Thursday, May 25, 2017

Aurora and time lapse photography from the South Pole!

The past couple of weeks have been busy and exciting here at the South Pole.  There has been a great deal of activity with the detector, but also, the moon has set, which means that the aurora are visible again. The moon is so bright that when it is up it obscures all but the brightest of aurora and even those aren't as exciting when you try to view them under a full moon.  Now that the moon has set and it has gotten dark, many of the photographers on station have broken out their cameras again and there will be more photos flooding their various social media accounts!

Before we get into the aurora, it is worth noting that IceCube had some big happenings last week. We generally run our detector configuration a year at a time.  It's not that there is a big difference from one year to the next most of the time, but it is a way we can break our data and filtering up into more manageable segments.  Most of our offline analyses are actually done a year at a time or with collections of "years" of data.  Last week, we transitioned from our 2016 physics run to our 2017 physics run.  This marks another year of successful data collection by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory! Martin and I assisted some of the scientists and technicians in the North in the transition.  This process involves updating some software on the detector, and in this case, we actually retired an older system in favor of a newer and hopefully more robust one. Overall the transition went well, and we are excited to be starting another year of particle astrophysics research with one of the greatest experiments ever built... not that I am in any way biased or anything!

Not only do I get to work on such an amazing experiment, but I am also very happy to say that I get to live an amazing environment.  Mostly, I don't spend a great deal of time outside, but when I do, there are times that I am treated to one of the most amazing light shows I have ever seen.  Martin and I had to do some repairs the other day out at the IceCube Lab.  Just as a reminder, this is a 3/4 of mile walk away in temperatures that lately range from around -70F to -80F with wind chills well below -100F.  While out there, Martin set up his camera to do a short time lapse (available soon for the public?).  He got some amazing shots, including one of the stills below.  After we had finished our work, we headed back, but the aurora were so amazing, we stopped several times to admire them.  Martin even tried to get a few more shots in before his camera froze. I have included one below that he took of me in front of the aurora.  For those interested in more of his photography, here again is a link to his flikr account:

Here in the near future, I think I am going to try my hand at a little bit of aurora photography. I don't know that I will be able to get anywhere near as good as Martin is, but maybe I can get a few good shots in here or there.

Besides Martin, there are also a few other people on station who have gone out several times to get aurora shots.  One in particular is Robert Schwarz.  Robert has spent more time at the South Pole than any other person ever.  He is currently working on his 13th winter at pole, and is planning to come back next year for one more winter.  Over the years, he has developed a skill at photographing aurora this includes a great deal of time lapse photography as well. He has a few websites with many pictures and his time lapses posted. I encourage you to check them out.

Between Martin and Robert and several of the others who I will try to link to in the future, we have an amazing group of photographers down here! They have done an amazing job of capturing the beauty that we get to see down here on a fairly regular basis, barring light pollution from the moon!

Other than that, things have mostly been going as usual. I am still working on learning French, and I think I am about to start on Russian. I have been practicing more on the violin, and I am starting to think about trying to memorize a few specific pieces I have been working on. I was trying to read a science paper a day, but that has slowed down a bit over the past week.  I am hoping to get a little more focused on that over the next week or so and maybe do some extra reading to get caught up. That being said, I am sure I know why you are all really reading this blog, so here are the pictures!

Martin snapped this picture of me (James) in front of some aurora and the South Pole Telescope (SPT) on our way back from fixing hardware problems at the ICL - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin laying down in front of the ceremonial South Pole and the station, looking at the stars and aurora - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin standing in front of the station with aurora in the background - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Aurora over the South Pole Telescope (SPT) - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Aurora over the station - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Aurora over the station observation deck - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The IceCube Lab in the starlight - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The moon over the South Pole station - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin out in front of some aurora - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin got this pic of our station physician assistant taking pictures of aurora... How meta!

This is a shot of our station physician watching the aurora - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Another aurora shot with the Milky Way in the background - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

A shot of the Large Magellenic Cloud from the South Pole - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin and James posed for a picture in front of the ICL to send to the IceCube Collaboration during their most recent meeting - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

16 Hour DarkSector Sky Time-Lapse at South Pole
16 Hour Dark Sector Time Lapse at the South Pole (you may need to click on this one to really see it) - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Pizza Night at the South Pole

In general I love being down here at the South Pole, but I suppose in fairness I am a pretty positive person, and I try to focus on the positive and look past some of the negative things that happen, not just here, but in my life back home as well. The reality is, however, that not everything here is perfect. The fact that we are limited to 2 two minute showers a week is one thing that comes to mind immediately.  Somewhat off topic, but the first thing I am going to do when I get back to Christchurch when I get off the ice is check into my hotel and take an hour long shower, or maybe two... It will be glorious! But I digress...  I generally avoid the more negative things that happen on my blog, because honestly, they are usually small and not worth talking about.  That being said the past couple of month or so has had a few annoying things happen.

The first big annoyance has been the Internet. We normally have three scheduled satellite passes that provide Internet for everyone on station.  The first is normally the fastest. However, even at its fastest it is slower than what most people have at home.  It is far too slow to stream most video reliably, especially when all 46 of us are fighting for bandwidth.  So Netflix is definitely not happening, but on a good day, it is usually good enough to handle your general browsing needs, well, for the 3 hours it is up.  Under the right circumstance, it could be used for a Skype video call, which is kind of important for me right now, but we'll get to that in a bit. The next satellite pass is significantly slower.  It can take several minutes to load pages if you are trying to browse the web.  There are even times when you will try to access pages, but they continually time out and just won't load.  Sometimes you can't even get through to your email. Funnily, this satellite is called "Skynet". If this was the sentient network that would try to take over the world (as from Terminator), then I wouldn't be too worried about it!  This satellite lasts a little bit longer, around 5 or 6 hours, but again it is barely usable.  The last satellite pass is somewhere in the middle. Mostly it will load pages, but it still takes time.  When I am on it, I still have pages that time out, but usually it works if you are patient. This pass lasts around 3 or 4 hours.

The point of all this is that we have limited Internet access here.  Things are slow, but lately it has been worse.  Our fast satellite has been down for the past week and was already not working properly the weeks before that.  In fairness, I don't suppose I can complain too much about that as I have slept through that pass over the past month or so, but I just finished my ham radio class here and I can't give the exam without that satellite.  We have to have proctors watching from the North, and that is the satellite that has the best chance of getting a Skype video call through at the right time. Hopefully, these problems will be resolved soon, but sometimes, I get the impression that we here at the South Pole are not a high priority for the satellite people up North.

The second big annoyance has been the kitchen work.  Since I have had some questions about how the food situation is here, I will elaborate a little on that first. The majority of the time, we get our food from our cafeteria, or galley as we call it.  There are three meals prepared six days a week, and a small spread for brunch on Sunday.  If you work nights or are like me and for some unexplainable reason end up on a night shift, there is a leftover refrigerator that is usually stocked with food for consumption after hours. The leftover fridge is also the source of food on the one day of the week the galley staff doesn't work, Sunday, unless someone else on station volunteers to cook for everyone.  The food is provided for us so we don't actually have to buy anything.  The exception is junk food.  If you want beef jerky, candy, coke or something else like that you mostly have to get that from our station store, but I think that will have to be a post for another time. Even still, there is always coffee, cookies, and chips out in the galley for anyone to have if they get the munchies in the middle of the day or night.

A little over a month ago, some of the maintenance crew started a planned overhaul of the kitchen, and it went on for about three weeks.  They had to do this during the winter as there are only 46 of us here now vs. the 150 or so people here during the summer. Normally, I really enjoy our food here.  We have some pretty good cooks here and they do an amazing job with the limited resources we have.  Keep in mind, most of our food is frozen during the winter, and much of it has been here for a while. The milk is powdered.  It's hard to find green olives.  There is rarely ketchup and almost never mayonnaise.  The very few fresh vegetables come from our small green house (thank goodness for greenhouse tomatoes!). That being said, for those three weeks, much of our food was cooked on our emergency stove and in some industrial microwaves. For the most part, the food was OK, but it definitely lost some quality. There were more than a few days when people would opt out of the main course and stick to the side dishes, as the frozen meat cooked in a microwave rarely came out quite as well as we would like.

There are a couple of reasons I bring all this up.  The first is that I have had a few people ask about the food situation here.  The second, and actually bigger reason, is to say that the kitchen work ended a week or so ago, and last Saturday, the logistics working group volunteered to make pizza for everyone.  It was probably the best pizza I have had in a LONG time. They mentioned that they were going to cook for everyone earlier in the week, and everyone was extremely excited when Saturday evening arrived, and pizza was had by all! I have to confess, I have been thinking about trying to exercise and get in better shape while I am here, but on that night... I ate so much I made myself a little sick.  It was great!

The truth is I don't really feel like I have much to complain about.  Things are not perfect here, but there are places and people who have it far worse. I do miss my family sometimes. I miss regular long hot showers. I miss humidity.  I miss deep fried buffalo wings and green olives, and probably a thousand other things here and there, but the truth is, I am still really enjoying my time here. I am living and working with a great group of people in an awe inspiring place, and I can step outside at almost any time I would like and have an amazing view of the night sky from one of the most exotic places in the world.  In truth, I will be ready to leave in six months and get back to warmer climates, again with long showers, but the truth is I know it won't be long before I am missing this amazing place, and the wonderful community we have made here.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Six Months at the South Pole!

Today is a very exciting day for me! It marks six months at the South Pole.  I arrived here on November 2, 2016, a few days before my last birthday, and I have been here six months as of today. It has been a wonderful adventure so far and I am looking forward to the next six months, especially now that the sun has set, and we are having some amazing views of the night sky with the stars, milky way, and especially the auroras!

Over the past few weeks, life on station has been fairly routine. The temperatures went up a bit for a while, but are now holding around -90F with a wind chill of around -130F. I generally get up every day and the first thing I do is check email and check on the experiment I am working on, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. I then try to move on to personal projects, assuming everything is running well and no one from the IceCube group up North has any requests.  Thankfully, the detector has been running very smooth lately, and with the exception of a few small problems and some calibration work, there hasn't been much that we've had to do.  As it turns out, however,  the one "big" problem we had to deal with lately was a failed power supply a few days ago.  For some reason since winter started, I have moved more to a night schedule. Really, this doesn't make much sense, as it is always dark here since the sunset, but somehow, even without any real sense of day or night, I still moved to a night schedule.  That being said, a few days ago, I had just fallen asleep when I got a call from Martin about the power supply which failed a little after breakfast.  Thankfully, Martin was on call and it was his turn to go out and replace the power supply.  Unfortunately, when he got out there, it looked the like the problem was bigger than expected and I ended up having to go out and help. Generally, it isn't that big a deal, but now that it is has gotten colder, and since our lab is about 3/4 of a mile away from the main station, by the time I walk out there my balaclava (face mask) has frozen over making it fairly difficult to breath...  not to mention we are still at roughly 10,000 ft altitude.  Suffice it to say, that walking out to the ICL and back can wear you out! At any rate, after I got out there, Martin and I did our work which ended up taking a few hours, and then I headed back to station for lunch and to get some sleep.  Martin, however, stayed out to get some more amazing pictures.  Overall it turned out to be a pretty long day, but it was still a good day, all things considered.

For the most part, winter has been an amazing time. The last power supply failure we had before this week was a couple months ago, and beyond that, our work has mostly been the occasional calibration run. I have been thinking back some over the past few months, and I remember when I first arrived, and we spent the summer working and preparing for winter. Even then I enjoyed my time here, but since the winter season officially started mid-February with all of the summer people leaving, the station has taken on a much different atmosphere. It almost feels like a totally different place. I had heard from some of the previous winterovers how much better it is in winter, and looking back now, I definitely have to agree.  Life is much more laid back now, and our interactions are so much more personal now that we only have 46 people on station. There have obviously been a few small conflicts here and there, but in general, everyone seems to be getting along very well. The people here on station come from all walks of life and political and philosophical backgrounds, but we respect each other and have learned to live together peaceably.

As for my personal projects, I am making progress, more some days than others.  I have been practicing the violin regularly, and there are times I really enjoy it.  Other times, it takes a little motivation to get myself to practice, but in the end it seems to be worth it as I feel that I have at least improved some over the past couple months.  I have been reading a ton, mostly science papers, and I have also been working on some computer projects. I have been playing around with and reviewing some network security ideas and practices, but I have also spent some time playing around with statistics and some programming languages.  In particular, I have been trying to spend some time learning ROOT and Octave, as they have some very powerful tools for statistical analysis. There have also been a few other little computer projects here and there. I am behind on my language studies, but not irreparably so.  I haven't spent much time on Duolingo over the past week and half, but I am hoping to jump back into it in the next day or two. I have also been thinking about a few other small projects that I had planned for the winter.  I'd like to spend some time studying for my instrument rating, and I would like to spend some time really learning Morse code. As of right now, these are not high priority, but maybe I'll start working on them soon.

Overall, things are going well.  I am still very happy to be here. The past couple of weeks, I have gone outside regularly to watch the auroras and see the stars. It is kind of a surreal experience. I have never lived in a place where you could step out at any time of day and there is a chance you'll see auroras.  On that note, my friend and colleague Martin has take some amazing aurora pictures.  I am posting some of them below, particularly for those of you who have not seen them already on facebook, but please check out his flickr account ( for even more!

The moon and stars from the South Pole! - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Auroras over the dark sector - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Martin in front of the station with an aurora in the background - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The IceCube Lab with auroras in the background - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Aurora and the moon from the station observation deck - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The station with an aurora in the background - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

More auroras - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Another Shot of the station with auroras - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

A coronal aurora from the South Pole! - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

One last shot of the station with auroras - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF