Christmas message 2012

18. December 2012

Dear Friends,

Despite rainy summer of 2011/12, last Christmas and New Year were sunny and warm. Our usual Saturday crowd came on Christmas Eve, with Kaire as special visitor. Christmas dinner was at mother's place. Cumbos again hosted the New Year's Eve, with great view of the fireworks. Lot of good food and holiday cheer: Thank you, everyone!

2012 elevated our "work-hard, play-hard" philosophy to a new level. January started with a great adventure: cruise to Antarctica. We had a short stay in El Calafate, Argentina. This touristy town is in middle of very scenic nowhere: shimmering desert, blue Lago Argentino and snow-covered Andes on the horizon. We visited the ever-shifting Moreno glacier and contemplated the huge energy stored in the stressed ice. Flight to Ushuaia was dramatic, almost touching the mountain tops before dropping onto seemingly tiny runway in the Beagle Channel. This place is "fin del munde" - the end of the world (in a geographical sense). We met up with Ron and Sue, who instigated this adventure, at the Tango B&B. We walked in the nearby national park and were treated to a splendid accordion tango performance by the B&B owner Raoul. We visited great Maritime museum and learned about the history of Ushuaia as a penal colony and as a base for Antarctic exploration. Then boarded the ship Ushuaia to face the famous Drake Passage. Growing up as a land-locked Czech I was rather worried about being seasick and coping with getting into zodiaks to go ashore.

Antarctica surpassed our expectations: a world of brilliant fractured light reflections, million shades of blue and white, remote and hostile, its beauty continually shifting beyond capture by any of our fancy cameras. We were blessed by unusually quiet Drake Passage and could go on deck and admire the huge albatrosses swooping over the ship. There is so much interesting science associated with Antarctica: geology, meteorology and zoology. We had lectures on all of these aspects, given by the expedition staff. The lectures were particularly impressive on the way back, when the Drake Passage reverted to its normal stormy self. Expedition leader Agostino danced his way through the lecture on the ozone hole. All we could do is clutch our seats and vomit bags, but we managed to join in the "Ozone song". Landings on the South Shetland islands and later Antarctic peninsula were well organised. I had a sense of unreality sitting among numerous penguins, who were engaged in feeding their babies and stealing each others nest stones. Only the smell of rotten fish was all too real, but the nose got soon saturated and we stopped noticing it. Like the Proustian madeleine cake, the whooping cries of penguins immediately transport me back to Antarctica. The large fluffy gentoo babies were inquisitive and came to peck at us and even climbed into our laps. We saw many types of seals, including the top predator leopard seal. A pair of whales appeared next to the ship and played a joke on us popping up on alternates sides of the ship, making the "monkyes" run for their pictures. We visited English station Port Lockroy - a time capsule from early whaling and later scientific expeditions. And Sue and I actually swam in the Southern Ocean on the hot sand beach of active volcanic Deception Island. The ship crew were enthusiastic and helpful (rare in these "let's rip off the fat tourist" times). Other passengers were interesting to talk to. Thank you everyone for a great time! This experience has energised me throughout this year and I was happy to discover I can deal with stormy seas and zodiac rides. All four of us loved this trip and still talk about it (the "Antarctic tragics"). We will be back.

After coming back to Sydney, we were very sorry to say our final goodbyes to Bruce's supervisor (and family friend) Jak Kelly, who seemed to be getting better after a long illness, but it was not to be. We are missing your humour, Jak!

At Easter I realised that I am working at School of Physics, UNSW, for 20 years! We celebrated by usual time in Jindabyne. We did the 24 km, 900 m up and down, Schlink Pass walk that we planned last year. Early snow stopped us from doing the Main Range walk. Instead we admired the snow-sugared Main Range from Mt. Stillwell above Charlotte's Pass.

Teaching: First session saw me demonstrating many Second Year labs and teaching PHYS 1111. My post-antarctic enthusiasm attracted some good students into our biophysics course. In second session I taught the record four courses at three different levels: PHYS 1111, PHYS 1121, Intro Biophysics and Third Year Biophysics. Not only did I survive, I enjoyed the teaching and worked hard at demonstartions and notes improvement. I even resurrected Dictyostelium (Dicty) from the freezer as an example of dissipative structures. I photographed interesting moment of leadership struggle, when a Dicty slug somehow acquired two leader cells and split in two. (Dicty is a microscopic single cell amoeba that lives on bacteria in the soil. Once the food is short, one cell starts to produce chemical signal, which attracts others to it, forming macroscopic slug that walks around until it finds more food or forms a specialised spore producing body).

The midyear break held another adventure in store. We headed to Canada. First stop was Vancouver. I gave a general talk about my research at Simon Fraser university, guest of Martin Zuckermann. We had a great stay at Hotel Sylvia and did a long walk on nearby scenic Stanley Island. Martin was a great host, introducing us to researchers and taking us to University of British Columbia great archeological museum and later to Granville island for lunch. Before leaving Canada, we met his wife Mariella over a congenial dinner. Thank you very much for looking after us! We hired a car and set out for Kelowna to visit Susan. The trip is very scenic with green forrests, wild mountains and pristine lakes and rivers. Kelowna is spread out on the banks of very deep lake Okanagan (complete with monster Ogopogo). We found the university (Okanagan campus of University of British Columbia) and later Susan and Bob's place and were treated to a great dinner. I admired Susan's lab, gave a talk and we found local charophytes: one of them rare Chara longifolia that Mary Bisson works on. We started cultures in the glasshouse. Then we set out for another trip to walk the Burges Shale with Bob, Susan, Bill and Pat. The Yoho national park is most splendid wilderness with very steep snow covered mountains. We stayed in small town Field with additional pleasure of watching the Canadian Pacific trains roll on past our hotel. The Burgess Shale walk was covered by snow, so instead we walked up Mt. Stephen's trilobite beds guided by friendly and knowledgeable Carlos. The Canadians do not believe into zig-zagging up mountains: it was straight up at 45 degrees most of the way. I worried about Bruce, but he coped, thanks to sensible pace set by Carlos. The trilobite beds are fantastic. Every rock seems to contain them. I felt embedded into deep time. Later we visited scenic Banff and then started heading back to Vancouver. Thanks for great time, Susan and Bob!

Science: our paper on zinc and H+/OH- channels came out in Plant Cell and Environment early in the year. We published a book chapter on charophyte banding with Mary Bisson. Michelle and I finalised the first three chapters of the Characeae book and I sent them off to the editor before heading to Canada. It was decided that we need chapter 4 (my task for this Christmas break). In September Dusan Lazar from Olomouc came to do some PAM measurements on characeae photosynthesis. He brought his own PAM machine and measured effect of melatonin on Chara photosynthesis and effect of salinity on Lamprothamnium photosynthesis. At 10 micromolar melatonin improves photosynthetic efficiency by 30% due to its action as antioxidant. This has become my talk for the Mendoza conference on charophytes and we have just got the paper accepted by Plant Signaling and Behaviour. Thanks Dusan and Susan! When are you coming back, Dusan? We have worked on the mucilage data obtained by Kaire (her talk for Mendoza) and a consistent story is emerging. The paper is close to submission. Sabah and Ph. D. student Faisal have done one experiment on growth (IAA and BAP with characeae nodes). We tried to repeat it with melatonin, but the nodes died. At this point we are not sure if this is a useful result or an artifact of temperature going too high. We are planning a big experiment early in New Year. So, my only regret for this year is that my resources (time and people power) were too low to get further with the melatonin experiments. Will try much harder next year.

The last adventure for this year was a trip to Mendoza, Argentina, to the 6th International Meeting of the Charophyte group. Bruce and I flew to Santiago (Chile) and we met Mary Bisson and Kiri. Kiri organised a serviced appartment for us to stay. It was great to see Mary after several years and to spend time with Kiri. Kiri has worked for Origio this year and have done a lot of travelling for both business and pleasure. She was being interviewed by the head office in Copenhagen, while we were travelling. We hired a car and started for the Andes and Mendoza. Kiri organised a great chalet in the skiing resort of Portillo (2800 m above sea level). This is a magic place with glacial lake and steep bare mountains with thunder-like avalanches of constantly falling rocks (geology in action). The main hotel provided great dinner. Mary and I even found charophytes in the lake. The Chile/Argentina border is a kafkaesque nightmare of forms, reminiscent of communist Czech/German border running on latino time (although the guards seem to have a better sense of humour). We then drove through the Cristo Redentor (translated by Kiri as Christ the Removalist) tunnel at 4000 m above sea level. Highest place I have ever got to on land. After some mix ups we settled in the hotel in Mendoza. It was great to see the other "charologists"! The field trip was beautifully organised by Adriana, Allan, Leandro and Eduardo. We enjoyed the museum in San Rafael and stay in Malargue. I loved the spring Nina Encantada - truly magic place (and with charophytes!). We had an adventure with the bus getting bogged at the Lago Lancanello, miles from anywhere and eventually pulled out by the local park rangers. It gave us the opportunity to contemlate the huge wind-swept plain with the snow-peaked Andes shimmering on the horizon like fata morgana. The conference contained a lot of useful information for me and it was great to renew contacts and meet new people. I promise to be a lot more interactive in the next four years, before the next meeting in Kazachstan! Our meeting with Mary was cut short, when her passport was stolen. Several people, including Bruce, lost things or were attacked. This was a pity, as it was otherwise an excellent meeting. Thank you, organisers! Kiri went on to meet friends in Buenos Aires and flew onto New York. She got the job in Copenhagen. Congratulations, Kiri! Will miss you and will come to visit.

So, Christmas is approaching like some strange singularity (or so it seems to me every year). I am grateful to have a quiet few days to ponder the past year. Bruce is in Taiwan, where he has been going every few weeks this year. The photovoltaic industry is in decline due to European financial crisis and flood of cheap solar cells from China. The factory in Taiwan is hanging on. Bruce is making a circuit to measure current/voltage curves of solar cells (there are interesting parallels in our work). He is enjoying doing electronics - I am hoping that he will modernise the gear in my lab. Due to our travels (and travels of our architects) we have just managed to finalise the house plans to go to Council next year. So, this has been a great year for us: we were able to visit some truly amazing places. We thank all the people, who made our journeys interesting and possible: some we know for a long time, some we met recently and with some we just intersected, perhaps never to meet again.

Next year looks promising. We are "doing" the Routeburn track in New Zealand with Cumbos at the end of January. Susan Murch has organised the next Plant Signaling and Behavior conference in Vancouver in July. So we will rerun our Canadian adventure and perhaps get to walk the Burgess Shale this time! And our old house might come down in 2013.

I am looking forward to hearing your stories and wishing you

a peaceful Christmas break and All the Best in 2013!!!

Mary, Bruce and Kiri

The background picture is, you guessed it, from Antarctica!

El Calafate

Calving event of Moreno Glacier

The good ship Ushuaia

Inspected by gentoo baby (click on the image to download a card)

The whales are big!

Our favourite landing spot: Neko Harbour (click on the image to download a card)

Antarctic swim on volcanic Deception Island

Easter: Main Range from Mt. Stillwell

July: Climbing Mt. Stephen in Yoho National Park, Canada

Trilobites of Mt. Stephen

October: ressurecting Dicty for biophysics course (slugs are about 1 mm long)

November: at Portillo (Andes, Chile)

Portillo Lake

Marys at Lago Lancanello