The 5 Most Badass Things Ever Done in the Name of Research
For most of us, research is something you "Google," or, if you've really got the eye of the tiger, research might be something you "library." Either way, for 99.9 percent of us, research is something we do from a desk or couch and not, say, by crossing the polar ice caps on foot.
Time to meet the 0.1 percent.
Thor Heyerdahl Crosses the Pacific Ocean on a Raft
"Anthropologist" sounds like a boring job, but then again so did "archeologist" before Indiana Jones came along. But where real archeologists don't actually bullwhip their way to scientific discovery, some anthropologists do think that science is best accomplished through manly adventure. For instance, adventurer and winner of Manliest Baby Name of the Year 1914 Thor Heyerdahl wanted to prove a point about the migration patterns of ancient tribes, and in 1947 he decided that the best way would be to build a crude raft and sail for several thousand miles on the open ocean to see if he would die.
Why? Well, his theory was that the Polynesian Islands were settled by people who sailed there from Peru on flimsy rafts made of balsa wood. And how else could you find out if such a thing was possible? Now, you'd think that assembling a crew to sail 4,300 miles on a raft made of model airplane material would be tough, but Thor was so ballsy that he advertised with this simple message:
"Am going to cross the Pacific on a simple raft to support a theory ... Will you come? Reply at once."
"Must enjoy long walks on beach, spitting in God's eye."
For all anyone knew, the theory could have been "People are stupid" or "Humans resort to cannibalism faster than you'd think," but five brave people joined up anyway. Heyerdahl named his danger-raft the Kon-Tiki, which is either the name of the Inca sun god or Norwegian for "suicidal," depending on who you ask. The raft itself was nothing more than "nine balsa wood tree trunks lashed together with hemp rope."
"Look at this boat. The ocean wouldn't dare fuck with us."
And all the fluttering flags and badass ethnic-looking sails in the world could not change the fact that six guys stranded themselves on a barge in the Pacific Ocean for 100 days. Sure, they had water and provisions, but look at the thing. Some of us can barely stand hanging out in a four-bedroom house with our family during the holidays -- can you imagine spending three months at sea in a space that amounts to an open mobile home? With five other men?
On the 101st day, they made it. The "boat" hit a reef in French Polynesia and beached on an uninhabited island. But it didn't prove his point; even though Heyerdahl had proved that the journey was possible, no one believed that this was actually how Polynesia was populated. Science basically patted him on the head for trying his best and told him to run along. Only recently has DNA testing revealed that there was definitely some DNA swapping between Polynesians and South Americans before Europeans made it to the islands in 1722, so everyone would decide that he was at least partially right, decades later. Totally worth it.
"In the meantime ... WHEEEEE!"
So how could anybody top that? Well ...
Alain Bombard Shipwrecks Himself on Purpose
Where Heyerdahl had to risk a potentially deadly shipwreck in his pursuit of the truth, in 1952 a French doctor named Alain Bombard just skipped right to that part. He wanted to see what it would be like to survive a shipwreck if the worst case scenario happened: just you, alone, on a raft, with no food or water. Basically like a tigerless and much more boring Life of Pi. According to Bombard, all a stranded sailor needed to survive an ocean voyage was ingenuity, and damn it, he was out to prove that shit the hard way.
That raft is actual size.
Starting in Monaco, Bombard drifted the Atlantic Ocean in his 15-foot inflatable raft, eating nothing but raw fish and plankton and drinking captured rainwater and half a pint of seawater a day (note that it's generally believed that seawater will eventually kill you if you consume enough).
But for weeks he survived this way. On Day 53, Alain met up with a tanker whose crew politely informed him that he was 600 miles off course from his destination. Twelve days later, Bombard landed in Barbados and was immediately hospitalized for his efforts. But he did it! After 65 days and 2,700 fucking miles, a severely malnourished and desperately thirsty Alain Bombard proved that a stranded sailor could cross the Atlantic. All he had to do was spend every minute of his journey fishing and pressing and drinking fluids out of the fish he caught.
And as a result of Bombard's journey, lifeboat makers began to take notice when he told them to put fishing gear in every boat. He also proved that you don't even have to be a sailor to survive this situation -- Bombard could hardly navigate. He just drifted his way across the ocean, proving that anybody could do it. Thanks, we'll take your word for it, buddy.
Graham Hoyland Climbs Mount Everest With No Modern Gear
One of the great mysteries of the 20th century was "What was up with Beanie Babies?" Another was "Did George Mallory make it to the top of Mount Everest in 1924?" If so, he and his climbing partner would have beaten the supposed record holders Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay by 29 years. But we'll never know, because Mallory disappeared on the mountain, and the camera that was supposed to document his triumph went missing.
Which is a shame, because the guy could take a picture.
But the best argument against Hillary having completed the climb is the total lack of equipment that would have made it possible. Even today, climbers wearing the best, most technologically advanced North Faced mountain climbing gear in the world fail against the elements on Mount Everest. So how could George Mallory, with his 1924 knickerbockers and newsie cap, have possibly reached the summit without freezing to death? Well, that's what Graham Hoyland wanted to find out.
In 2006, Hoyland commissioned an exact replica of Mallory's expedition gear to see how it would hold up on Everest. And we're talking everything -- from the wooly underwear on his privates to the Indiana Jonesish fedora on his head. And then he climbed Mount Everest. And while he often found himself talking in old-timey movie slang and inexplicably doing the Charleston, the clothes themselves held up. He actually had more freedom of movement and warmth than other climbers in their modern climbing gear. And he looked infinitely more dashing.
Behold, the elusive mountain hipster.
Except for that screeching sound that the DJ makes when a bear walks into a house party. Four years later, Hoyland discovered some meteorological data that changed all of his previous conclusions about the 1924 journey. Base camp records suggested that a sudden drop in barometric pressure meant that Mallory and his partner must have encountered a sudden blizzard while en route to the summit, the same kind of storm that killed eight Everest climbers in 1996. So while George Mallory's retroville clothes probably would have done just fine in regular Everest weather, there's no way he could have withstood the intensity and killing power of an Everest blizzard.
"My pee actually froze inside my wang."
In other words, Graham Hoyland climbed Mount Everest while looking like Judge Doom in vain.
Tom Avery Sleds to the North Pole Using 1909 Methods
Legendary explorer and Stalinesque mustache wearer Robert Peary spent his life boasting that he had led the first expedition to the North Pole in 1909. Nobody knew if he was telling the truth -- he didn't Instagram the journey, so for all they knew, Peary could have been the equivalent of the drunk guy at the bar boasting that he once had sex on a motorcycle. It didn't help that no one on the expedition was a navigational expert -- so they could have just stopped at a particularly isolated spot in Siberia and said, "Looks like we're here! Let's find Santa!"
We choose to believe that he's just wearing one enormous mustache, rather than a shitload of animal pelts.
So from 1909 on, the whole world just kind of smiled and nodded at Robert Peary's "first to reach the North Pole" claim while other explorers went through the trouble of getting independent verification and proper documentation of their expeditions. After almost a century of this, British explorer Tom Avery decided he'd find out the truth. And as you probably guessed, he decided that the only way to do that was to replicate the damn journey himself.
"Honestly, we did it for the style alone."
He tracked down the exact breed and number of dogs that Peary used to pull his 1909ish sleds. He even trained to handle the dogs per Inuit tradition, just like Peary. He and his team left from the exact location of Peary's 1909 camp in Canada. Avery and his team even maintained Peary's disgusting diet, eating raw butter and olive oil to consume enough calories to stay warm in the Arctic (about 10,000 daily).
Result: Despite several falls (one into freezing ocean water) and frostbite (each morning, 40 minutes were spent chipping ice out of boots), Avery and his team made it to the North Pole in just under 37 days, and he found artifacts from the 1909 expedition all along the way, which he promptly shoved into the face of every Peary doubter who ever lived, which also required a time machine. Hell, they even beat Peary's time by five hours.
So the guy wasn't a liar, he just sucked at keeping records.
Tim Severin Never Met a Voyage He Wouldn't Take
We're not taking anything away from the badass and/or crazy people on this list when we say that Tim Severin takes the explorer cake. It's not that he's been the first or the fastest or the cutest (helloooo, Tom Avery), it's that he's gone on every fucking historical voyage you can imagine. He doesn't say no. If someone in the past went somewhere, Tim Severin wants to go there, too.
"It's the poor, crazy man's answer to time travel."
Severin's obsession started while attending Oxford in the 1960s. He was asked to choose a major. He wrote down "history of everything," then hopped onto a motorcycle and rode it to China, retracing the route of Marco Polo. Sure, he got turned away at the Chinese border, but that's what happens when you're an ill-prepared college kid who drives from Venice to Red China on a whim. And that was just the beginning.
A few years later, Severin built himself a dugout canoe and proceed to navigate the 2,400 miles of the Mississippi. Then he wrote the book. We procrastinate by playing spider solitaire; Severin procrastinates by canoeing an entire river. In 1976, to prove the Irish legend that St. Brendan beat Columbus to America by 1,000 years, Severin built a replica fifth-century leather boat and sailed it across the Atlantic. At one point he struck an iceberg and simply sewed a patch over the hole and finished the journey.
"Just jam your wallet in there, it'll be fine."
And then Severin really got busy, answering the kinds of questions that no sane person asks:
Could Sinbad have sailed a ship made with no nails across oceans? Severin said fuck yes, then sailed a ship held together with coconut twine from India to Sri Lanka, and then to Sumatra, for over seven months.
How seaworthy were ancient Greek galleys? Pretty damn seaworthy, if you place stock in Severin's re-creation of the journey of Jason and the Argonauts. Because it's hard as shit to row a huge boat across the Mediterranean, Severin's 1,500-mile journey will likely be the only modern long distance cruise done by galley.
Imagine being forced to do push-ups, forever, or you drown.
What was it like to go on a crusade? Severin found out when he rode 2,500 miles from Belgium to Jerusalem. He also found out that apparently today's horses aren't up to the task of carrying the weight equivalent of a fully armored knight across a few thousand miles -- just like the crusaders of yore, Severin and horse fell ill. Only Severin recovered.
And our favorite, what would life with Genghis Khan have been like? Awesome, actually. In 1989, Severin rode with the Great Khan's descendants across the Gobi Desert and filmed archery contests and traditional Mongol horse races.
At that point in his career, he considered riding with the Mongols to be a vacation.
Feeling lazy yet? Yeah, us, too.
When not busy with his relatively sane and significantly less than "badass" research for Cracked, J. can be found here reflecting.