Wednesday, November 07, 2007

All in the name of science

It is sometimes amazing to think that the massive infrastructure of the United States Antarctic Program is all here for the purpose of supporting science. At the South Pole, the biggest science projects are in astrophysics and cosmology, using the site as a unique observatory for probing the physics of the universe. Here at McMurdo, most of the science is concerned with the natural world closer to home: geophysics, biology, environmental science, and other disciplines about which I know very little. For the last week while stationed in MacTown (as it's affectionately called), I've been working from my laptop in the library/lounge at Crary Lab, the main science facility. The library has a spectacular view across the ice and is a really comfortable place for working ( well as obsessively monitoring the activity on the ice runway outside, trying to tell whether they're preparing for us to fly anytime soon).

Spending time in Crary has also given me a glimpse into some of the many science projects taking place in this region of the continent. Downstairs, for example, there is a live feed from a camera at the opening of the volcano, Mount Erebus, that sits right above McMurdo. In the image, you can see the sloshing of the lava lake and the occasional explosions that jettison material out onto the icy upper slopes. Apparently, the lava lake is a relatively rare feature and the whole volcano is under constant active study by local scientists. They seem quite adventurous to me, heading out by helicopter to take trips to the volcano's peak. In the same part of the building, there are also scientists from the Andrill project, who are drilling deep into the sediments beneath the ice in order to study Antarctica's geological history.

You can't help but be totally captivated by the biological research taking place here, be it about penguins, seals, or critters from the bottom of the coldest sea. A few nights ago there was a public science lecture in the galley about the Wedell seals, and the audience was huge. There is something wonderful about seeing the enthusiasm everyone has here for the science that depends so much on their efforts to keep the station running.

One of my favorite memories from this trip will be visiting the Crary aquarium, which houses fish and other sea critters for study. They keep a "touch tank" filled with bright and bizarre animals that can be viewed up close, from your own hand. Two of the more colorful residents of the tank are shown below.

Finally, I have had another interesting encounter here with science that is far from my own field. A group from the Mayo clinic is performing a study on the physiological effects of high altitute. The South Pole is one of the few places where people regularly make trips to high altitude (it is physiologically equivalent to about 11,000 feet) without decending soon afterwards. So, as the polies come through McMurdo, the Mayo researches have been setting us up to do before-and-after studies. I signed up to participate in the study, which involved having 10 vials of blood taken (!) and a bunch of tests done to characterize my breathing. I also agreed to wear the "life shirt" while sleeping one night. Each of these tests will be repeated at pole, to see how the altitude has affected my body. The sleep studies are particularly interesting, since the high altitude is notoriously disruptive. With all of these wires attached to my body, I looked like a bizarre critter myself. But at least if I'm not able to be at the telescope working on my own science, I might as well help with someone else's.


Blogger Judy said...

I hope you still have some blood left! What is the bright yellow creature that looks like a ball of lemon pie filling? This weekend I am showing a woman around Athens who was a freshman here many, many years ago and has not been back in all this time. Why didn't she come back for the rest of her college education? - it was the only thing she could think of to get out of a relationship with a man... Dah.... It will be a fun time with her and my sister. Next time you go to MacTown can I come along???? I could be a lab assistant...or something...

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Blogger cristi said...

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Blogger veronica said...

The things we do in the name of science!

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Blogger cannedguds said...

How's life down (or up) there? Hope everything is fine. Have you found more new species? Regards.

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