time reversal

the stories of four physicists separated by the whims of fate

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Life at the South Pole

November 25th, 2008 by liz

Life at the Pole as a beaker (scientist) has many similarities to life in grad school. You get up, work until you are exhausted, go to bed, and then wake up way too early and start all over again. So far I’m making this sound pretty grim, but that’s not the case. It’s actually kind of fun to work with a bunch of other people on the telescope. It’s really cool to have 4 brains trying to figure out a problem and make the experiment work. It’s amazing how much we can accomplish in such a short amount of time. As of a few days ago, we got all of our data taking automated. Now, I have more free time than I know what to do with, and so now Martin has me looking at correlated noise in the detectors. I have also decided that myself and everyone around me will be much happier if I just sleep as much as I need to, so now I’m getting plenty of sleep.

The three biggest differences between doing science here and doing science anywhere else are showers, food, and internet. We only get two two-minute showers per week, so taking a shower is not part of your daily routine, and everyone lives in a perpetually more grungy state. However, because the air is so cold and dry, no one smells bad. (That’s a major plus.) Everyone just has greasy hair all the time. Also, because it is so dry, every time you do shower your skin feels like it is going to fall off. I’ve been through a lot of hand lotion.

As for food, the galley has 4 meals a day, and it is never more than 4 hours between meal times. There is also a left-over fridge. This means that there is always an abundant supply of free food, and there is a much smaller chance of ending up working in the lab while starving (this happens a lot while doing science elsewhere). One danger is that there are always several desserts at every meal, and there is a constantly stocked fresh-baked cookie tray. If you’re not careful you end up eating way too many of these delicious things. Luckily, walking 4-6km a day in -40F air burns a lot of calories.

And finally, the one really rough thing for nerds: the internet currently only exists from 3:30am -1pm (while the satellite is up), and the window gets earlier every day. What happens when you are fighting with some code at 4 in the afternoon and you can’t access a python manual? What happens if you need to integrate the Rayleigh-Jeans or Boltzman function over your passband, but Wikipedia isn’t there to give you the functional forms? It’s hard I tell you.

Since the Dark Sector Lab is about 1km from the station (where the food is) we are forced to take a break every 4-6 hours and take a 15 minute walk back to the station for food. It’s usually quite nice, but when the wind is up at 20 knots, it can be brutal. The only really annoying thing about working at DSL is that there is no water at DSL, so we have an outhouse instead of a bathroom. Normally, I wouldn’t mind too much, but there is even snow inside the outhouse. It’s a bit cold.

There is a gym and a sauna here. I try to go to the gym with Martin most nights, and sometimes I go to the sauna afterward and then run around outside. I did a lap around the pole after one of these sauna sessions. When we came back inside, we were all frost-covered. Later, Martin sat down next to the doctor in the galley and she told him to tell me that the next time I run outside like that I should wear a hat–it’s very dangerous for your ears to get cold.

Pole has a lot of qualities of a coop–like people take turns cleaning the bathrooms, and no one steals anything. You could leave a wallet sitting on a windowsill for days and it would still have all the money in it when you came back for it. You also have to really bundle up when going outside. Any exposed skin will be frostbitten by the time you make it to the telescope. By now though, I’m completely used to it. I’m eagerly waiting for the temperatures to rise above -26F so my skis will glide. Right now, it’s like trying to ski on sandpaper.

So, I guess it’s life as usual for me down here.

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