Friday, 14 January 2011

ESA lab, The Third Floor, Quiet Building, Concordia base, Antarctica.

My lab is a wedge shape, as are most rooms in a round tower, and for
something this big in this station to belong to one person is pure
luxury! At the outer wall it?s 4.5 metres across, at the inner wall
it?s 1.8 metres across, and it?s about 5 metres long. And since my
experimental equipment arrived it is so stuffed full of gear there?s
hardly any space left. I have six computers; four laptops for the
experiments (), a PC and my own laptop, with one more PC still to
arrive! The reason for this is that conflicts between several
experimental programs meant I needed one laptop for each program! ( =
no redundancy, not good here in Antarctica). As I type this there is
brain monitoring gear scattered everywhere, along with blood sampling
kits, battery chargers, bottles of all sorts, a centrifuge, pipettes,
testing reagents, a small Christmas tree, boxes of distilled water, a
calendar with a picture of Carrbridge?s famous bridge in snow, sinks,
glass topped worktops, cables and folders scattered everywhere! . In
one corner there are aluminium and black polymer hard cases it was all
transported here in. The lab is new, clean, and until my gear arrived
it was very tidy! The walls, as everywhere in the base are well
finished metal panels, in here they are painted a beige colour.
Plenty light pours in the window. It?s bright airy, roomy and
unbelievable, to be honest! I love it!
My lab sits in the top floor of the quiet tower, in between the radio
room and the station office, and that?s a great place to be, as it?s
the organisational hub of the whole base. The technical hub, where
Michel Munoz, Fred Sergent and others run the maintenance of the base,
is at the ground floor of the noisy tower. Everyone passes this way
frequently, and there?s a coffee maker right outside my door, so I
have plenty visitors coming in to say hello. The station leaders buzz
back and forwards to the radio room and so I always know what is going
on. Up here are also seismology, meterorology, astronomy, and
glaciology labs with quiet activity and serious purpose going on at
all hours of the day.There are a few guys in the station office next door; the station
leader, one of the Italian technical managers, and Nicola ? who fixes
everything logistical, but I?ve no idea what his job title is. The
station leader, Giuseppe ? you know, I don?t know his surname - is
very practical, nice, Italian guy. He?s very measured, everything is
done by the rules and will run like clockwork under him, and I like
that. I think on a base surrounded by such danger and logistical
problems such as Antarctica suffers from, you couldn?t ask for a
better leader. Nothing ever seems to be a crisis, everything can be
solved. Opposite him in the room is Nicola LaNotte. An amazing guy,
he?s Italian, about five foot four and very thin, in his late fifties
I would guess, and an absolute livewire. He? s unbelievably fit, he
can certainly outpace me and everyone else I know on a 10K walk, and
is pretty strong too, throwing around 30kg boxes and making it look
like they were a fraction of the weight! I don?t know his job title
but he?s the key guy to speak to regarding logistics. If you have a
box in DDU and no-one else can find it, maybe he can help you! I wish
I had his energy. The third manager there is Andrea, in his thirties,
and another guy with boundless energy. He?s more of a technical fixer
on the base, he knows where everything is and what tools we have ? you
want your flag on the roof? Speak to Andrea and it?ll be up within an
hour or two!These guys are always buzzing backwards and forwards to the radio room
on the other side of my lab, as they sort out the day to day logistics
with the various aircraft around and the other bases with whom the
aircraft are shared, and from where our supplies come.In the radio room we have Rita, the Italian secretary for the base.
She hardly speaks English but is a fun bubbly person who everybody
likes. I know her best from her announcements over the tannoy that a
plane is nearing the base. She can say it in English and Italian, but
gets the French for ?it?s going to arrive? wrong every time, and
there?s Djamel in the astro lab always comes stomping round every time
shouting ?c?est ARRIVERA ! L?avion ARRIVERA dans vingt minutes!?
Poor Rita, she?s so busy laughing that she forgets what he says, and
so it happens again and again... Last time she announced it Djamel
did the French over the tannoy for her ? so actually for once there
were some French guys helping us to unload the plane! ;^) Often
Michel and I are the only blue suits there! (Did I tell you that
the Italians and the French staff are equipped by their respective
Antarctic expeditionary offices? The result is that the Italians are
red from head to toe in their outdoor suits and the French are in
blue. Because I?m employed by IPEV I have blue gear.)Paulo is our IT guy and over the winter he?ll be operating the radio
room singlehandedly. He?s Italian, got long hair, scraggy beard, and
is, of a very likeable winterover crew, one of the most likeable.
Very laid back, smokes like a chimney, and a Hitchhiker?s Guide to the
Galaxy fanatic. He was meant to be on last year?s overwinter crew,
but broke his leg just before departure in a motorbike fall. Over the
last week he and I have had to pull some very late nights ? me because
of my experiments, he because whenever a plane is flying either to or
from the base, the radio has to be manned permanently the whole time
it?s in the air for safety. It?s a boring job and he would come to
the door to see whatever set-up or monitoring I was doing, and he?s
taken some great photos of everyone who has had brain monitoring
electrodes on.Djamel works  in the Astroconcordia lab, also on the third floor. He is one  
of the winter crew, from Morocco who moved to France. He speaks
English, French and Italian fluently which is incredibly handy. He
lives a permanent semi-nightshift so he can be seeing the sky when the
sun is lowest. There's the seismology guys, Maxim and Pascal. A
couple of weeks ago they came through very excitedly, insisting I come
through to their lab. Their equipment was showing a sizeable earth
quake in process. A day or two later we heard that Christchurch in
New Zealand had been hit by aftershocks and we speculated that perhaps
that was what we had seen. I?ve been out in the past to help them dig
out their equipment, and tomorrow they are going to be taken by plane
very far away to set up a new monitoring station. I had hoped to go
along to help, but unfortunately I?ve go too much on here.Ilann, Domenico, both scientists who will be wintering over ?
there?ll be plenty opportunity to tell you about them another time.
In the Astronomy lab there is Richard Douet, a French man who really
feels half Scottish ? there?s Gunns in his family ? and he brought a
saltire to the base. Delphine, who I don?t know at all, and I want to
remember Jean Pierre, a chap who has been and gone in the time I?ve
been here. Really one of the nicest people I?ve ever met, and an
astronomer, he?s since been helping us work out the relative distance
from here to our home towns.Being so far from home definitely weighs on my mind a lot, as I?m sure
it does for everyone here. But it?s definitely a great crew to be with
and that really helps.
It turns out Kingussie is 17,080 kilometres away from here. Or
about 21,500 if you go round the other way.
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