I’m on a train in Austria. I like being in foreign lands but had forgotten
how strong this feeling of foreign-ness is. And this in a country where I speak
a smattering of the language. Not that I always need it – today a waitress spoke
English to me before I even opened my mouth. What is the first impression I
give off: English, American, or just Tourist? Is it the way I walk, dress, look
lost, or some mannerism inexplicable?
I’m in one of those archaic train booths, sealed, all six seats occupied albeit
one by a suitcase, with a connecting corridor running down the outside. Similar
carriages, without the corridor, were phased out in Britain a few years ago after a series of
uncomfortable scenarios developed. Some commuters miss them though: those who
used to meet in a given carriage and play cards all the way home to the London
green belt. Here, leaving Vienna, there seems to be a polite tradition of maximising
stuffiness by keeping the doors and windows closed. I can’t think why, maybe
noise related. Then again, maybe it’s the law, like not crossing the road on
a red man, ever. Half the doors led to smoking cabins and other half to groups of kids eating pizza. It took me a while to find this one, the one with occupants who have established the criteria I’m looking for. Like seek like.
Large amounts of bread, cheese, and ham, cream topped coffee and hot chocolate,
sachertorte, apfel-strudel, cream, ice-cream, more cheese and meat, beer, ostentatious
buildings (in Vienna), an arrogance and pride in Austrian-ness that I enjoy.
Unlike in Germany, I am generally allowed to struggle on with my communication
attempts despite the fact that we could probably get there quicker in English.
I appreciate that. And I even enjoy the terrible service. It amuses me.
When abroad, foreign-ness is acceptable, expected, perhaps even an important
part of the experience. It is a fact. (Aside: what’s a substitute word for abroad
if you don’t live on an island?) I still feel it, however, at home.
I’ve just bought a boat, a narrow boat, to live on. My first weekend aboard,
I needed to get various odds and sods. Locks, battery chargers, eco-cleaning
products, chain, tools, stuff for the kitchen, wood, kindling, and coal. Walking
into that first DIY shop I put on my best swagger, braced my shoulders, deepened
my voice, and spoke with as much confidence possible about things I had no idea.
They knew I was a foreigner. I returned an hour later with a non-functioning
example of the thing I wanted to buy and unabashed air of cluelessness. That
visit was more successful.
To get into my boat you currently have to climb over waist-high railings, jump
onto the roof, slide down the side and crawl under battoned-down covers before
grappling with the lock, usually in the dark. The first time, I nearly slipped
in. The second, I nearly dropped my keys in the drink. The third, my bag. I
have now developed a ritual of zipping and securing important objects to Self,
and leaving detachables on the roof, before attempting the manoeuvre. In a year,
I’ll be skipping along the ‘gunnels’ (written gunwhales but that’s stupid),
growing increasingly impatient with clumsy visitors. I will have also necessarily
developed stronger arms so I can clamber onto the top of my home without looking
like a ninny.
I’ve also got a new job. It starts in earnest in May but I’ve been to a few
meetings with my new hat on already. The first was in Brussels, the second,
London, and third, Vienna. For a week before the Brussels trip I was losing
sleep about what to wear rather than what to say. In the end, I took that most
drastic of steps and went shopping. I had fairly horrific expectations seeing
as I needed the full gambit, including heels to stop my suit trousers swimming
around my ankles. (Why I bought such a baggy outfit five years ago is anyone’s
guess but there’s no point in having a suit if you’re never going to wear it,
right?) Anyway, the experience was surprisingly satisfying. I shopped like a
man: list of items to get, seeked, got. Home for tea and medals. Wearing the
suit was my next trauma. I self-consciously survived the first day but on day
two just wore the jacket with jeans. And the heels. They were admittedly heels
belonging to boots, but I still felt a fraud. It took me a full day to pack for
Brussels but only 20 minutes for Vienna. The learning curve is steep but thankfully
I keep thinking back to Halley and how much I didn’t know at the start, how
much I did know at the end. Running the various machines, driving skidoos, making
milk to the right consistency, digging snow. These learning curves now of boat-owning
and power-dressing feel just as hard, if not harder, but I’m sure I’ll conquer
them in the end. Or sell the boat, quit the job. The power-dressing, I’m not
sorry to say, is already doomed. Folk will have to take me as I am.
Something else that came out of the year at Halley is scientific results.
These were less of a personal experience on a day-to-day blogging level but
something I’ve realised, with a year of counselling behind me and some wonderful
rose-tinted glasses, that I am very proud of. They are definitely a team, as
well as personal, achievement.
In the first summer, the lab was built. In the second summer, four of us turned
up in Antarctica to set up the campaign. Two returned to the UK leaving Stéphane
and myself to commission and run about 15 instruments during the autumn, winter
and spring, between them measuring over 30 different molecules in the air. We
were joined in the third summer by four more ‘beakers’, bringing with them three
more beasts of machines. They came to run an intensive summer campaign studying
short-lived oxidants before we packed everything up, closed the lab for the
year, and returned home to Britain.
Throughout the year, my day-to-day reality involved plumbing, fixing, monitoring,
building, checking nuts and bolts, realigning light beams, making new solutions,
calibrating instruments, and dragging away the waste chemicals. There was always
something broken, there were usually many things broken. I became increasingly
disillusioned with the work, the machines, and the lab. It was hot, noisy, depressing,
overwhelming, vibrating, stressful, and far away. Pushing open the heavy lab door
each day, I would have a sinking feeling: what’s going to have gone wrong today?
Will I get time to fix that machine I’ve been ignoring? Will I discover new
leaks, new faults? Will any gas cylinders need changing, more solutions need
topping up that I haven’t provided for? Is there any point to any of this? Surely,
in such mayhem and chaos we can’t really be producing cutting edge, highest
quality science? Why did they employ me? Why not someone qualified for the job?
I never stopped loving Halley, returning always to the sky, the people, and
the landscape. The next party or trip off-base. I figured out ways to clearly
separate my experiences of work and play so that I would leave with happy memories.
I didn’t write much about the work because it was the last thing I wanted to
think about, focus on, after a day in the lab. I also stopped caring about the
results. That was someone else’s job. My boss, my colleagues in Britain. My
job was to keep the machines running, producing numbers, and send the data back
to them. Theirs was to analyse it, inform me of its quality if anything needed
changing, and look for new and interesting results. I often felt they weren’t
keeping their end of the bargain though my boss was always supportive, even
when she must have wondered what we were doing with our days, so many instruments
were down. Some people were great and wrote back to me immediately but from
others I got little feedback and eventually figured it wasn’t my problem. I
truly didn’t care about the numbers themselves anymore. My only reason for continuing
relatively conscientiously was that it would be a total waste of my time collecting the
numbers if they were rubbish.
A year after leaving, we’ve just been to the annual conference of the European
Geophysical Union (EGU) in Vienna. It included a special session this year entitled
CHABLIS: Chemistry of the Antarctic Boundary Layer and the Interface with Snow.
Half of the talks and posters were presenting results, and interesting new results
at that, from our campaign at Halley. By measuring lots of different molecules
all at the same time, we found out far more than any one, three, or ten could
have illuminated. Stéph showed us data of NO and NO2,
the concentration of which is ordinarily dominated by oxidant chemistry. Bill,
James, and Zoë presented the oxidants: OH, HO2 and
CH3O2, normally controlled by
NO and NO2. They had each measured their particular molecule
successfully but the numbers didn’t add up. On their own, the numbers couldn’t
be reproduced in models, the ultimate test of our understanding. Alfonso then
showed us halogen oxides: ClO, BrO and, to everyone’s surprise, IO. With the
kind of concentrations he observed with that great big telescope, much higher
than expected, all the other results can be explained.
We’re only talking parts per trillion here (one in 10^12) but it makes all
the difference. The concentrations of halogen oxides that he measured directly
also tie in well with Katie’s results, using a machine that measured hydrocarbons.
How does that work? Well, hydrocarbons react with halogens and these reactions
have been well characterised by laboratory studies. Halogen concentrations at
Halley can be estimated by using a knowledge of these reaction rates and monitoring
how quickly different hydrocarbons are depleted in spring and summer compared
to the high background winter time concentrations when there are no halogens
around. To me, the details of the calculations aren’t the important thing. What
is, is that we needed the year-round data set to get these results, and that
everyone’s different measurements seem to be agreeing with each other, but not
in the way we expected. To get this far we needed not only a huge field campaign
in Antarctica, run by experimentalists like me, but also significant expertise
from laboratory scientists (kineticists who measure reaction rates) and modellers
who tie the numbers all together.
It is scientifically illuminating and also personally gratifying. I had come
to think that the results didn’t matter to me, knowing that I would have worked
just as hard whether we had great results or none. But the truth is, they did
matter, they made all that hard work worthwhile. They gave reason to my days
of grumbles and made me realise my small piece in the large jigsaw. It was an
admittedly important piece, yes, but so were the pieces placed years before
I was employed that made sure we were studying the right molecules, with the
best equipment, in the most appropriate manner. A good campaign requires not
only a well organised infrastructure and practical implementation plan but also
a solid theoretical foundation. The funding proposal written in 2000 states the intention to ‘explore the atmospheric chemistry of the Antarctic boundary layer in far greater detail and for a longer period of time than has been achieved hitherto’. Only now, six years later, are we starting to reap
the rewards. For science, this is a fairly normal time delay. I can however
see how this could be frustrating for journalists who want to report on the
results of a flashy experiment in the here and now, or public who want to know
if their money is being well spent.
We expected halogen chemistry to be important in Spring, when the sun first
creeps above the horizon and zaps salty emissions from the sea. The sunlight
is still weak and brief then and not yet of a short enough wavelength to create
reactive hydroxyl radicals which start dominating and causing mayhem a month
or two later. It appears, however, that halogens are important in the summer
as well. Another piece of that atmospheric jigsaw pops into place.
How is this relevant to the world at large? How does this justify our public
funding? What difference does it make? Again, I can’t tell you any of that with
full confidence yet. We have only just got this piece of knowledge and don’t
yet know everything about it. All I can say is that it’s another bit of understanding
that will be further studied and characterised and incorporated into models
of the world. The snow and ice covered sections will be that little bit more
accurate. Our understanding of how snow and air interact, and therefore how
bubbles in ice cores develop, will be expanded a little more. We will edge on,
bit by bit, filling in the blue of the sky and white of the snow while glaciologists
work on the ice, oceanographers on the sea, biologists on the life, and geologists
on the land.
Going to a conference like this, with 12,000 scientists from hundreds of different
disciplines, teaches me just how well we already understand the earth system.
It’s mind-boggling and humbling and reminds me once again, despite my long periods
of doubt and disinterest, why I always do return to the scientific method and
have faith in its discoveries. I am amazed how much we know of this complex
system, how well the model results correlate with observations. I am convinced
that we understand the fundamental processes that have produced records of the
past and which have created the world we now live in. I don’t want to believe
the over-heating predictions of the future anymore than the next person, but
begrudgingly I do. However, I’ve also seen the results of these model predictions
under a number of scenarios and believe that if we make a deliberate effort
to reduce our emissions, invest in new technologies, increase our efficiency,
and generally recognise the approaching issues facing us, we’ll find a way in
a warmer world that isn’t all doom and gloom.