Book Review – Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen

It’s winter time in Europe which means its dark and cold right now. While I mostly write about books I’ve read that deal with past and present communication technology and computing, I thought I’d make an exception today for a different book on a totally unrelated topic I recently read that fits the season. My choice fell on a classic, ‘Farthest North’, written by Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen 120 years ago in 1897 about his 3 year voyage to reach the North Pole. On second thought, the book is perhaps not so much off-topic after all because after reading this book I got a much deeper appreciation of the enormous changes wireless communication brought about since then.

The book comes in two volumes and is available as an epub free of charge (due to the expired copyright) for example at Project Gutenberg. While the equipment for polar exploration is obviously much better today, I can quite imagine that doing the same thing all over again today, i.e. letting your ship be frozen into the ice and thus being carried from East to West by the moving ice would still pretty much be the same experience except for one important thing:

Back 120 years ago, wireless communication was just in its infancy and Nansen and his comrades, just like all nautical explorers before them, did not have a radio on board. In other words they were cut off from the outside world for 3 years without any means to communicate. Like for all explorers before them who were away for many years but not for many after that time, this must have been incredibly tough and perhaps even tougher for their families at home.

Fast forward to today and there are few if any places on this planet where explorers would be really unable to communicate with the outside world. Imagine we finally get our act together and go to Mars one day. Even on this trip through the solar system, explorers would not be separated from the rest of the world for such a long time. The only inconvenience would be that in the worst case a radio signal takes around 20 minutes to and from Earth so real time communication would not be possible. Also there is a period of a few weeks when direct communication is not possible when the sun is directly between the two planets. But perhaps even that could be bridged by satellites in orbit around the sun with one always being located at a suitable angle between Earth and Mars acting as a relay. In other words, even if explorers went to Mars or any celestial body in the solar system today they wouldn’t be as far away from their loved ones as those explorers were back 120 years ago and before.

Anyway, if you are looking for something exciting but not quite communication technology centric to read for a change, have a look Farthest North volume I and volume II on Project Gutenberg!