Archive for July, 2009

Nick Smith’s feature article on the launch of the Solar Impulse aeroplane in E&T magazine

July 27, 2009

Solar powered flight grows wings

With the unveiling of the first prototype – the HB-SIA – the Solar Impulse environmentally friendly aeroplane project has entered its final test phase. Nick Smith flew (on a fossil fuel powered plane) to Switzerland to find out more

The curtains pull back to reveal the true scale what it takes to build a long-range solar-powered aircraft. Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the two main pilots of the Solar Impulse HB-SIA aircraft, embrace; thumbs up signs are given, arms held aloft. Meanwhile the curtains are still retracting to the walls of a hangar that could easily house a commercial passenger airliner.

The wings go on forever. And they need to: not only are they there to provide the as much lift as possible, they also provide the largest possible surface on which the solar panels that will power the aircraft are mounted. Every spare centimetre is covered. To save weight the fuselage has been designed to be minuscule relative to the wingspan, hardly bigger than a conventional glider. Make no mistake: Solar Impulse HB-SIA is a huge presence. And it’s not even the size of the aircraft that the team will use to fly around the world using nothing but the power of the sun.

During Piccard’s presentation, fact after startling fact emerges. With the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400, the Solar Impulse aeroplane weighs less than an average family car (1,600kg). Close to 12,000 wing-mounted solar panels supply renewable energy to four electric motor gondolas that propel the plane. During the day these panels will also charge the lithium-polymer batteries that will supply power for the night-phase of Solar Impulse’s flight. With the batteries weighing in at 400kg – a quarter of the plane’s total weight – getting the balance right has been one of the key challenges in developing the aircraft.

Piccard explained that the HB-SIA is the first prototype in the Solar Impulse project. In order to save weight and space, the aircraft’s cabin is unpressurised (restricting the maximum height to 8,500m), and this is where the test pilots will assess the feasibility of a complete day-night-day flight over 36 hours, propelled only by electricity generated on board by solar power technology. After fine-tuning, the aircraft is scheduled to make the first of a series of three types of test flights before the end of the year, cumulating in a maiden night flight in Switzerland in 2010.

The prototype has three main objectives. The first is to validate the results of the computer simulations and materials selection decisions. The flight will see how the aircraft performs in real life. Attaining a 63m wingspan with the necessary rigidity, lightness and flight controllability with just 1,600kg take-off weight is an aeronautical challenge that has never been achieved to date. And the flight will show how efficient the energy capture and storage system really is.

The results from the test flights will be fed into specification changes for the second aircraft – the HB-SIB – that will carry out the actual project mission of circumnavigating the world in five stages, each lasting several days, in 2012.

Bertrand Piccard is one of the great explorers of the modern era, perhaps most famous for the first ever non-stop circumnavigation of the globe by balloon. Accompanied by aeronaut Brian Jones, Piccard’s Breitling Orbiter 3 landed in Egypt after a 45,755 km flight lasting 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes, prompting the pilots to co-write the best-selling book ‘Around the World in 20 Days’. But it could have all gone so badly wrong. It was the realisation that the whole project could have been scuppered by lack of fuel that drove him to attempt a further circumnavigation flight – only this time without the use of fossil fuel or its attendant polluting emissions. Solar Impulse was born.

Piccard, who is not known for his ease with measured understatement, said: “If an aircraft is able to fly day and night without fuel, propelled only by solar energy, let no one claim that it is impossible to do the same thing for motor vehicles, heating and air conditioning systems and computers. Through this project we are proclaiming our conviction that a pioneering spirit and political vision can together change society and put an end to fossil fuel dependency.”

In summarising the achievement of the 50 staff employed by the project and the hundreds of experts and advisers who have co-ordinated the technology behind Solar Impulse, Piccard’s colleague Borschberg kept his feet on more solid ground: “A challenge like Solar Impulse,” he said, “can be met only by bringing together engineers from every background.”

At the unveiling of the aircraft the Solar Impulse company hosted a display of some of the components, materials and electronics that went into making the HB-SIA. These include carbon fibre structural pieces such as the wing ribs that give the aerodynamic profile. Despite being so light they can be easily lifted with just your little finger, perhaps the most interesting item is a cockpit instrumentation panel that is effectively a power status summary indicator. Parameters such as rpm and temperature are clearly shown for the four wing-mounted engines, but there is also a series of slider bars that show the condition of batteries or energy accumulators. The batteries are, of course, crucial to the success of the circumnavigation because this is where the surplus energy generated during the day will be stored to power the night-time flying.

Beneath the wings are four gondolas, each containing a 10HP motor, a lithium-polymer battery set and a management system controlling charge/discharge and temperature (represented in the cockpit on the instrument display). The thermal insulation has been designed to conserve the heat radiated by the batteries and to keep them functioning despite the outside air temperature of -40C at 8,500m (roughly the height of Mount Everest). Each engine is fitted with a reducer that limits the rotation of each of the 3.5m diameter, twin-bladed propeller to within the range of 200-4,000rpm (another parameter displayed inside the cockpit).

The energy is gathered by 11,628 monocrystalline silicon cells plastered all over the upper surfaces of the wings and horizontal stabiliser at the rear of the plane. Each cell is 150 microns thick, and has been selected for its light-weight and flexibility. But not, it would seem, for its efficiency. At 22 per cent, the Solar Impulse technical documentation is first to admit, these are nowhere near the most efficient available, but the additional weight required to improve efficiency would have thrown out the mathematical balancing act and the less efficient option won out on other considerations. The designers say that the maximum energy density for the aircraft prototype is 220Wh/kg and only the test flights will be able to provide clues as to whether this needs to be improved upon.

There is only a relatively small part of the day when the solar panels are illuminated at such an angle that they are operating at full efficiency. At midday, each square metre of the wing surface receives the equivalent of 1,000 watts of light power. Over the course of a day this averages out at just 250W/m 2. With 200m2 of photovoltaic cells and with 12 per cent total efficiency of the propulsion chain, the aircraft’s engines achieve, even after extreme optimisation of the energy chain, an average of just 8 HP, which is about the same power as a 50cc motorcycle. Or, in aeronautical terms, roughly the same amount of power the Wright brothers had available to them in 1903 when they made their first powered flight. The difference is that Solar Impulse is generating its own power on board from renewable resources.

Energy management aside, one of the most critical developments has been the electronic instrumentation panel in the cockpit. This allows the pilot to monitor the condition of the flight in two key parameters – ‘bank-angle’ and ‘side-slip’. The Omega instrument panel was the brainchild of Claude Nicollier, former European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, with four space flights under his belt as well as an eight-hour EVA (spacewalk) to his name. Nicollier also sits on the Swatch Group board of directors that has provided financial assistance for the project, as well as the technical expertise to develop a performance simulation and testing system for the aeroplane’s propulsion chain. Omega already had the technical experience in the field of hybrid propulsion, but, more importantly, was in a position to align its own reputation for engineering excellence in the field of high-end horology with an environmentally friendly sustainable energy project.

“I came up with the idea for what we needed from the instrumentation and I made a drawing to show how I thought it could be implemented,” said Nicollier, demonstrating a prototype schematic at the Dübendorf airfield launch. According to Nicollier, there are two fundamental aspects to the instrument. First, there is a precise indication to the pilot of the bank-angle. This is a critical parameter on Solar Impulse, because, according to Nicollier: “Ninety nine per cent of the turns will be made with a bank-angle of less than 5 degrees. If you go beyond 10 degrees it becomes a little bit more difficult to recover. From our simulations we know that if you go beyond 15 or 20 degrees then you cannot recover. You will end up in a spiral dive and you will have to jump out.”

Second, because of Solar Impulse’s large wing-span to length of fuselage ratio, there is the tendency to pronounced sideslip, an error where the plane drifts off course relative to the direction in which it is pointing – in other words, it won’t go in the direction it’s being steered. Nicollier, who will be taking part in the later phases of the test flights, says that in the early simulator runs there was sideslip of up to 15 degrees, “which means that, because you are flying pretty slowly, as you approach a runway, you will not immediately be able to figure out which direction the aeroplane’s flying.” To indicate sideslip, Nicollier has devised an array of blue LEDs with a green light superimposed that tells the pilot at a glance whether he is good to land.

The wider environmental implications of a flagship technical challenge such as Solar Impulse is largely symbolic, giving bodies such as the European Commission a platform to display their green credentials. And there’s no doubt that Bertrand Piccard has made the most of the opportunity to display technology as a force for environmental sustainability. Piccard and Borschberg are travelling the world spreading the word. At the Beijing Olympics they presented Solar Impulse, and they have taken models to India and the UAE. Along the way they have been helped by a group of high profile ambassadors, including Prince Albert II of Monaco, Buzz Aldrin, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Paulo Coelho and Al Gore.

But it is probably the quietly spoken Nicollier who makes the message clearest. “We have not really made any quantum jumps in technology here today,”he said, “but what we have done is used technology at the limit of what is do-able. Ten years ago it was impossible. In ten years it will be much, much easier. If we can use stronger, lighter materials with more efficient energy management systems drawing on renewable resources, we are simply engineering for a better future.”

Solar Impulse HB-SIA – technical datasheet

Wingspan                  63.40m

Length                         21.85m

Height                          6.40m

Weight                         1,600kg

Motor power               4 x 10 HP electric engines

Solar cells                    11,628 (10,748 on wing, 880 on horizontal stabiliser)

Ave. flying speed        70km/h

Take-off speed            35km/h

How Solar Impulse got off the ground

1999 – Birth of an idea. Idea of Solar Impulse comes to Bertrand Piccard as his first round-the-world balloon flight nearly fails due to lack of fuel.

2001-2003 ­– Scientific support. Piccard scours world researching solar power technology and meeting solar aviation specialists. Teams up with André Borschberg. Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) agrees to conduct feasibility study.

2004 – Birth of a company. Solar Impulse SA is founded on 29 June 2004. Core technology team assembled and scientific partnership agreements are signed with EPFL, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Dassault Aviation. Dassault commit to review design of Solar Impulse while providing expertise in fields of aeroelasticity and flight commands, safety and systems reliability.

2004-2007 – Project start-up. Private asset management company Semper become first official supporter, while Belgian industrial group Solvay join as first main partner, providing innovative materials, modelling and simulation. Altran join as engineering partner offering project and risk management as well as aerospace expertise. May 2006 Swiss watch manufacturer Omega join team bringing with them technical expertise of former ESA astronaut Claude Nicollier, who develops instrumentation crucial to landing the plane. Feasibility study confirms that an aeroplane with large wingspan and high aerodynamic efficiency is possible.

2007 – Growing wings. After 4 years of research, Piccard and Borschberg present the final design of the first prototype, HB-SIA. Virtual flight mission in May confirms that the battery arrays can store sufficient energy to run engines all night. Pilot training starts.

2008-2009 – Construction assembly tests. Assembly of cockpit and tail boom begin in September 2008. Central wingspar is made from three rectangular carbon fibre and honeycomb sandwich beams laid end-to-end, totalling 63 metres. Vibration tests confirm that modulus of elasticity is lower than expected; meaning that structural rigidity of Solar Impulse is stronger than expected.

2010-2012 – Flight of tomorrow. After six years of design, calculations, simulation and construction the HB-SIB will embark on night flight tests, culminating in the first circumnavigation of the globe by a solar powered aeroplane.

For further details about the Solar Impulse project visit www.solarimpulse.com

Arctic adventurer Tom Avery discusses his controversial 2005 North Pole expedition with Nick Smith in the Explorers Journal

July 9, 2009

Following in Peary’s frozen footsteps

One of the greatest controversies in polar exploration is that surrounding Robert Peary’s disputed attainment of the North Pole on 6th April 1909. On this centenary, Explorers Journal contributing editor Nick Smith talked to British explorer Tom Avery, who in 2005 set off to prove that the Commander just might have done it…

One of a new generation of young British explorers, Tom Avery is a high achiever in the field of polar adventure. He was the youngest Briton to walk to both the south and north geographic poles – a feat that has only ever been achieved by 41 people. The Guinness Book of Records recognises the second leg of this achievement as ‘the fastest surface journey to the North Pole’. But this was no ordinary sprint. Avery’s 2005 Barclays Capital Ultimate North Expedition set out to retrace Robert Peary’s polar epic of 1909 in an attempt to ground-truth the American’s often disputed claim to have reached the pole in 37 days. In beating the US Naval Commander with merely hours to spare, it was a trip that was to propel Avery – then in his twenties – into the media limelight as one of an exciting new breed of ice adventurer.

But his achievements were met with a frosty reception from the British exploration ‘establishment’, who in a storm of controversy closed ranks around Sir Wally Herbert, the man usually recognised as the first to (undisputedly) walk to the North Pole. Herbert, whose British Trans-Arctic Expedition reached the North Pole on 6th April 1969 (sixty years to the day after Peary) wrote letters criticising Avery’s expedition, accusing Avery of being a ‘glory-seeker’, claiming that the ‘inexperienced’ young Briton had proved nothing. Herbert was understandably defending his widely accepted claim to the Pole as he had done in 1989. This was when he published The Noose of Laurels, in which he analysed Peary’s expedition before concluding that it had no validity. In the absence of any other plausible claim, Avery says, ‘he was effectively crowning himself as the conqueror of the North Pole by default… he acted as both judge and jury.’

Tom Avery’s To the End of the Earth is his account of his controversial expedition as well as an analysis of the historical record that means the names Peary, Herbert and now Avery will always be linked to the place veteran UK polar explorer Pen Hadow called a ‘pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere’. Its publication coincides with the centenary of Robert Peary’s ‘discovery’ of the North Pole on 6th April 1909.

Explorers Journal: What were the objectives of your Ultimate North expedition?

Tom Avery: The plan was to recreate Peary’s journey as closely as possible. You can never do it exactly – that’s impossible. But we said: ‘let’s do it – let’s go from Cape Columbia to the Pole in 37 days.’ It seemed to me that the controversy over whether Peary had got to the pole centered around his travel speeds. There were questions about his navigation and omissions in his journal, but the main crux of the argument was his speed. He’d started off at a fairly moderate pace and rapidly increased towards the end. In his book The Noose of Laurels Wally Herbert said that these daily distances were physically impossible on the polar pack. That was something I was very keen to test.

EJ: How is that possible, with the ice conditions as they are today?

TA: The Arctic Ocean of 2005 and of 1909 are two completely different playing fields. There is far more open water now and the ice pack is thinner, so when pressure ridges form they are actually smaller than in Peary’s day. But they are more numerous and less stable. So in some respects it’s harder to make the journey today. We said that if we could do this then we would demonstrate to Peary’s detractors that his speeds were in fact reasonable.

EJ: You weren’t trying to prove the Peary had got to the pole?

TA: No. It is impossible to prove whether Peary and Henson and the Inuit men reached the pole. When Amundsen reached the South Pole and left his tent there, so when Scott arrived 35 days later, it was all too obvious he’d been beaten. But if you look at Amundsen’s travel speed, had Scott not seen the evidence of Amundsen’s success, it wouldn’t surprise me if some would now doubt the Norwegian’s claim. Even if you could find the glass bottle that Peary left at the Pole you could always argue that it had been left a hundred miles away and it had simply drifted there on the ice.

EJ: Do you think Peary got to the North Pole on 6th April 1909?

TA: All you can do is look at the available evidence and make your own decision. But I believe, having travelled in the same style in slightly faster time, that he got there. Without GPS you can only be certain to a point, of course. When Wally Herbert got to the Pole in 1969 he got to within a mile using the instrumentation he had, set up camp and then boxed it. If Peary got within a couple of miles, then that’s good enough for me.

EJ: What about the trip itself? What’s it like travelling with dogs?

TA: It’s the most exciting, bonding experience I’ve ever experienced on an expedition – we got so close to those animals. We started off a team of 5 people and 16 dogs, but we very quickly became a unit of 21. I probably talked to the dogs far more than my fellow teammates. What they are capable of is awesome. Those animals are at their happiest when they are pulling a 50 stone sled across ice and snow. You wake up in the mornings and they are jumping and barking and wagging their tails and that is all they want to do. Sure towards the end of the day they get pretty grouchy when they’ve had enough. I formed a very close bond with one dog called Ootah named after one of Peary’s Inuit, who was the strongest dog on the team, but for some reason wasn’t very popular with the other dogs.

EJ: What happened to Ootah?

TA: He fell ill and couldn’t pull his weight along with the others. This actually caused the biggest disagreement we had as a team. Some of us were saying ‘he’s not going to make it, let’s replace him’, but I felt very strongly that we should finish the expedition with the same dogs we started off with if possible, and I wanted to nurse him through it if we could. Peary didn’t have the benefit of being able to fly in extra dogs and so why should we? Anyway, Ootah pulled through and he made it to the pole.

EJ: When you returned from the Pole you walked into a media controversy…

TA: The storm blew up pretty quickly and it came about through Wally Herbert –probably the UK’s greatest ice traveller since the days of Scott and Shackleton – who tried to pour cold water on our expedition. I said that based on what we’d achieved Peary’s travel speeds seemed reasonable to me, and that I though that Peary had reached the pole. You’ll never be able to prove it, and some people may disagree, but this is what I think. Sir Wally took this very personally and launched a campaign within the exploration community in the UK to discredit my team’s expedition.

EJ: Do you think Herbert was simply mistaken in claiming he was the first there?

TA: In The Noose of Laurels Sir Wally says some nice things about Peary and how much admiration he has for him. He then analyses Peary’s expedition in minute detail and completely discredits him. He doesn’t actually say the words ‘Peary cheated’, but that is the conclusion the reader draws. We were a bit hurt and insulted about some of the allegations Sir Wally came up with – for example he said that because we’d only spent 37 days on the ice compared with his 400-plus, we were in no position to comment on Peary’s expedition, which is nonsense.

EJ: What do you think Sir Wally would have made of your new book?

TA: I think it’s incredibly sad that Sir Wally is no longer with us, but if he were I think he’d go through this book with a fine-toothed comb and come up with all sorts of arguments about what we had and hadn’t done on the 2005 expedition. That would have been not bad thing because it would have been nice to have an argument about the facts as opposed to my motives, as was the case three years ago.

EJ: What next for Tom Avery?

TA: For me, 2009 is all about telling the world about Peary and Henson’s remarkable journey a century ago. I’m going to be spending a lot of the time in the US, lecturing around the country, including at the Explorers Club. The highlight of the North Pole centenary celebrations takes place on the morning of April 6th at Arlington National Cemetery where I have been working closely with the US Navy to organise a big military ceremony in Peary and Henson’s honour at their gravesites. The presidents of both the Explorers Club and the National Geographic Society will be there, along with members of Peary and Henson’s families, my North Pole team, plus a host of other dignitaries. It’s going to be a very special, emotional, goose-bumper of an occasion.

Published in the Explorers Journal, Nick Smith, Spring 2009]


Former Focus magazine editor Nick Smith reviews Mark Mackenzie’s ‘Wildest Dream’ for BBC Focus

July 9, 2009

The Wildest Dream: in the footsteps of Mallory and Irvine

By Mark Mackenzie, £20, John Murray, hb, 248pp, ISBN 978-0-7195-2482-0

One of the greatest mysteries in mountaineering is that surrounding whether George Mallory and his colleague Andrew Irvine got to the top of Mount Everest during their fatal ascent in 1924.

The evidence has been debated for decades, and yet the puzzle has remained steadfastly unsolved. Not until 1999, when the legendary Conrad Anker led a team that found Mallory’s remains, was there sufficient new data to allow more informed opinions. But even these divided the mountaineering community.

Plagued by the desire to know what really happened, Anker decided to reconstruct his predecessors’ expedition to see if the fearsome Second Step that leads to the summit could be ‘free climbed’ in original gear. This at least would pave the way for the possibility that Mallory and Irvine might, just might have done what Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay indisputably achieved in 1953.

And so the 2007 Altitude Everest expedition was born, the experienced Anker in charge with young ‘rock star’ prodigy Leo Houlding part of the final assault team.

The Wildest Dream is the story of all three expeditions published as a precursor to a film of the same name that goes on release this summer. It’s good solid stuff and Mackenzie – an experienced journalist who accompanied the Altitude Everest expedition as far as Base Camp – has done a terrific job in conveying the misery, danger and exhilaration of life on the world’s tallest mountain.

I’m not going to steal Mackenzie’s thunder by blowing the end, but you can be sure that The Wildest Dream is a superb yarn of high adventure. As Mackenzie says towards the end: ‘whether or not they had reached the summit, they had climbed higher on the mountain than anyone before them, with none of the benefits, unreliable oxygen excepted, enjoyed by their modern counterparts.’

Nick Smith is UK editor of the Explorers Journal and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society

‘Wildest Dream’ book review for BBC Focus magazine, by Nick Smith, April 2009]

Nick Smith reviews Buzz Aldrin’s new book ‘Magnificent Desolation’ in E&T magazine

July 9, 2009

Magnificent Desolation

By Buzz Aldrin, with Ken Abraham

Fighter pilots aren’t any good at poetry and are trained to keep their emotions in check. So says Buzz Aldrin in the latest installment of his autobiography ‘Magnificent Desolation’ that takes its name from a memorable phrase he uttered while walking on the moon in July 1969. ‘It was a spontaneous utterance, an oxymoron that would take on ever-deeper dimensions of meaning in describing this strange new environmet’ he writes early on in the book.

In fact ‘Magnificent Desolation’ starts on the upper platformon Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39-A, just as Aldrin is about to enter the Apollo Command Module prior to take-off. What happens over the next week or so is well-known, but such a terrific yarn that Buzz tells it gain. But it is the ‘Long Journey Home from the Moon’ that occupies the remainder of the book, and as his subtitle seems to imply, in many ways it was a much more dangerous journey.

The fabric of Aldrin’s life since Apollo 11 is woven with many threads. There is his devotion to the public understanding of space, his long-running one-man crusade to get NASA moving in a positive direction; And yet there are a pair loose threads that continually threatens to unravel the whole thing: depression and alcoholism. Faced with the awkward question of ‘what’s next?’, after the Lunar Landing, Aldrin hit the bottle hard and it retaliated. Failed marriages, long dark nights of the soul, physical immobility, the loss of dignity, all spiraling downwards hand-in-hand with their attendant depression. It was a horrible existence and Aldrin was a sick man. In some ways it’s harder to be a down-and-out when you’re an all-American hero and a moon-walker too. As Aldrin’s father, a distinguished aviator in his own right, continually urged his high-achieving son: pull yourself together.

Easier said than done, and after a spell of trying to sell cadillacs to a public that only wanted his autograph he saw ‘the long journey home from the moon’ as being one of public disclosure. He told the world he was ill, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on a daily basis, dried out, fell off the wagon and dried out again with a cyclical monotony that seemed to bore even himself. And when this happened he’d stay in bed and watch daytime TV.

Every superman needs his Lois, and when he married Lois Driggs Cannon, on Valentine’s Day in 1988 it seemed the only way was up. More than two decades later they are still together touring the world, lecturing on the future of space, dining with the crowned heads of Europe facing their second Recession together. In the early 1990s the private bank Mrs Aldrin was heiress to collapsed leaving the couple virtually penniless and having to build up from the floor. This is when Buzz became the extraordinary freelance astronaut he is today.

Nothing if not entrepreneurial by nature Aldrin is a pioneer even today. He has exploits his celebrity to lobby governments and to inspire school children alike. He has been one of the biggest supporters of space tourism and has launched the Sharespace foundation to try to get ordinary people up there. He’s had a best selling toy named after him and he’s been on the Simpsons. He famously kept a straight face while interviewed by Ali G and punched a conspiracy theorist journalist’s lights out when told his whole life was ‘a lie’. He likes to wear his dress whites and be seen with beautiful women, and he can compute orbital mechanics in his head. Buzz Aldrin’s story is amazing, and his new book Magnificent Desolation is inspirational.

Nick Smith’s review of ‘Managing Executive Health’ for E&T magazine

July 6, 2009

Managing Executive Health

By James Campbell Quick, Cary L Cooper, Joanne H Gavin, and Jonathan D Quick

Cambridge University Press, £19.99, pb, pp238

There’s never been a worse time to be a manager. Global markets undergoing inexorable pressure, universal job insecurity and a culture of corporate flux all add up to business communities entering a state of chaos. The responsibility of providing secure careers in a stable economic environment for your employees has been relegated in favour of responding to the demand to return profits to the board or shareholders. Executive stress has understandably reached epidemic proportions.

But, says the team of four distinguished authors responsible for the excellent Managing Executive Health, managers can respond positively to this pressure provided they are in good shape physically and mentally. The book’s subtitle – ‘Personal and Corporate Strategies for Sustained Success’ – promises, and delivers, a sensible and serious approach to an issue based on scientific research and academic methodologies. It’s also very readable. The boxed-out case studies of high-profile executives provide an air of unmistakable authority. These include: Lee Thurburn (founder, Flashnet communications), Gerald Arpey (president and CEO, American Airlines) and Len Roberts (former chairman and CEO, Radio Shack).

As a group, managers work too hard, spend too little time with their families, drink and smoke too much, are overweight, don’t exercise enough, are prone to stress and don’t sleep properly. Under the pressure to deliver results they are also vulnerable to loss of spiritual vitality and ethical focus. This is no good, say the authors, because you can’t perform at your best if you are suffering from any or all of these symptoms. Loneliness, excess travel, failure in the face of crises and repeated exposure to risk all exert their toll. It may seem obvious, but say the authors, one of the best ways to tackle these issues is to meet them head on with physical and mental fitness.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. At one point the authors examine the five classic objections to taking exercise: lack of time, boredom, injury, inconvenience and basic sloth. Perhaps we all recognise these symptoms, but where the authors are particularly helpful is in providing positive ways of looking at these objections. By the time I’d finished the chapter on physical health I had my walking boots on. Of course, on one level this is all common sense, but if we were all blessed with common sense there’d logically be no requirement for books such as Managing Executive Health.

Logic, of course, is the first victim of pressure, and so a handbook that argues clearly and concisely the benefits of exercise and health management in the workplace could not be more welcome. Most business books are about succeeding in terms of professional ambition, but Managing Executive Health is far more important in that it deals with the more serious issue of succeeding in staying healthy in an unhealthy environment. The message is clear: your health is your finest management attribute, so look after it. An extremely valuable book, Managing Executive Health could literally save your life.

Nick smith is management editor of E&T magazine and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Link’ as appeared in Bookdealer magazine, July 2009

July 6, 2009

Muddied waters that drug and drown

Nick Smith reviews The Link, by Colin Tudge

Little, Brown, HB, £18.99 · ISBN 978-1-4087-0214-7

Here’s the story. Very important fossil turns up at a trade fair in Germany. Scientists agree that it could provide vital information about how we evolved into humans. The same scientists cut a deal with the media, agreeing to keep the fossil secret until a coordinated media campaign of book, movie and website can be released simultaneously. In May 2009 we’re reading breaking news about the 47-million-year-old fossil in the Daily Telegraph, and before the month is out Colin Tudge’s The Link is available in airport bookstores the world over. For a science story the PR machinery is very slick, very professional and maybe just a touch cynical. But this is the 21st century and there’s no reason why modern marketing techniques can’t be applied to the once august world of palaeontology. After all, if Sir David Attenborough is to be believed, we are dealing with ‘an extraordinary fossil’.

Extraordinary fossils can’t exist with standard binomial nomenclature, the Latin or scientific name given to all species. As with serial killers, snooker players and drummers, there is a cultural imperative attached to the jaunty nickname. The last great fossil that was going to change the world was the hominid Australopithecus afarensis, found in the 1970s in Ethiopia. Groovy scientists of the day named the creature Lucy after a Beatles song about hallucinogenic drugs. Today Darwinius masillae, a small female lemur-like creature that might stem from the very root of homo sapien development, has been named Ida. Found in Germany in the 1980s, but kept in a private collection until 2006, Ida gets her name from Jørn Hurum, the man who bought her for the Natural History Museum in Oslo for one million dollars. The fossil so reminded Hurum of his little daughter he decided that they should share the same name. A curious decision, given how un-human the animal appears, and yet by naming her Hurum has cannily anthropomorphised her sufficiently to appeal to the human side of newspaper editors. The ploy, if it was one, worked because there has been a flurry of media activity surrounding Ida, with popular science writers, including Tudge, claiming that she is the ‘missing link’. As Bookdealer goes to print, we are experiencing a somewhat predictable backlash from popular science writers who didn’t get the commission to write The Link saying that Ida isn’t any such thing. At the same time the academic community has behaved as only academic communities can when feeling snubbed: crying foul at every turn. It’s bad science, they winge. It’s not the Mona Lisa of the fossil world; spending such sums on fossils creates a black market; and the newspapers are focusing on the interesting bits and not the real issues. If only their sour grapes were as coordinated as the Ida media machine, we might have a real debate on our hands.

Tudge tells us that for a fossil to reach the light of day, several highly unlikely events need to happen. For a mammal such as Ida to be preserved so perfectly requires huge coincidences, and the odds are significantly stacked against the fossil forming. Then factor in the likelihood of it being found and you’ve got what the betting man might call a long shot. This is one of the reasons why the fossil record is so patchy, and also explains why we attach disproportionate significance to finds such as Ida. We instinctively feel Ida might be important because she is rare, while in actual fact her rarity is more likely to give her financial rather than scientific value.

One of the questions The Link addresses is how we came to have such a perfectly preserved fossil of Ida in the first place. Close inspection of the specimen reveals that she had a broken arm. Scientists think that although Darwinius masillae was probably a tree dweller, Ida’s injury would have prevented her from foraging for food and water in the canopy. So she went to the edge of a lake to drink. As the lake released its pockets of carbon dioxide Ida was overpowered and, unable to climb away from the toxic gas, was effectively drugged. While unconscious, she slipped into the muddy lake and drowned. She must have sank quickly, unnoticed by scavenging predators, into the oxygen-free sediment at the bottom of the lake, where over the years she became compressed, mineralised and perfectly preserved… As for her discovery, that’s a tale of municipal banality involving the development of a landfill site on the precise spot where she met her fate.

One of the strengths of The Link is that it’s simply a great story. For all the controversy over Ida’s significance, there’s no escaping from the fact that The Link is a terrific advertisement for just how exciting a field of scientific research palaeontology can be, and Tudge has done well to present complex and sometimes arcane information in a readily digestible way. His ability to weave data and background information into a compelling detective story means that his book should become one of the most fashionable popular science titles of the year. Having said that, it should be pointed out that while billed as the author on the cover of The Link, Tudge is not the only author. Josh Young provides the journalistic introductory chapters that tell how the fossil came to the wider public’s attention, and reappears at the end to wrap up with some rhetorical questions about the significance of the find. The substantial middle section – the science bit – is Tudge’s analysis of the palaeontology of the early primates and the geological conditions that contribute to the preservation of such a fossil.

It was the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur who said that in the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind. And so with Ida. If you go looking for the missing link you’ll find it – only, just as there are many Silk Roads, so are there many missing links. The sad fact is that while Ida may be a wonderful specimen, she does little more than patch another item of inconclusive data onto a hiatus in the fossil record. Interesting though she may be, Ida doesn’t tell us anything dramatic about why we’re human.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal

Review of ‘the Link’ for Bookdealer, by Nick Smith, June 2009]

Nick Smith’s feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, Summer 2009

July 6, 2009

The mighty Nimrod – a century on

This year sees the centenary of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, otherwise known as Nimrod, after the ship on which Ernest Shackleton and his men travelled to the White Continent. Explorers Journal Contributing Editor Nick Smith discussed the significance of the Sir Ernest’s first major expedition as leader with his only granddaughter, the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton.

The story of Nimrod, the first major expedition to be led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, is one of the great tales of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Admiral Sir Edward Evans – who had been on Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1902–1904 with Shackleton – described it as ‘a good, sound, scientific programme’.

But the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–1909, to name it correctly, has been overshadowed by other events in the Polar Regions, including the failure of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s heroic rescue mission of the crew of the Endurance. So well known are these later expeditions that it is easy to forget the real impact of Nimrod, the stout little sealer that departed London on 20th July 1907. Having been tugged from New Zealand to the limits of the Antarctic ice, the vessel, overloaded with coal, had a steaming radius that would allow its captain to explore as far as the Bay of Whales, before settling on Cape Royds as the expedition’s shore base.

From this historic hut – where Shackleton wintered in 1908 – a party of four men set out on one of the greatest sledge journeys in history. After passing Scott’s ‘farthest South’, every new feature became Shackleton’s own discovery. His expedition attained the South Geomagnetic Pole, made the first ascent of the White Continent’s highest mountain, discovered coal and fossils, experimented with motorised transport and made an heroic attempt on the Geographical Pole. Despite the many brushes with death, Nimrod was, as Evans later wrote, an ‘eminently successful expedition.’

On 4th March 1909 Nimrod departed the Antarctic ice edge on the home leg of the British Antarctic Expedition. And although the expedition had not succeeded in its ultimate goal ­– the attainment of the South Pole – it was arguably the most important and significant excursion to Antarctica up until that date. Every one of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic band of men returned to safety.

Nick Smith: How did the Nimrod expedition come about?

Alexandra Shackleton: Nimrod was Shackleton’s first expedition as leader. He went South originally with Captain Scott on the Discovery expedition. He was part of Scott’s Southern Party that got to within a few hundred miles of the Pole. But he regarded the Pole as unfinished business. And so he put together the Nimrod expedition. There were scientific objectives as well as those of exploration, but in fact what he really wanted was the Pole.

NS: What do you think that Nimrod achieved?

AS: Nimrod did achieve a lot: The first ascent of Mount Erebus as well as the publication of the first book in the Antarctic, Aurora Australis. Lots of valuable scientific work was undertaken. Coal was discovered and the South Magnetic Pole was reached. It sounds quite simple to reach the magnetic pole, but in fact it moves about according to the angle of the earth’s magnetic field. After an epic trek of 1,260 miles unsupported ­– a record that stood for 80 years – the expedition managed to achieve that. But it wasn’t all success. The first motorcar was taken and that didn’t work out.

NS: But your grandfather didn’t get to the South Pole?

AS: Ernest Shackleton did not get what he most wanted from the Nimrod expedition. He did not get to the Pole. He got 366 miles nearer than the Discovery expedition, but at 97 miles from the Pole he took the decision to turn back. They were all in a bad state physically. The altitude of the Polar Plateau was affecting them badly as well as the lack of food. He could possibly have struggled on to the Pole, but he knew it was unlikely that he would bring his men back alive. So he decided to turn back: a decision that has been described as one of the great decisions in polar history, one of which I am extremely proud. To turn his back on glory for the sake of life – it really defined him as a leader and it defined his priorities. We are all defined by our priorities. His priorities were quite simply his men. Afterwards he said to my grandmother: ‘I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.’

NS: The British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 is more commonly known after the ship Nimrod. What can you tell me about the ship itself?

AS: The ship was a very small, forty-year old sealer, originally called Bjorn. Small and tatty. All my grandfather’s ships were secondhand. In fact, the only purpose-built polar ship of the time was Scott’s Discovery, which cost Scott as much as the entire Nimrod expedition. Nimrod set sail from London, but in fact Ernest Shackleton joined the ship in New Zealand. In order to save coal Nimrod was then towed ­­– the longest tow for a very long time – down to the Antarctic Circle. Nightmare tow, nightmare weather. The Koonya was the tug that carried out the tow and at one stage the weather was so bad the ships could only just see the tops of each other’s masts. It was an incredible feat of seamanship that the line was kept as it should have been. And Nimrod was quite overloaded with supplies for winter. My grandfather said that the ship looked like a reluctant schoolboy being dragged to school.

NS: In the context of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Nimrod is not the best known of expeditions, but perhaps is one of the most important. Why do you think it has been overshadowed?

AS: It’s not Shackleton’s best-known expedition, but I think it was as important as the others, quite honestly. Of course, with the Endurance expedition there was an epic rescue involving the James Caird, not quite 23-foot, 800 miles across the stormy seas of the world, with the men waiting on Elephant Island and the rescue party climbing the unclimbed peaks of South Georgia.

NS: In 1908 Nimrod returned to New Zealand and then in 1909 it arrived back in Antarctica to collect the expedition team…

AS: Every single man returned. That’s why when I recently went to visit my Grandfather’s Nimrod expedition base hut at Cape Royds – beautifully conserved by the Antarctica Heritage Trust – it looked as if they had just stepped out. It was an incredible experience. First you notice the smell of wood and leather, and then you notice that it’s lit by natural light. And then you notice the hams hanging up and the socks and the clothes and the Mrs Sam stove. I felt a great wave of grief because I’m looking at the past, and the past as the cliché has it, won’t come again. But afterwards, after I had processed the experience, I decided that the hut itself is not a sad place because everyone came back alive.

NS: The point of your recent voyage to Antarctica to visit your grandfather’s hut?

AS: Yes. A documentary was being made about me by a New Zealand filmmaker called Mary-Jo Tohill to record the visit to my grandfather’s hut for the very first time in the Nimrod year. It’s a long voyage. The Ross Sea is a very long way away. The ice was extremely bad and we couldn’t get to all the places we wanted to get to, even in a powerful icebreaker. But we did get to Cape Royds and it was an astonishing experience, for which I’m very grateful. All my life I wanted to visit it.

NS: What is the hut like?

AS: It’s about 30 by 15 feet. Fifteen men wintered in it, and other expeditions used it too. It’s a permanent building in that it’s still there, but it was prefabricated in England, taken apart and re-erected there. The packing cases were taken apart and used for things like furniture, and of course the covers of Aurora Australis. Two members of the expedition took a short course and they were lent a small press. But of course it was incredibly difficult because there was all the volcanic dust – the scoria – that one walks through because Erebus, a live volcano, is nearby. And the ink would freeze and you’d drop a plate and you’d have to start all over again. It was painstaking and a huge achievement of very high standard. You would not think that they had not printed before.

NS: Do you think Aurora Australis tells us much about the Nimrod expedition?

AS: Aurora Australis is effectively a Nimrod anthology. The subjects range from science to fantasy, from humour to poetry. Ernest Shackleton contributed two of his poems. The humour has changed a bit – some of the things they thought funny we don’t think quite so funny today. And of course generously illustrated too. We don’t know exactly how many were produced – probably not more than a hundred. One was discovered recently in a barn in Northumberland. I think it was sold for about £56,000 (around $100,000 dollars) and I think that was the top price. Obviously, condition makes a difference and whether Shackleton or any of the others had signed it. I think Aurora not only throws light on the members of the expedition and how they thought a hundred years ago, but also on the leader who chose these men. They are like this, and he chose these people.

NS: What do you think s the legacy of Nimrod?

AS: The significance of Nimrod is that it defined Ernest Shackleton as a leader. There has been a great upsurge of interest in him over the past ten years for one reason: Leadership.

Nimrod expedition in cold, hard facts

Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley. Tannatt William Edgeworth David leading a party of three reached the region of the South Magnetic Pole (72 • 42 º S, 155 • 27 º E) and took possession for Britain of Victoria Land there, 16 January 1909, and at Cape Bernacchi, 17 October 1908. Dogs and ponies used for some sledge hauling. Visited Macquarie Island, searched for ‘Dougherty’s Island’. First experiments in motor transport in Antarctica, an Arrol Johnston motor car was used with limited success; ciné photographs of penguins and seals were made. The expedition use New Zealand postage stamps specially overprinted ‘King Edward VII Land’ and an expedition canceller; Shackleton was appointed Post-Master. Book Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made. [To conserve coal, in January 1908, Nimrod was towed 2700km from Lyttleton to the ice edge by Koonya (reached 66 • 52º S) which visited Campbell Island during the return voyage. The hut at Cape Royds is now protected as a ‘historic site’.]

Extracted with permission from A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09, by Robert Keith Headland

Feature on ‘Nimrod Centenary’ for Explorers Journal, by Nick Smith May 2009]