Revolution Number Nine

John Jacobsen
Thursday, January 6, 2011

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Earlier post Red Eye to McMurdo southpole

Later post Settling In southpole

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Figure 1: The Emperor and I

If you are reading this post, then we have made it to the South Pole.

At the moment we are airborne on Flight P-106. There are 17 of us today plus a palette or so of cargo, with plenty of room on the C-130 to spread out. I, for one, am standing in the middle of the plane, with the laptop perched atop some bags. A few others have found spots on the floor or are checking out the flight deck one by one.

Yesterday’s blog post was written in Crary Lab, still one of my favorite places on the Ice. A building in multiple wings or “Stages” which reminds me of the architecture from “Space, 1999” (now you know how old I am if you didn’t already), the lab is Ground Zero for much of the science carried out in Antarctica, with dozens of different rooms, each serving various support roles for biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, geology, vulcanology and probably even sociology. Stuffed penguins, seal skulls, fish in formaldehyde jars, dried sea sponges, alternately shiny and encrusted instruments from days of Antarctic yore, and similar artifacts are on display at various locations, as are posters from dozens of science projects and even a few lovely oil paintings of landscapes which can be reached by helicopter from McMurdo.

The top floor of Crary has enormous picture windows looking out over the nearby mountains — Black Island, White Island, Mount Discovery. This is a great place to sit and work if you get stuck in McMurdo for a few days.

One of my favorite labs in Crary is the aquarium, where there is a “touch tank” containing sea creatures such as anemones, small fish, sea stars, something which looks like an ocean cockroach larger than a sparrow, and extremely alien-looking orange sea spiders, things which are all legs, very creepy and fascinating.

After exploring Crary and touching the sea monsters, we headed off to the cafeteria for a dinner of butter chicken, dal, and various vegan salads — I am trying to eat healthy this trip, and I think so far it has paid off in terms of overall energy and fitness despite the truly whacked sleep schedule. Following dinner was Bag Drag, which is an extremely aptly-named procedure (it involves schlepping all your Bags and is a Drag) which is more or less the equivalent of what you do when you check in your bags at any commercial airline, except that they weigh you with your Extremely Cold Weather (ECW) gear as well.

After Bag Drag, Sebastian and I hiked up Observation Hill to see what could be seen. The town below was stretched out in all its glory like an Alaskan stevedore’s acid-trip version of a malignant model train layout, a matrix of pale oranges, greens and dusty browns spattering the basin between Arrival Heights and Ob hill, the distant sounds of construction equipment competing with the wind and our conversation as we slowly climbed, shooting lots of pictures on the way. We talked about the early Arctic and Antarctic explorers and the race to be “the first,” and how those missions (and, in smaller ways, the current expeditions across the Ice, which strive to be the first person or group of category X or nation Y to traverse such-and-such piece of Antarctica) are similar to the field of High Energy Physics, where the first person (or, almost always, group) to discover a new particle or breakthrough result, gets the “prize” — the prize being all the credit, or in rare cases the actual Nobel Prize. The drive to be the first seems to be a key driving factor in both science and exploration, but seems to me actually somewhat antithetical to the true collaborative nature of each (collaborative in that the teams involve several or many people, but also in that multiple teams have to try in order to reach the extremely challenging goal, since some teams will fail). IceCube is a collaboration of a few hundred people, and, having experienced both collaboration and competition in spades, I have found, perhaps as a result of getting older, collaboration to be a much more satisfying mode.

We also considered the difficult question, what is the intrinsic value of large science projects in Antarctica (or elsewhere)? IceCube cost upwards of $270 million US to build (not including future operations), which could have been used for other science projects, or, say, for several schools on the South Side of Chicago — or for a small fraction of a new fighter jet. Comparing schools with neutrino detectors is difficult, not just because they are so different from each other, but because the things they attempt to do are, as they say on the Master Card ads, truly priceless. What would you pay to give your child a safe and good education and prepare them for a good life? What would you pay to allow humanity to understand the intricate and gorgeous workings of the universe? What would you pay for peace (for I do think that cooperative, international ventures such as science in Antarctica are conducive to world peace)? What would you pay to own a piece of artwork you fall in love with… or to create it? For your own spiritual awakening or that of others? In today’s world, these things all take money, and it boggles my mind somewhat to contemplate such costs… but as I approach the work site for the project I have so long been a part of, supported by taxpayer money and the hard work of thousands of people, it feels appropriate, somehow, to contemplate the matter, even if there are no easy answers.

Returned back to our dorm in Building 155 to sleep early prior to our transport for our flight at 0645h. Around 0200 our roommate came in an promptly began snoring. I have never heard snoring so loud — it was like listening to the vivisection of a dying bull. Real nice guy, though (awake). Up and at ‘em at 0530 with breakfast and then packing up to catch the van for the hour-long ride to Williams Field.

I’m excited to see the Pole, to unpack and have a place to call home for a few weeks, and to take a 20 second shower.

Update: just arrived safe and sound and it is good to be back! Will post more news and pictures when I can.

Earlier post Red Eye to McMurdo southpole

Later post Settling In southpole

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