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Science in extremis : The 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition


An interdisciplinary work of Science Studies and environmental history, Science in extremis investigates how scientific, political, and public traditions constitute the spaces and products of scientific inquiry. Together with the place of inquiry, they determine the character of knowledge produced therein. The 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition's biophysical, geological, sociological, and psychological research programs are exemplars of this process. Its scientists constructed an environmental imaginary toward Mt. Everest that allowed them to deploy it as an analog for Cold War theaters by coupling contemporary American ideologies with the masculinism and nationalism that connoted post-war Himalayan expeditions. The mountain's extreme environment was constructed as a laboratory, and its lack of experimental controls became an asset for scientists and sponsors who favored "reality" over "simulation." Once in the field, the observers were subjected to the same phenomena as their test-subjects. They encountered difficulty transporting the materials, methods, and norms of scientific inquiry into the Himalayan hinterland. Technology malfunctioned, methods developed for university laboratories did not translate to the field sites, and normal precision and detached objectivity were undermined by the observers' presence within the locale. As a result, they perceived the mountain as resistant to their studies. Some researchers employed intuition to improvise and implement methodological substitutions. Others discovered that existential threats presented by the site altered the ways that they conducted their inquiries. All employed tough character to assert their scientific objectivity, even as they increasingly relied on the assistance of untrained Sherpas to complete their research routines

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