Bernacchi the Physicist

Louis Bernacchi Signature
Louis Charles Bernacchi was a remarkable Australian scientist whose achievements are almost unknown. He held a lifelong fascination with polar science and expeditions, and made significant contributions until his death in 1942. He survived two pivotal Antarctic expeditions around the turn of the twentieth century. Many didn't.


Bernacchi describes the heroic Era of Antarctic exploration thus:

-the era of man-hauled sledges, insufficient and improper food, the days when exploration meant isolation and suffering and sometimes death -the days when, at times, it was conducted "by guess and by God".

This assessment was published in his "Saga of the Discovery" in 1933 after he had experienced and observed from a distance, the highs and lows of many Antarctic expeditions.

Bernacchi on the Southern Cross Expedition
Bernacchi was a physicist trained in astronomy and terrestrial magnetism. As a member of Borchgrevink's 1898-1900 Southern Cross expedition he endured the first winter on the Antarctic continent and collected a complete set of magnetic data over an annual cycle. The site selected for the huts at Cape Adare is separated from the polar plateau by rugged ranges that could not be traversed. Intended sledge journeys for geographical exploration could not be undertaken. The achievements of the expedition were chiefly scientific and due to the intelligence and diligence of Bernacchi, Hanson and Colbeck. Louis also took the photographs that amply illustrate his book and Borchgrevink's "First on the Antarctic Continent". The results are really the first comprehensive collection of photographs of an expedition that was not ship based and portraying continental Antarctica. They are technically remarkable being created using glass plate negatives which were then developed in sub zero temperatures, where the processing chemicals were prone to freezing. . It seems Bernacchi also acted as social glue, mediating between the irascible Borchgrevink and the rest of the ten-man expedition. Below is a photo of the expedition members during their stay in Tasmania prior to departure for the South. Louis is the dapper young gent on the far right.


Bernacchi the Writer
In addition to writing authoritative articles on the topography of South Victoria Land and on the meteorology and magnetic work of the expedition for the Geographic Journal, Bernacchi quickly wrote a very readable account of the expedition. "To the South Polar Regions" (1901) was criticised in the book review in the Geographic Journal for including too much detail about the characters and the human side of the enterprise. Bernacchi's narrative is informative, detailed and he provides the reader with a vivid sense of the experience. It is one of the best accounts of early Antarctic expedition life available. All this was achieved in the brief time before he was selected to accompany Scott's Discovery expedition and while he was working on analysis of the magnetic survey results.
Reading some of the better known, sanitised accounts of early Antarctic expeditions seems like slogging across the frozen wastes. Many consist of uninformative daily diary entries stitching together anecdotes that highlight poor preparation, ignorance and naïve optimism. Some would have the reader believe that there was never any interpersonal tension or acrimony.

Approaching this sinister coast for the first time, on such a boisterous, cold and gloomy day, our decks covered with snow and frozen water, the rigging encased in ice, the heavens as black as death, was like approaching some unknown land of punishment, and struck into our hearts a feeling preciously akin to fear…It was a scene, terrible in its austerity, that can only be witnessed at that extremity of the globe; truly, a land of unsurpassed desolation. Louis Bernacchi on the Southern Cross, 1898.

Louis and his dog "Joe" are commemorated in bronze on the waterfront in Hobart.

 

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