CHAST: Why Do It the Hard Way? Reflections of an Antarctic Explorer

10 May 2012
Syd Kirkby
Syd Kirkby

Presented by CHAST - the Centre for Human Aspects of Science and Technology at the University of Sydney.

Antarctic research stations and field journeys are used by NASA as allegories for long term space travel in their studies of the likely human complexities to be managed in that endeavour. As well as the emotional and psychological burdens arising in the worlds smallest and most isolated communities there remain, despite diligent endeavours to minimise them, real physical hardships and dangers.

In the past, the degree of isolation, the physical hardships and the dangers of Antarctic endeavour have been many times as great as they now are. Indeed, many of the early exploratory journeys could never have been accepted by any ethics committee because of their risk level. That they occurred speaks to the determination of the participants and the courage of the then managers of our Antarctic program to allow them.

These early endeavours were always necessary precursors to modern, somewhat less arduous or dangerous, studies, which could not have proceeded without them. Given that despite the deprivations, difficulties and dangers having long been understood, scientists, and others, have always competed very vigorously to be part of them, it is reasonable to conclude that those seeking to pursue their science or technology in Antarctica did, and do, so in the expectation of exceptional rewards commensurate with the known exceptional disincentives.

Syd Kirkby will review from the perspective of his long term association with Australia's Antarctic endeavours the nature of the disincentives and seek to explain the far outweighing rewards.

Syd Kirkby is a surveyor who has spent practically all his working life in mapping and geodesy.

In 1954, while still a student he was selected as astronomer/navigator with the joint Commonwealth/WA State Government Great Sandy Desert Expedition and used this background as a credential for selection as surveyor with the 1956 Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) which wintered at MacRobertson Land, Antarctica. At this time approximately 85% of this huge continent, almost twice the size of Australia, was unexplored and, indeed, mostly unseen, by any living creature. By ship voyages, many months-long dog sledging journeys, aircraft flights and over-snow vehicle journeys he continued personal involvement with the exploration and mapping of Antarctica until the mid 1960s. During these years there was an explosion of geographical knowledge unmatched until the recent explorations of space. When the exploration phase was completed in the mid to late 1960s he oversaw for some years the Australian Antarctic mapping programme.

Between Antarctic sojourns he worked on Australian topographic mapping in various capacities and in 1976 assumed responsibility for the national topographic mapping programme. He retired from that position when the last map of the national programme was compiled in 1984.

He was awarded the Polar Medal in 1957 and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1965. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Geographical Society in 1997. In its canon of the 20th century The Australian newspaper named him as one of the 10 Australian Adventurers of the Century, in such company as Douglas Mawson, Charles Kingsford-Smith and Frank Hurley. He firmly denies the charge, on the grounds that he has not an adventurer's bone in his body. He was awarded the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland in 2002.

Time: 6.00pm

Location: Old Geology Lecture Theatre, University of Sydney

Cost: Free

Contact: Dr Valerie Morris

Phone: (02) 9351 5080

Email: 14531f4b2b350a365e39790018301e15155a09353c431111

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