Saturday, January 8, 2011

More questions from 7th graders, with answers

1. Have you seen any wildlife? Does your work have any impact (positive or negative) on the local ecosystem?

Well, there is no life, other than people, at the South Pole. Okay, I'm told that a ladybug was found a few weeks back in the fresh vegetables and was let lose in the greenhouse. On the coast of Antarctica, McMurdo Station for example, there are penguins, seals, skuas (large seagull-like scavenger birds), and in the ocean, killer whales, many varieties of fish, and shellfish. Many years ago, the waste water from McMurdo was just allowed to run into the ocean, but now all waste is taken off of the continent by ship. (Yes, that does mean what you're thinking.) Near McMurdo, there are a series of so-called Dry Valleys which are snow-free, but always below freezing. There are some exotic fungi and bacteria there found nowhere else on Earth. They, and all animals in Antarctica and Antarctic waters, are protected by the Antarctic Treaty which bans any mistreatment, introduction, or removal of plants or animals (along with no military equipment, no mining, no oil exploration, etc.).

2. What is the balance of work/free time in Antarctica? What do you do when not working?

The folks who run the station, the people who cook, who repair the heavy machinery, who staff the communications facilities, and the like, typically work 6 day weeks with 9-12 hour shifts. Very hard work! The scientists get to define their own hours, but these are likely to be quite similar (even back in "the North" a junior scientist would typically work 6-7 days a week, at least 10 hours per day to be productive). When not working, some folks enjoy facilities at the station such as the sauna, the gym, the workout room, the music practice room, the game room, the video game room, the movie-watching room, and organized activities (science lectures each week, several dance classes, pool or chess tournaments to pick a few examples). Another popular activity is hanging out and talking, it's a very interesting crowd of people. For example, the gal who drove the big bulldozer to haul some of our equipment today was telling me over dinner how in the "off-season" she lives in Alaska and flies tourists up into Denali National Park on hiking excursions. It's a very interesting group of people.

3. Do you have to eat a special diet?

Nope, the galley (cafeteria, but some of old military terms have survived from the days when the U.S. Navy ran the Antarctic program, for example, my little room is called a berth, and some people do call the bathroom, "a head") serves up pretty basic, normal food. All meals have a good selection of vegetarian food as the vegetarian population of the station is quite high. If one works outside in the cold here, you would burn a lot of calories to keep warm which means that you'd eat quite a bit of food. Desserts with quick-energy sugars are popular, as are sugary fruit juices, ice cream, and hot chocolate. I've noticed that I might put twice as much food on my plate if I've spent the afternoon outside working at -30F than if I had just been working inside.

4. Is there a "hierarchy" of scientists? Is one person in charge of the science?

There are a couple of natural hierarchies of scientists: the first is pretty much a matter of experience, and the second is about their role in the projects and/or their reputations. In the sciences, one starts their science career with a doctoral degree (a Ph.D. or the various European equivalents) so Ph.D. students are the lowest level in the hierarchy. Above them are postdocs (postdoctoral research fellows, who typically hold a short-term position in which they focus on research), then the junior professors and permanently employed scientists, and above them, senior professors and the occasional scientist who leaves the University to manage science programs at the National Science Foundation, or NASA, or the Department of Energy.

The second short of hierarchy revolves around the role in a project/experiment and how that scientist is perceived by their peers. These are often closely related. Let's take IceCube, which is a large experiment with a well-defined management, as an example. The "PI (Principal Investigator)" is Francis Halzen at the University of Wisconsin. He pushed the idea of the experiment, got the grant money, and is in charge scientifically. However there is a project manager who watches the expenses, and follows the reviews of equipment, and runs the project on a day-to-day basis during construction. Then there are scientists who are in charge of individual system, for example, someone in charge of the computing, or the committee that approves scientific papers. There are a couple of hundred scientists who are listed as authors of the scientific papers that result from the work (see #5 below) and there's a certain level of democracy, though scientists who do good work are more likely to be listened to than those who are known for a mistake or mistakes. For a smaller project, the process is less formal.

5. After you're done researching, are you going to come up with a final product? (like a scientific paper, a presentation?)

Fundamentally, in physics, the final product is an article (scientific paper) which appears in a noted journal read by a lot of physicists. Presentations are somewhat important, especially for the careers of those doing the presenting, but are not a substitute for a peer-reviewed (that is, the paper is shown to a number of experts in the field who are asked what they think of it, this process usually works well, but does have occasional breakdowns) paper. Some other fields put more focus on talks and presentations. Large collaborations have a process by which papers are approved, and in many cases, there is also an approval process for figures, tables, and noteworthy facts that are to be presented at conferences.

For larger projects, there would be many papers produced from the work on different topics, with different analyses, and also a paper on the instrumentation and perhaps others on techniques used in the course of the analysis. Likewise there would be a large number of conference talks, talks at other Universities, and possibly patents, popular science articles, and certainly student Ph.D. theses.

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