Monday, 22 November 2010


I've finished my travels in Europe, and now back for a few days in the Highlands of Scotland
From Neuchatel I had a very straightforward journey through Geneva and up to Glasgow, to my lovely fiancee. She was keen that we go up to Kingussie, my home town to see my mother, so here I am. Still travelling, God I'm tired. But I have to admit, glad to be here.
I love Kingussie. It's a very quiet, old, little highland town of two thousand people or so, on the northern edge of the Cairngorm mountains. It really only has a few streets, built on the foot of a hill called Creag Beag, and on the edge of the flood plain of the river Spey. I've climbed up Creag Beag hundreds of times, drunk, sober, in wind, hail, snow, rain, baking sun. Loved it every time. Mountain biked it, skied it, Rock climbed on it. I used to be able to run it and back in 45 minutes, can't get anywhere near that now. From the top you can see all the way past Dalwhinnie to Ben Alder, and up to Braeriach, and I would sit in the dry stone built shelterstone on the top and spot end of season skiing potential from here. The prevailing wind is south westerly, and clouds continuously flow past from the Atlantic, streaming toward the peaks of the Cairngorms.
Behind Creag Beag, sandwiched between it and the much bigger Creag Dubh, there's loch Gynack. It freezes over every winter. I'll never forget one crisp winter day years ago friends and I threw big stones on the frozen surface and the ice made huge bonging sounds resonating over the whole loch and echoing through the hills.
Further to to the north it's a full day's hike through peaty hills to the shores of Loch Ness ( I've never seen the monster). To the south, bigger mountains with the potential for some superb mountain biking.
I've explored these hills in every direction, skied by moonlight through these woods, orienteered, camped, abseiled, bouldered, climbed, skied off cornices, got lost, got sunstroked, biked, strolled... so many adventures...
This place really shaped who I am, fanned a spark of adventurousness into a flame that more or less defines me now. From this little town I reached deeper and deeper into the mountains, into bigger adventures and then out into Europe to Alpine mountains, and now almost shockingly suddenly into this Antarctic adventure; something of a order of magnitude bigger than anything I've ever bitten off.
It's almost time to fly south. Seven days to go.
Wow I'm getting sentimental. Obviously the impending departure is really starting to colour everything.
There's still so much to do!
The Power of Attorney is almost sorted,
the dentist booked,
the repeat prescription for epi-pens arranged,
my cases were sent off to Hobart at last a couple of days ago,
The Scotland flag is bought,
Only three more shifts to do at the hospital, (Still on the nightshift bit of the rota of course. Just for that added garnish of stress)
Well, that only leaves about a thousand things left to do. Phew, that's all right then.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

La Tene

Yesterday I was walking down the road through quiet farmlands towards town. I saw a local roadsign that stirred an old memory.
La Tene. I was really quite stunned to realise I'm here.
Apparently a normal, small Swiss town, that wasn't the case 2700 years ago. La Tene's archaeology identified this area as the centre of the Celtic culture, a civilisation which stretched from Turkey to England, Germany to Spain. The infuence from this area radiated out to the corners of Europe for centuries, carried at the pace of the human walk.
Then the Romans smashed everything.
In the face of the Roman military tsunami whole tribes fled north from central Europe, many arriving in the British Isles. At the the time scotland was occupied by primitive stone age people. Then in the archaeological record they vanish, to be suddenly replaced by Picts, a culture distinct from Celtic but sharing many features. It's thought that a tribe of fleeing La Tene celts were driven northward until there was no more north to go. And there they met the neolithic peoples and mingled with them. This unique combination of the most culturally ancient with the most culturally advanced produced the Picts, the first culturally distinct people of Scotland, I suppose. Certainly the first people that we look back on as ancestors.
Here I am at the root of all that, almost three thousand years after the seismic events of war and upheaval that tore apart a huge culture. I wonder what these hills and fields looked like then.
Anyway, better keep moving or I'll miss the trolleybus into town.
I'm here to meet the team of designers that have created the equipment for physiological monitoring in Antarctica, and the head of human physiology research for ESA.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Cologne - Mannheim - Basel - Neuchatel - Marin Epagnier - Thielle

Some days you've really got to love gadgets.

So here i am, going from Cologne to Neuchatel, a town in switzerland I'm acutely aware I don't know at all. It's sunday and it's raining. The information and ticket offices are closed. I hardly speak the languages. And i've made a bit of a mountain for myself by booking my hotel late. The only one with rooms left is some distance out of Neuchatel, in fields, with no public transport.

This is going to be tricky.

My train arrives 20 minutes late (because of a connection problem at Utrecht. The train at the next platform is also late due to engineering. When I get on at last I find my seat is broken. British people note, their trains are just like ours. And it rains all the time too!)

Anyway, first train late. I miss my connection at Mannheim but the timetables are good and it's easy to find another train to Basel. But Basel has two stations which I don't realise until after I get off at the wrong one. Easily sorted - outside the station I find trams and I hop on a number 2 green tram that winds slowly through the sunny town and after a short trip through the centre of Basel I'm at the right station. What a pretty town.

I'm way behind time and my heart is sinking with the sun. I had hoped to avoid having to find my way around Neuchatel in the dark.
I sleep most of the last leg, awakening grudgingly at each stop and at last I arrive in Neuchatel. The station's concrete corridors are empty. It's dark and it's raining here, the streetlights all smeary in the dampness.

The big problem is my hotel is miles away, north east. A taxi there will cost about CHF 70, around 50 sterling. I could pay, but i've got to make this trip eight tiimes and there's no way I'll get the expenses repaid by the time by the time I leave for antarctica. I've got better things to spend the money on right now.

Time to get my phone out: GPS and mobile internet and google. That's all you need.

I study the info google can provide. The hotel seems to be about 10 km away. It's about 3 km away from a station called Marin-Epagnier. Can I get a train there? No, but there's something else, marked 'trolleybus' on the map. Search the trolleybus info, number 1 from the University. I look around the station and there's a sign funiculair sign marked Universite. I find the yellow, automated, empty funicular in another concrete corridor. I go down and outside i come across tram cables. Following them I find a stop. There's a map: it goes to Marin!

The ticket machine takes bank cards so i buy a ticket, and a few minutes later a trolley-bus pulls up and I climb on. It follows twisty, narrow alpine streets and twenty minutes I'm at the end of the line; Marin. From here I walk. Thankfully the rain has stopped, it's warm and still. GPS and googlemaps guide me unerringly throught zigzagging streets of shuttered, whitewashed houses and into unlit countryside. It's a half moon but a bit cloudy so I dig my little torch out. I follow the GPS instructions down a cycle track through planted fields to the river bank, and then up a dark footpath along the river. Willows separate me from the water but i can still see the river and it's shadowy reflections of trees and occasional houses on the far side. Loud splashes from the river signal fish catching insects. Streetlights in the far distance through the trees show me where the hotel is. It's a lovely walk.

What a great day. Superb.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The drizzle still hisses, and droplets plop outside the window. Inside we watch a trace on a computer monitor, mapping out a student's brain at work. It's dim and grey, and the classroom lights are on despite it being mid-morning. There's a cosy feeling in the room because nobody wishes to be outside today.

A light blinks on and off in front of the student. His eyes are closed but the light is bright enough to shine through his eyelids. The sawtoothed trace of his brain at rest becomes a much flatter line as the light blinks on, and the sawtooth pattern returns when it blinks off again. And on, and off, and on, and off, over and over the same pattern repeats on the trace. He wears a bright white cap, that I fitted to his head. It has a mass of fine wires snaking over it from electrodes recording the minute electrical charges in the skin caused by the activity in the brain below.

Low mood, causes lethargy, sapping initiative and motivation. It diminishes confidence and has a negative influence on others nearby. And it has a quality of self-reinforcement. Plently of people describe getting into an uncontrollable spiral into depression, self neglect and despair.
There's plenty about space to cause low mood, too. The isolation, monotony, lack of sleep, and many other stressors.

But if you see it coming early enough, one can take steps to prevent it from developing. And that is one of the many things that ESA is interested in. How do you see it coming? Specifically, how can we see it developing in an individual who is aboard a capsule millions of miles away, with no possibility to get back to earth for support or respite or escape, who must continue to carry out critical tasks requiring attentional focus, and co-operate with a team whose spirit could all so easily be undermined. With distrust comes a lack of communication, and with that, a very dysfunctional team.

Monitoring is the key. But monitor what? Stress hormones? Brain activity? Self-reports? Measurements of heart rate and exercise performance? We need baseline data for how these things change in people under stress of isolation and coping, and how they change in people who are under stress and don't cope with it .
Which is why I'm learning to fit the EEG cap and put someone through a programme of exercise. To take blood samples and administer computer based reaction time tasks and questionaires about how they've been feeling recently.

You may have heard of Mars 500. Six guys in a capsule in Russia for 540 days (the time for a round trip to Mars). They're doing the same sort of experiments.

Thankfully at least I will get to go outside, and see the most amazing night sky that can be seen on earth.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

It's a drizzly afternoon, and I have been wandering around a particularly leafy and pleasant suburb of Cologne.  I was so tired I could hardly speak English let alone figure out how to buy a ticket for the tram in German. But this is a very friendly place and people everywhere are willing to take the time to help.

Germany has Europe's only university dedicated entirely to sport. Here, the Sporthochschule teaches the management, economics, physiology and training of sport. It's also the olympic centre for Judo and Hockey, and I walked past glass fronted stadiums with members of the national team training inside.
I've come here to start getting to the heart of why I'm going to Antarctica.  Here is where one of the research teams have been designing the research I'll be conducting at the base.

To say that space is a challenging environment is obvious.   Aside from the engineering involved, existing in space is difficult for humans.  The risk of equipment failure is unthinkable yet has to be confronted daily.  There is no day-night cycle. The monotony drains the crew's ability to think well.  The dry air alters sensation.  The conditions are cramped and inescapable.
        So how to prepare for this?  Well, the European Space Agency realised that the Concordia base in the Antarctic is a very good place to test how all these variables affect people.  It's isolated, there is no day night cycle for most of the year, and we crew will depend on technology and our own resources for survival.  So it sends a researcher each year - me, this year - to examine how the conditions affect the crew, and will use the information gained to help plan how to look after it's crew of five or so when it finally sends a mission to Mars.

Which all seems so very far away from this quiet corner of Europe.
I got out of the hospital after a run of brutally tough nightshifts and got straight in a car to drive to Glasgow, onto a plane, and then another, and then fell into a bed here for four hours. And now having met the researchers and made arrangements for tomorrow, I've got the rest of the day to relax, and take in this nice town.
I'm going to make the most of all my opportunities; I've got a long year ahead. Simple things can all of a sudden seem very pleasant, and I'm very contented wandering round in the rain