Thursday, 30 December 2010

This desert

Written 30/12/10

The sun does wax and wane a little as it circles over our heads, but
it?s just past mid-summer and it stays high up. It throws shadows at
midnight but it?s going to be another month or so before we first see
it touch the horizon. We had two twin otter planes land for
refuelling en route from Mario Zucchelli to KC (or Casey, I?m not
sure!) an Australian base a couple of nights ago. They took off again
at one in the morning in bright sunlight.
Right now as I look out my window the sun is shining in. It?s at it?s
lowest, and shadows pick out the snow?s sastrugi close by, that blend
into ripples reaching out to the horizon. Different patches of snow
have different shades and textures, reminiscent of gusts of wind
blowing up dark patches of ripples on a loch. When the sun is high in
the sky the snow returns to being a completely featureless plain.
It?s a desert, really, of petrified water. And the sun and the air
will still scorch you and dessicate you as severely as any other desert.I took a stroll with two of the astronomers last Sunday, to the
American Tower. It?s a 150 foot high mast about a kilometre from the
base, made of flimsy feeling aluminium tubes. It really shook as we
climbed it. From the top we had a fantastic view of the base, and the
flat plain it stands on. It was unexpectedly pleasant to get a taste
of verticality.They explained that Concordia is such a good place to view the stars
because There is so little moisture in the air. Water in the air
bends sunlight and, and particularly bends blue light from the sun
down towards us ? that?s partly what makes the sky blue. And as our
air is so dry, the telescopes get dazzled less, and the image is
distorted less. Images in humid regions get distorted just like the
bottom of a swimming pool as forces slosh the water around. One,
Richard got me to hold my thumb up to obscure the sun. I was
astounded to find the sky around it was virtually black, the blackness
of space leaking through the daylight. So even during the daytime
their instruments can penetrate the sky better. And of course at night
the view is unparalleled.The dryness has an unexpected consequence ? we get electric shocks all
the time. It turns out the humidity in the ?normal? world helps
conduct away static charges we generate all the time. I mean, back
home I get static sparks occasionally, once in a blue moon. But here
it?s all the time. Every time you move, really. We put strips of
aluminium tape on all our desks leading off to radiators or other
earthed structures, so that when we go anywhere near electronic
equipment we discharge ourselves before accidentally wiping our hard
drives or scrambling the processing. And as I walk around I?ll touch
my elbow or arm to walls to discharge myself before touching anything.
Because, if the charge flows away over a large surface area it
doesn?t hurt like it does when it arcs from a fingertip. It?s
remarkable how fast that became instinctive!
ChristmasChristmas here was really fun. Of course each and every one of us felt
the sadness and, for me some guilt, at being so far from our loved
ones. But our consolation instead was our good friends here and
everyone pulled together and made it a really great time. The vening
parties have been really funny. Our chef, Georgio, worked in London
before coming here. He earned a couple of rosettes working at La Luna
in Godalming, England, and really he?s superb. For Christmas eve and
Christmas day he put on fantastic meals; langoustines and smoked
salmon, fois gras, roast turkey, honestly so much good food I would
struggle to list it all. I think he hit on the Christmas traditions
of most cultures round the tables ? French, Italian, US, Canadian, and
Of course he's had his work cut out with my nut allergy, as they
only use peanut oil here! So every night it has become a ritual that I
have to ask what's safe and what's not. It took them a while to get
used to this, but I made up my mind always to be sure to be gracious
and never complain if there's not much I can eat. And that's brought
me a better reward than I imagined. Georgio, great man that he is, is
now finding ways to cook everything without the oil and I'm very
grateful for that. But I still can't relax - you never know when some
mayonnaise might catch me out!So I hope you had a great Christmas too, folks, and that you have a
fun night planned for Hogmanay. I?ve no idea what kind of a party
will happen here, but going by Christmas time, I?m sure it?ll be messy.
And I wish you the best for the new year.
Got word that the guy I evacuated off the base is doing well, still on
antibiotics for a pneumonia and going home soon. I?m pretty sure I
treated my first case of high altitude pulmonary oedema, although
it?ll only ever be a clinical diagnosis (wow it can progress fast). I
have to say serious respect and thanks to the crews of Concordia,
Mario Zuccelli, and McMurdo bases, and the two air crews. They all
pulled together to achieve an evacuation that was definitely as
efficient as anything we could have done from the rural hospital I
worked in last winter on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.
Happy hogmanay folks!----------------------------------------------------------------
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