Department of Geological Sciences
The University of British Columbia
Vancouver, British Columbia, V6T I W5 Canada
'Scientific method' properly includes all the endeavours from the conception of an idea until final
presentation and judgement upon it. The formal conceptual aspects of this work are well known. In
the field sciences, however, the qualities and characteristics of the scientist may be particularly
significant in determining the success of work. In this paper, I consider some of the qualities that
underlie J. R. Mackay's achievements, particularly his ability to define problems from field observation
and to design and execute field investigations.
The term "scientific method" properly includes all the endeavours from the conception of an idea to
its full-grown presentation in publication. Observation and measurement, design and execution of
experiments in the field and in the laboratory, later analyses of the results together with the addition
of data and concepts from other branches of science, manipulation of data with statistics and
computer modelling, followed by preparation of text, tables, and diagrams may all be involved. Ross
Mackay's works clearly demonstrate his competency in all these aspects, but he stands out particularly
in his ability to identify problems from field observation and to design and execute field investigations.
These characteristics I intend to stress and illustrate, emphasising his work in that most difficult of
terrestrial environments the Arctic.
Excellent health may not be an absolute necessity for an Arctic scientist but it surely helps. Ross
Mackay enjoys the benefits of health. He is almost immune to the biting cold and darkness of the
Arctic winter. He can remove his mittens at forty degrees below to write notes or to couple the spade
lugs of a probe to its electronic sensor, and has done so without falling prey to frostbite. But it is not
just his resistance to cold, but also his precautions light inner gloves and brief exposure of his hands
that have enabled him to escape this hazard.
Another characteristic of great advantage is a keen memory. To be sure, Dr. Mackay is considered by the Mackenzie Delta Eskimos to have a simply
atrocious memory and as evidence they point out that he has to write down every little detail in his
notebook. My evidence is quite the contrary.
I have walked with him on a bright winter day around
the university campus, observing the patterns of stripes created by needle-ice. I have been surprised
to find him withdraw from his pocket, first, a compass with which he measured the orientation of
these stripes, and then a notebook from a decade earlier in which he had recorded a similar orientation
on a particular date at this very same site. He was thus able to produce documentary evidence, not
just a recollection by a demonstrably good memory, that the orientation was unchanged.
Now lest we have given the impression that Arctic scientists are born rather than made, we should
note some acquired or developed characteristics that particularly help Ross Mackay in his work.
Probably the foremost of these can be summarised simply as 'preparation.'
He is widely read. At home, much of his time in the winter evenings is devoted to reading: history of the western Canadian
Arctic, studies of frozen ground in any polar area, treatises on soil mechanics. With this he becomes
armed with questions, ideas, methods, as background for future work.
An example of this type of preparation can be cited from his study of gas-domed pingos. After the
unexpected, indeed almost catastrophic, discovery of open space beneath the active layer of a pingo
and the discharge of its contained methane (more of this below), he entered the chamber. The frost
crystals of the chamber roof caught his attention. The inner layer, in contact with the roof, occurred
as plates and needles of ice, shapes which he had learned from his reading could be attributed to
crystallisation at temperatures of 0 C to -5 C. An outer layer of hollow prismatic columns recorded
later temperatures of crystallisation between -5 C and -8 C. From this he was able to infer the
temperature conditions under which the ice crystals grew and confirm later with temperature
measurements that the frost accumulation was the product of a single fall and winter. How many of
us would have both the presence of mind and the background needed to observe and record the
critical data on these fragile crystal forms before the opportunity was lost?
When he makes his winter visits to the Mackenzie Delta he carries with him a compact repair kit for his electronic gear,
complete with a variety of spare parts. Most of the time the latter would prove to be unnecessary, a
point that arouses envy and frustration on the part of some colleagues whose equipment does not
behave as well as his. When, however, there is a breakdown he almost always has the necessary parts
and tools to get his equipment back into service immediately.
Included in Mackay's skills is a remarkable capacity for innovation. One of his guiding principles is
that "the simplest thing that will do the job is the best thing to do the job." This, incidentally, leads
to economical research (more of this later). A recent demonstration of this arose when he found that
wooden doweling, to be used for survey stakes, was becoming hard to obtain and expensive when
available. What could he find to substitute for this item? His answer bamboo chopsticks! These are
inexpensive, available in quantity, pre-cut, pre-packed, and are remarkably distinctive when inserted
into the Arctic tundra.
A more sophisticated innovation has been spurred by his interest in learning the precise time of day,
as well as the time of year, when an ice wedge cracks open with the chilling of permafrost. He had
already pioneered the technique of embedding a slender wire in the topsoil, after it had thawed in the
summer sun, across the axis of the ice wedge. The wire, later frozen in with the winter cold, would
snap at the instant the wedge split open. Accutron clocks are available, at a price, to time the breaking
of the wire. Why not, he reasoned, use an inexpensive electronic watch, disconnect one battery
terminal and reconnect it via the 'breaking wire.' When the wedge cracks the wire breaks and the
watch stops. Moreover a watch that records both the day and the date can be left untended for 7
months before it repeats the pattern of days and dates. As a result it is possible to recapture both the
time and the date for the rupture using a single, relatively inexpensive wrist watch.
And how to measure the minimum depth of an ice-wedge crack after it opens'? Simply insert a length of stiff
surveyor's tape until it can be worked down the crack no farther. And how wide is the crack at depth?
Attach to the bottom end of the tape a knob of known diameter. When this jams in the downward-narrowing crack, its width at a measurable depth can be ascertained. An array of such tapes, with a
range of terminal knobs, can be used to estimate the rate of taper of the crack with depth.
The happy combination of the curiosity to look and the ability to recognise is another characteristic
of Ross Mackay. Details catch both his eye and his interest, whether these be delicate ice needles
growing from damp, rotten sticks, the striping of the ground after needle ice has melted, stones frozen
within the ice of a pond and lifted off its floor, or the crook developed in the basal trunks of trees by
the downslope creep of winter snow.
And not all the features attracting his attention and curiosity
need be small. He was the first to associate some topographically high areas along the Beaufort Sea
coast with basins directly upstream with respect to the flow of the former ice sheet covering this area.
Why, for example, was Herschel Island, standing approximately 10 km square and 150 m high,
matched in the waters of Mackenzie Bay by a hollow also about 10 km square and 100 m deep? To
satisfy his curiosity he considered the possibility that the ice-thrust beds of Herschel Island had been
dragged there by the overriding ice from the hollow to the south-east. When seismic exploration of
Mackenzie Bay was later undertaken and the thickness of post-glacial beds thereby determined, it was
shown that the match in volumes was even better than Mackay had estimated.
Observation and association only whet more curiosity. Why, for example, do ice wedges crack in the winter along the
site of cracks of previous years'? What makes pingos grow'? How are pebbles hoisted into the ice of
a freezing pond and which rock types are most susceptible to this process'? How fast does a rock
stream move'? These questions and many more, arising from sharp observation and perceptive
recognition of the anomalous or of the unexplained, constitute the curiosity that has served him so
well. This curiosity has provided the fuel for his projects.
Though his early training allowed him to opt for many careers, Mackay has concentrated on his Arctic
exploration. True, he has also looked at alpine and winter conditions farther south, but principally
because these were related to the problems of the northern lands and their frozen ground. For more
than thirty years now he has devoted a high proportion of his time to this one field of endeavour. He
has done much to pioneer winter research in the barren lands of the western Canadian Arctic. During
recent years he has devoted up to a week in December and another week in March to the Mackenzie
Delta checking on depths of snow, subsurface temperatures, behaviour of ice wedges, changes in
dimensions in the patterned ground.
Judgement is a quality not easy to assess objectively. It represents a selection amongst choices. What
might have followed from a different choice than the one that was made remains a matter of
speculation a what if'. Nevertheless, if a high proportion of the choices are the right ones the
cumulative effects become recognisable. I suggest, therefore, that the recognition that Mackay has
received in his professional career can be credited in part to his exercise of good judgement. Thus,
for example, his decision to avoid much of the committee work in favour of research, combined with
hi decision to set aside time for planning and preparation at the expense of some other activity, plus
his choice of instruments or methods to conduct his investigations, and so on, in concert if not
individually, contribute to his success as a research worker in his chosen field.
Other judgements lie hidden within the written product of his research. In drawing conclusions he
may give the impression of being very conservative. Notwithstanding this impression, he first
considers a variety of hypotheses, some of which could indeed be considered outrageous, to explain
some phenomenon he is investigating. Those hypotheses that fail to satisfy his evidence he soon
rejects, and by degrees he arrives at a very limited number of explanations. He then considers their
implications and designs a further test to narrow down the possibilities still more. What he finally
commits to print may indeed be conservative but it is not for lack of consideration given to other
perhaps less conservative viewpoints. What is presented has been thoroughly judged. The impression
of conservatism is created not by the ultimate hypothesis but by his reluctance to speculate in public.
In his dealings with others during the planning and operation of his studies Ross Mackay is
consistently polite, notwithstanding the frustration all too often experienced these days in the
purchase and delivery of material or services. The junior clerk is treated with the same respect as the
president of the firm. If the firm fails in its assignment it will, I am sure, be remembered, and where
a suitable alternative is available business will be transferred. However, the acquisition of supplies,
equipment, or service remains the prime consideration; recrimination made for its own sake plays no
This diplomatic approach has paid off. For example, when he sought consent both from native groups
and from government officials for the artificial drainage of a lake near the Arctic coast, no ardent
conservationist complained about the forthcoming devastation, nor did officials object to the
catastrophic change. He had, of course, already convinced the natives and the authorities that the
drainage of this lake by natural coastal retreat was inevitable within a few decades and that the
turbidity created would be minor compared with the contribution of the Mackenzie River or of the
wave erosion by a periodic storm. And the fact that the drained lake-basin would soon become good
goose-hunting ground was not lost on some of the local residents.
Ross Mackay is particularly circumspect on financial matters. He could have received premium fees
for his own services as a consultant to the major companies engaged in the exploration and
development of the petroleum resources of the north, both in Alaska and in the Northwest Territories,
but he chose not to prostitute his science. He has eschewed all monetary rewards from the companies
for the advice he has freely given them. He has accepted non-financial aid for his research, such as
logistical support in the field for some of his students, use of company drill holes for some of his own
instruments, and company observations on subsurface temperatures and soil types. One of the
companies provided him with a field assistant, a trusted employee who, incidentally, learned the
details of permafrost while serving on the job. One wonders who benefited most from this happy
Financial support for his research has come largely from the Canadian government through the former
Geographical Branch, the Geological Survey of Canada, the National Research Council and its
successor fund- granting agency, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada,
and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. University funds and services have also been a
major help. Transportation in the field, a major consideration in Arctic research, has been provided
in large measure by the Polar Continental Shelf Project, another federal organisation.
His policy in authorising expenditures from research grants is careful and his accounting meticulous.
His care in spending coupled with the guiding philosophy that "the simplest thing that will do the job
is the best thing to do the job" has given him an enviable reputation among funding organisations in
terms of research production per dollar invested.
Views on Transport
Transport, to Ross Mackay, is a means to an end to reach the site for his investigations. Walking
and snowshoeing are legitimate if slow and inefficient. Skiing is, surprisingly, not one of his favoured
means of locomotion. The appeal of the snowmobile is also limited. Neither mode of travel appears
to be completely controlled and safe.
In his early summer operations he first adopted the boat as a
means of reaching sites along both Mackenzie River and the Arctic coast. For a few years he was
accustomed to ordering a freight canoe to be delivered to Fort Providence, near the outlet of Great
Slave Lake, from which point he would use it to cruise down Mackenzie River and work in the Delta
for the summer. He would sell the canoe at Inuvik at the end of the season and fly out. He was
introduced to the helicopter rather belatedly, and this has proved to be a persisting love affair. He is
now convinced that no Arctic explorer should be without one.
Views on Adventure
Adventure is something a good scientist shuns. To Ross Mackay an adventure, in which something
unexpected takes place, represents some miscalculation. Even such serendipitous adventure as the
discovery of methane supporting the 'gas domed pingos' he investigated in 1963 falls into this
category. The drilling of a small mound had been planned and a suitable power drill acquired and
transported to the site. One of several pingos was chosen for investigation and a hole was started into
the summit of the mound. Suddenly the drill stem and motor dropped to the ground as the bit entered
open space. With the withdrawal of the drill gas started escaping from the hole. What gas? A match
was struck to test the gas and it became immediately obvious that the gas was flammable. Soon the
tundra adjacent to the pillar of burning gas was alight and with it the residue of gasoline on the keg
of fuel. Some minutes were required to extinguish the fires. Not- withstanding the happy ending of
this adventure Mackay, I am sure, wished, most particularly during those few tense minutes, for a
better planned investigation.
Another adventure occurred while he was captain of the Tulik, a thirty
foot schooner used for his early exploration of the Beaufort Sea coast. During one of his sessions at
the helm, one of his two crewmen staggered from below decks in an obviously confused condition.
Diagnosing the problem as a case of carbon monoxide poisoning, he had to rescue the second
assistant from below and lash both of the dazed victims to the mast, all the while keeping watch that
the vessel was not heading for trouble. Once again the adventure had no lasting ill effects; once again
Mackay wished it had never happened. Still another adventure was forestalled by his practice of
checking his instruments. We were camped on the treeless coastal lowlands of northernmost Yukon
Territory studying the local geomorphology to better understand the geological history of an
archaeological site. On one of the first days the camp was thoroughly and persistently fog-bound. I
undertook to make some measurements in camp, but Mackay wanted to pursue an investigation well
out in the field and left our tent to set out by himself into the wilderness. Within minutes he was back
in the tent, thrusting his pocket compass into my hands with the request that I check it. I soon
identified his problem the north end of the compass needle was pointing south! Had he slipped off
into the fog before checking his bearing he would likely have become disoriented and might well have
strayed far from camp before breaking clouds could reveal the compass error an adventure averted
Pure and Applied Research
All too often these days there are attempts to identify some scientific endeavour as either 'pure' or
'applied,' the former being motivated by curiosity and its results, by implication, of no immediate
practical value to mankind; and the latter being of practical value, perhaps being of direct financial
benefit, even though it may not advance the frontiers of science. Mackay's career clearly demonstrates
the weakness of this classification.
His work throughout his career has been undertaken to satisfy a very active curiosity and with no
claim for financial benefit or personal gain. For some eighteen years his efforts would have been
designated 'pure science' until the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay. Then a very urgent need arose to
understand the behaviour of ice-rich permafrost penetrated or overlain by pipes carrying hot oil.
Mackay's pioneer work suddenly became transformed into very practical 'applied science.' Nothing
had changed in the nature of his work or of his motivation; all that had altered was someone else's
conception of its value.