South Pole Diaries 2000/01    


Sunday 3rd December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

Twin Otter at Terra Nova off to Dome CJohn and I arrived at Terra Nova Bay just yesterday and we are scheduled to leave for Dome C on top of the Antarctic Plateau at 8 pm today (Sunday 3.12.00). We should reach Dome C one day *earlier* than originally planned.

Unfortunately, our instrumentation will not come with us in the Twin Otter.

The bad thing is that 3 toilets will be loaded instead of our instrumentation. This is something that should prompt us to reflect on the way that we think about scientific instrumentation. The good thing is that the people there didn't get confused as to which one was our experiment and which one was the toilet. In the end, there will be on the aircraft: 4 people + the pilot - and 3 toilets. Better than on a 747.

I tried to contact Dome C's Head (Augusto Lori) by radio to get permission to send the SUMMIT, but he convinced me otherwise in just one minute. The idea was that, as John suggested, we will arrive too tired to start with the SUMMIT installation, but not too tired to use the toilet...

In any case, the weather is not so bad and we should receive the instrumentation by the next flight, tomorrow morning. The Twin Otters allow us to bring 1 ton each flight. Today we have been involved in an introductory meeting for all the people that arrived on our flight at the "Pinguinattolo" (literally... well, there is not a direct, literal translation, but in Italian it sounds like "the penguin's place"). It is a wooden chalet where people meet trying to get funny. The meeting could be boring, but I was so happy - after a year and a half unsuccessfully trying to understand people talking Austr... English - to see Prof. John Storey, Head of the School of Physics of UNSW, unable to understand the easiest word, that, at the end, I felt very well.

Skua BirdIn my previous mail, I wrote "it has been a short trip" in the Subject. That's actually not true: it has been, for me, a very long trip, starting when I left Terra Nova Bay Station last time in 1991, promising myself to get back, soon or later. When I arrived here yesterday, just 9 years later, I felt as comfortable as I would had I left only a few weeks before. Despite my memory not being outstanding , I recognized many details of the place, any door, any stone, and I could write down the map of the station with millimetric accuracy. I was also able to find the nest of the Skua living close to the station, a station that probably looks to the Skua something like King's Cross does for Sydneysiders.

The station lies in a wonderful spot. On one side there is the Campbell ice tongue, a white strip underlying the horizon, on the other the Melbourne mountain, just a tall white cone, with a cyan crevasse on the side.

After an hour, I reached the top of the hill with John and then proceeded to the harbour on the other side of the hill that is still iced in this season. Sometimes John would get some footage with his camera. When he filmed, I tried to be silent, to let him record the "noise" of Antarctica. The temperature was mild, and the wind just a gentle breeze. When he stopped to get footage of the stones that the wind has worn in unusual but delicate profiles, it was possible to hear the absolute silence. In front of me there was a mountain, lying around a frozen harbour. A small iceberg was locked there earlier this summer, waiting ice melting to disappear definitively. A small depression surrounding the iceberg was unexpectedly green.

The surprising thing when you get to Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica, -74S latitude, is how such a deserted and remote place can look friendly and gentle in the summer. Forget Shakleton and frightening stories. A part of me would like to feel like an "antarctic hero", as somebody once called me. But unfortunately, this is just not the case: I could spend years in Terra Nova not getting annoyed, as the Italians have choosen a region in one of the best places on the coast to build their first station.

When I was coming here in the 90's, the organization was still not perfect and most of the results were due to the skills of individuals. Now, after several trips to the US stations, I was feeling that things have to change, and the Organization be improved to deal with the needs of the group. But when I stepped out off the C130 onto the thin layer of ice with the other fourty people flying with us, I found just about all the personnel of the station waiting like it was the only aircraft that had ever landed. I probably embraced 30 people, anybody was recognizing and greeting anybody else, a lot of neurons in my brain were co-operating to recognize people lying there (sometime successfully, more often not).

That's what it is to belong to a nation. Or a group. The same things you have been considering a defect (e.g., a natural tendancy to lack in an organization), can transform into an exceptional skill in another situation. And you realize that people are essentially the same and the only real difference resides within ourselves.


Sunday 3rd December 2000 - Pt 2

From John Storey.....

The story so far:

Paolo and I arrived at Terra Nova Bay just after 6 pm last night. It is the quickest trip to Antarctica either us of has ever made---in Paolo's case just 23 hours door-to door from UNSW. This is considerably faster than he could have gotten to Rome...

My own trip was a few hours slower, simply because I took a flight to Christchurch earlier in the day so I could visit the Whispertech company. This proved a very enlightening visit---the Whispertech Stirling-engine power generator is a wonderful piece of technology that could one day be an excellent replacement for the thermo-electric generator (TEG) we currently use in the AASTO. (Regular readers of the South Pole Diaries will know that the TEG is not one of our favourite things. This stems mainly from its habit of spitting the dummy on a regular basis and spewing hot hydrochloric acid and HF over our electronics.) The Whispertech donk may well prove to be one of the best things to come out of New Zealand since Andre. The Managing Director spent a couple of hours showing me around their research and production areas, and was very optimistic about their possible application in Antarctica.

The Whispertech co-generation unit consists of a four-cylinder double-acting Stirling engine directly driving an alternator. Part of the extreme cleverness is in the wobble-plate crankshaft, which sort of gyrates around like a belly-dancer's hips while the pistons go up and down. More of the cleverness can be found in the fact that all the moving parts are fully sealed, keeping the working fluid (in this case nitrogen) from leaking out and turning into hydrochloric acid or whatever. The whole arrangement produces 750 watts of electricity and a handy amount of heat, all the while burning modest quantities of propane or diesel fuel and making less noise than your average fridge. I want one.

On Saturday morning Paolo and I arrived at Christchurch CDC (Clothing Distribution Centre) at 8 am. We were fitted with our gear in record time and went straight to the flight check-in for a scheduled 10 am departure. There was the usual last-minute delay (this time to add more fuel to the Hercules, after a fuel gauge had mis-read), and we were away by 11:15. Being unable to understand any more than a few words of Italian I was able to relax completely during all the announcements, even finding words like "incendio" and "emergenza" quite soothing. I must find out what they mean some day.

We landed smoothly on the sea-ice runway after what seemed a very quick trip. The unloading of both passengers and cargo from the plane was extremely efficient, with the result that we were quickly settled in to the station. (That is, I was quickly settled in. Everyone else was hugging and kissing and greeting long lost friends. It was great to see.) Unfortunately the station was temporarily a bit over-crowded. Paolo and I (and, as we later found out, the other two folk travelling with us to Dome C tonight) are sleeping in a modified refrigerated shipping container---one that has previously been used as a dormitory on an overland traverse. Oddly enough it is fitted out with Australian power points, useful enough under the circumstances.

After a quick breather Paolo and I took a stroll up the valley and over some small hills. It was a crystal clear day and the view was spectacular. From the hilltop we could see how the ice was receding back from the ocean as summer proceeds, eventually to engulf the runway on which we had just landed. The runway will only be useable for another few days. The scenery was breathtaking; the hills dotted with extraordinary rock formations where the wind had undercut rocks to create quite implausible overhanging structures.

Terra Nova Bay station itself is built on the rocks next to the sea, in what is possibly the most beautiful location of any Antarctic station. Dominating the horizon is the active volcano, Mount Melbourne. The station itself consists largely of shipping containers bolted together and popped up on stilts, giving it the appearance of a giant Lego model. Every room is the same size and shape (modulo-n), though it's remarkable how different the character of each room can be. As befits an Italian station, there is an industrial-strength coffee machine in the common room, and the washrooms are thoughtfully provided with a hair drier alongside each basin.

Just above the station are a small group of buildings modelled along the lines of Tyrolean ski lodges. Some are dormitories, others are just so you can get away from it all, play guitar, sing and enjoy the view.

Dinner was full of cheer, helped along by the wine and an enormous (and delicious) cake baked by the chef to celebrate the birthdays of a couple of team-members. This was washed down with Prosecco (an agreeable Italian sparkling wine) and strong coffee.

This morning all the new-comers had a 90-minute briefing by the station leaders. I suspect it was not particularly riveting even for those who speak the language. For me, I was happy to pretend I was at an Italian opera for which the music was yet to be written. Occasionally everyone would laugh (usually after the station doctor had just said something) causing me a moment or two of concern about what potential medical disaster I might be about to unwittingly expose myself to. On the way back to the main building we came across an Adele penguin who was wandering around the station---just checking it out and completely unconcerned about the human inhabitants.

After lunch we discovered that we'd been bumped up to tonight's flight. Unfortunately our equipment won't accompany us immediately: our flight will be fully loaded with the four us, three high-tech electric toilets and a bandsaw. Oh yes, and a few boxes labelled "Eiskernkiste". I'm not sure what this means but "Eis" is German for ice-cream and "Kern" is German for nucleus, so I think what we have here are a couple of nuclear-powered ice-cream makers. When we arrive in Dome C we won't be in a fit state to start work immediately on our equipment, so as long as it follows us tomorrow we'll be fine. We may even have tried out the toilet and the ice-cream makers by then.


Monday 4th December 2000

From John Storey.....

Prof John Storey enjoying a skidoo rideSunday evening saw us wolfing down an early dinner and walking down to the skiway to climb aboard the Twin Otter to Dome C. The Twin Otter is a remarkable aircraft, able to take off and land on a handkerchief. Because of this they've built a short Twin Otter skiway just a couple of hundred metres from the dining room. (The Hercules runway is many times longer, and is much further away to put it on thicker ice.) We were delayed from taking off for a few minutes while about twenty Adele penguins wandered across the skiway. Normally birds are a real problem around airports because they get sucked into the engines once you're airborne. With penguins this is not an issue, you just have to steer around them on the ground.

We then had a most enjoyable flight. The Twin Otter has much more space (per person) than the Herc. It has windows---lots of them. You sit facing forward, as in any proper means of transport, whereas in a Herc you sit across the plane in long rows, your boots crushed against someone's shins and someone else's boots delicately resting in your groin. In the Twin Otter the noise is tolerable without earplugs and flying at 500 feet gives you a great view. The fact that it only flies at half the speed of the Herc is no problem because you're having so much fun.

After about 2 hours we landed at "Mid-point Charlie" to refuel and stretch our legs. Here the enormity of the Antarctic plateau began to sink in: we'd flown over a completely featureless landscape for two hours and still had two hours to go, and Dome C itself is barely half-way across the plateau. Mid-point Charlie is exactly as I had imagined it---a short skiway delineated by 44-gallon drums and black plastic bags full of snow, a cluster of fuel drums, and a small patch of yellow snow.

We arrived around 1 am only to find that Dome C considered this to be 8 pm, which wasn't such a bad thing because we then had a second dinner. Dome C is a wonderful place; from the air just a tiny group of buildings in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The word "dome" implies some kind of geographical feature, but in reality the ground is flat to within 50 metres elevation over a 75 kilometre radius of the station. There are around 35 people here at present, mostly Italians, somewhat fewer French and a handful of other nationalities. There is one woman. The atmosphere is very friendly, the food is terrific and the sky is unbelievably clear and blue. It's a great place for an observatory!

We've been allocated part of a laboratory that the EPICA ice-drilling folk had planned to put ice cores in until their drill got stuck 800 metres down last year. At present it's -20C in there; we've turned the heaters on and it should be quite toasty by the time our instrument arrives.

This morning the station paramedic grabbed me and clamped a thing on my finger to measure the amount of oxygen in my blood. The resulting reading was apparently such that in Sydney under normal circumstances they'd hurl me into hospital and put me on life support. Here, at 3,800 m pressure altitude, such readings are considered only as a mild source of amusement for the medical staff. They write them down in a little book along with your pulse rate and weight, no doubt to be eventually published somewhere in a learned treatise on whether or not Diamox is a Good Thing.

An unfortunate effect of the lowered oxygen content in the bloodstream is that your brain functions poorly at best. One side effect is a loss of judgement. You can write something that you think is incredibly amusing, only to find that the Microsoft Humour Checker has just underlined it in red and the little twisted paper clip thingy is ostentatiously throwing up in the corner of your screen. I guess I just have to learn to live with that.

Speaking of Microsoft, things had gone so well today that I even attempted to connect my Mac to the NT network. I had brought with me a clever little piece of software that I knew would make the task trivial. Anyway, with the help of the station IT guru we got the Mac and the NT server to recognise each other (the server even allocated me an IP number!), but apart from trading insults the two computers steadfastly refused to communicate. Plus ca change...

Late this morning saw the arrival of an overland traverse from the French coastal station of Dumont D'Urville. These traverses are known locally as "raids"---a term that implies we were about to be sacked and pillaged. If so we were in big trouble, our only means of defence being a bandsaw and the nuclear powered icecream makers. Fortunately these raids are entirely friendly and bring with them all the heavy supplies for the station. This one consisted of a couple of dozen large trailers and sleds, pulled by massive Caterpillar tractors. This trip had been unusually slow, taking 14 days instead of the usual 11, as a couple of tractors had broken down and had to be left along the way for later recovery. Most of the station came out to watch the arrival and to greet the new-comers. For the rest of the day the various containers were unloaded and stacked on berms. Many of these goods will be used in the construction of the new station.

Just after dinner the Twin Otter appeared again on the horizon---first the small arc of a vapour trail, then a black dot and finally the bright orange and white plane slithering down the skiway. It brought with it our instrument (SUMMIT) in five boxes, some fresh food, and what appears from the labelling on the boxes to be a French experiment. Each flight can carry up to about a tonne of stuff. Within fifteen minutes everything was out of the plane and loaded onto a skidoo or into the bucket of a bulldozer. Our lab is now piled high with stuff---tomorrow we will unpack and get to work.

By the way, the high-tech electric toilets turn out to be a great disappointment. From the description on the boxes I was expecting technology so advanced it could only have been reverse-engineered from the dunny of a captured alien space craft---possibly involving antiproton beams that would turn the waste material into pure energy and incidentally provide power for half the station. Alas, it is a simply a cremation process that sends puffs of unpleasant-smelling smoke out the chimney. Always black smoke, never white.


Tuesday 5th December 2000

From John Storey.....

Today I saw my first 22 degree ice halo (with sun dogs) since arriving at Dome C. Now I feel at home.

We got the day off to a good start by borrowing a cordless drill, unpacking all the boxes, and setting the instrument up. By lunch we were able to communicate remotely with it using the HP800 Omnibook and we were looking unstoppable.

The highlight of a superb lunch was the asparagus soup. I will do a proper write-up later of "Chez Jean Louis", the only 5-star restaurant in Antarctica, but suffice to say this chef is extraordinary.

Nemesis overtook us in the early afternoon when we realised that the static shocks we had been getting all morning had also fried one of our PC/104 computer boards. Grounding (earthing) things in Antarctica is always a problem (the nearest decent ground to Dome C is 3250 metres below us), and working in a plastic building doesn't help. Nevertheless, I should have been more careful. We've now tied everything together with heavy copper wire that Paolo stripped out of a mains lead, but this is too late to save our ADC card. Not to worry---we have a spare.

Speaking of mains cables, we were so mindful of the fact that European plugs are different to Oz ones that we brought no fewer than 24 Australian outlets. What makes this amusing is that we have only about three things to plug into them, having left behind all but one of our Australian IEC leads! What's more, the station is liberally sprinked with Australian outlets anyway, for reasons that presently escape me.

By late afternoon Summit was performing all of its functions and we were thinking of where to set it up outside. The lab we are in couldn't be better---it is just a short walk from the other buildings of the station, is large, warm and comfortable, with good bench space etc. We think we will leave the Omnibook there all season, and simply pop Summit out the door. There's even a cable duct to run our wires through!

We hooked up an RS232 link between Summit and the Omnibook because it may be easier to operate in an automatic mode that way. Andre had thoughtfully supplied a cable with two connectors on each end, but it was still in its original plastic bag---giving me little confidence it would work. In preparation for the impending struggle with this most recalcitrant of all computer protocols, I ratted through the boxes looking for various things I thought might be helpful. One looked like a null modem but turned out to be an Autocad dongle. Things weren't looking good.

Anyway, for the first time in my life I was able to see an RS232 link work first time. Probably this was because Paolo did it.

Dinner included a champagne toast to the departing traverse team, who will spend the next 11 days getting back to Dumont d'Urville.

All that remained to do prior to the final assembly was to tame the stepper motor that drives the scanning mirror. This works, but vibrates and jumps around in a horrible fashion. Such is my irrational dislike of stepper motors that one part of me would have been perfectly happy to leave it to vibrate itself to death, scattering across the snow the springs and magnets and ratchets and whatever other pieces of junk its misguided designers had thought to build it out of. Paolo, however, took a more sympathetic approach and by the time I arrived back in the lab he had adjusted the various drive parameters and had it humming like a bird.

Getting Summit out the door will be an interesting challenging because it weighs 250 kg or so. We were hoping there'd be a forklift lying around but there isn't. There is however a sort of ride-on elevated platform thing that we might be able to use as a crane. The ride-on controls are broken so you have to walk along beside it using the external controls, giving the impression of someone taking a giraffe for a walk.

We shall see.


Wednesday 6th December 2000

From John Storey.....

We spent the morning learning more about the rotator, and contemplating observing scripts for Summit. After lunch we moved on to the final assembly of Summit, which proved to be remarkably challenging. I will not bore readers with the technical details of which parts fitted and which bits didn't, nor will I indulge in graphic descriptions of just how horrible silicone heat-sink compound is when it's smeared over everything. We were very grateful to have such an excellent lab space to do it in, it would not have been much fun in a tent.

John Storey with telescope at Dome CWe even found a fork-lift! It was actually sitting at the end of our lab, cunningly disguised as, well, a fork-lift. We had of course noticed it but decided it was unsuitable because all its things were in the wrong place. (I'm sure there are some specific technical terms for the various "things" that fork-lifts have on them, like forks, bit that holds the forks, legs, little wheels, and sticking-out-bits that stop it falling over. Suffice to say these were all in the wrong place.) Anyway, it turned out they were all adjustable and so now we have a fully customised fork-lift better adapted to our purpose than anything we could have dreamt of. As I type, the Summit instrument is poised 2 metres above the ground waiting to be lowered onto the Summit electronics rack.

Here at Dome C we are some 1700 km away from the South Pole, or 15 degrees. At this time of year the sun never sets, but at midnight dips to within 8 degrees of the horizon, rising to about 40 degrees elevation at noon. There causes a significant diurnal temperature variation, from a high of nearly -25 C at midday to well below -40 C at midnight. On some days there's quite a bit of low-level haze, and on other occasions it's more generally overcast. But most of the time it's just a crystal clear blue sky from horizon to horizon.

It is very striking just how low the wind speed is here. It hasn't been more than a couple of knots the whole time we have been here, and it's always from exactly the same direction.

Speaking of which, this afternoon Luigi led us on a tour of the wind generator and energy storage facility. This is still at the experimental stage. A 5 kW wind generator has been modified for the low wind conditions by changing the blade pitch angle and replacing the gear-box driven alternator with a direct-drive high efficiency unit. Several metres below the ground a well-insulated shipping container holds a bank of lead-acid batteries and two large cylinders of glycol. The latter act as thermal storage---any excess energy from the wind generator is used to keep the chamber warm. This is where we will place Icecam, which will arrive at Dome C around Christmas.

Tonight's dinner featured home-made yoghurt with a variety of liquers available to jolly it up. The glazed pear tart wasn't bad, either.


Thursday 7th December 2000

From John Storey.....

So what happened to today's diary entry, you ask. Why have John and Paolo failed to submit a report by the midnight deadline for transfer over Intelsat B? Have they lost interest? Do they have nothing to report? Or have they simply become, to use the expression Paolo found in the Dictionary of Australian Slang, a "pack of bludgers"?

Wind generator at Dome CQuite the contrary. Thursday was the big one; the day when we got everything assembled, wrestled the software to the ground, solved a whole bunch of problems we didn't even know we had until today, and crossed off almost all of our "to-do" list. It was a very long day that started at 5:30 am for me and finished at 1:30 am on Friday for Paolo. It began with the Summit instrument poised over the electronics rack on the tines of a remarkably versatile forklift, and finished with the completed instrument sitting on the floor by the doorway, ready for its first foray into the great outdoors.

Along the way we met and overcame a series of unexpected challenges. One difficulty was that the software automatically measures the temperature at 18 points around the instrument once every 60 seconds. When it does so it generates enough interference to---as Paolo put it---bring down a C130 Hercules. That being the case it could probably down a smaller plane, say a Twin Otter, at a range of up to 20 km. That could explain why we haven't seen one for several days. Fortunately Michael Ashley was able to send us a software work-around. We're still measuring the temperature of a 10kg lump of copper every minute, but at least it's not completely trashing our data any more.

My relationship with Eric also became a little strained because of a misunderstanding between us over the use of semicolons. (Eric is the fine young program that actually runs Summit. He's a likeable lad, but somewhat pedantic and a little unforgiving.) Anyway, semicolons are not something I normally use much---my writing style being characterised---so I have been told---by excessive---possibly even profligate---use of the m-dash. It turns out that our stepper motor controller is into semicolons, while Eric is not. Sorting this out took a couple of hours.

Paolo set up a blue-foam customising plant at one end of the lab and produced an excellent insulating jacket which will keep Summit warm in temperatures that could later dip to -80C.

At 8 am Friday a bulldozer will come and drag Summit out of the building, ready for first light!


Friday 8th December 2000

From John Storey.....

At 8 am the bulldozer arrived to take Summit from the lab and set it up on the snow. (Actually it was a little after 8. As Paolo explained, "8 am" translates into Italian as "Some time after 8 we will arrive and do what you've asked of us, plus anything else that needs doing and we'll all have fun doing it". And so it was that the bulldozer (a D4, for the technically minded, equipped with forks) first levelled the snow with its forks, then poked those same forks through the door of the lab (which was open---you need to be careful how you specify these things where bulldozers are concerned), gently lifted Summit up and backed it out into the sunshine. We placed Summit on the ground, then used a spirit level to align it. (You can use a spirit level in Antarctica if you're quick. If you muck around too long the bubble freezes. At this point either everything or nothing appears to be horizontal.)

With the power cable and RS232 line poked through a convenient cable duct into the lab, we were taking data within 30 minutes. Once the calibration cycle was over, the mirror in Summit turned so that it was looking straight up through the sky. In Sydney, the instrument would see only a few tens of meters through the dense, moist atmosphere to record a signal corresponding to something like room temperature. Here at Dome C the signal dropped to something like we see in the lab when looking at liquid nitrogen. Instantly we knew that we were seeing right through the atmosphere and looking at the cold of interstellar space! As predicted, the cold, dry air of Dome C, combined with its considerable altitude (3,250 metres) endows the sky with a transparency that is probably better than that at any other observatory site on earth. It is that "probably" that the Summit experiment is designed to quantify.

After making our first complete "sky-dip" with Summit we dashed off some emails to the team back at UNSW who had worked so hard over the past 18 months to make Summit ready.

Next we had to look at the data to see that they were making sense. This turned out to be surprisingly difficult because even a quick analysis requires a well-oxygenated brain. I believe that the maximum permissible safe altitude for any calculation involving exponentials should be set at about 3,000 metres. After a few false starts we concluded that indeed the data showed the sky to be at the right temperature, and to be about 75% transparent (ie, tau = 1.3) at our observing wavelength of 350 microns.

A few worries remain with the instrument, not the least being that the beautiful little Swiss-made chopper motor sounds like it's thrown a con-rod, and that Eric (the data-taking software process) gets bored after about 30 minutes and just sort of stops. I suspect that the Eric problem somehow revolves around semicolons, and that Michael Ashley will sort it out in a flash. The chopper is more of a concern, and we are having a spare flown out from UNSW asap.

The demise of the digital output driver chip on our PC/104 ADC card is not proving too restricting. The only thing that really needs to be switched off and on automatically is the chopper motor, and that only because it's sick and we don't want it to scatter its windings across the snow. To solve the problem we've installed a makeshift plug to perform this function manually (the on/off thing, not the scattering). So, when the software says "chop on", we have to rush out the door, open up the electronics rack, unplug the plug, close the rack and rush inside again. It's not as bad as it sounds, even at -40C.

In any case we have asked Andre, back at UNSW, to send us some more of that special blue smoke that they put into computer chips. It seems that the static electricity spark that hit our digital driver chip caused all of its blue smoke to leak out, and now it's not working any more. Replacing the chip here is not really an option---it's one of those tiny surface-mount things with a gazillion legs and the only tools we have are a Dick Smith soldering iron and whatever we can persuade the cook to lend us from the kitchen.

Meanwhile Paolo is stoutly maintaining that there is nothing wrong with our chopper motor, that it always made that noise, and it's just that it's so quiet here you could hear a pin drop. He may be right---I notice that the fan in the electronics rack sounds like a gas turbine on full throttle.

In the morning I was also able to talk briefly with Jon Everett at the South Pole via the HF SSB radio (see glossary). The signal was very weak and it was difficult to convey any real information, but it was a useful experiment. The HF antennas here are fairly basic. Given that there's no shortage of space around here, it's tempting to imagine putting up a large rhombic antenna. In future, this could give us an excellent, instant communication link with the rest of our team. We also talked to the Australian coastal station of Casey using HF. The signal here was much stronger, but still not quite enough. Looks like we need two rhombics.

Communication is more usually made from Dome C via Inmarsat B, a geostationary satellite that can handle both data and voice. An email transfer is made twice a day, while the telephone is available 24 hours a day for anyone with US$2.80/minute to spend. Unlike Iridium, the Inmarsat satellites are far enough away that a largish (1-meter) antenna is needed. Balanced against this is the fact that, again unlike Iridium, they still actually work.

Life at Dome C continues to be very pleasant. The waste heat from the diesel generator is used to melt snow and heat the resulting water, so there's sufficient available for hot showers. Perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of Dome C is the "Free-time Tent", which is where the sole computer for email use resides. The Free-time Tent is a pleasant enough structure in itself, but is also the main smoking room for the station. Australians are unused to the level of cigarette smoke that Europeans find perfectly normal.

Sleeping accommodation at Dome C is mainly in large, Canadian-made "Weatherhaven" tents, which have a rigid aluminium frame and an oil-fired heater. They are very large and rather grand after the "Jamesway" tents of the South Pole. The space is shared by eight people in an open-plan arrangement, though fortunately there are only four of us in our tent. Like the Jamesways the only real inconvenience is the lack of acoustic shielding. It would be an interesting project (perhaps for an undergraduate) to calculate the minimum number of sleeping males you need to place in one room to ensure that there is at least one person snoring all the time.

There is a lanky Englishman visiting Dome C as part of the EPICA ice-drilling project. When he found he was too long for his bed the staff here quickly made a customised bed with an extra 30cm of legroom. It seems nothing is too much trouble to keep the scientists happy.

For the rest of the day we experimented with different observing macros and tried to accumulate as much data as possible. Our data are showing a funny zig-zag pattern which I would like to get to the bottom of before I have to leave. We have been plotting our data up using Excel on poodle, and making attractive graphs in lots of colours. Data always looks so much more convincing after Excel has finished with it.


Saturday 9th December 2000

From John Storey.....

Today was the day of the zig-zags. After the initial excitement of making our first ever measurements at Dome C began to fade, we had to confess to each other that the data did look a bit on the weird side. Instead of the signal from the sky smoothly increasing as we looked at ever greater angles from the zenith, it was jumping up and down in a completely regular but nevertheless inexplicable pattern. Naturally we had lots of theories as to what might be going wrong, but as the day wore on we seemed to be making little progress. Finally we tracked it down to the stepper motor that drives our rotator mirror. We were running a small current through its windings to keep the mirror rigidly fixed at each position where we took data. This current was interfering with our extremely sensitive detector, and basically messing everything up. Switching off the current solved the problem completely.

I have never been a fan of stepper motors, as their deceptive simplicity hides a capacity for pure evil. Today's experience has done little to change that opinion. In fact, I may go so far as to write a glossary entry on stepper motors.

With that problem solved a new one has emerged; namely that our signal becomes very noisy at one particular elevation angle. At first we thought it was just the sun getting into our beam, but then the sun moved on the way it does and the noise was still there.

Jean-MIchael and Karim launch a weather ballon at Dome CJust after breakfast a Twin Otter arrived with Karim and Jean-Michel from the University of Nice. They are here to perform a series of balloon launches to measure the microthermal turbulence of the atmosphere as a function of altitude. This will complement the work done a few years ago at the South Pole by the late Rodney Marks, in collaboration with Jean Vernin.

This is the first Twin Otter we've had for a few days, and it was good to see several boxes of fresh fruit and vegies being unloaded as well.

After lunch I spent some time discussing my impending departure from Dome C and return to Sydney. It will involve a Twin Otter flight to McMurdo, then a flight in a US C130 back to Christchurch. We called McMurdo on the HF SSB rig, and with any luck they are now organising a seat on a Hercules for me.

Tomorrow I have been asked to give the inaugural Dome C Science Talk in the Free-time Tent. As there are no A/V facilities I will have to just stand up and speak, and maybe get Paolo to do some street theatre to accompany the talk.


New glossary entry!

Stepper Motor. An electromechanical device which is very simple in concept yet surprisingly complicated in detail. Failure to appreciate this has been one of the greatest sources of human misery since the invention of Lotto. Were it not for the fact that they are extraordinarily useful little devices I would have nothing to do with them.

Sunday 10th December 2000

From John Storey.....

I awoke this morning at 5 am after a strange dream in which I had just finishing giving a lecture and started on question time. The first question was from someone wanting to know how to write some complicated expression in LaTeX. He was definitely asking the wrong person. While trying to think up a plausible answer it suddenly occurred to me why our instrument was recording a huge amount of noise at one particular position of the mirror. It just had to be that stepper motor again, oscillating back and forth about its requested position and unable to settle down because we'd turned off its holding current. All that we had to do was to persuade it to be content with getting the position nearly right, and to stop being so obsessive about the last decimal place or two.

Sure enough, with this more laid-back approach to life, the stepper motor has performed faultlessly all day and all our data points are nice and clean.

Meanwhile Michael Ashley has come up with some good ideas about the "Bored Eric" problem. These, together with our own experimenting, mean that we can now actually walk away from Summit for hours at a time and be confident it is still recording the sky for us. Paolo has written a macro called "nice_dreams" which allows us to catch up some sleep while Summit goes about its business of collecting data.

The remaining problem concerned the ADC board that we had blown up on the very first day within the first hour of switching Summit on. The only essential function we had lost was the ability to turn the chopper motor off under software control. This we had worked around by installing a manual switch, and now all that could go wrong was the mains power could fail in the middle of the night, switch back on again, and cause Summit's chopper to fry itself. Power outages are bound to occur, if only because the two diesel generators are swapped over once a week. In the end we decided to leave the faulty ADC board in place, and to rig up a magnetic switch that would keep Summit switched off should the power fail. This appears to work well, and means there is one less thing for us to worry about.

We could replace the ADC card, as we have a spare, but I am loath to do so. For one thing, we are not well set up for the job and risk further static damage to the PC/104 computer. Secondly the PC/104 computer hardware is a stupid fiddly thing designed by ex-stepper-motor engineers. Thirdly, it's sitting outside in the electronics rack where the average daily temperature is around -33 C.

Today being Sunday we got on with a few housekeeping jobs. I did my laundry, using one of those amazing European washing machines that take about four hours to wash a pair of socks, only to reduce them to their component molecules during the spin-dry process.

Italian air force C130 at Terra Nova BaySadly, it was also time to organise my departure from Dome C. My itinerary now is complicated by the fact that I will fly to McMurdo as an Italian, metamorphose there into an American, finally to revert to being an Australian once the NSF have taken me by C130 to Christchurch. All this was negotiated over the HF SSB radio, a process that involved using the powerful Rohde & Schwarz transceiver with the crook antenna to talk, and the weaker Motorola transceiver with the good antenna to listen.

Chef Jean-Louis threw his all into Sunday lunch, handsomely exceeding even the high expectations of the station. It was the usual sort of affair: saumon fume (smoked salmon)on crisp toast on a bed of fresh salad for starters, followed by a pasta course of ravioli and then sauteed NZ mussels with herbs accompanied by an excellent unwooded Australian chardonnay. The main course was roast crocodile, with a good Coonawarra cabernet/shiraz. Dessert was ile flottante, which is a soft meringue floating in caramel sauce and drizzled with toffee. The Berlucchi was, according to Paolo, not one of the better vintages, but to my palate this Italian methode Champenoise wine was perfectly acceptable complement to the dessert. Lunch slowly wound down over a fresh fruit platter with Kiwi fruit, assorted cheeses, individually made espresso coffee and biscuits.

After lunch we checked the email and decided to carry out some more tests. We took a break to watch our colleagues, Jean-Michel and Karim, from the University of Nice launch a weather balloon and radiosonde. They have about 11 balloons, and their next flights will include microthermal sensors to measure the turbulence of the atmosphere. Launching the balloon invovles first inflating it with helium until it can lift the 375 gram weight it is tied to---in this case a can of VB beer. Next the batteries of the balloon payload are activated by dunking them in water for a few minutes, and finally the payload is swapped for the VB and away goes the balloon. The signals from the payload are received in the balloon-launch tent, and consist of jolly little tunes not unlike the ones our sodar plays. The computer can then interpret these as temperature, pressure humidity and wind speed (which it gets from a little GPS).

After dinner I gave a science lecture in the Free-time Tent, using poodle to drive a 20-inch monitor (which was the biggest thing we could find). Being able to use Powerpoint avoided the need for Paolo to do street theatre and made for a colourful presentation. I think it went over ok; at least no-one wandered off out the tent saying "I may be some time..."

Around 10:30 pm we were taken on a tour of the new station by Augusto Lori, the station leader. The present station is really just a construction camp for the permanent facility, which will consist of two 17 metre diameter cylinders linked by a walkway. The cylinders will be three stories high; one will be the "noisy" building and one will be the "quiet" one. At the present moment one cylinder has the frame almost finished, and the foot pads for the second have been laid. Scheduled opening date is 2003, after which time Dome C will be ready for year round operation.


Monday 11th December 2000

From John Storey.....

I awoke early and went to see if Summit was still working. Just because Paolo and I were both asleep was no reason for our instrument to be. As it turned out it had stoppped shortly before I arrived---not because of any lethargy on Eric's part, but simply because we hadn't typed "go" enough times the previous evening. That's an easy one to fix, and Summit is now doing about 100 sky dips per day.

The remaining problems appear to be trivial. The UNSW team are now arguing vociferously about the best sequence to take data in. These are good arguments. I like them much more than the ones that begin: "Oops, that's blown up the last one of those. What the hell do we do now...?".

As one more check we placed a special wide-angle blackbody source (otherwise known as a C-130 orange carry-on bag) over the entrance window of Summit. If everything was working properly the signal should have been much the same at all elevation angles---it was.

However another problem is the sun. Even though the outside temperature is averaging -30C, we are so high and the air is so thin that the sun is really packing a wallop. There is no wind to speak of, and so anything the sun shines on gets quite warm. This includes our cold reference load, which is bolted to the case of the instrument and is supposed to sit at the ambient air temperature. After a morning's dose of sun it can reach +8C! We (ie, Paolo) will fix this problem by moving Summit closer to the building, where it will be in the shade for the critical part of the day. This move will require a bulldozer. I can think of a right way and a wrong way to use a bulldozer for this purpose; I am confident Paolo will choose the former.

The sun can also melt the snow alongside buildings where a natural sun-trap forms. The result is slick, icy surface that is very slippery.

Arrival at DOme C of the tractor traverse from Dumont D'UrvilleThe station also melts snow to create the water for washing and general purposes. This is done using waste heat from the diesel generator. Drinking water is brought from Dumont D'Urville by traverse. I asked the station manager why this was so, given that we are sitting on about 3,250 metres of the cleanest (frozen) water in the world. Apparently it's hard to get the diesel taste out of the water---the system needs some minor upgrades.

The Twin Otter to take me to McMurdo was due at 8 am, and this turned out to be 8 am Italian time---in the best possible sense. I filled in the time doing some filming, including an interview in Italian with the station doctor. (Paolo did the Italian bit; I did the filming.)

Did I mention that we are making yet another block-buster movie? Tentatively called "Paolo of the Antarctic" and shot entirely on location, it is expected for release some time soon after we've found a producer, an edit studio and a whole heap of money. Watch out for it on the big screen!

Offloading the tractorsAnyway, once the plane landed a substantial fraction of the station came out to greet the new arrivals and to help off-load the cargo. That's one of the great things about Dome C---everyone just chips in where they can. It is very much a village. Several people came and shook me warmly by the hand to wish me farewell, even people I had barely met. Jean-Louis packed me an in-flight lunch, and then it was time to leave. The plane was returning to McMurdo, and had just myself and a Twin Otter engineer as passengers. The pilot agreed to do a slow lap of the station at 400 feet so I could get some good aerial shots and then we headed up to 13,500 feet for the cruise back. Since the plane is unpressurised this was a heady altitude---I was glad I was already well aclimatised. Unfortunately poodle was not. Some goose had turned the heater in the tent last night down to the point where the temperature dropped below freezing. Sitting in a bag on the floor, poodle's batteries had gotten cold enough to temporarily stop working. (Rechargeable lithium batteries are surprisingly sensitive to temperature. This is in stark contrast to the non-rechargeable lithiums (lithium thionyl chloride) that we will use to power Icecam, even at -55C.)

Refuelling at "mid Point Charlie"We stopped again at Mid-point Charlie to refuel and to load six empty 44-gallon fuel drums into the plane. (Americans call these "55 gallon drums" because of a misunderstanding about gallons. Other people call them "200 litre drums", but very few and no-one listens to them anyway. It's all the same drum.)

Nearing McMurdo the weather was exceptionally clear and we had a fabulous view of the dry valleys and various glaciers. This has been rather warm summer and at least one of the "dry" valleys had a little stream running through it.

McMurdo is the same as ever except that the food has improved out of sight. The McMurdo canteen used to be one of the major hazards of Antarctic travel. Now it serves tasty meals with abundant fresh salads. They've even remodelled the dining room to include large picture windows. My only complaint was the mislabelling of some urns at the end of the room as "coffee", when they in fact containing nothing of the kind.

The other disappointment was the discovery that Eiskernkiste means "box for putting ice cores in". In the end I was grateful for this---no machine, nuclear powered or otherwise, would be able to make icecream like Jean Louis does. That brings to an end my diary for this year.

Over to you, Paolo!


Monday 11th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

"It has been great fun", was the last statement I heard from John (Storey) before his flight back to McMurdo, the largest station in Antarctica and the US gateway to the cold continent. The Twin Otter taking John back home will be in McM in a few hours. Then he will be moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, in a noisy and crowded US Hercules.

Actually I never understood exactly what the word "fun" means for the Australians. Does it means "it has *just* been fun", or "it has also been fun". Maybe "It has been a great experience to work with you, Paolo, as you are a great scientist and one of the most pleasant people I ever met in my life".

In Italian, the translation of the word fun - "divertimento" - is a bit too "light", has an intrinsic lack of diligence, maybe due to our approach a bit too cynical to candidly admit you are having a lot of fun while working.

Refuelling the Twin OtterAnyway, the light and edgy Twin Otter took off after a slight delay. The truth is that one of the pilots had to go to the toilet for some natural needs (that demonstrates that, despite their belief, that they are pretty different from God. At least at the gastrointestinal level), but the toilet door handle dismantled and he had to wait until the next person came to use the bathroom before he could return to the aircraft.

This probably doesn't happen easily at JFK or Sydney Airport, but let me say that here there are no queues, you are not bothered by rapacious Duty Frees and McDonalds. To board you have just to walk from a warm room for about 30 meters on the snow to the aircraft, after the pilot has switched off both the propellers, give a hand to discharge the cargo, take some photos and board in.

This issue of "aircraft photos" is a typical reason why I argue with my wife Jolanda when I return from my Antarctic trip or, in general, from any trip. The fact is that I'm impressed by any aircraft, just like a kid, so I like to take a lot of pictures of the most disrupted DC10 still available in the world. So, quite often I get pictures "of my aircraft after landing", and some days later, more pictures of "the same aircraft just before take off". When I get back, I ask Jolanda and my son Leonardo, my predesigned victims, to be chained to a chair for a couple of hours to watch my pictures or my slides, of which there are usually several hundred. The problem arises because "an aircraft where I was sitting down after landing" and "the same aircraft before take off with John Storey inside", despite what I thought at the time, look just the same. The result is a boring sequence of trivial aircraft pictures that could put anybody to sleep faster than a hammer on their front.

Anyway, John is now heading North, and I am now the only person left here in charge of the instrument, with a lot of colleagues in Sydney (Michael A., Andre, Michael B. and some others) just waiting for results, data quick looks, checks, updates, information, questions, documentation and replies to their questions......and the previous questions I replied to so late that they thought I didn't reply at all.

When you are in Antarctica and there is somebody else relying on you for instrument management, quite often you find that they feel that you are just sleeping and wandering around all the day, feeding yourself with huge quantities of good food, playing cards and watching porno movies.

The problem is that you feel exactly the same about your colleagues back home, except for some slight differences: they are just wandering around in a warm breeze, in short pants, maybe swimming at Bondi Beach, browsing the web, replying to hundreds of useless friend's e-mails, playing Barbie's with their daughters, and at the end, enjoying the easy life the moment you closed the door of the lab to fly to the pole.

Both of these approaches are bad for sure (except, perhaps, for that part about the huge quantities of good food and something else...), but why would anybody change their attitude a minute after you leave? No-one will ever get to demonstrate it, like no-one can actually convince you that you are snoring all the night as loud as a Wind Band - the result is a slight complaining approach to your overseas colleagues, a voile of tension made even more visible by the delayed replies to e-mails that make people even more crazy.

Luckily, the instrument we brought here "is a ripper", as the Australians like to say. The first time I heard this word at UNSW, for some reason I misunderstood the meaning of the word, thinking that "ripper" meant something faulty from the beginning, a rusty piece of metal, a swick. I replied with alot of suggestions which seemed quite intelligent to me but that, in the end, turned out to be completely silly, unrequested and meaningless.

Now I am very proud to say that the instrument we installed just a few days ago here at Dome C for atmospheric site testing, alias the SUMMIT, the submillimeter tipper, is really a ripper (please note the lucky assonance). The instrument is quietly acquiring his data, and a process in the background, on the same computer I am currently writing this email on, is safely transferring data to the hard disk, for processing later.

How do they look? Are you interested on this issue? Well, if yes, go ahead but, later, see a doctor.

Otherwise, just move to another less boring web site like I am not sure it exist, but it is probably more interesting than the following.

For the survivors, this is the way we receive rough data from our instrumentation:

waiting up to 120.0 seconds for rotator; hit key to abort:
R -2000
0.9957+/- 0.066
1.0166+/- 0.072
delaying 2 seconds; hit key to abort; time remaining:
z -2001
waiting up to 120.0 seconds for rotator; hit key to abort:
R -1000
0.4026+/- 0.071
0.3824+/- 0.089
delaying 2 seconds; hit key to abort; time remaining:
z -1001
Warm blackbody 16.29 C (raw = -2.76 V, 1482 counts) delaying 2 seconds; hit key to abort; time remaining:

Yes, this is the way Michael Ashley, one of the most perverse researchers I have ever met in my life, formatted the data throughput from the instrument. To analyse it you will probably lose some of the remaining diottries on both of your eyes, watching tiny characters quickly flowing across the screen, ready to take note of the relevant parts......but let me confess that this approach has demonstrated itself to be reliable and safe, and able to run data acquisition and instrument control programs on a computer with memory more or less like the former ENIAC, in order to reduce power consumption, a quite important constraint in developing instrumentation for Antarctica.

For today, that's it. I have to get to lunch.

See you tomorrow.



Tuesday 12th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

Today's most noticeable event, after John Storey's flight away, was the arrival of a "bird".

Terra Nova BayYes, a bird. There are a lot of things specific to life on a Scientific Station placed on the Antarctic Plateau. Some of these are related to life away from a civilized place, some others to life in a cold place, others to being in the driest - yes, it is - desert of the planet, and so on.

I arranged a tentative and chaotic list of them, hoping to share with you, dear reader, my deep feelings.

1) You spend all your time within a region with a radius of 200 meter for months

To live on the Antarctic Plateau is something similar to life on a wedding cake. Except there is not a huge blade coming down soon or later to destroy everything and cut the landscape in slices.

You look around and your sight easily reaches the horizon, as the atmosphere is incredibly transparent. Apart from the station, the horizon is a perfect circle, about 4.7 Km away from your eyes - actually, a bit less for John - that could leave you thinking there is a cliff just over there, like the Ancients thought about the ocean. Everything, up to the horizon, is white, flat ice, with the sastrugi, continuously remodeled by the winds, shadowing the surface and the view.

Well, if you leave the station behind you, walking away from the station in any direction, you feel a bit uncomfortable, thinking that you are going to the actual "nihil arbor", or Null Harbor, as the Australians call the most desolate regions of their country.

I noticed that noone likes to feel like this way without good reason. There is just too much silence when away, a feeling of "lack" and "emptiness" that everybody dislikes. The consequence is that nobody will try to just walk out of the Station without reasons, and you will spend all your stay, that means 2-3 months, if there is not a reason to get out, like to get ice samples, within a 200 meter radius around the station.

2) There is no life except you

That's obvious, but this is something which can puzzle you. You leave a piece of cake on the table, but no ants will come to get a bit. No cockroaches to be cracked on a corner to annoy your woman, no noisy flies, no cats or dogs barking in the neighbor's yard. No yards at all. The Chef, as a joke, put a cat bed on the ground in the kitchen, to prompt novices like John and myself complain about it, as to bring animals or plants here is strictly forbidden by the Antarctic Treaty, in order to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences on the local fauna and flora (which flora, you ask? Just a bit of lichens and moulds on the coastal region, so far as I know). You see a shadow or a shine on a building's wall, but it can't be, as your brain immediately suggests, a rat or a cat.

There is nothing alive except you on the Antarctic Plateau. And also you do not always feel that you belong completely to the "life" category, sometimes.

This is why, as I wrote at the beginning, it has been a great experience to see a bird (a petrella, or a skua according to others) fly over the station, heading South. We are about 1000 Km away from the sea, there is a "dead circle" surrounding us, about this size.

What would a bird want to do here? Probably he is annotating exactly the same in his dairy, about a strange encounter with busy, red, unknown mammals during his yearly flight to visit grandma.

3) There is no money

This is the common opinion about scientific research in Australia, but I mean, in this case, that we do not use money at all in the station. Everything, at least in the Italian-French station of Dome C, is free. At the South Pole you have to pay for alcohol, but the Italian don't get drunk easily, or, perhaps, they put all their efforts towards reducing excesses on this of the three classic vices. Or, as somebody seems to think, they are just always drunk.

Think as you like, but alcohol is free here.

4) You see the same people every day

Every morning you get the lift to your office, and meet different people, incredibly interested in the screws that are holding in the lift button panels, or to some invisible detail on the overhead light, or just with the typical expression of "Well, I can't really come out of that incredibly complex and important problem I have been involved with for the last few weeks?".

Here, it can't happen. Not only because this is the only continent with no lifts (right, I haven't noticed it). The problem is that, apart from people boarding out of the Twin Otters quite rarely, you already know all the people you can meet here. Everybody is available for a chat, all the people will ask if you want to share an expresso when they are about to prepare it at the Saeco Express machine.

Simply, there are no unknown faces for two or three months or your life, and this, in my opinion, removes some uncomfortable stress provided by civilization.

5) there is a huge amount of light in summer

Yes I know that you know that during summer there is no night around the polar region. What I mean is that the common feeling is that the sun, ever low above the horizon, just can't provide enough light and you are embedded in a permanent dim light, in Antarctica.

Nothing is more false than this. Summer Antarctica is the realm of light. You could use welding glasses all the time and still naturally tighten your eyes. Outside is the triumph of the light, with an incredible UV excess that makes it impossible to withstand direct sunlight. Think that everything around is white for thousands miles, and that the atmosphere is outstandingly transparent, and you'll understand what I mean.

The problem is that a photographer may come to Antarctica and take pictures. Then they have to sell them, but nobody will pay a buck for apparently overexposed pictures. Moreover, a shadowed landscape looks hundreds times more mysterious and fascinating than a place looking like a beach at noon in August (in the Northern Hemisphere, I mean). Automatic cameras, too, "normalize" lighting on any pictures, making the rest of the game.

Not a real diary today, but I hope you will enjoy it.


Wednesday 13th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

The instrument is still working fine and collecting his data, unaware of the passionate debate that started at UNSW about the following question: which is the best strategy to measure Dome C atmospheric transparency at 350 micron wavelength?

To understand why people should spend days on such a cryptic issue, instead of chatting about sex or cricket (soccer for my countrymen), you have to understand that scientists are really just kids that have never grown up, with the only relevant difference that their toys are a bit more expensive and provided by taxpayers, not their parents.

If you work in the field, and I like that, or spend years in labs worldwide, sooner or later you'll get it. It is a continuous game to show your colleagues you are the smartest, the more competent, the more "quick-witted" (I hope I have accurately copied this strange word from the Collins Italian-English Dictionary). Not only for career problems, as if you were interested in money and success, you would be opening a layer office, not wasting your time in the freezing cold. Just because you can't avoid it. Is part of our nature.

I have a theory about science, still not popular like the Popper's one to tell the truth, that the two most important engines for mankind's restless progress are laziness and childishness.

The importance of laziness is evident. Suppose you are a Neanderthal man pushing a squared stone, several hundred kilos heavy, to make your bed a bit more attractive for the girl (actually a bit hairy) who has agreed to meet you after sunset. Thinking requires a bit less energy than pushing a stone, so you sit panting on it for a while and start to think about how the hell to do the job with less effort and, above all, within due time, without loosing all of your energy (Prozac was not available at that time).

Under these conditions, it is quite easy to understand how you can invent the wheel, the rope, and a lot of other funny and useful things, just because you are so tired of destroying your backbone just to do what Mother Nature asked you to try to do tonight.

Think now about childishness. This is a little bit harder to explain, but one of the most powerful engines to make your lazy brain do work, is to do something not alone but with a colleague, like to develop a new instrument. At the beginning, you start dressing your best smile, but it is likely, that after some time you will have to decide if the hole for that damned screw should be done there or 5 mm to the left. Despite the fact that it is exactly the same in most of the cases, you can easily start to argue with that ignorant mate of yours, trying to demonstrate something which is impossible to demonstrate, clinging to your ideas as if it had suddenly become the most important thing in the world, exactly like a 5 year old kid could feel respect that flat balloon that never touched up to the moment the neighbor's son comes home to play with him and start getting it.

But this is the way science makes progress. Forget about sages, white hairy scientists with a visionary views of the future, it is just a question of pure humanity, I mean, childishness.

So, the instrument is acquiring his data, not informed about the harsh battle ensuing via email between here and several offices at the University of New South Wales. Everybody has an excellent point of view, and is asking to me to change the observing strategy (that means to make some adjustment on the instrument control program) following their suggestions.

The friendly atmosphere, the ingenuous jokes of the past are quickly over and everybody searches in others email for certain signs that the problem is no longer just about science progress, but a personal vendetta against him.

The problem is that we have to measure, to say it roughly, how much radiation is emitted from the sky at a given wavelength, actually, 350 micro-metres. Yes, the sky emits radiation, infrared light, light, otherwise it would be completely dark, and we are here because of that (also the daily blue color is quite a different phenomena with respect to the thermal emission we are measuring, that doesn't expire at night). This radiation is important, because it can tell us, and a possibly not very interested world, if this is the outstanding site we hope to build an infrared astronomical observatory on.

Well, the instrument we use here, the SUMMIT, features a rotating mirror, that allows US to look at different directions above the horizon. If you look just over your head, the beam will travel across the atmosphere, collecting all the radiation emitted by it, that represents just a lot of unwished noise for the never satisfied astronomer. If you look toward the horizon, the instrument will look toward a thicker layer of atmosphere. This is why, for example, the sky is more foggy toward the horizon than toward the zenith (the, I guess, Arabian word for "directly above your head" or something like this).

By looking in different directions above the horizon, you can "easily" compute how transparent the atmosphere is. You can't do it with just one measurement though, because two different parameters determine how much radiation is emitted by the sky: the opacity and a sort of "average" sky temperature. A warmer body radiates more than a cold, and a more transparent body is emitting, for definition, less radiation than an opaque one. You have to get both the parameters out of your data, that can easily be done by looking at, at least, two different directions through the atmosphere as, these two parameters play a slightly different role at different elevations above the horizon.

The problem is "how much easier" can the job be done. Up to about fifty years ago, it didn't matter, there were no computers available anywhere, and scientists spent days and days just manually computing and verifying the theories behind the small amount of data available. It was natural that the main effort was to find the less elaborated way to reach the goal.

Today, computers allow us to think in a different way. As soon as you start reflecting on how to explain a natural phenomena, or to measure some physical quantities, or to design a washing machine, your trained brain starts thinking of the most complex and absurd strategies, relying on the good, "old" computer to extract the needed information from a mess of cryptic data. This approach brought with it, in my opinion, a sort of laziness - again - in the contemporary scientist. No more time spent to "simplify" your models, your instrument, or your observing strategy: just let the PC do the job.

This removed, according to many people, a sort of elegance in most contemporary experiments. Opening the door that unveils natural laws, scientists are now more like a horde using heavy rams, with respect to the delicate and light passpartout used by the sharpest "thefts" of the past.

On the other side, present successes in contemporary science are just not even imaginable without a stack of PCs on any serious office desk. Yes, indeed, just like Bill Gates' property (Ed - I think Bill Gates uses a I-Mac now though).

In the end, we have two parties: John Storey, siding for an "old fashioned" observing strategy, robust, tested and easy to be done and analyzed. Michael Ashley and Michael Burton on the other side, pushing for a more complex, and probably powerful, observing strategy, that will require a lot of painful efforts from some disgracefulles at the uni to analyze data.

And, in the middle, a poor, frozen astronomer at Dome C, the typical "last wheel of the cart" (actually, I don't know if this phrase is used in English like in Italian), expected to actually do the job.

Who will win the game?

The answer, hopefully, tomorrow.


Thursday 14th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

These days I am still working on the instrument (the SUMMIT), waiting for adjustments in the observing strategies (see previous diary entries), and attending to minimal improvements in the instrument setup. A twice daily contact by email with the team in Sydney requires some calibrations in advance, data analysis, that keep my days quite busy. But, since John has left to go back home, I have plenty of time to spend alone in the lab, and so plenty of time to think instead of just talking, which is my natural tendency...

So, today I wrote something that doesn't look exactly like a diary, but is just a series of thoughts, some taken from earlier notes, about my past experiences in the cold continent, that could also interest some of you. I hope you enjoy them.

For the others, there is still the choice to move to more interesting sites as suggested in the past.

What I want to write about is the curious nature of some things, that is that as you get closer to some actual situations, you understand there is a mess of less relevant details, small hints, unexpected aspects, that at the end constitute the main part of the real understanding you have of them, but that can hardly be reported in books, reports and documentaries.

As an example, as I wrote in a previous diary entry, Antarctica is the realm of light, despite the common point of view, built by hours of Discovery Channel programs and BBC documentaries. Now take into consideration the permanent comparison with the cold people experience here, sometimes for the first time in their life. No one is able to even imagine the small adjustments and solutions mind and body are able to find during one of these contemporary journeys to Antarctica.

From my humble point of view, with the relative knowledge of this environment that I have, I am not even able to imagine how, in the past century, people not very well trained, with inadequate clothing, pulling loads up to 500 kilos on a wooden and leader slit, with food not even sufficient to sustain a coach potato on a rainy Saturday watching sports on TV, was able to cover this continent on foot. Crossing the monstrous crevasses that can now be seen, with horror from the aircraft, as considerable stretches of the whole planet. And then to continue throughout the Transantarctic Mountains, and the immense plateau that drives to the Pole.

One of the passages that makes it impossible to me to understand that natural drive to suicide that seems be shared by an unneglectable portion of mankind, are the celebrated last pages of Scott's diary of his journey to the South Pole (I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in Antarctica). I found a sense of horror and death even more gripping than the most severe pages of the tales of Primo Levi (an Italian author that spent years in a nazi lager), or the Anna Frank's diary, or of any other pages I have read by somebody writing as a "dead man walking". I feel a bit guilty about that, as I can easily understand the difference between a personal choice and an unfair conviction, but this is how I feel and I can't do anything about it.

Tarra Nova Bay from the Twin OtterNevertheless, I am thinking about the real heritage of Scott's trip to Antarctica. It's just, it's hard to write, an endless lines of faeces, nearly equally spaced every ten miles, probably spaced further apart toward the end of the journey. Starting from the permanent and tormented ices of the Ross's sea, raising up to the continent platform to overtake the hill and the dry valley of the transantarctic Mountains, reaching the South Pole. Getting back approximately the same way up to 15 miles of the famous "One Ton Depot", where the three perished after a couple of weeks of starving agony, in a way slightly different for each member of the team, in weather and environmental conditions absolutely incomprehensible for almost the whole of mankind. Any time I read those few lines, on one of the several plates posted up everywhere, there is a link to Antarctica in the world, as a sort of self-celebration of the Victorian edicts, I have the feeling that the tale can't actually finish there, and that, somewhere, there must be a solution to move the story to a different, happy end.

Unfortunately, this is not the case, and the three frozen bodies found about one year later by the rescue team, demonstrated it in the most incontrovertible way.

So, if an extraterrestrial civilization, evolved on some far, cold planet, should land on the Antarctic Plateau looking for traces of life, bringing with them a probe to see through the ices and the eternal snow, they would find this long theory of shameful remains, probably changing along the way from the effects of the ipovitaminosis and of the various inconveniences suffered by the team. They start from the coast, reach a place just in the middle of nothing, get back and stop with no apparent reason, as if a hand had suddenly withdrawn their will. What could they think about? A religious ritual? A sort of madness?

Years ago, during one of my first trips to this continent, I visited an Adelie's Penguin Community of about 5,000 individuals, on the coast of the Ross sea, quite close to the Italian Station at Terra Nova Bay. The day was outstandingly clear as it happens, in summer, quite often in this part of the world. It was an absolute pleasure to walk over the "martian-like" landscape running alongside the iced, cyan sea, reflecting the sky and some far ice tongue. No trace of a path, no flowers, no plants. Only a few lichens yellow and bright, ones which grow with infinite patience only a millimetre an year, in an almost deadly laziness.

Suddenly I look over from a saddle onto the large penguin colony, quite confident of what I was about to see, as BBC, National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentaries make it quite impossible today to find something really unexpected, at least on Planet Earth.

Maybe some of you know something about penguins. How long they live, we probably couldn't say the same about the common annoying houseflies. We know something about how they live, how they raise their chicks, and we imagine them as a funny tribe of mums and dads with their kids, grazing in the sea of this sterile earth.

What the films can't report, and that is what immediately struck me, is that these surreal southern communities are permanently embedded in the smell of death, putrefaction, and dung. A colony of 5,000 penguins in the breeding period live with a constant percentage of individuals sick or close to death, which are viewed with indifference and apparent cynicism by the others - "mors tua, vita mea" - in a community unable to gather piety.

My feelings were oscillating from imagining a mad crowd of decadent nobles, condemned for their abuses by a crazy witch to an eternity as clumsy birds permanently dressing in tailcoats, or what we would see if we could just look through the walls of one of our towns. Meanwhile, a crowd of Skua were flying over the penguins community, ready to prey on any inattentive individuals. This is also, to tell the truth, quite a rare event (skuas, also heavy and aggressive, can't easily prey on a healthy, adult penguin, as penguins are larger and quite aggressive too, when threatened).

When walking along the coast, I accidentally got closer to the nest of a couple of these tough predators - the skuas - and became the target of a sort of "ritual" attack, with noisy flying overhead, and then shit thrown. It kind of suggested to me that I should immediately change my course.

Was really nice, anyway, to watch the small Adelie chicks, loosing their plume tufts to acquire the adult dressing. To observe how one or two sage adults, protecting a small group of them while the other parents was fishing, avoided any casual contact with me just carefully driving the group away while I was crossing the colony. So, I quickly recovered from that sensation of death, even forgetting that bad feeling in my later visits.

Penguins are really interesting birds, unable, for historical reasons, to understand the possible danger represented by our species. A night, years ago, I was working around a small radiometer, about hundreds meters from the coast and the pack, at the Italian station at Terra Nova Bay. Suddenly I saw a medium height Adelie Penguin walking awkwardly toward me and the instrument, probably attracted by some shiny reflections on the mounting or by the periodical hisses emitted from a tilting mirror. When he was a few meters away, he stopped and watched me, apparently a bit embarrassed. To feed or perturb animal life is strictly forbidden in Antarctica, so he was probably not expecting something from me, like animals are used to in more civilized places. I think it was just curiosity driving him to me. Continuing to work around the instrument, I watched his yellow and black eyes slowly going off, the nice, small head tilted on his bent shoulder, and he fell asleep standing up as I busily worked with oscilloscopes and screwdrivers to catch the deep and weak wheezes of the Big Bang (actually, it was just atmospheric noise...).

Another time, walking on the pack, I saw a group of five Adelies point toward me from about half a kilometre, walking excitedly with that hesitant movement that alternates between sliding on the belly along the short descending slopes of the sastrugi, helped by the back paws, to short runs standing up. On this occasion they stopped just a few meters away. In an individual, heading the funny group, you could guess a leader role. It was evidently in charge of deciding which was the safest distance to avoid any threat, satisfying, at the same time, the irresistible curiosity of the others, a bit more timorous and embarrassed.

We stayed there, watching the others, for several minutes. Me crouched, smiling - actually I can't tell you why - and perfectly silent, with them undecided. Then, the small group, after grunting a little bit more, diverted toward Nord, to reach the sea again, apparently their curiosity was satisfied and they began looking for activities more profitable like fishing.

These contacts with the wild animal life in the coastal region of Antarctica represent probably the most peculiar aspect to people like us - Italians - realizing that the apparently more stupid animal knows that is better not to trust this arrogant and stinking biped, and stay away from the pile of trash and smell they spread out everywhere in the world.

These, just a taste, were the details I wanted you to listen to about this singular, cold and far world, apparently easy but complex at the same time, so complex that it is very difficult to get a final feeling.

Moreover, we can maybe begin to imagine what coldness was for Scott, Shackelton, Amundsen or Mawson, or any of the other Antarctic pioneers, not only a daily comparison with a fuzzy and not very detailed experience, but a series of small gestures, some of them perhaps disgusting in their roughness - like to free the nose of a continuous itchiness created by burnt capillaries, a series of continuous adjustment to your behaviour that everybody experiences after a few days on the ice. You learn quite quickly that the underneck must stay in a certain position, otherwise a layer of ice will fog your sunglasses (common at pioneer times, as quite often they got a disease called "snow blindness"). Remove a glove for more than a few minutes in windy conditions can mean you do not recover for long time, even if you get back in a warm room. The nose's capillaries can break if you breath the cold air for too long. Who, living at temperate latitude, could imagine that one of the most dangerous and advised disease in contemporary Antarctica is dehydration?

Who knows how many thousands of little things that bunch of stainless seamen and explorers waiting to be rescued for a long winter at Elephant Island learnt, after Shakleton's ship Endeavour was shrunk and sunk by the ices pressure. People not washing themselves for 18 months, eating just seals fried in seals fat, and diluted in "pennicam" for the long winter in one of the most frightening and inaccessible corners of the planet. This island really looks like the entrance to hell, with black and steep walls diving on an ocean permanently furious and upset. They were dreaming about, as the chronicle reports, eating "kydney's porridge", after the anticipated trip back to England. Actually, most of them died during the WWII which began just a day after they left their starting harbour in South Georgia, at the beginning of their journey to Antarctica. They were never even aware of the war during their trip.

To be continued tomorrow....

Friday 15th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

Even if just a few of you have reached this point, I would like to continue telling you about the astonishment I felt when I "discovered" that the white, unshaped thing we generically call ice, and that Inuits instead address in several ways, can really, easily develop the most extraordinary look. If you are ever lucky enough to travel to this place sometime, you will discover the difference between the so called sombrero Iceberg and the tabular one, the pack that formed during the last winter, than the pack broken into extraordinarily regular pieces by the long wave coming from storms thousand miles away, to that amazing cyan blocks of geological ice that you can met sometime when navigating.

It is possible to see sometimes, as it has been used in a number of calendars and books, a picture of a spooky, cyan and almost transparent huge iceberg, taken by a lucky photographer from a ship sailing close to it. On some cavities of this incredible floating thing, stands an equally astonished group of penguins. It is considered the best picture ever taken in Antarctica, and it is not difficult to understand why. I would be tempted to say it is the best wildlife picture ever taken.

Moreover, there are the quite common "gothic cathedral", ogival caves created by the waves on the cliffs of the tabular icebergs, the yellow ice due to the flowering of algae in the short Antarctic spring (the most prominent source of basic food for the Antarctic sea fauna), and the geological deep ice on the Antarctic Plateau, so transparent, that it is used to detect, at the South Pole, the most exotic particles of the universe (AMANDA experiment).

A while ago a pilot - actually my nice room mate at UNSW, Andre Phillips - was telling me that when executing a loop during an acrobatic manoeuvre, you get the feeling it has been successful when you feel a little "bump", or vibration, as you perfectly centred the trail left by yourself when closing the circle. This is probably not very interesting for people not sick about aircraft's, but it is an example of something noone could foresee from outside. So, out of the instrumentation, out of our ability, a sign is left on the transparent air is able to produce satisfaction for the man driving that flying thing. Again, as soon as we get closer to any human activity, we discover it's made of small facts, of a long series of irrelevant but fundamental experiences, that quickly substantiate the abstract idea we automatically shape of unlikely human activities.

p.s. I apologize for any incorrect information in the text above. I can't easily access books or the web to check them.


Saturday 16th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

Today life at Dome C is smooth and slow. So, I'll take some time to share with you another quite common aspect of life at 75 South latitude (and 06').

When you get used to life in a scientific station, you begin to realize that the most technical and cool communication system - the old-fashioned walky-talky - can easily become, if in the right hands, a way to transport the most common and familiar life habits, unwished humour, "topical" debates, despite the Hollywood permanent tendency to tell us that, if you want serious and really committed stuff, you just have to communicate something with a harsh voice on the ether.

For an hour now, while working on data analysis, I have been listening to the radio (that anybody working at Dome C can switch on).....there is a closed debate about some stuff that just arrived with the last Twin Otter flight.

While the pilots are recovering in the infirmary for a lack of oxygen intake (probably because they flew at a high altitude due to a lack of kerosene), people are arguing on the ether about the following, puzzling question: where the hell has the "pasta maker" gone?

I learned there are several different theories about the disappearance of the "pastamatic". But at least it will allow the Chef to arrange some actual, traditional, handmade tortellini for Christmas lunch, and I am touched to see how the attention to really important details can make life here easy and pleasant.

Just a few days ago, an argument started against our respectful Chef, just because he "dared" to cut the spaghetti in half before he cooked it. This is something that could easily cause the Italian workers of the station to strike.

Sergio Gamberini, the nurse of the station, called "Gambero", (that is "prawn", to confirm our endless fixation about food), said the pastamatic should have arrived, packed in a carton box, on board the last aircraft. Rita, from the radio room, insists that there was only a pen and a notebook in that box . How a pastamatic can be transmuted into a notebook and a pen, is something really difficult to understand. A pastamatic needs quite a large box, while a notebook and a pen can easily fit in the pocket. I can't imagine that an almost empty box was loaded on a Twin Otter to be sent to a really remote site like this. And, wait, who asked Terra Nova Bay to send "one" notebook and "one" pen to the whole station? The discussion quickly becomes surreal, but nobody on the radio seems aware of that, neither the head of logistics, Carlo, nor the other people working on the mystery of the disappearing "pastamatic".

Meanwhile, Luigi, one of the most talented electrical engineers available within a 1000 km distance, is trying to repair some key equipment of the station: the washing machine. To do it he unloaded a certain number of unidentified "underpants" from a washer, just left there by somebody. Luigi complains on the radio about that: the rule of the station is to remove clothes as soon as possible from the washing room, to leave it free for the next user.

Immediately after, everybody on the station is informed by the shrill voice of Rita, the only woman present in the station, that the slips were her own. There is an embarrassed exchange of messages and apology from Luigi, promising to put the "hot" load back. But somebody immediately starts questioning Luigi's capability to distinguish between female and male pants. Maybe its time for him to go back home?

The two or three main threads available this afternoon on Dome C channel 6 (the common channel of the station) continues incessantly.

The pilots are recovering, but decided to spend the night here for safety reasons. Somebody must arrange two beds for them as the station is fully booked.

Hills Behin Terra Nova BayMeanwhile Terra Nova Bay station (the other Italian station, on the Antarctic coast), is asking on HF for some strategic stuff: 2 shovels, 60 litres of gasoline, 1 litre of motor oil, for a team left a bit far from the station to accomplish I don't know which duty. There is a continuous exchange of messages and suggestions on the radio, transferred to Terra Nova Bay and back by radio waves, not every understandable, and people are trying, grunting just a little bit against the requests, to find all the stuff needed to leave at 5 am tomorrow morning.

It is an attitude of the Italians to immediately start saying "no", then quickly pass to "vediamo cosa si puo' fare" (a circumlocution to mean "maybe", literally "let me see what can be done") that, in Italian, actually means "si" (yes).



Sunday 17th December 2000

From Paolo Calisse.....

Dome C, Instruction for use....

Paragraph 1: waking up

Accomodation for guests at Dome C consists of a large tent with 6 to 8 beds. Inside, a stove fueled by special 'no paraffine' kerosene, looking like something out of a Dickens' tale, provides heat or, if you prefer, as the stove visible in the Pingu igloo [the cartoon story based on the perature inside is deliberately kept around 4-5 C to favourite nice dreams]. The air is dry here, and higher temperatures could make throats dry, and that doesn't help you to get to sleep.

The other face of the coin is that every morning I wake up convinced I'll never find the courage to leave the bed. Outside is cold, and you just abandon the warm Morpheo's embrace.

Also today I am silently screaming against myself in the bed. The "ultimate" question arises again in my mind: what, the hell, I am doing here? I'll forget this question as soon as I will have dressed the last layer of clothes.

Meanwhile, I contemplate the list of possible gifts for the coming Christmas. Thinking of my son, I overstrike "The Little Chemist", and write instead "The Little Accountant".

Twin OtterSuddenly, around 5 am, the pilots fired up the Twin Otters engine to leave to Terranova Bay, the other Italian Station on the coast. Something quite similar to a Queensland resort. But this is an old tradition in Antarctic stations: "let the engine start up at early morning". Nobody knows why. Why leave at 5 am when you could do it 5 hours later.

Previously, I told all the best things about that aircraft, handy as a Vespa scooter. No need for airports, they could just be "chained" in front of the door of your building, the exhaust completely removed to increase attention around your 50 cc engine motorbike, double carburator, oversized carburator inlet just as 14 years old boys used to do in Rome's outskirt.

Two different aircrafts are mainly used to move to the Antarctic Plateau: the sky equipped Hercules C-130, a big beast with 4 propellers and room enough to digest hundreds of people each time plus some cargo, and the Twin Otter, handly, light and able to land everywhere without assistance at ground.

About the Hercules, John Storey wrote enough last year from the South Pole. Citing by heart, one morning he wrote "An idiot parked an Hercules just in front of my tent leaving the engines on, yeasterday night". Hercules engines can't be safely switched off on the Antarctic Plateau.

As soon as the Twin Otter fires up its two propellers, I slowly wake up with the feeling that a genetical modified mosquito, that smart pointlike animal spending summer sunrises flying just around your ears at early morning, is now trying to colonize Antarctica. And yourself.

As so many "little" aircraft, Twin Otter engines feel too high in frequency, exagerated. They can't fly, you think in the drowsiness, it's a mechanical nonsense, the noise is just like the one generated by a thousands radiocontrolled toy aircrafts started underneath my bed.

The wind brings you the noise in tidal waves, playing to filter frequencies, and looking as the propeller is used time by time to slice mortadella. Moreover, heating an aircraft propeller is a process long enough to move probably the aircraft to Terra Nova Bay by the ground with a lower amount of fuel. Sometime you think that damned twin propeller is at the beginning of the runaways, giving finally max throttle to take off and get as far as possible by your delicate auditory organs. But the engine slows down again, it's just kidding you.

Suddenly, when your are already half way through eating the pillow, it will really take off, and any noise, suddenly, disappears somewhere toward East.

Unfortunately my ears, in the quiet silence of the Antarctic dawn, feature the property to "learn" any large bandwidth, loud noises, and try to find them in any quiet noise they found around.

So, for a long time, in a desolate drownsiness, I feel as the power engine station, very far and quiet in comparison, is just the noise of the aircraft that has landed about half mile away from the station due to a sudden fault. This uncomortable feeling that something went wrong, after you cursed the aircraft for half an hour, makes you feel remorse, and doesn't allow you to recover sleeping. Up to the moment the breakfast is served. Then, you fall asleep.



Wednesday 24th January 2001

From Andre Phillips, Crary Lab, McMurdo.....

Hi Guys,

You'll be interested to note that the Pole-bound passengers who arrived on my flight from Christchurch, are *still* here! In fact my ex room-mate returned *again* last evening, after spending another frustrating day waiting for a departure time which was continually being moved forward. At 6:55 this morning I woke him from a deep slumber to alert him that he was scheduled to depart for Willy Field at 7:00. The poor sod leapt out of bed like a Polaris Missile and flew out of the room in three minutes flat. Shortly afterwards he returned looking dejected and saying that the flight had been further delayed. And the same scenario repeated itself mid-afternoon when I noticed he was sleeping towards another scheduled departure time. He's not a happy chappy right now. I'm still scheduled to leave for Pole on Monday, if not before.

I on the other hand, had a very pleasant day catching up on a few McMurdo rites-of-passage which I've never had time for in the past... starting out with a tour of Scott's Hut at Hut Point. Poor ol' Scott, he made some extraordinarily bad decisions, and that hut appears to be another telling example. You may know that it's actually of Australian manufacture (allegedly all jarah construction, although I'm skeptical), and was purchased sight-unseen as a catalog kitset. Being designed for Aussie Outback applications it had no insulation, an elevated floor for good under-floor ventilation, and an ample loft to duct away more of that Aussie excessive heat. Needless to say, as soon as the thing was built here it was discovered that it was too damn cold for human habitation, although it was used by various expeditions, usually as an emergency shelter, usually due to some major cock-up.

Then I walked over to Scott Base, checked out its well stocked shop, and walked back. This was followed by a Skuaing raid on Skua Central. During the afternoon I read, napped, and made some amends for my sadly neglected email correspondence of late. Last evening I attended the outdoors education talk, mandatory for off-base travel. Besides a quick trip up Observation Hill (no permit required) the only other McMurdo rite-of-passage I would like to try is the walk around the Castle Hill Loop. Friday perhaps.

This evening I attended the weekly Science Lecture, concerning the installation of infrasound detecting arrays, which have been placed in Antarctica (and around the world) as part of global Comprehensive [nuclear] Test Ban Treaty monitoring. Essentially these instruments are super-sensitive capacitor microphones placed at the end of long plastic drainpipes, and which could detect a dingo's fart across a continental distance.

The Science Lecture was held in the all-new, and very pleasant, building 155 dining room. Older McMurdo visitors will recall how the dining area was segregated into 'E' and 'O'* dining rooms, the O being somewhat better furnished with some nice paintings on the walls (*E='Enlisted' & O='Officers'). Those days are history and now there is just one big well furnished dining room. Furthermore the grub just keeps on getting better and better as the years go by. The subject of McMurdo food has supplied generations of visitors with something to bitch about. Maybe my taste buds were burned out by earlier memorable examples of Navy cuisine, but these days it all strikes me as pretty damn good.

My last couple of days mooching about McMurdo have been very pleasant, and a good tonic for the last few hectic months. But I'm rapidly running out of things to do, and a suitcase load of AASTO-related goodies is nagging to be fiddled with... Manyana...



Thursday 25th January 2001

From Andre.....

Just outside my room is a cleaner's cupboard, filled with cleaning equipment. On the back wall of the cupboard, written in large letters is the following, written by guys who took their cleaning seriously (and whom also had perhaps been on the Ice just a little too long).

"This is my mop. There are many like it but this one is mine. My mop is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My mop without me is useless. Without my mop I am useless. I must swab my mop true. I must mop up the dirt which clutters the floor. I must clean it all up before it gets tracked all over. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My mop and myself are the cleaners of my floor. We are the masters of the dirt. We are the cleaners of the floor. So be it until there are no dirty floors, but clean ones.

The Custodial Creed
Summer '94 & '95
Chris and Chase
(we are not unlike God)"

Monday 29th January 2001

From Andre.....

Hi Guys,

...from 89 59' 39.6", AASTO Country. We departed MCM early this morning and the flight was pleasant and uneventful. This afternoon I've been getting myself organised* and this evening visited the AASTO (*for instance, now all imported laptops need to be virus sanitized before use). With the use of butane as new TEG refrigerant, I was perhaps a little more cautious than usual opening the AASTO door. In fact there was quite a pong inside but I think this was nothing more than the good ol' AASTO Pong, amplified somewhat by having the building shut up for some time. The smell vented off OK. There is also currently a disconcerting noise coming from the worn (disintegrating?) bearings of a small fan which Ed Pernic has set up. Presumably this is the one for which we brought down a spare.

Things inside the AASTO look good, but perhaps a little more cramped than usual. The surrounding snow level has built up to such a degree that it's a safe bet that the building will bury during this coming winter, unless it is raised, or the local surface level lowered. I forecast a ski-ramp will form fore-and-aft of the AASTO, and the underneath will fill in. Of course this may not matter if we intend to move it next year, and we have access to heavy equipment to assist with digging it out. As most of us are aware, the culprit is the current upwind location of the G-Tower.

The Pole Station has undergone quite a makeover this year and the new Pole elevated building is an impressive structure. Likewise the Dome is a pleasantly quiet place now that the power plant moved out. The weather is pleasant and flight schedule nominal. There is very slow LES-9 comms (i.e. via a 33kb modem for the whole station) from about 7:30-00:00 (NZDST), but from about 00:00-07:00, Marisat and TDRSS kick in with mind-boggling bit rates.

My new tiny hand-held GPS works surprisingly well, and indeed its estimate for the position of the South Pole exactly coincided with the Pole Marker. If one moves away from the marker by more than a metre of so, the latitude figure reads something less than 90 00' 00.0". Incidentally this beaut new Andre Toy also incorporates an accurate barometer, and right now the ambient pressure measurement reads 691hPa. So far I haven't had any pressure-related physio concerns, and hope that tomorrow with be 'business-as-usual'.

Today was the last day for 'Science Retro' [cargo] so any junk now goes back as Hold Baggage. One of the disadvantages with coming in so late in the season.

That's the brief goss' for the moment. I'll now walk back to the Dome and return to the AASTO at midnight. Last evening MCM's internet link went out for the whole evening, so you may have just received a slightly dated MCM email from me.

I can see a squillion little jobs which need doing, but that's definitely a consideration for tomorrow. Bob Pernic is scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

Back at midnight.


Thursday 1st February 2001

From the AASTO Team.....

Hi Guys,

For some unexplained reason there was an internet outage from the Pole last evening. Not that there was much to report; Paolo wasn't here yet, Michael was acclimatizing to the low atmospheric pressure, and Andre was in bed nursing a virus. But in the space of 24 hours, everything has turned around...

* Paolo has arrived with all equipment
* Mcba is dancing on tabletops
* Andre has mostly 'thrown' his bug.

Michael and Andre visited the AASTO last evening and concluded that the leaking gas smell was 'fresh' and in urgent need of attention. This morning Michael acquired a 'photo-ioniser' gas detector and quickly discovered that the butane refrigerant was leaking at a number of joints, and indeed (judging by the liquid level in the view glass) most of the butane appears to have already been lost. Michael was able to fix some leaking joints with a little extra tightening, but there are a series of big joints on-and-around the thermostatic regulator valve, which will likely need to be completely dismantled and redone properly. We'll think further about this one tomorrow.

Today's major activity was a serious clean up of the well-junked AASTO. Even though it is too late in the season to Retro cargo, we have been filling a 'retro' box, as well as eliminating some out-and-out junk. Paolo and Michael spent most of the afternoon sorting and repackaging equipment, and now the inside of the AASTO is considerably more roomier.

Andre's major task today was mounting the DataTaker DT50 data logger onto the wall, and running 12VDC to power it. Over the last couple of days Andre has fiddled with this instrument and found it surprisingly easy to program, and it will make a perfect interface for monitoring zillions of TEG parameters. The DT50 'knows' of just about every resistive/voltage-source/current-source/thermocouple/bridge device ever invented, so we should be able to quickly splice in all the TEG thermocouples etc.

And that's about the all the AASTO news for the moment. Paolo is looking well, and surprisingly neat and trim despite all that world-class Dome-C cuisine. Also, since he is already acclimatized to the pressure, he's bouncing off the walls, manhauling sleds etc. He plans to get SUMMIT brought over to the AASTO tomorrow AM, and to use the transporting fork-lift vehicle to lift the instrument straight onto the roof. In for a penny...

Michael has made sufficient space in the AASTO that we should be able to work on the NISM here, rather than trying to make space in the currently *very* congested MAPO building.

So after a slow start, things are happening very quickly.

Andre is currently working the Graveyard Shift, so shortly I will attend 'Midrats' (midnight dinner), which has become my lunchtime on the current schedule.

One last bit of interesting gossip. Last evening a Herc was unloading when a bulldozer driver noticed that a large metallic object fell out of one of the engines. It turned out to be the tailpipe, effectively the exhaust pipe of the jet engine. Which is a little embarrassing. Because it cannot take off on three engines from the Pole, that Herc is still here and a replacement engine, and crew to install it, have already been flown in from McMurdo. Whilst the aircrew were here last evening, Michael and I had a very long conversation with one of the pilots which touched on, amongst other things, runway considerations for high altitude antarctic air ops. Very interesting!

That's it for now.

Cheers, The AASTO Team.



Further Information