University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Respiratory physiology, experiment and Everest, from ghastly kitchens to gasping lungs

Respiratory physiology, experiment and Everest, from ghastly kitchens to gasping lungs

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Mount Everest is an unpromising scientific field site; expensive to get to, in a politically sensitive area, and regularly lethally dangerous. It is also provocatively liminal, as a slight change of weather systems can convert a summitable peak into a death zone, where the barometric pressure is too low for the average human lung to absorb enough oxygen for even basic metabolic processes. Modelling Everest in the laboratory poses further challenges: the results of work using barometric chambers, mathematical formulae, and even plywood boxes to represent the mountain have been confirmed, complicated and contradicted by anecdote and field studies. In this paper I will use respiratory physiology, specifically disagreements over the use of supplemental oxygen, in order to examine the relationship between field Everest and modelled Everest, through the eyes of both researchers and climbers. As the ways in which we understand the mountain have led to a decentralisation of the laboratory in favour of the field, so this paper shifts from the ghastly kitchens of nineteenth-century French physiology (complete with vomiting sparrows and catatonic rats) to the ‘gasping lungs’ of oxygenless ascents, and medical examinations conducted over 29,000 feet above sea-level.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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