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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Competition

Following our most recent selection challenge, the final shortlist for the last place on the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 has been decided. Four people are still in the running and I couldn’t be happier that I’m one of them! The last test we’re going to be set will centre on ice survival skills in Arctic Norway from the end of this month. I’m incredibly excited and can’t decide whether to steel myself with ice baths or to squeeze out the dregs of the autumn sun...

Not surprisingly, this past week I’ve been reflecting on what role competition played in the life of Captain Scott. The leadership position on his first polar expedition, the Discovery mission, was filled by competitive written application. The applications were pored over by a 32-strong expedition committee, but Captain Scott was fortunate to have won the favour of the chair, Sir Clements Markham (president of the Royal Geographical Society), who had encouraged Captain Scott to apply in the first place.

One of the most famous images from the Terra Nova expedition; taken by H Ponting. On the left is T Griffith Taylor (geologist) and on the right is Charles Wright (physicist). The timing of this photograph was lucky. Just ten minutes later, the iceberg (through the grotto of which we can see the Terra Nova) swung round. 


The competitions to join the respective crews of his Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions were fierce. In the planning stages, 8 000 men volunteered for 64 places on the Terra Nova expedition. It is interesting to guess at the various applicants’ motivations, not least because many of the crew members eventually chosen had effectively agreed to demotions from their career positions. Compounded with the prospect of years spent away from loved ones, it’s clear that a spot on the teams was highly prized.

Especially in the dark, overwintering periods, Captain Scott was mindful that his crew needed to be kept active to stave off ‘winter blues’ or what we would now call seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In 1902, on the Discovery expedition a windmill was erected and electric light strung up, under which all kinds of competitive sporting activities (including ski races and football matches) kept the men sharp and boredom at bay. Indoors, chess and parlour games were popular, though some took them more seriously than others – Captain Scott would struggle to hide his displeasure when he lost at chess.

Another way in which ‘competition’ must have crept into Captain Scott’s polar forays is, as any schoolboy biologist can tell you, through the Gaussian Principle of Competitive Exclusion. This notion in ecology is that species differentiate to exploit different portions of the total natural resource available (e.g. sunlight, water, food), leaving the remainder for neighbouring species. The result is that even in apparently crowded conditions, each species can enjoy its own niche in some degree of splendid isolation. I think a similar principle can apply in the group dynamics of an expedition, and that Captain Scott encouraged his team members to each fulfil the role that best suited their strengths and their temperament.

Of course, each of them had been recruited with particular skills in mind (e.g. scientific background/experience with ponies), but Captain Scott didn’t treat his crew as an undifferentiated lump, as we can see from his keen journal observations. A team where each member is valued for who they are is a happy team – crucial when there are no early exits from a three year sojourn.

Fish trapping

I guess any comment on Captain Scott and ‘competition’ is going to have to look at the relation between his expedition and Roald Amundsen’s. Ranulph Fiennes, in his excellent biography of Captain Scott, firmly and convincingly dismisses any nonsense about Scott having ‘raced’ Amundsen to the South Pole. Certainly, by the time Amundsen shared his Antarctic intentions with Captain Scott, Scott’s plans to conduct scientific studies en route to the Pole were set, and he never intended to deviate from these plans – had ‘priority’ at the Pole been the primary concern, the science would have fallen by the wayside. It’s to Captain Scott’s credit and the benefit of all of us that he pursued the lines of inquiry that he did. In future weeks, I’m going to look more closely at the scientific outputs of the Discovery and Terra Nova  expeditions.

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About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.