Monday, 25 April 2011

One Wednesday

ESA has started thinking about recruiting next year's research MD, and
asked me to write a 'day in the life' description of what I'm doing.
And as I really don't have much else to tell at the moment, I thought
I would post it up here.
Got up at 0845 today.  It's a bit of a struggle climbing out of bed,
after five hours sleep.
There is usually only a couple of other guys, Angelo and Andrea B when
I go to get my breakfast, and today it is the same.   I'm too groggy
to chat and besides, my spoken Italian isn't so great so I just read
yesterdays' newspaper until I have slugged back enough coffee to
overcome the sleepiness. Then I wander round and chat for a while. The
technical guys all start work at 0800 so they have come and gone by
the time I get there, and the astronomers get up at 1800 and work
through the hours of darkness. The others will come and go as they can
fit around the demands of their experiments.Today I have to be in the lab for 10.00am to rig Pascal, the
seismologist, with the LTMS3 gear as he is heading out for a hard
day's work digging one of his shelters out from snow drifts. It's the
first outdoor test for the LTMS-3 gear and so I'm a little nervous. I
don't want to break ESA's precious gear - there's only 3 of these
little boxes in the world and two of them are here. But today's a
good day, the temperature is a relatively warm -60, and Pascal's going
to be working physically hard, so he'll be generating a lot of heat,
so it's a good day to test it.
Pascal's late.So, I look at what else I've got to do today, and decide to get on
with repairing the EEG cap. On yesterday's tests a couple of the leads
were playing up and running through all the usual troubleshooting
steps didn't sort the problem so as a last resort I'm replacing the
leads. I'm not particularly keen to do it because I'll use two of the
last three replacement leads I have and if I use the third no-one's
going to be parachuting in any more. There isn't any more supplies
coming until the first raid or plane in November, so we all have to be
very careful with the resources we have.Pascal arrives. I set him up with a vest that has electronic panels
that can monitor heart rate, ECG, respiratory rate, oxygen
saturations, temperature, and accelerometry, and I stream an ECG trace
to the laptop to ensure it's working. Looks good. One problem though,
there's a jacket to go over the top with pockets to hold the
datalogger and other extension bits, and the pockets sit over the
abdomen. Neither he nor I are happy about this because he'll be
digging, and they'll get in the way. I give it some thought and try a
radio harness, which has chest pockets instead and that works much
better. Happy, Pascal heads off for a hard day outside.And I head back to bed for an hour. I was up until 0400 this morning.
Each week I put three guys though a four day sequence of tests -
different tests each day - and each Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday one
of the crew starts the protocol. This week it's Angelo, the
meteorologist, Paolo, the IT/communications guy, and Andrea C, the
station doctor/station leader going through the protocol. On the first
day they do two hours of computer and questionnaire tests. Last night
the guy who started is bit of a night owl and evening for him is a bit
later than for most people. So my 'evening' tests got done from 0130
to 0300. The tests themselves could have been done a bit quicker but I
always find the guys have questions about the project, and always too
I have to do a bit of cajoling to persuade them to do the more
demanding computer tasks. So it takes quite a bit longer that it could.Paolo wanders past my door on the way to the radio room. Looks like he
had a late night too. He's due to be swallowing a temperature sensor
as early as possible today, and doing the 'lab day' this afternoon.
Shall I go and ask him to swallow it now? Hmmm... not yet. I need
these guys to go along with my experiments for a year and they do it
all voluntarily, so I'm careful to keep everyone on-side. Let's leave
it an hour or so.Lunch is quite quiet, both the astronomers are still in bed, and
Angelo is often late as some measurement he has to do seems to be
coinciding recently. There is only eight of us there. It's a very good
meal as usual.Afterwards I check everything is set up for the afternoon testing
session with Paolo and then I spend an hour wrestling with a new
program that refuses to function like we expected it to. I've been
running into compatibility problems since day one, and I've been on a
steep learning curve on how to troubleshoot. This time I can't solve
the problem, and I will have to email the designers in Europe for
advice. Because of the upload/download arrangements, plus the time
difference, it tends to be thirty six hours before I have the answer.
So, put that problem aside for a while. Frustrating, but there's
nothing more I can do this end. And I get on with coding and backing
up the data generated in the last day or so.
In the afternoon Paolo comes up to the lab for 'the lab day', as we
have taken to calling it, It's four concentrated hours of testing
involving cognitive tasks with EEG monitoring, mood questionnaires,
blood and saliva sampling, an exhaustive exercise test in the gym and
then returning to the lab to repeat some of the tests.
I set up the EEG cap and at first it all looks good when I start up
the recording, but I turn on another computer, Paolo turns his head in
the same moment and all the leads go off on an interference pattern.
It takes twenty minutes of detailed checking of every piece of
equipment before I figure out that the 'ground' lead on the cap's
cable is simply being pulled tight, and freeing it stops the
interference pattern. Phew, I was getting worried there. But I have
found that the problems I encounter do seem to work out OK reasonably
quickly.I and Paolo finish at 1930. The samples are frozen, the EEG and data
files all backed up, questionnaires coded and I've still got half an
hour to rest before dinner. Not bad, especially with that cable
problem to sort. Andrea, who's been keeping radio watch, wants to get
away. We have to keep a radio watch whenever anyone is outside the
base, and when Paolo is busy everyone has a responsibility to help
take a turn. So I relieve him, and sit and do some admin in the radio
room.Dinner is at eight, and everyone is back at the base. As I climb the
stairs I check the rota by the washing-up room because I can't
remember when I'm next down on cleaning duty or on washing up duty. We
take turns in rotation and so every fourteen days you do a day of
each. It's a while yet before my next turn, happy days. Mental note;
it's David for washing up, and he always helps me out when it's my
turn, I'll make sure I repay the favour.As usual everybody is up for dinner and as usual, it's a good laugh.
Everybody in this crew gets on very well. Language at the table is a
mix of French, Italian and English. There are only three crew who can
speak all three languages but it is never a problem, and I never see
anyone feeling left out. I'm very lucky, speaking English as my native
language as all but two of the crew can speak English well and the
other two are picking it up very fast. It also means that English is
usually spoken when French guys speak to Italians. I do tend to spend 
some of my Saturday afternoons helping correct some guy's weekly
reports, which are all submitted in English. But it's an easy way to
help everyone out, I'm very happy to do it.
After dinner I help with the clearing and cleaning but I'm not really
needed as so many of the crew help, so after I've shown my face for
long enough I head back to the lab to set up. I have two evening
experiments to set up.First, some computer based cognitive testing with some basic EEG and
ECG monitoring, and some questionnaires on mood and generally coping
with the winterover for Andrea C, the station leader who is starting
day one. Then, later I will be setting up sleep monitoring EEG, sats,
temperature and heart rate monitoring ? AKA polysomnography - on
Angelo, who is on day three.Finally I'm done by 0100. I check my email before I go and I find that
the Mars500 crew have sent me an email to say hello, with some photos.
I forward it to all the crew and within five minutes Domenico bursts
into my lab, full of excitement and plans for how we should reply to
them. The Mars500 guys are doing a remarkable thing and they
definitely deserve that we make a big effort. An hour later I'm
heading to bed again when Domenico is back again, having seen an
aurora outside. Unfortunately it's faded by the time we look.So, I head off to bed finally at 0200, thinking I really should phone
home as it's a good opportunity, being up so late (in the winter
months here we are 7 hours ahead, and finding times to call are
difficult), but I need to be up at 0800 to take down the
polysomnography on Angelo. Another night, then. Tomorrow I'm going to
be sleeping on the hoof again, as I have guys on day two, three and
four of the protocol. Still, it's only two intense days in the middle
of the week as the three protocols overlap. On friday and Saturday my
workload is much less and I catch up on my sleep then. This friday in
the afternoon I'm helping Andrea C, the station doctor teach initial
prehospital trauma care to the crew. Somewhere before then I'll have
to go and figure out how the stretcher gets put together.
Every day is different. I'm having a great time. But I can
assure you, I'm not going to go soft here!
The environment here continues to amaze. A few days ago the
temperature rose by 30 degrees C in six hours, from -67 to -37.
And a strange thing happened that same day. In the afternoon the EEG
cap simply would not work. I got interference in all 32 leads,
drowning out all signals, and I just could not find the reason why.
And that night I found that both the radios for my polysomnography
equipment couldn't transmit. Again, I couldn't find anything wrong
with the gear. The day after, everything mysteriously worked again.
Pascal recorded a huge standing electrical field in the atmosphere
but the consensus is that it couldn't have interefered with my gear
because we're insulated by the station, which is just a big metal box.
The local magnetic field was normal. So we have no idea what caused
such weirdness. Thankfully, whatever it was, it went away. Oh well,
This Is Antarctica.
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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Sunday, 10 April 2011

Standing on a shore

It?s like when you stand at the seashore at one end of a wide bay,
looking across the sea at the other side of the bay, a thin strip of
land in the distance.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a spiral galaxy. It has a fiery bright
core with several tendril-like arms radiating out from it in a flat
plane. They curl round, streamers whose tips drag behind as the
galaxy rotates, almost wrapping themselves back on the centre. Our
world lies at the far end of one of the arms and from our fabulous
vantage point, we look out onto a bay of empty space and directly
across the bay to the centre of our galaxy.
In the bay between us and the galaxy?s bright centre drift massive
clouds of gas. They shadow the hub, and show up as black, wide
streaks and patches imposed on the middle of the galaxy, apparently
splitting it into two separate lines of colour. In fact they simply
hide some of the majesty of the Milky Way?s core.
This is why, when we look up at the milky way, we see it as an
apparently distant strip across the sky, an unconnected thing, rather
than something that we are part of. We can?t see the arm we are in,
any more than you could see the outline of a forest when standing
inside it. We see the stars that make up the arm with us, surrounding

I took this photo of our galaxy on the roof of the base at 2am, on the
4th of april, in absolute temperature of -67 and a windchill of -87,
with a self-timer so I could be in the picture. You see the milky way
as an almost vertical green cloud, with the streaks of dark gas cloud
shadowing the middle of it. The light across the foot of the sky is a
faint aurora.

Sadly it is forever impossible to see the colour of the milky way with
the naked eye. You only see it when your eyes have adapted to the
dark. Dark-adapted eyes are about 10,000 times more sensitive than in
daylight, but the price is that a completely different set of light
receptors do the work, and they only see in black and white. So we
have to rely on cameras to see the colour for us. But by eye here at
Dome C you can see the shape of the galaxy and the outline of the gas
clouds with about the same clarity as in the photo. I?ve never seen
anything like it. The view from the shore is just magnificent.

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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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Changing Skies

28th of march

We?ve got a high pressure, of 660 hPa, and the weather is behaving as
if it?s a low ?I don?t understand it, but I?m delighted. The sky is
covered by a thick blanket from east to west and the relative humidity
is up to 70% - which is lovely. The cracks in my lips and thumbs are
healing up, I can breathe easier and my sleep is better. Today for the
first time in ages I feel free of the permanent mental fuzziness I had
become used to. Climbing the stairs is easier, I feel more alert
than ever before, I can even taste my cup of tea better than usual.

It's because the wind has switched. Normally we get slow steady
katabatic winds that start out south-southwest of us, from Dome A.
It's a vertical kilometre higher there and 500km away, and the cold
dry air literally slides downhill to us, making a light, steady
breeze. (It keeps sliding downhill for another 3,200 vertical metres
and by the time it gets to the coast at DDU it can be so fast it's
impossible to stand in. A friend described having to crawl to
shelter, dodging whipping cables ends, when a bad katabatic wind hits).
But occasionally, like now, we get a northerly or westerly
blowing in, carrying moisture from the sea. It gusts and flutters
unmistakeably as a sea wind does, and it's much warmer, up to -40. I
celebrated by spending the whole afternoon out walking in the mild
conditions. I went out to the summer camp, and then beyond and
walked up and down the length of the airstrip. I realised it's a bit
of a novelty now to walk just for walking's sake. The recent drifts
have just about completely covered the tracks of the planes on the
runway, and the snow has been carved by the wind into shallow
ripples, deep sastrugi, and large, remarkably symmetrical, regular
rows of flat arch shapes, identical to shapes I last saw made by the
sea on a beach on the west coast of Lewis. The drifts can boom and
ring hollowly when you step on them. I come back past the ramp to
the EPICA tunnel entrance and I take a walk down to the snow drifted
door, just for something to do. I found a place I could climb out
the side on a series of drifted steps, and I realised how much I've
been missing a bit of interesting terrain and a climb. This little
taste of verticality felt so great I slid back down and did the
scramble again and again, revelling in the balancy moves, crumbling
kicked steps, precarious shelves and dodgy chipped out handholds.
It's nice when you're sure of a soft landing.

This last week I?ve been putting myself through my own experiments.
Apart from the biochemistry I doubt that my questionnaire and and
cognitive task data will be used by the researchers, because I know
too much, which influences how I respond. But that?s not the point.
Every six weeks I put each crew member through four quite tough days
and I think for morale it's quite important they see I go though it
too. When, at Alessandro?s birthday party I had to turn up with the
electrodes all over my head for the sleep study it got a huge cheer.
And for the ?big day? of testing, as we call it, I trained a couple of
the guys to take my blood, another to set up the EEG cap, and one to
do the lactate sampling and run the exercise test in the gym, I was
inundated with volunteers ? everyone wanted inflict a piece of the
pain! Everyone did their jobs perfectly, and I have one happy crew
mentally prepared to start the programme again next week. It turns
out plumbers make actually very good phlebotomists ? It makes sense
somehow, but who knew?!

4th of april.

One week later, I've started the second run of trials on the crew. I
rejiggged the running order to match up guys by their sleep/wake
habits, only to find that things were going to be even worse this time
around. The week before, the astronomers Djamel and Eric started
getting up at six at nigh, because the nighttime darkness is long
enough that they can do a good full day's work through the night, if
you see what I mean. So I realise that if I want to keep them in the
study I'm going to be on a one-in-six nightshift right through to mid
november. That's worse than Raigmore Hospital's rota. Actually the
workplan I made for the next four weeks looks remarkably like ERI's ED
rota, universally recognised as the worst rota in the world.... Well,
at least I'm not going to go soft in this job, Really, it's a good
thing. Medicine is tough and I would not like to get comfortable with
a 9-5 life because I would be afraid I would not want to go back, and
I love it too much to let that happen. I included Domenico the
cosmologist in the same week, he doesn't have to be up half of the
night, he just likes it better that way. Both Eric and Djamel were
great. I don't think they get much variety in life at the moment, and
liked having something different going on, and someone else to share a
meal with at four in the morning.

The following Sunday I try the same walk again. Things are different
now. The wind has switched back to south easterly, dry katabatics and
the sky is clear. The temperature is -67 and with the steady slight
breeze the windchill is -87 centigrade. I only get as far as the end
of the summer camp and I can't go any further. My goggles have
frozen, and the ice is absolutely welded to the inside of the lens ? I
just can't scrape it off. Without the goggles, the cold really hurts
my face. I abandon any thought about a nice walk and hurry back to
the base. Turns out eyelashes really are amazing things though ? my
eyes are fine and warm. I only run into a problem when I close my
right eye to look through the viewfinder of my camera. The lashes
instantly freeze together and stick it shut for several minutes. So
I make half of the walk back to base one-eyed. It happens all the
time when I'm out with my camera.

'm just peeling all the layers off, in the entrance corridor of the
base when Domenico appears, all suited up. He's heading out to the
glacio shelter. But, it's 1700 and sunset is soon. Now that the cold
is getting serious, for safety we only go out in pairs after dark So
if he goes alone now he'll not get all his work done before he has to
return, but he hadn't found a volunteer to go along. So I offer go.
He'll owe me a couple of drinks when we get to Hobart for this,
that's for sure... I wear two balaclavas this time. Much better.
It's darkening and cooling more as we trudge out. Talking gets
really exhausting when you have to breathe through two layers of
fleece, so we don't speak much. The snow is cooling hard and as it
does it's contracting. Long cracks are everywhere. To my surprise,
my footstep causes the snow to fissure, with a sound, almost a
clanging echoing noise, that was like a boot-step on a steel bridge.

The stars are out, beautiful and strong, and the milky way, brighter
and clearer than I ever imagined it could be. We easily find the
Southern Cross, the Magellan clouds, and then to my total, total
surprise, Domenico points out an upside down Orion. Upside down and
only two thirds visible, but unmistakeable.
And although I didn't say anything, I was really moved to see it. All
my life I've looked out for Orion, especially when I'm somewhere new.
It's reliable presence makes me feel linked me to other times, other
places that I have looked up it ? in all the places I have ever lived
and travelled it is constant and dependable. So many places, so many
adventures, a flood of memories in an instant. I feel a sense of
dislocation, I wasn't really aware I felt until now, fall away a bit.
This alien landscape, unfamiiliar sky, unpredictable weather, even the
sun goes round the wrong way here, I can't tell the time or anything
by the sky here and I realised I feel keenly disorientated. But here
for the first time, is something recognisable, something permanent
and predictable. To see it here brought genuinely a sense of relief.
I'm going to keep a frequent look out for Orion from now on, that's

Direction finding is an interesting problem here. Paolo and I ran
into difficulties trying to determine precisely where north is a few
days ago, for a project he is doing making a sundial on an inflatable
globe for schools. No problem I thought, I'll get out the needle
compass I handily brought along. But, you know how diagrams of the
magnetic field of the Earth show the flow as vertical at the poles?
It turns out my compass needle wouldn't point any particular way
except up. Up at an angle of twenty degrees I would guess, and
swivelled crazily back and forwards. GPS? You have to be moving to
determine a direction with GPS, and it's accuracy is limited, really,
for this kind of purpose. And you have to be outside. Taking an
inflatable globe through an abrupt temperature difference of 90
degrees centigrade with you. It cooled, deflated to a quarter of
it's size, then hardened and cracked, all in the space of about five
minutes. Woops. We had a spare, but how to find north from inside
the base? When our modern equipment couldn't do the job, we fell back
on eighteenth century methods. Get out a watch, wait until midday ? a
chart will tell you exactly when if you're not standing on a meridian
of longitude - and at that time sun is directly in the north. Then
every hour after equals fifteen degrees off. At night? Get your
friendly astronomer to help with the star charts. James Cook
pioneered these methods in 1773 when he sailed the first expedition
ever to cross the Antarctic polar circle.

Funnily enough just a few days before, Fred, our chief engineer with
twenty years seagoing experience, had to rush out of his room in the
evening when a technical alarm sounded, suggesting the generators
needed a bit of attention. I met him in the corridor as he walked
back to his room, and he was telling me how much the station runs just
like a ship.

Too right, Fred.

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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