Monday, January 09, 2006

Back in the U.S. of A.

Finally back in San Diego. Exhausted but my mind is still reeling with memories of the Ice. Highlights of photos available at:

include: the last moments at the pole with my grad student Evan Bierman, the flight back to Mc Murdo -- this time clear and sunny, trip to the cockpit over the trans-Antarctic mtns dividing east and west Antarctica, climbing Observation Hill where Scott's 90 year old memorial still stands, the trip to the plane home (a C-17!) including a breakdown and tow of Ivan the Terra Bus, a skua on the ice that arrived with BICEP's Darren Dowell, the flight back and rainy landing in CHC. All in all an amazing, life altering trip. Looking forward to my next trip there - perhaps later this year.

For now I sign off leaving Dr Denis Barkats to cover the blogosphere's southernmost point:

Denis has some great pix and a description of all the excitement surrounding a visit to BICEP from dozens of congressmen and women and senators including John Mc Cain. Also for weekly news and views check out the Antarctic Sun (the continent's major newspaper)

and some neat films of life on the Ice here at:

Check it out!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Years 2006

Last night was new years. We celebrate on New Zealand time which is the earliest time zone in the world. So we got a sneak peak. There were 3 bands and lots of drinking. Afterall, you can celbreate New Year's even in all timezones for 24 hours straight here. I had a beer - my second on 'the Ice'. It was also shabbos which I have been observing here. Many people have asked about how one observes Shabbos in Antarctica. For some information you can check out:

The rules work just fine at the south pole too! After the party, I read until 3am and fell asleep.
I am going to speak [not sleep] soon at the Pole's Sunday Science Lecture - the first of the year.

However, at the moment I am exhausted. Denis, Yuki, Jamie, and I decided to take a hike out to an old LC130 cargo plane that crashed here in 1980something. It is really far off the base, about 3 miles. The first half was easy. Then we finished walking down the runway = what made it easy it turned into what's called a 'snow swamp'. It was unbelievably hard! We had to wear all our survival gear and boy am I luck I did. It was really cold and of course we are on 2 miles of ice so at times I was panting... Then we got to the plane. It was very eerie like a ghost ship but fun - see photos at:

Luckily when it crashed no one was hurt. Amazing since it broke in half and turned all over. Right now it's facing away from the base although it was landing when it crashed. As pilots say 'any landing you can walk away from is a success'. Still I hope my 'retrograde' back to Mc Murdo is less eventful! We stayed for about 10 minutes then came back, hoping to catch the yearly tradition of moving of the geographic south pole which, due to the ice's 10 meter drift per year, needs to be recalculated. Apparently it's a big ceremony. If I can recover I will go and then get ready to give my talk. Then I have to pack up - I'm shipping out tomorrow!

Friday, December 30, 2005

New Year's Eve Eve

I slept ok, like most days here but got up early at 830a after going to bed at 3, as usual. The problem is that they're always doing something in the AM. Today it was turning on and off the station power. Yesterday it was testing fire alarms. All this means that they have to make an announcement over the PA and that always wakes me up!

Today we are going to do more data analysis -- looking at recently collected data from the instrument. It appears to be working well, but there may be small errors lurking in the data that we need to tease out of hiding and then subtract them. This is how you correct the data for imperfections in the hardware - something every experiment ever made must deal with. We are looking for such minute signals that these errors are actually much larger than the signal from the early cosmos. So you can imagine that you need to understand how your instrument behaves. It's like trying to measure temperature with a thermometer. It's easy to get an accuracy of 1 degree. But to get an accuracy of less than 0.001 degree is pretty hard since all sorts of things can bias your measurement. So that's what we spend a lot of time doing - assessing how well we understand the excess noise that our experiment necessarily adds to the measurement we want to do.

Look for new pix on the yahoo page!

Friday, December 23, 2005


People are getting excited for Xmas [and Hanukah of course]. There is a big dinner [reservations required!] and on Sunday 12/25 there is the famous 'Race Around the World' where everyone goes to the pole area for a 2.5 mile race in all time zones. There are some serious athletes here. One finished the boston marathon in the top 200! The record time here for the race is 13 minutes which is about how long it takes me to walk to my observatory [3/4 mi] on a good day! We are on 2 miles of ice here and the air is thinner at the earth's poles due to the rotation of the earth, which flattens the atmosphere even more so it feels about 700' higher than we are. The first day I got out of breath going *down* the stairs. Now I am ok and have even started running the 200 meters from my observatory to the nearest outhouse.

Make sure to send emails to:
until 1/2/06 - otherwise, they get delayed.

check pictures at:



Things have been great after getting to the Pole. We put up our telescope and it is working really well. We cannot take scientific data with it until we fully understand its behavior. That will take us another 1-2 months, which will work out well with the travel schedule which allows for flights back to Mc Murdo then back to New Z, then back to California. I have spent most of my time putting up a tower on our observatory which will hold a source of microwave power (not an oven) that we will shine into the telescope to determine how well it is working. It was really cold being up on the roof and fingers get cold and almost frostbitten putting the hardware together outside. Well, now that it is done I am happy and I can get on to working on the telescope some more. It's very easy to take lots of data with the telescope. Not so easy is analyzing that data. We will get about 4 GB of data per day, which is equivalent to about a DVD's worth of data that must be crunched ASAP to avoid backlogs of data. It's kind of like this blog: I got a lot of 'data' = experiences on my way down, but it has taken me over 10 days to put a blog up. That's what you call a 'backblog'.
They've just finished a traverse from the edge of the continent to the pole. This is controversial - sir ed hillary [ a NZ native] traversed in a tractor [!] in the early 1950's, before everest I think, to prepare the way for the first ski traverse of the continent by Vivian fuchs. Ed thinks it's wimpy to always use a traverse rather than build a highyway. But the pole is such a remote place that having overland transport may be good for the environment - currently many things are burned to dispose of them, and many need to be shipped back to the US. This uses many C130 flights and is wasteful. The traverse is supposed to arrive today. It will be interesting to see the reception.


So it's been less than 12 hours since landing in mc Murdo - finally! Mc Murdo is effectively a huge college dorm with a military base attached to it. It's the point of entry to Antarctica for most US scientists, and it is by far, the largest base on the continent. In the summer [now] it has about 1000 people, in the winter 'only' 200. but they stay all winter - like at the pole. It's too risky to fly. The summer for them is really hectic. They get 2 supply ships that they have to unload and then reload [with garbage and equipment return to the US]. My roommate at MCM told me they run trucks 24 hours a day for about 2 weeks. then it's done and they follow the route the icebreakers made for them, before they close up again.
MCM -- very impressive to even *find* it after 2500 miles of open ocean and then pack ice. Seeing my first iceberg was a very powerful experience. First you see little icebergs that have broken off from the main ice sheet, then their density increases and you see them join in to form a huge ice sea. We got in to the base around 7pm, stepped off the 250,000 lb plane into a puddle of water - the ice runway was melting. Luckily it is about 10' thick. Still it was unsettling! Then were met to get briefed and get bags from off the plane. Finally on to one of the two [!] bars on the base. It's like synagogues - one main one, one breakaway! One bar is smoke free, the other isn't. guess which one is more popular?!
These guys like their brewskis! Bar closed after 11pm and of course it's still daytime out - sunny, mild 20F [for Antarctica] and everyone is still hankering for some more [lots of people here from Wisconsin actually that worked for a neighbor of mine when I was there]. I got to see some of my friends on their way back to the US via mc Murdo then NZ. Very funny experience. Everyone there was extremely friendly and helpful. I shared a room for 6 hours with 2 really swell guys from the US, both contract workers here for the summer. Both have girlfriends that they met here last year. Again, very much a college feel to it. One roommate was the director of recreational activities. They have 5 million things to do there from pottery making to cooking classes. Tomorrow night is the women's soiree where all the girls on the base [about 50% of the population] entertain all of the men. Of course some of the women fancy women, which prompts many of the men to dress in drag to try to get into the show. Very bizarre. I'll miss the party though as I'm on my way to the pole in the ski equipped C130. this thing is awesome. Pilots and crew are all from NY in the air guard. The plane is only half full with people Enroute to the pole. Plenty of room to watch the endless whiteness of the 600 mile long Ross Ice shelf sink in, then 250 miles up the polar plateau to 10000 feet at the station, which is chilly for the summer: -25F. this flight will be short [3 hours] then into pole and check in to my room and sleep [only got 2 hours last night].


Thanks for the emails. They keep me sane on 12 hour flights! I hope to send this one to you from mc Murdo but who knows. Last night I got to the hotel at 9pm, ate, went to sleep thinking I would need to get up at 6. then at 5am I get a call that we are delayed by 2 hours and that we are trying again later today. Which we did. I'm now on the plane, in perhaps the best seat. No one is sitting across from me and I have a crewman next to me who's going to be up and about the whole flight. Much better than yesterday, though I don't know where my friend Denis is. He's probably in the back lying down since this flight is more crowded then yesterday [except for me].
Denis was made south pole station science manager - a position with some extra power. The non science manager, if he/she is a military officer, gets a set of handcuffs, a straight jacket, some tranqs, and even a gun in case anyone wintering has a breakdown.. a few years ago one of the winter scientists had a mini breakdown and started taking apart his experiment without permission from the head honcho - a big no no. I don't think they tranq'd him out but he was fired after the season. Hopefully this year, for my expt in particular, things will go great. So far, so good. We've got the expt running I hear from my grad student Evan who's been there for almost a month.

12/15/05 - part 2

12/15/05 - part 2

Of course we boomeranged. 5 hours into the flight we hear the crew tell us that we've nearly reached our point of no return...and we have to turn back. On the ground in mc Murdo the weather is too bad for landing.
Guess what happens next? We turn around and proceed, not back to Christchurch, but instead to Dunedin - the plane doesn't have enough gas to make the round trip to ch church! This will add about 1.5 hours to the trip. Then, when I think it can't be any worse it starts to 'rain' inside the cabin right on me and my seatmates. Condensation, from the super heated, no ventilation cabin, which smells of stale breath and BO BTW. Then at altitude it freezes hopefully not to remelt and drip on passengers b/c we're supposed to be going to the Antarctic, remember, where the temperature is not warm enough to melt ice. Just warm enough to make fog or clouds to prevent our landing and require an 11 hour round trip instead of a one way 8 hour flight. So annoying... This means we're going to try again tomorrow I bet. It will probably be really early. Another annoying fact is that the second plane of our 2 ship squadron, which was supposed to be 3 hours behind us, never left. Meaning that they got to spend a nice full day in ch church , probably punting down the Avon...
Now I'm going to have to try again tomorrow after this interminable flight, being completely weary of sitting on my @r$e. The final insult is that on the ground in Dunedin the pilot told us that the weather cleared up in mc Murdo after all but we were too far out by that time to try for it. we only have limited clothing and we can't get our checked bags back... what a waste of a day.


Enroute - at cruise altitude, Denis informs me that we're 3 hours into the flight. Meaning, of course, there are 5 hours more. No mind - brought plenty of food and they give us chips, oranges, apples, juices, etc.
Morning started off early 530a, shuttle to the aerodrome was a bit late, but got to the center alright. Then we unpacked the mountain of clothes we had packed yesterday afternoon and got down to the business of dressing. 45 lbs of clothing later went to get a last coffee at the Antarctic centre - a wonderful little museum seeking to replicate the thrills of the land of explorers below. I decided not to take the tour including a ride on a snowcat motorized sledge in simulated Antarctic conditions -18C as I figured I'd get plenty of it on 'the Ice'. After the cheerful lads of the NZ air force screened us, and allowed me 35 extra lbs of cargo [kosher food]. Wonderful folks all 'round.
As stated, presently we're situated on a C-130 operated by the royal NZ air force. What a cramped, smelly, slave hold! Luckily I got one of the better seats on board. Across from Dr. Denis Barkats my experiment's 'winter over' meaning he's on the Ice for the next 11 months of his [young] life. Denis came down last year for 2 weeks so he knows what he's getting into. He spent the last 2 weeks tramping [= camping in Kiwi] with his new girlfriend from Caltech. Oh, l'amour!!!

We had a few films and pre flight briefings this morning that told us to prepare for the 'most exciting 48 hours of our lives' but so far we're just all bored. I've never been on a stranger flight. We don't have seats, we have, instead, cargo netting with old canvas 'seat belts' we're sitting in 4 benches, with a pair of benches facing each other. Denis and I are on the end of one bench meaning we're close to the 'toilet'. This toilet is quite the contraption. There is one standup one for the men and one sit down for the 10 ladies aboard. The rest of the passengers are strewn in the back along a big cargo ramp. Every 5 minutes someone walks by us to get to the toilet and it's quite a logistical problem to do so. There is one small window on the wall that I am facing. Outside it looks hazy, but the flight is wonderfully smooth. Other than that, I'm never complaining about southwest airlines again!
In addition to the personnel [only 3 of the 48 people aboard are going to the Pole] we are a big delivery van. Next to me is about 5000 lbs of bananas! Their fragrance is scarcely enough to perfume the air from hints of 'waste' from the 'honey pot' [=toilet]. Did I mention that we have to wear most of the Ex. Cold Weather clothing we were given. My feet and legs are boiling.

I think my dad would try to parachute out of this plane...

We should be out of trouble in a bit. I'm hoping to avoid a 'boomerang' which is when the weather is bad at Mc Murdo station [the US main base and home to about 900 people now in summer] in the Antarctic. A boomerang would mean effectively two 8 hours flights in this massive mess-machine...

Once we get past half way we'll probably be in good shape. Hopefully in the next hour we'll be below the Antarctic circle -66.5 deg below the equator and below which the sun never sets in summer.


I'm writing this from Christchurch NZ. It's a lovely little city that reminds me of England. The hotel has 2 tiny beds and they are more wobbly than being on a boat. Everyone is so very friendly here. This place makes California look like a prison in terms of friendliness.
The flight on Qantas was nice. I actually slept without taking any drugs. They didn't have kosher food even though I ordered it. No worries
- the Koala sandwiches made up for it.
Today, like yesterday, it is raining lightly and I didn't bring a jacket. The sky is grey - again reminding me of the UK. ChChurch is a beautiful little town with a river and bridges modeled on Stratford England - the river is called the avon. The town has a feel of an old whaling village because it is the #1 place to deploy to Antarctica from. In fact Robert Falcon Scott deployed from here on his ill-fated final voyage to the S. Pole - he made it one month after Roald Amundsen - the norseman who failed to reach the N. Pole then turned around south and made the S. Pole first. Scott got to the S. Pole, saw the Norwegian flag and uttered the famous phrase: "Great God this is an awful place!". I'm hoping to find things much better when I arrive there Friday [Thursday in CA]. Anyway there's lots to see here - several museums beautiful river walks, even punting down the Avon. Scott's wife was an amazing artist and did up a huge marble sculpture of him 5 years after his death which overlooks the Avon.
In a few hours I check into the CDC to get my ECW then off to MCM [clothing dist. Center, extreme cold weather gear, Mc Murdo - US's base on the coast of Antarctica directly south of NZ]. There's been some worry b/c one flight got delayed this week causing a back up of almost 100 passengers. Also, dreadfully, I found out that I'm going to be on a C-130, NZ military cargo plane [Hercules] instead of a jet powered C-17 much nicer. The C 130 4 engine turbo prop is a real rugged experience - no seats, just cargo nets to sit in for 9 hours! The jet-powered c 17 takes half that time.