time constraints my Nansen-eulogising on Tuesday’s radio show was cruelly cut short, so I thought I would expand upon the story here. The BBC4 documentary Voyages of Discovery I saw last week centred largely on Nansen’s adventures in the Fram (as you might expect from the show’s title), but I was intrigued to learn of the god-like status thrust upon Nansen by the Norwegian public before he had even set sail in her. Despite his failure to actually reach the pole, upon his return the Norwegians clamoured for him to become president (the staunchly-monarchist Nansen refused), and here is why:


b. October 10, 1861

Academic Achievements
– Preferred maths and physics at school, but liked ‘being outdoors’ so chose to study  zoology AND oceanography, gaining professorships in both subjects
– Wrote groundbreaking neurology paper “The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System” i.e. showing that the nervous system works by having cells transmit electric impulses to each other
– Made massive contribution to the science of fluid dynamics (ocean currents and the like)

Employment History
– Embarked on ‘suicidal’ 3-year trip in the Fram aged 32
– First man to ski to 86°14? N (the furthest North anyone had ever reached)
– Discovered the deep ocean underneath the Arctic icecap
– Norwegian ambassador to London
– High Commissioner of the League Of Nations
– Campaigned for the ‘Nansen passport’ to help relocate prisoners of war and refugees
– Organised relief programme for millions of starving Russians in 1921-1922
– Won Nobel Peace Prize in 1922

Skills & Technology
– Discovered the fact that the pace of human skiers matched that of the dogs pulling the sled (skiing alongside meant less tired dogs, warmer humans)
– Used new lightweight fabrics like Burberry (!) in LAYERS for insulation yet removable for if he got too hot from skiing
– Used a new efficient type of sledge with wide runners
– Conserved fuel by using the spangly new Primus stove
– Teamwork skills: Made his crew exercise regularly & do experiments to keep motivation up and boredom down
– Diplomatic skills prevented war between Sweden and Norway

Sports & Hobbies
– Broke the world record for skating over 1 mile aged 18
– Won the national cross-country skiing championship 12 times in a row
– Skied across Greenland aged 27 ‘for a laugh*’
– Enjoyed hunting and fishing**

These days we just don’t see individual all-rounders like Nansen anymore. The closest we probably have is Richard Branson, a dotty millionaire with a taste for adventure. The lack of ‘crackpot’ inventor/explorers in modern times is easily explainable of course: unlike the pipe-smoking Victorians we all have day jobs and can’t just waltz up to the government and ask for funding for zany project X without the backing of a company or organisation, who will inevitably take the credit.

Our quest for novelty has been overtaken by quest for speed and efficiency – ever faster broadband may be life-changing but improvements just aren’t glamorous as new ideas. Can the man in the street tell one microchip from another? Trevor Bayliss is a household name not just because his was a solo effort, but because everyone understands what radios do and can see the clockwork handle going round and round. I don’t know who invented camera phones and I don’t care, because that’s not a proper invention, it’s just putting two functions into one machine.

In modern times health and leisure take scientific priority – we have conquered the day-to-day struggles against nature, even in the most unforgiving climates. We are more likely to predict a result then try and prove it, rather than stumble across science by a ‘Eureka moment’. Nansen definitely had the necessity to mother his inventions – I  wonder if we shall ever see another superstar scientist emerge from the exploration of the last remaining wilderness: SPACE!

*Nansen did carry out scientific experiments on this trip, however the motivation to conquer Greenland was mostly “because it’s there”: ‘Despite the University’s recommendation, the national assembly was loath to grant money to such a hazardous project, one whose benefit to science seemed dubious. However, one thousand dollars from a well-to-do merchant in Copenhagen was sufficient to set the ball rolling.
**A useful talent. When Nansen and Johansen were sitting out the Arctic winter in their tiny cabin, they shot so many walruses for food that polar bears came a-scavenging. They promptly shot the polar bears as well and ate like kings.