The power of awe in extreme environments

Yosemite Valley, 2014 (Emma B)

Yosemite Valley, 2014 (Emma B)

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” – John Muir The Yosemite (1912), page 256.

In recent talks (at Futurefest and Words by the Water) I mentioned that one of the most common features of accounts of extreme environments – and one of the many motivations for choosing them – is the experience of being in natural landscapes. And not just any natural landscapes – landscapes that inspire awe.

Alongside fear, awe is one of the most powerful and profound emotions experienced by individuals in extreme environments.

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Five lessons from extreme places

Another guest blog post, this time for the OUP Academic blog. Click through for the entire post! Throughout history, some people have chosen to take huge risks. What can we learn from their experiences? Extreme activities, such as polar exploration, deep-sea diving, mountaineering, space faring, and long-distance sailing, create extraordinary physical and psychological demands. The Read more about Five lessons from extreme places[…]

What I’ve been reading

Here’s what’s caught my eye over the last few days – all relevant to research and stories we discuss in Extreme. Introduction to astronaut bioethics: Patrick Lin and Keith Abney from Cal Poly’s Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group provide a thought-provoking guide to the ethical and legal pitfalls we might face in long distance, long duration space Read more about What I’ve been reading[…]

A doomed balloon trip

Pnoto by Nils Strindberg

Pnoto by Nils Strindberg

The Polar Museum (part of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge) has launched an exhibition called The Thing is… which explores the collection and curation of museum objects. Object of the month this month is this photo of the hot air balloon which, in 1897, carried Salomon August Andrée, an ambitious Swedish scientist, on an audacious and ultimately disastrous attempt to discover the North Pole.  A poster of the same photograph hangs on my kitchen wall.

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Sleepless extremes

Commander Dick Truly & Guion Bluford sleep in Challenger (1983). NASA https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasacommons/7678545864

Commander Dick Truly & Guion Bluford sleep in Challenger (1983). NASA

Bad sleep in hard places is so common, and so potentially debilitating, that we devoted a whole chapter to it in Extreme. Decades of research has shown that sleep deprivation has corrosive and dangerous effects on a range of functions, including attention, memory, ability to perform complex tasks, judgement of risk, and moodiness. It even gets in the way of effective team-working. This all means that sleep deficiency makes people error- and accident-prone – which is definitely something you want to avoid in extreme and dangerous environments.

Space is one extreme environment where sleep deficiency is common and particularly unwelcome. Astronauts in orbit generally suffer from bad sleep. For one thing, night and day does not really exist – astronauts experience 16 sunrises and sunsets in one earth day – which disturbs natural circadian rhythms. Furthermore, crew members may work in shifts, and bedtimes can often be delayed when there are urgent (or a high number of) tasks to complete.

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The life sub-aquatic

Photo credit: NASA. NEEMO 11 astronaut/aquanauts Robert L. Behnken and Sandra H. Magnus (inside habitat) take a moment to pose for a photo during a session of extravehicular activity (EVA) for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project (2006). https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasa2explore/9369206225

Photo credit: NASA. NEEMO 11 astronaut/aquanauts Robert L. Behnken and Sandra H. Magnus (inside habitat) take a moment to pose for a photo during a session of extravehicular activity (EVA) for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project (2006). 

On 3 September, the BBC broadcast a half hour radio programme on efforts to build habitats under the sea. The presenter, scuba diver and marine biologist Helen Scales stays on the Aquarius Reef Base and talks to the ‘aquanauts’ who live and work under the sea.

Aquarius is a research station run by Florida International University, which is also used to train astronauts for life on the International Space Station (ISS), but living under the sea is not a new idea. The first human undersea habitats date back to Jacques Cousteau’s ‘Conshelf’ underwater village, which he built and inhabited in the Red Sea. Later the US Navy built three ‘SeaLabs’, and NASA also funded the ‘Tektite’ habitats.

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Being alone

Photo by anoldent on Flickr (Creative Commons License) https://www.flickr.com/photos/anoldent/540963131

Photo by anoldent on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

In Chapter 6 of Extreme we discuss research relevant to solitude: how people in extreme environments cope with extended periods of isolation, why some people are well-suited to long periods of time alone while others suffer psychological breakdown, and how we can all benefit from some time alone.

As well as the scholarly literature, we drew on many accounts of solitary endeavours. A particularly rich source was the accounts of long-distance solo sailors. People have attempted single-handed circumnavigations since the Nineteenth Century sailor Joshua Slocum first sailed alone around the world. Some cope well, whereas others are broken by the experience. In the latter category, Donald Crowhurst is probably the most well-known, thanks in part to the masterful account of his ‘strange last voyage’ by Tomalin and Hall.

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