Sunday, 20 March 2011

Six Weeks In

It?s quarter past midnight, and I?ve just climbed out of bed. In the
last few days my tenuous grip on a decent wake-sleep cycle has just
disintegrated. I have been sleeping at all sorts of random times.
Missed dinner tonight, I know I?m going to get some good natured abuse
for this.
As I walk throught the base in search of food, I?m met with big grins
from all the guys I see, and loud 'gooood morrrning!'s Well fair
enough, it is 00.15.

It turns out that the great irony of doing sleep research is that the
researchers don?t get any.

And that?s true when you?re in Europe doing your research on students
and working people living a normal regular life. When you?re in an
antarctic base with a bunch of astronomers, cosmologists, just plain
nightowls on the one hand, and a technical crew that?s up bright and
early for a respectable 8-6 working day on the other, any semblance of
normality disintegrates.
I?ve been sleeping when I can, that?s all there is to it. Two hours
here, four hours there sometimes si x or ten, I just try to make sure
it sums to 16 every 48 hours. Nearer the weekend I get full nights,
and it has been fine so far. I?m up whenever I need to, making it to
all the meals. But I?m at the end of four weeks of this, we work six
days a week and I had to cook for the crew all last Sunday too. At
last I?m disintegrating a bit.
Thank goodness, the four weeks of testing has finished, and I have two
weeks of relative normality before the next cycle begins. From
tomorrow lunchtime, I'm awarding myself two and a half days of doing
exactly whatever I want. Which is going to be a really big fat nothing!

The research I'm doing is looking at how our environment here affects
our thinking, mood and sleep quality, and whether good exercise helps
with all these things. Every six weeks I put each crewmember of the
base through a four day programme of tests, three guys a week, each
starting after the other on consecutive days.
The first day they just answer a few questionnaires, and do a few
computer tests at night. The second day, I see them first thing in
the morning to get temperature monitoring and accelerometry started (a
device that measures movement and so estimates energy expenditure),
and then they spend the afternoon with me in the lab with an EEG cap
on, monitoring their brainwaves whilst they do perceptual speed,
memory, and cognitive tasks. The same day I take blood and saliva
samples to store for gene analysis back in Europe. Then, the guys go
to the gym and exercise hard, and come back and repeat most of the
tests, to see the immediate effects of exercise on the way we think
and behave. The next day, at night, I set them up with a much more
compact brainwave monitoring gear that monitors them as they sleep.
And the next morning with the gear still on we test reaction speed,
decision making, information handling, emotional state.
And this is what?s killing me! Because one crew mate will want to be
set up for the sleep study at ten pm, and then the next night I might
start the set-up at 3am, but I'll have to be up at 8.00 the next
morning , or even earlier, to see someone else. Too many nights like
that and that's how I've ended up in this state. Four weeks of it
wears you down a bit.
On the crew?s part, it is all voluntary. So, I'm really working hard
to keep the guys motivated as I deprive them of sleep, exhaust them in
the gym, stress them with uncomfortable cognitive tests. And do you
know what? That?s the difficult bit. Staying permanently positive,
permanently patient. Staying receptive and sensitive to the slightest
disatisfaction, jumping on it and dealing with it early before it
becomes a complaint that could put them off doing the study. Because
a year of this is going to be a long haul for everyone, and I don?t
want to lose people. I explain, justify, cajole, and if need be
negotiate, just as much as I can. Keep everything positive, never,
never a negative word, look or expression, never let any impatience,
surprise, frustration, slip out. The cost will be enormous. And when
you're as tired as I am that's not easy. But it?s worked so far ?every
one of the twelve guys that have started have promised me they?ll go
again next cycle.
Well done me. Gaaah! Back to the sleeplessness soon enough...

We?ve just been treated to a really extra special green light show tonight.
The last light of the setting sun, as it makes a flat line of orange
light across the horizon, flickers with brief spots of all sorts of
colours ? really vivid spots of green, yellow, blue and irridescent
red. It only lasted for five minutes, and was really beautiful and
The sights are so different here. We have an almost permanent mirage
on the horizon, encircling our disc-world with a second horizon, that
keeps changing it's colour to perfectly mirror the mood of the snow
below it. And I took a photo three nights ago of the sun setting in
the west under a yellow sky, and over deep, deep purple coloured snow,
with little flecks of primary green, irridescent red and yellow slowly
flickering through strips of orange cloud. And last night I saw
the moon stretched to twice times it's normal width and then flattened
to pancake thickness, twice again as wide, as it dropped low enough to
the horizon for refraction to distort it?s light. Every time I go out
I marvel that I'm really here, that a place on Earth can be so alien.

Today is the equinox; from tomorrrow the days will be longer where you
are than where I am, and our sun will set further and further to the
north as we rush toward the Antarctic night.
Fantastic adventure.

Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E
Satellite uploads at: 02.30, 09.00 and 14.00 UTC
Local time UTC + 8

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