Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Sunday, December 15, 2002

Meeting your past

16 Dec 02 - by Paolo G. Calisse

I ended my summer at South Pole jumping onboard of the usual LC-130 after greeting some people that will probably be back home before the first week of January, when I will get back to South Pole to start my winterover. By them, Eyal, a very funny scientist that for some reasons I unfortunately met in Christchurch and that was sharing the room in front of me in the Hypertat. As a scientist, altough sometime hard to believe, looks very skilled. His sub-mm TREND camera for the AST/RO seems working and will get for sure great data this winter.

As a person is such a funny guy that he will never pass unnoticed. First because if you haven't noticed him he will soon get to you and ask why. Anyway, bye bye Eyal, and get in touch!

The flight has been wonderful. I couldn't sleep, also if I was very tired. There are plenty of studies about moving from low to high altitude, but nothing about the trip back, altough I feel always pretty nervous and I get an headache after half a day any time I got back to low altitude. Can any doctor advice me about that?

Anyway, I spent most of the time watching by the window while we passed several astonishing features of Antarctica. The aircraft was almost empty and was possible to walk, sit or read whatever you like. The flight reaches the Ross Ice Shelf after flying over the "Flatlandia" of the Antarctic Plateau. After that, you can watch the outlet of some huge glacier, each larger than the length of most of the Italian Alps' glaciers. The Bearmore, the Nimrods, and than the Byrd Glaciers. On each side of them there were dry valleys, where there has been no snowing since almost a million years, pretty dark mountains, frightening crevasses, several Nunataks, black spot that are the remaining of old vulcanic cones. All the landscape submitted to a stress from the moving ice that was possible to feel in some way.

The Bearmore, in particular, was the path Scott and his party accessed the Plateau on 1911, and from which they got back toward their death 18 miles or so from the One Ton Depot. And I couldn't do anything else, while embedded in the comfortable altough rough body of the Hercules, than search for the littlest sign of human life down there. And was surprising me in some way that such a search, successfull in any other place of the Earth, was so surprisingly hopeless here. Not a plant, not a spot of green, not a road or sign of life, altough ancient and abandoned.

I still find hard to trust it when flying over the Plateau. Not even a sign to remember the fours died somewhere just under our aircraft. Right, who could even read it?

Well, once arrived, I got back from the ice-strip to McMurdo, that is shorter respect to the Willy Field road, and more interesting as you arrive to the Station through the "beach", so that you can get a better view of the station on the way up.

After moving my "orange bags" to the same room I used on the way South, in building 203A, for what it matters, I met Andrew just while I was knowing from the flight manifest that our flight to Christchurch, NZ, has been postponed to Wednesday. Andrew is one of the PI of the Boomerang, an amazing experiment that attracted a lot of interest in the last few years, collecting spectacular data about the so-called cosmic microwave background anisotropy.

At 6:30pm there was a shuttle going up to the Long Duration Balloon Facilities, and in particular the "Pig Barn", where the Boomerang is being assembled and prepared for the incoming second flight. Someone organized a sort of "open day", and I was very happy to go and visit those people, and not only for the science. There I would meet some old friends of mine, including some collegues I shared several years in the deparment of Physics of the University of Rome, like Armando, called "Armadino" for his -as you can guess - gigantic size, or Andrea, specializing in "making balls rotating", as he used, to control the attitude of the gondola attached to the balloon, a series of balls attached to arms rotating at high speed.

But I was very excited, in particular, at the idea to meet Paolo & Silvia, because they have had, for several reasons, an important role in my past and subsequent choices. I met them pretty regularly in the past years, but never in the condition to chat a little bit "in santa pace", in holy peace, how we say that to mean not in a hurry. But Antarctica is peculiar also for this. Just on the travel to the LDBF Phil, another Boomerang's guy and a nice and smart fellow I met on the way South, said this is the place where you will meet your past. And that's true also for the Boomerang, that is just designed to get a picture of the newborn Universe (or maybe when it was a toddler?).

From the barely scientific point of view, the visit has been amazing. The Boomerang got an incredible success - the first release of its data conquered the headline on several different countries, including Australia - but it not the typical "product" you could expect to find in the typical science-related movie. Without knowing who was behind him, I could tell you it...

In Italy and in most of the country of the world, people just ask to pay less taxes. But when you pay less taxes something will fly away, and, among the firsts, money for scientific research, that doesn't come first in the "primary needs list" of the taxpayer. I don't want to tell you if this is good or bad, altough you know what I think. But this will mean in turn, anyway, that, plenty of good projects will not be funded, or that their results will be cut down, or that the risk of a failure will increase.

In the case of the Boomerang, it looks apparently as a pretty quick&dirty job. But it works great! And it works just because of the commitment by the all people after it, that I know very well. And as Paolo, that is the other PI of the experiment, said me today "as there is no funding for competitive researches in Italy, we can compete only with good ideas". Good lesson, Paolo, nd my best wishes for your incoming flight!

Decadence and computer

15 Dec 02 - by Paolo G. Calisse

This morning I awaken very early, as usually since I'm here. The surprise, getting out of the Hypertat, was that tracks, tractors, cranes, vans, crawlers where all switched off as it was Sunday. The station was totally quiet, except for the little vibration generated by the power generator, well insulated by the hi-tech underground building.

There was absolutely nobody around. The galley was almost empty, except a group of astronomer getting back right then - was 6 o'clock - from the SPRESO field, 5 kilometer away from the Station. There was also Paolo Rapex, another very nice Italian working at South Pole. It could be unlikely, but in the station there are 3 Italians, and two of them are Paolos. The third is a girl, Elisa, working with Amanda, the neutrino detector. And at McMurdo there is another Paolo, the much more famous Paolo De Bernardis, looking after the launch of his balloon-borne telescope, Boomerang, so that someone here is starting to think that you have to be named Paolo if you are Italian and want to make some astronomy in Antarctica.

Me and Paolo chatted a little about the political and economical crisis in Italy. We were worried exactly like any Italian since the beginning of the WWII (or by the foundation of Rome, 753 b.c. Well, ok, a little more at now.

After some time I walk to the AASTO. Since yesterday I like it a little more and so I spent all day there preparing our talk and listening music through the speaker of the laptop.

The talk was expected to start at 8pm. I arrived at 7:30 back in the station, half an hour in advance respect to the beginning of the presentation, but to move my 57 MB of my talk to Michael computer resulted more tricky than expected. Michael and me were sharing an hour of talk, he was expected to talk about the AASTO program, and me about Concordia station. (Dome C)

Time was passing quickly between the typical series of reset, tiring shutdowns, crashes, all those stupid questions the software ask us 100 times a day that are now a not negligible component of our life. Each action looks like a minute only, but actually, minute after minunte, our half an hour became a frightening 10 minutes. The hard disk drive of both our computers where chewing and chewing data with no apparent results. Sometime I wonder if in the Reinassance they did some good job just because they don't have to spend time resetting computer, uploading new version of the software or finding the way to write in vertical bold yellow in an excel worksheet, etc... Ok, ok, I know: and they were not expected to write stupid antarctic diaries entries every night.

Anyway, the 30 mins left before the beginning of the talk started to pass faster and faster. At 7:55 Michael got to the Galley, where they were expecting us for the presentation, and inserted the VGA connector coming from the video projector on the back of his Apple.

Nothing happened.

The signal is expected to get from the computer to the projector through a cable. So easy!

The mirror remained blue, giving the usual mess of "friendly messages": "video OFF", "Signal ON", "searching for this and that" or something like these. You could also spot time to time a couple of mysterious Windows-like folders, while the projector was completely unaware of his new relation with Michael's Apple. Nobody taken care of the two useless folders, named something like prksglasgf.fpd and JJJ.

We got increasingly nervous. It happens always. Typical talk situation: you have hundred people watching you while you are trying to keep calm and working hard to fix a problem.

Time was passing. At 8:15 we were close to a crisis of nerves and moving up and down trying to concentrate and thinking how to disappear and reappear 1000 Km away. The Apple refuses to send his signal to the projector. The Compaq doesn't just seem to bother to it.

I got my laptop, actually the laptop I borrowed from the station, and tried to figure out a way to transfer both our presentations back to my computer, as it was been written in some disk somewhere on the local network. We got quickly in that typical situation that anyone involved in computer knows, in which any possible solution got inexplicately to a stop for a different reason when you (believe that) are very close to find the solution. People was starting to complain, and we look more and more miserable. I'm sure anyone was sure to have the solution in his mind and thinking why we were so stupid not just thinking to it.

I was looking through the maze of setting of my Windows XP, an operating system exactly equal to Windows 3.1 but by far smart in the choice of colours and sounds. Michael was fiddling with the Apple OS. No way. Nothing was working. We tried for a while with another computer, but I got in some other problems, some driver not available, I don't really cared. Suddenly, Tony Stark suggested to switch the computer off and on. I know that someone saved a Saturn V in this way after it was hit by a light. I tried, with about 100 eye starling to me in a deep silent. Meanwhile my computer, for reasons I don't know, was trying time by time to get to standby mode, like if an IT Tze-Tze fly picked it.

After another couple of minutes I succeded to switch it off and on (an operation that up to the '70 was requiring a millisecond on any electrical device), and, surprise! it was working now. Now we had to transfer Michael's presentation to my computer, and another time it was like things just collaborated to make it difficult.

When I was transferring, half an hour earlier, my powerpoint presentation to his computer, I knew that something was going to be wrong, and in fact, at a simple test, I found all the * I used to compare C-130 to and overland traverse (don't worry, they are not dangerous) transformed in "i'". But this was just a message from the company "You see? I told you that the [other] operating system is just not working!".

But now things got smootly, and a minute later Michael was talking at the speed of light to compress the 30 slides he prepared in 15. Actaully he was using another presentation, because the real one was "not recognized by the software registry". Another mysterious thing.

Also, me tried to compress my presentation. And infact my 30 minutes got compressed to 35. This is what happen when your English is not so good.

Now, I think that to talk bad about Microsoft is like to "shot to the Red Cross". Actually I don't know if you say something like that in English, but it is what we say in Italian when someone accuse someonelse of something else, and this someone else is really easy to be accused... ok, it's not so clear, but I'm tired and can't find any better. The problem is that this just doesn't work. Are COMPUTER, Apple, MS, Unix, doesn't really matter, by themself that are designed to destroy our life, sucking all our resources and transforming it in a crazy race to update the update, and fix the fix.

At the end people, I think, enjoied our talks. But I know I'll spend the night thinking about this thing that in the Renaissance they did such a great job without having even a 0.5 rollelball pen available.

paolo

From AASTO to Dome C

South Pole Diary 15/12/02

Sunday is the day the Pole takes off, and the silence was deafening! Hardly anyone stirs before lunchtime, no planes arrive, no bulldozers are tearing back and forth across the ice - and you realise that Antarctica can be very, very quiet! So quiet it almost wants to shout at you.

Paolo and I were up in the morning, though really we didn't have to, for we had nothing to do - aside the insidious e-mail. We spent the time reading, taking "hero-shots" with the camera, talking to people and generally relaxing.

I went for a "run" yesterday, up and down the skiway. Running is a rather different experience here. The first question is what do you wear? The big
red jacket we take everywhere is ditched for the McMurdo wind jacket, but its still a question of how many layers underneath? Bunny boots are changed
for running shoes and a couple of pairs of thick socks, gloves for mittens, and you're off. The hard surface of the skiway at least means you aren't sinking into the soft crust, but it still is hard work. On my way "up" the runway I was overheating, starting to sweat profusely. But when I reached the end and turned around I realised there was a light breeze, and this became very apparent as my chest started to freeze over. After an hour I'd gone about 8km, only just over half the distance I'd probably run in that time in Sydney. And when I finished my undergarments were dripping inside. That's fine when there's a warm building not far away, but you really wouldn't want to get into this situation if you were out on your own, as the sweat would start to freeze at some point. That wouldn't be fun!

I also went for a ski this afternoon. Pole now has a well-equipped ski barn, and you simply sign out what you need and away you go. I went for a tour of "Summer Camp", up and down a few snow hills that have been pushed up by the bulldozers. One hill in particular is reasonably high, and a grand view of the station is to be had. The view of the cargo berms was quite amazing - I knew they were large, but quite how large isn't apparent until one can look down from above.

There was one big event for us today though, the Sunday Night Science Lecture, for which Paolo and I were playing the starring role. "From AASTO to Dome C" we had boldly decided to pontificate about, but half an hour into the lecture, when we still hadn't started and were into our third laptop PC, struggling to make the data projector listen to it, it looked like we weren't going to get out of the galley (where the lectures are held)! Fortunately we pulled something up, I managed to cut my talk in half, and we only finished 15 min over time in the end, after Paolo had mesmerised the audience about the wonders of Dome C. It is actually little appreciated at Pole what is happening at Dome C - that there is another major scientific facility under construction at the same time the new Pole Station is being built. I think a few more people know about it after tonight!

And that may be it, at least as far as my South Pole diaries go for this
year! Both Paolo and I are due to depart tomorrow for McMurdo, so all being
well that's where you'll next hear from me. Paolo is due back in Jan, to
begin his winterover, but that's it for me and this summer campaign.

Michael

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