Friday, December 19, 2008

The Importance of Communication; Dancing; a Hero Retires

Today was a doozey of a day. Last night I had asked the people in charge of IceTop if I could help fill the very last IceTop tank of the season. All the rest are done, there’s only one left, so I really wanted to help and see what it’s all about. But this morning at the 8 o’clock meeting it was revealed that the tank might not be filled right away since the doms that were going into the tank needed to be retested. (I’m not sure why—I couldn’t get a clear answer from anybody.) So I agreed to meet Jens at 10 AM to walk out to drill camp and see if they were ready. Or at least that’s what I thought I agreed to—sometimes it’s hard to understand Jens…or rather, sometimes I think he doesn’t understand me! Anyway, come 10 o’clock I’m in the science lab and Jens isn’t there. 10:15 rolls around and I decide I’d better just go out there because he must have meant to meet at the site. So I put on all my layers of gear and ask around to try and figure out where I should be going. (The typical response around here is “You’ll see. There will be people. You’ll see.”) So with these instructions: “Look for the smoke—you’ll see it, then just ask somebody where the tank is that they’re filling.” and a vague wave in the proper direction, I headed out the door.

Fortunately one of the PIs (Helmut?) from the South Pole Telescope (SPT) was heading out the door at the same time. Not having any idea who he was, I asked if he could point me in the proper direction. Since he was also going that general direction we walked together until I had to veer off for our drilling site. It was pretty clear that this was the proper area. There was steam, red shacks, some pollution (it takes no small amount of fuel to drill 2.5 km into the ice!)…but no people. Or rather, no people within asking distance. As I was trudging along, I would see people in the distance, but before I could get to them (I was moving slowly due to the altitude and the extra-big boots) they would take off on their snow mobiles, or walk the other direction, or whatever. So finally I arrived at the actual drill camp. It consists of a couple rows of red trailers, one big blue tent, some other random buildings, and lots of machinery. Still no one. Finally I saw someone going into a building. So I followed him. As I entered, the back door was closing. So I ran out again and looked for him. He was going between some red shacks. So I went between two red shacks a couple of rows down. But then he was going into a different building. It was like a scene from one of these 1960s comedy films with the hallway and the doors and the criminal goes through one door, and the cops enter a different door and then the criminal comes out on the other side, and the cops come out yet another door, and in the end the cops somehow all end up piled in the hallway without the criminal. This went on for about 5 minutes—no joke! And I could HEAR voices! But I never saw anyone, and with all my gear on I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from, so I figured it was just a radio. I walked into most of the buildings, including the DCC—Drill Camp Central—where surely there would be someone. But no: not a soul. Finally I gave up. It was eerie—all I could hear was those weird voices and my breathing (it really feels like one of those sci fi movies where they go to Mars: you’ve got the big heavy boots, the big insulated pants, the huge parka, the hat that covers your entire face, the ski mask that blocks all your peripheral vision, and all you can hear is breathing… breathing… scary breathing!)—and I was getting worn out from all the walking, and the altitude, and trying to catch up with people who were clearly better acclimated than I. So I started trudging back to the station. But finally, someone was there, in the middle of my path—if only I could get there in time! So I started picking up the pace. And they started getting on their snow mobile. So I started running and waving my arms! And they got ready to pull away. But finally the guy on the back saw me and got the other guy to stop! So I asked my question: “Where are the guys working on the IceTop tank?” “Oh, they’re in that big blue tent—we call it the Purple Palace!” Ah, the Purple Palace! The one place I hadn’t looked because who on earth would work in a tent when there’s all those empty heated buildings just sitting there waiting to be worked in? (And who calls a place purple when it's so clearly blue?) Crazy! So I thanked them profusely, caught my breath, and went back. Ugh, how exhausting!

When I got to the Purple Palace, I found Jens, and Rick, and Len. (Rick was the lead for IceTop stuff in the beginning of the season and leaves tomorrow. Len—who arrived with me—is taking over.) Those were the voices I had heard. Ugh! Anyway, I discovered that the doms had yet to be retested. They weren’t going to be filling the tank this morning—they’d have to wait until after noon when Jens and I would be doing the “DOM Dance”. But they showed me how they make the ice optically clear—no bubbles at all!—which was really interesting, and we even got to take the shuttle back to the station. Woo hoo! No more walking for me! Whew! What a morning!

In the end, I tried to explain to Jens that I thought we were meeting in the B2 Science Lab, but he didn’t quite catch it. I let it go. Ah, the joy of poorly communicated information!

At 1, a hearty meal in my stomach, Jens and I went back out to the DOM-testing site. The forklift guys were supposed to come at 1:30 and there was much work to be done before then. We had two sleds—one with the doms we’d just finished testing, and one from the deployment site with palettes and boxes from doms that had been put in the ice already. Since all the newly tested doms had been unhooked already, that sled was ready to go. Our current task was to clear off the sled from the deployment site so that we could put the next set of doms on it. So we tossed all the dom boxes into a pile—no small feat!—and stacked the palettes neatly—also nothing to sneeze at since, as the pile gets higher, the palettes become harder and harder to place.

Having cleared the boxes and palettes, we went around and found the big boxes of doms we had chosen for the next test cycle—there were seven boxes with 8 doms apiece. (Normally we test 64 doms so it would be 8 big boxes with 8 doms apiece, but this time we had three retests, so we hand-picked the last 5 doms and dragged them over by ourselves.) Then all we had to do was wait for the forklift guys.

When they arrived, we showed them where the big DOM boxes were, and they got down to business. Jens and I helped them align the boxes on the sled, and while they were getting the next box we’d remove the big box to reveal the 8 individual DOM boxes underneath. Each of the 8 dom boxes has two handles on the side, and a panel you can bust open to reach the dom cable. This means we can test the doms without removing them from their boxes. So if we test doms that don’t get used this year (a distinct possibility) or even right away, they’re still protected from the elements. (This method, I think, comes from lots of experience doing it the wrong way!)

Once the forklift guys get all the doms on the palette and Jens and I de-box them all, the forklift guy pulls the sled with already-tested doms out of our tent, and backs the new doms in for us to hook up.

At this point, I got to learn how to hook up DOMs. Now this is one of my biggest fears down here—you have to be incredibly careful not to break the connectors. Why? If you break the connector you have to fix it—or have someone else fix it—and that takes time. And even worse, I discovered that none of the dom-testers has broken one this year, so I’d better not ruin it for the rest of us! For each connector, we use two people: one person to put the two sides together, the other person to screw them into place (I don’t have a photo of this yet, but I’ll try to get one next time). Jens showed me how, and then I tried it—I’m really slow! But we finally got everything hooked up, checked to see that they were all communicating with our hub—they were!—and we began our suite of tests (which can be run from the station). This takes about 24 hours total, so tomorrow afternoon we’ll get to unhook again.

This is work that isn’t that difficult when it’s warm. But in the cold, with all the gear, it’s another story. The cables get cold and it’s hard to twist them the proper direction to achieve a good connection. The boxes feel heavier because of the gear. The screw piece gets cold and doesn’t turn easily. Everything is harder down here on the ice.

Tonight, I ate a very large meal. I didn’t feel hungry—I think it’s one of those exhaustion things…you’re so tired you don’t feel hungry. But eating is important. And while I was eating, I learned that some of those tourists I told you about are stranded here. The plane that is supposed to come and get them “needs repaired” according to the company—I’ve heard the company charges them extra for each day they have to stay beyond a certain date, so this happens all the time. But it’s also true that the companies don’t plan for bad weather, so their people almost never have enough food. Plus, we’re not allowed to feed them because the food is US government property (“Don’t feed the tourists” – there ought to be a sign!). Like I [think I] said before—they’re allowed coffee a cookie, and a shower. That’s it. So these poor guys are starving. Granted, they paid $40,000 to starve, but still. I almost think they shouldn’t allow tourism to Antarctica. It’s too easy to take advantage of people because there’s no one to stop them.

After dinner there was a retirement party for someone named Jerry Marty. He was the station manager from the NSF and first came here just out of college in 1969 and wintered over here with his wife in 1974-5, so he's been coming down for almost 40 years. He was a big advocate for scientific research at the South Pole and was basically directly responsible for all of us being able to be here. He also helped design the new station and even helped us set up a feasible schedule for IceCube deployment, which is one of the reasons we’ve managed to stay funded so well—we’re on budget and on time, a rare thing for particle physics. It was a very cool thing to see someone who has dedicated so much of his life to the studying of science in crazy remote locations. (And because of that I’m going to include some photos of his reception that aren’t mine. I do hope you’ll forgive me.) When asked what he would do in his retirement, he said “well, my wife is a school teacher so she’ll be retiring in June, so after that we intend to spend the summer in LA eating good food, drinking wine, going golfing, and spending lots of time with the grandkids. But I don’t think I can extract myself from this business so easily. Sometime next winter, when it starts to get chilly and I get homesick for Antarctica, I intend to start a book about this experience. We don’t have enough documenters of science around, and we don’t have enough people who know enough about science to document it. So that’s what I’m going to do. Because this is a neat place and people deserve to know what happened here.” (Or at least that’s pretty darn close to what he said.)

And how cool is that? (Cool enough to bring more than one grizzled old warrior of science to tears.)


No comments: