Podcast Episode 211: Cast Away on an Ice Floe


Germany’s polar expedition of 1869 took a dramatic turn when 14 men were shipwrecked on an ice floe off the eastern coast of Greenland. As the frozen island carried them slowly toward settlements in the south, it began to break apart beneath them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the crew of the Hansa on their desperate journey toward civilization.

We’ll also honor a slime mold and puzzle over a reversing sunset.


The yellow-bellied longclaw, Macronyx flavigaster, could produce the long-sought 10×10 word square.

Bruckner’s seventh symphony has made generations of cymbalists nervous.


A ground plan of the “Hansa house,” from expedition commander Karl Koldewey’s 1874 narrative.

Sources for our feature on the Hansa:

Fergus Fleming, Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole, 2007.

William James Mills, Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2003.

David Thomas Murphy, German Exploration of the Polar World: A History, 1870-1940, 2002.

Karl Koldewey, The German Arctic Expedition of 1869-70: And Narrative of the Wreck of the “Hansa” in the Ice, 1874.

“The ‘Polaris’ Arctic Expedition,” Nature 8:194 (July 17, 1873), 217-220.

“The Second German Arctic Expedition,” Nature 11:265 (Nov. 26, 1874), 63-66.

“The Latest Arctic Explorations — The Remarkable Escape of the Polaris Party,” Scientific American 28:23 (June 7, 1873), 352-353.

Leopold M’Clintock, “Resumé of the Recent German Expedition, from the Reports of Captain Koldewey and Dr. Laube,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 15:2 (1870-1871), 102-114.

William Barr, “Background to Captain Hegemann’s Account of the Voyage of Hansa and of the Ice-Drift,” Polar Geography and Geology 17:4 (1993), 259-263.

“The Polaris,” Report to the Secretary of the Navy, Executive Documents, First Session, 43rd Congress, 1873-1874, 12-627.

Fridtjof Nansen, “Towards the North Pole,” Longman’s Magazine 17:97 (November 1890), 37-48.

T. Nelson, Recent Expeditions to Eastern Polar Seas, 1882.

N.S. Dodge, “The German Arctic Expedition,” Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art 5:93 (Jan. 14, 1871), 46-47.

“The Thrones of the Ice-King; or, Recent Journeys Towards the Poles,” Boy’s Own Paper 5:237 (July 28, 1883), 700-702.

William Henry Davenport Adams, The Arctic: A History of Its Discovery, Its Plants, Animals and Natural Phenomena, 1876.

“A Contrast,” New York Times, July 21, 1875.

“Letters to the Editor,” New York Times, July 12, 1875.


A sphinx of snow.

Listener mail:

“I am the Airport K-9 Guy. My dog is the ‘Airport Guard Dog’ that made the front page last week. AMA!,” Reddit Ask Me Anything, Feb. 29, 2016.

Cherry Capital Airport K-9.

Kris Van Cleave, “Meet Piper, a Dog Helping Protect Planes From Bird Strikes,” CBS News, June 9, 2016.

“Visiting Non-Human Scholar: Physarum Polycephalum,” Hampshire College (accessed July 26, 2018).

Robby Berman, “Slime Molds Join the Faculty at Hampshire College,” Big Think (accessed July 26, 2018).

Robby Berman, “Scientists Catch Slimes Learning, Even Though They Have 0 Neurons,” Big Think (accessed July 26, 2018).

Karen Brown, “Should We Model Human Behavior on a Brainless, Single-Cell Amoeba?”, NEPR, Nov. 7, 2017.

Ashley P. Taylor, “Slime Mold in Residence,” The Scientist, March 2, 2018.

Joseph Stromberg, “If the Interstate System Were Designed by a Slime Mold,” Smithsonian.com, May 15, 2012.

“Heather Barnett: What Humans Can Learn From Semi-Intelligent Slime,” TED, July 17, 2014:

Tejal Rao, “With a Sniff and a Signal, These Dogs Hunt Down Threats to Bees,” New York Times, July 3, 2018.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Dan Lardner.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!