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Trip Number Ten

If you want just the pictures, you can get them from my Flickr photostream.

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January 20, 2011

Wednesday, Jan. 19 2011 6:12 p.m. UTC

Holy frozen Batman, I’m leaving tomorrow! I still have a lot I want to do! I was just getting into the swing of things! But I am also excited to leave. A colleague always says, “the best days at the South Pole are the day you arrive and the day you leave.” After all these years, that feels as true as ever.

I know my time is short today because I have to:

  • Pack (bags out by the station door known as “Destination Zulu” by 7 pm)
  • Sort my garbage (the US Antarctic program has an extensive recycling and waste management program, and I have two weeks of trash in the can in my room)
  • Finish editing documentation for our Winter-Overs
  • Help the new arrivals get set up for their work
  • Possibly, hopefully, visit the antenna fields with Marco, the second of the four marathon finishers here. His site is a few km from the station and will present a view of the South Pole I’ve never seen before.

That will be a very full day even assuming nothing else comes up. But 24 hours from now I will be listening intently to the flight announcements. I just got email from Northbound colleagues in McMurdo saying there are flight delays today due to fog (dang) but that they saw penguins (cool!) — the ever-present uncertainties of travel in Antarctica start to kick in for me now.

But I’m going home soon!

I really can’t stay
(but baby it’s cold outside)
I’ve got to go away
(but baby it’s cold outside)
This evening has been
(been hoping that you’d drop in)
So very nice
… So really i’d better scurry
(beautiful please don’t hurry)
but maybe just a half a drink more
(put some records on while i pour)

Ooooo Baby it’s cold… out…. side!

Lyrics and melody by Frank Loesser … shout-out to E.

Cargo berms

Warming my hands in the GOES antenna shack (a tiny plywood room inside the antenna dome; photo by M. Dierckxsens)

January 19, 2011

Tuesday, Jan. 18 2011 11:25 p.m. UTC


Back in the Galley again, the smell of dozens of lunch burgers grilling and the very same licorice spice Stash tea I always drink here setting the olfactory tones for this post.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, when I was working at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, I was preparing to return to Madison to take some art classes and I emailed some physics colleagues there to see if there was any student work to be had. Colleagues Bob Morse and Francis Halzen replied that there was a new project under way, which was to build a neutrino detector in the Ice in Antarctica. Bob had done an experiment at the Pole to detect cosmic rays, and Francis was a particle theorist who specialized increasingly in astro-particle physics, and neutrinos in particular. Computer simulations were needed to see how effective light sensors, placed deep in the ice, might be at detecting neutrinos.

What started as an art-school day-job turned into a doctorate in physics as the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) became a reality and the computer simulations I and other students wrote became important tools for the understanding of the data from the first instruments deployed by the growing collaboration in the polar ice cap. But in the very earliest years, it was understood even by using back-of-the-envelope calculations that a much larger detector would be needed… a Cubic kilometer of Ice, in fact … an Ice Cube. AMANDA paved the way by detecting high-energy neutrinos, by setting limits on astrophysical sources, and, perhaps most crucially, by providing technological prototypes for the hot water drilling which would be needed to deploy the sensors, and for the design of the sensors themselves which evolved from simple photomultiplier tubes at the ends of long coaxial cables to sophisticated computers in their own right which would provide the maximum signal quality by digitizing the light down in the ice and sending them to the surface with no loss of signal quality.

The difficulties faced by AMANDA were daunting. The drilling in particular was an immense engineering challenge, requiring a kind of specialized expertise found in only a handful of individuals (if that many) worldwide. One man in particular, the late Bruce Koci, brought a kind of preternatural understanding, intuition and tenacity to the task which allowed the 2-km holes for the AMANDA instrument to be drilled successfully, though not without delays, logistical and engineering nightmares, burst hoses, and endless worry Collaboration-wide. After the holes were drilled, deployments of the “strings” of sensors themselves were an ordeal in their own right, sometimes involving 'stuck’ strings, free-falling cables, injuries and, in the best of times, 20-hour deployments out-of-doors in a single shift (one of my most vivid memories of these deployments was the enormous amounts of food one could eat during the breaks, and the utter contentment of exhaustion when the task was done).

Handling the data in AMANDA times was a challenge in and of itself. The data volume and mathematical complexity of the analysis strained the computing resources available at the time; crunching the numbers to find the first neutrino candidates required time on Cray supercomputers and a scrum of dedicated grad students and postdocs working at the limits of their programming abilities.

Since it was understood that AMANDA would eventually give way to a larger instrument, work began well before the final stages of AMANDA to design the IceCube detector and to procure funding. Several competing prototype designs for a next-generation sensor were created and tested in later AMANDA deployments, including a design created while I was at LBNL in Berkeley. The LBNL “Digital Optical Module” (DOM) took some of the signal processing computations down into the ice itself in order to get the maximum signal quality. Though more sophisticated (and expensive) than the usual AMANDA modules, the interface to the surface required only the usual copper coaxial cables, with far better quality of data. A test AMANDA “string” (#18) deployed in 2000 worked well enough (barely!) to show that the DOM technology was workable and could be used to detect particles in the ice. The early LBNL prototype would be extensively improved for IceCube.

IceCube itself received a first real jolt of funding in 2002 and work began to quickly implement the vision of a kilometer-cubed detector. I was put to work on the communications interface which would connect the deployed DOMs down in the ice to a network of off-the-shelf computers running on the surface, a design which would make IceCube an experiment with relatively little custom-built electronics from a high-energy physics standpoint (the DOMs, cables, and a computer interface card plugged into a commodity chassis are the only hardware we had to design ourselves… the rest of the experiment looks like a data center you’d find at any medium-sized Internet company).

The first three IceCube holes were planned for early 2005, but the first version of the new drilling equipment (an enormous engineering task in and of itself) proved exceptionally challenging, and after an injury in the drill camp and many other difficulties, the first IceCube string was deployed in early January. After freeze-in, the DOMs were powered on for the first time by National Science Foundation Representative Jerry Marty and Station Manager BK Grant, with all of us watching with bated breath to see if the DOMs communicated. They did.

The following seasons were all very challenging. Drilling improved substantially with experience, with 8, 12, 19, 19, 20 and 7 strings deployed in the following years, respectively. Software was written, and rewritten, to read out the data generated by 5500 DOMs and to progressively reduce the huge volume of noise to a size small enough to be sent over the satellites to the North. Tasks such as writing the embedded software for the DOMs themselves, to the system which sifts through the detected light to “trigger” on signals from real particles traveling through the Ice, to the filtering of these particles for neutrinos, to the overall control and monitoring of the system, to the simulation of the entire process to be able to make firm quantitative statements about what we are seeing — all this has taken a tremendous amount of effort, collaboration, acquisition of knowledge and skill, political struggles, failures and triumphs.

It has seemed that since we started this project, there has been barely enough time to catch one’s breath. Now we are at the end of the construction of this utterly strange device. I have put nearly a decade of my life into this project alone. If you count AMANDA, I have spent almost half my life in this field.

Last night we took the first runs with the completed IceCube detector — all 86 strings. Though hopefully the experiment will run for decades, in some sense last night’s runs were for me the fruition of years of effort, since I have been more a builder than a user of this instrument. I was going to write more about how it feels to hit this milestone (one which I was never at all certain we would reach), and less about the history… but how I feel seems somehow not that important right now. We built it. Many of us. It is good. May it run long and see deep into the fabric of things. May it teach all of us about many new and beautiful things. May we all benefit from working together and take the knowledge gained, from the trivial to the profound, out into the world to do good things.

Time to greet the dozen or so of new IceCube arrivals from the flight landing now — the last big batch of 'Cubers for the season… maybe the last big batch ever.

IceCube on-Ice lead Greg Sullivan starts the first 86-string run using IceCube Live

Celebratory champaign (provided by Jim Haugen) after the first successful run

January 18, 2011

Tuesday, Jan. 18 2011 1:14 a.m. UTC

Friendly Radiation

Running out of time on this satellite pass for a blog post. Took tons of photos today… this morning we had a tour of the satellite antennas at the very end of Summer Camp. The weather was fantastic, maybe -15F with no wind and high clouds which shed a magic crystalline light on everything. Satellite technician James and his winter-over colleague Glen showed us around, with some of the best views of the Station I’ve ever had.

The satellite stations and the Hercules flights are our ONLY regular link to the outside world. So aside from the inherent technical interest (what geek doesn’t like large satellite dishes and racks of hyper-specialized electronics), there is also an emotional impact to seeing the intricate fragility of our communications uplinks. Every bit of data I’ve sent off station (or sent from various offices in Chicago, Madison or elsewhere TO the Pole) has passed through these humble structures and the networks that connect them to the rest of the Station.

One of our tour guides spent three years in Tikrit, Iraq. Now he is wintering at the Pole — from +130 F to -100 F. I expect his situation to be safer here.

Satellite uplinks

John and James approach the SPTR dome

John Vader

January 17, 2011

Sunday, Jan. 16 2011 11:32 p.m. UTC

A place that wants you dead

Marathon finish line at the Geographic Pole

It’s a little before the lunch rush here in the galley and I’m using a bit of the quiet time here to write today’s post. From where I sit I can see nearly half the entire horizon — as close to a completely flat line as you can get, apart from being on an ocean-going boat, I suppose. There is a meditation technique in which one raises one eyes to whatever horizon, real or imaginary, is in front of one, and one simply watches thoughts arise and fall away. That horizon is nowhere more perfect than here.

The minimalism of the view means that any human construction (antenna, caterpillar tractor, futuristic building, or any of the many thousands of flag markers), no matter how distant, stands out in relief. That visual fact underscores a notion I have about this place. Except for featureless plains of snow, a wide-open sky, wind, and extreme cold, one’s experience of this place is almost exclusively that of humans and human-made things. No trees, no terrain, no insects or animals, no smells, nothing — except what we have brought here. In this way, this alien location is perhaps the most human place I will ever visit. Music in the galley, jokes over email and posted on the corridor walls, footsteps in the hallway outside your room while you’re trying to sleep, the fuel smells mixing with food cooking in the galley, one’s own body odors and those of one’s colleagues, and, most of all, one’s own mundane or esoterically technical work — these are the parameters of life here. The strange irony of this place is that it is all fellowship and craft, in one of the harshest spots on Earth.

There is a a New York Times article today about Antarctic tourism commemorating Scott’s and Amundsen’s expeditions here:

Despite the potential circus atmosphere, some veterans insist that Antarctica is not for novices.

“It’s a place that wants you dead,” said Robert Swan, an environmentalist who walked Scott’s route to the South Pole in 1985. “Scott found that out 100 years ago.”

True enough — particularly for tourists who try to walk, ski, or drive here (yes, people do drive to the South Pole from time to time). But for us, ensconced relatively comfortably in this space station / aircraft carrier / submarine, it is certainly less hazardous than it was for Amundsen and Scott, and nothing more than human. When we visit the stars, we will take everything about ourselves with us… and that may provide the biggest challenge, and the biggest joy.

Yesterday after dinner I took a turn in the dish pit washing dishes. The galley serves 200 people for dinner and so there is a real after-dinner rush for the dishwashers; they rely partly on volunteers on Sunday (and Ricky, one of the dishwashers, had just finished winning the marathon). It was a pleasure to work fast, with my body and hands, to feel warm water and the spray of errant droplets on my face. Computer work is exceptionally hard to do with full-body awareness, but when washing dishes that awareness is an easy pleasure. Fleetwood Mac off of someone’s iPod kept the beat. The gratitude of the galley staff was palpable. It was a high point of this trip, simply to turn dirty dishes into clean ones.

The lunch crowd is building. Time to eat.

January 16, 2011

Sunday, Jan. 16 2011 1:11 a.m. UTC


I just got back from running in/photographing my first South Pole marathon: temperature -18F, windchill -41F. Every year there is a Christmas Day race here called the Race Around the World. The winner gets to go to McMurdo and run in a marathon there (and usually wins, since they are trained at high altitude). But flights yesterday got cancelled because all the Hercules C-130s had to go out to field camps. Since “our” runner couldn’t get to McMurdo, South Pole is having its own marathon right now… outside. Starting gun was an hour ago and they are still out running. I ran the first mile or so (lungs still hurt!) and then cut across the course to photograph the leaders and, well, everyone else — there were only ten or so of us.

It was so fun! Probably not the safest or sanest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m very glad I did it. It was made even more exciting by the fact that we raced the clock to get the first 84-string IceCube run going just before the marathon. I literally had to run to my room to get dressed and then out to the Geographic Pole marker to make it in time for the start. The Station doctor gave a short exhortation to stay safe before we started… hopefully the people still out there are being careful! The station turned out to provide water stops, sleeping bags, toilets, aid stations, cheering and photography.

There is a lot more I want to write about but I need to use the rest of the satellite pass for other things, so hello to everyone and good luck to the runners!

Yours truly after 1/26th of the marathon.

More photos

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