A Bad Thing That Could Have Easily Happened Not That Long Ago, But Would Be Highly Unlikely To Occur Today

I recently heard the story of Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer who got his big-ass sailboat Endurance stuck in a sheet of ice in Antarctica in the early 1900’s.

After his boat got stuck, Shackleton had assumed that he and his crew could wait for spring when the ice would melt and the boat would be freed up. Instead, the ice ended up crushing the entire ship and sending it to the bottom of the ocean.

So, for a year and a half, Shackleton and his crew were forced to camp on a floating sheet of ice and figure out how to get back to civilization. 

All of the horrendous things you’d expect to happen in a situation like this happened: starvation, frostbite, killing and eating all of the animals they had on board (mostly dogs). They burned seal blubber for heat in an attempt to survive nights that dipped 92 degrees below zero.

Eventually, Shackleton and five of his men sailed 900 miles in a 20-foot lifeboat towards where they believed the nearest inhabited island was. After battling 20-foot seas for weeks, they found the island and hiked for three days to find the island's single whaling outpost.

Months later, they were able to return and rescue the crew they had left behind.

Today, a situation this bleak is hard to imagine. We've charted most of the world and are less likely to be taken by surprise by environmental conditions. We can manufacture boats capable of powering through the ice. Our communication networks are far more pervasive and redundant.

We've learned from centuries of trial and error and have incorporated those lessons into our tools and our common sense, making us far safer and far more capable than any time in history.

Those of us alive today are the lucky recipients of a world where a nightmare like Shackleton's seems like just that: a bad dream.


Mind-Stretching Factoid That Makes People Who Say “Nothing Ever Changes” Seem A Little Silly

Pictured (left): an educated European in the 1500's. He knew less about the world than a modern shirtless guy with a piece of hay sticking out of his mouth.

Pictured (left): an educated European in the 1500's. He knew less about the world than a modern shirtless guy with a piece of hay sticking out of his mouth.

Americans believe some wacky stuff. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15% of our fellow citizens believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals.” 25% believe that witches are real. And two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world” (which is the intellectual equivalent of claiming your dog is an alien who invented time).

Those stats are a little scary, but compare them with what an educated Englishman would have believed in the 1500’s:

He believes witches can summon up storms that sink ships at sea. . . . He believes in werewolves, although there happen not to be any in England—he knows they are to be found in Belgium. . . . He believes Circe really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs. He believes mice are spontaneously generated in piles of straw. He believes in contemporary magicians. . . . He has seen a unicorn’s horn, but not a unicorn.

Wow. Mice are definitely not spontaneously generated in piles of straw.

He believes that a murdered body will bleed in the presence of the murderer. He believes that there is an ointment which, if rubbed on a dagger which has caused a wound, will cure the wound. He believes that the shape, colour and texture of a plant can be a clue to how it will work as a medicine because God designed nature to be interpreted by mankind.

This guy sounds like the drunkest possible uncle at Thanksgiving.

He believes that it is possible to turn base metal into gold, although he doubts that anyone knows how to do it. He believes that nature abhors a vacuum. He believes the rainbow is a sign from God and that comets portend evil. He believes that dreams predict the future, if we know how to interpret them. He believes, of course, that the earth stands still and the sun and stars turn around the earth once every twenty-four hours.

"A century and a third later," Steven Pinker commented, "an educated descendant of this Englishman would believe none of these things.”

The average person today is far more rational and informed than just two centuries ago.

That's a fact worth celebrating.