Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas at the SOUTH Pole!

I feel very fortunate that I was able to celebrate Christmas at the South Pole this year.  A Spanish reporter contacted me recently asking about what it was like to be a scientist who has to work during the holidays.  For those who speak Spanish the link to the article is http://www.agenciasinc.es/Reportajes/Cientificos-de-guardia-por-Navidad. Thankfully, we didn't have any problems with the detector over Christmas so it was actually really nice here, and there wasn't much work to be done.

Normally we work 6 days a week, more or less, except on holidays where we get an extra day off. As a scientist, my schedule is a little more flexible.  Some days, I only have a few hours of work here and there.  Other days I may be up very early or very late fixing problems. Last week we actually had a couple of issues.  One of our servers died at 3:30 in the morning.  For some of our servers this is not a big deal, and we can take care of it the next day.  Unfortunately, this one was a DOMHub which means it is really important, and we had to deal with it immediately.  My colleague Martin was on call, so he went out to the ICL (IceCube Lab) to fix it, while I monitored things from station.  It turns out things were a little worse than we suspected so I ended up heading out as well to help him get things running again.  After a few hours we got it all taken care of, and then came back for breakfast followed by a short nap before getting started on the rest of our TODO list for the day.  Then, two days later, there was another failure, this time around 7 in the morning.  This time I had to get up and head out to fix the problem.  This involves getting all dressed up in cold weather gear and either walking or thankfully in the summer riding out on snowmobile. It was a quicker fix this time, and thankfully the last of our problems for a while.

The Thursday before Christmas we had another exciting task.  A few times a year, we have to go out and measure the snow accumulation on parts of the detector.  This is roughly 80 pairs of tanks, each of which gets measures spread out over a square kilometer.  We were able to use one of the Piston Bullies (pictured below) to drive around to the tanks.  This gave us a few minutes of warmth between measurements.  Overall, this took us about a day of work.  Fortunately, we had a little help from a summer IceCube visitor, Gwen.

Finally, on Christmas eve we had a ton of things going on here on station.  The first big thing is the station Christmas dinner.  We had beef Wellington and stuff lobster tails with all sorts of European deserts.  After this there was a big Christmas party with a live band dancing and socializing.  Sadly, in setting up for the party, I smashed my thumb between a couch and a door, and now my thumbnail is still blue!  Ah, how difficult life is here at the South Pole!

Overall the past couple of weeks have been really good. I do miss my family here.  I don't get to talk to them much due to limited satellite access and different time zones, but as I think I have said in the past, I am very fortunate to be able to work with such a great group of people here at the South Pole and in the IceCube collaboration. I feel like the work I am doing is very rewarding.  I am excited about the science that IceCube and the IceCube collaboration are doing.  On top of that, every so often I stop and think, "Holy crap, I am at the South Pole!" I am looking forward to continuing this work for the next year and seeing what the Antarctic Winter holds for us!  I hope you enjoy some of the pictures below.

 I finally made it out to the Ham radio rig at the South Pole.  Usually you access it remotely from the station, but it is nice to know where the actual hardware is in case I have to fix something.

 Our trusty Piston Bully!

Martin and Gwen measuring snow buildup on the IceTop Tanks.

 We found this makeshift Christmas tree out near the materials area of the station on the way back from measuring snow. It is mostly made of cargo straps!

 Our station doctor poses with our party coordinator.  They are really getting into the Christmas spirit.

 I brought a bunch of the Christmas cards I received from the students at Whitesburg Christian Academy to our party, and some of the people really appreciated reading them!

 What Christmas would be complete without cheesy Christmas movies?

 Everyone gathered on Christmas Eve for an amazing dinner!


 Martin and I even got presents from the IceCube back in Madison, WI.  Thanks everyone!

We wrapped the evening up with a party in the gym.  It was a great Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Our first live outreach and another care package at the South Pole!

The past couple of weeks have kept us pretty busy.  Since we got our cargo in, we have been working to do upgrades on hardware and software in the IceCube Lab (ICL). Mostly things have gone very smoothly, but occasionally, something in the upgrade process hasn't gone as planned and we have had to spend a few hours troubleshooting.  We also had to carry what I have been informed was a literal ton of batteries upstairs in the lab.  I would like to characterize this as routine (or I suppose not in the case of the batteries), but that seems to be the exact wrong word to use.  Every day is different here, at least during the summer.  Additionally, We have had more people shifting in and out of the station. While I look forward to the new faces coming in, I am definitely sad to see some of the old faces leave.  Sometime in the next few days, we will be losing a couple people in the IceCube summer crew, but later in the week, we should be getting a couple new people in to work on different projects. It is somewhat bittersweet.

There were a couple of more interesting things that happened over the past couple weeks, as well.  Last week we did an outreach over the Internet with a couple of schools up north: Avery Elementary 3rd-5th grade in St. Louis and Preeceville School 9th-12th grade in Canada.  Martin (my winterover colleague), Jim and Chris (IceCube summer crew), and I all sat down at about 6am and gave a small presentation about our experiment and life at the South Pole.  We got some excellent questions.  I actually love telling people about the work I am involved in and in general astrophysics.  The problem I ran into with this outreach is that I had to try to explain it to very young students.  Normally, when I try to explain particle astrophysics, I am talking to adults, albeit with a limited science background, but I think this is the first time I have tried to explain it to 3rd graders.  Overall, I think it went well.  Mostly, for the younger group we focused on life at the South Pole with some science thrown in for good measure. Several of the questions that were asked were very good, especially for the ages asking involved. I look forward to our next outreach opportunity.

Another very exciting thing happened last week as well. I received a care package from a friend of mine, Tim and some students from Whitesburg Christian Academy back in Huntsville, Alabama.  It had some wonderful things in it, including some snacks (yay beef jerky!) and some other things that are very nice to have.  I have to say, though, my favorite items in the care package were all the Christmas cards!  The cards and envelopes were all decorated and each had a little message inside.  I have a couple of favorites that I am posting below.  I am very grateful for all the thoughts and effort put into the cards and care package.  It is nice to know that people back home are still thinking about me!  Everyone has been so busy here, we haven't done much decorating just yet. I am going to share the cards with some of the other people around station to help spread some Christmas cheer.

Overall, we have had a good couple of weeks, and I am looking forward to the weeks ahead.  Hopefully, after Christmas, things will slow down a little bit, and I will be able to blog more about the science we are doing here at the South Pole!

 A care package I received from Tim and some students at Whitesburg Christian Academy in Huntsville, AL!

I selected two of my favorite cards, though they were all great!  I am going to share the rest with the other people on station to help spread a little Christmas cheer.

These were the same batteries we had to let dry out after they got soaked in transit.  We had to carry them all up stairs after testing.  I was told they weight over a litteral ton!

We did a quick picture up in the control room outside the server room.  I never thought as an astrophysicist I would get to wear a lab coat to work, but I now I do!  These jackets help minimize electrostatic discharge, so they are a must in the very dry air down here when working on the servers.  (left: Martin, center: Ralf, right: ME! )