I got an awesome postcard from a troop of girl scouts led by an old college friend, Jen Lee. They asked me a TON of great questions and I couldn't possibly answer them all on the postcard I sent in return, so I thought I'd answer them here on my blog. Here we go:
What are you researching?
I'm a cosmologist, which means I study the history and evolution of the whole Universe. In particular, my colleagues and I are really interested in how the Universe started. With a specially made telescope here at the South Pole we measure something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (the CMB), afterglow light from the Big Bang. The Big Bang was a point in time when the Universe was unimaginably dense and unimaginably hot and when it started expanding in size. This light fills the sky, but we can't see it with our eyes because we're not sensitive to microwave light. We're looking for tiny signals in this relic light that would tell us not only about the matter scattered throughout the Universe, but also about inflation, a period of time a tiny tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang when the Universe was expanding faster than the speed of light.
What is the best thing about living in Antarctica? What is the worst thing?
Specifically, I work at the South Pole, which marks the axis around which the Earth spins. If you look at a globe you'll notice lines drawn on it that make a regular grid, called lines of latitude and longitude. Horizontal lines are lines of latitude and they mark how far north or south one is. Vertical lines are lines of longitude, and they mark how far east and west you are. The South Pole is as far south as you can be on the planet. Additionally, all the lines of longitude come together and meet at the Pole. That means while standing at the South Pole you're standing as far east and as far west as you can be, and every direction points to north! That's pretty cool! That's probably my favorite part about living down here.
The worst thing is probably the lack of showers. The South Pole station is on top of a two mile thick sheet of ice, so there's plenty of water... if only you can melt it. Power is generated for the station by burning jet fuel, which is incredibly expensive to fly down (and bad for the environment). Our water supply is melted from the ice, but because there's only so much jet fuel we can't just melt all the water we want. So we have to conserve water as much as possible. To help with that, station occupants are limited to two two minute showers per week. When you're used to taking several minute showers each day, two VERY short showers every week can be hard to get used to.
Are you homesick?
I do get homesick every once in a while. I'm 10,000 miles from all of my friends and family, and this year I was down at the South Pole for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve, so I missed all the normal chances to see loved ones. But I have ways to talk to people back home. I can email, or send letters, and when the satellite is up we can even call home (though the connection is often difficult to talk through and the delay makes it hard to have a detailed conversation). Additionally, the people I work with are all really awesome and they're my friends/family away from home, and hanging out with them really helps with being away from home. Finally, we're all generally really busy so there's not a whole lot of time to dwell on all of the things we're missing back home.
How many people are there with you?
There's generally around six or seven other people on the same project I work on with me down here on the station, but the whole station has a population of about 160. A lot of science experiments take place down here, so that population includes scientists for all the experiments, as well as lots of support staff that keep the station running and provide everything the scientists need in order to complete their projects.
Did you get to meet any penguins?
I haven't seen any penguins this year, but I did spot one on my way back home last year. Here's a picture of me with it. Penguins don't live at the South Pole - only humans, so if you want to see one you have to be near the coasts of the continent.
Me and a penguin in McMurdo on my way back to the United States last year.
How did you get to go to Antarctica? Is there a waiting list? How much school do you have to do to get to go?
There are many ways you can go to Antarctica, but only a few ways you can get to go to the South Pole. I mainly got to go to Antarctica and the South Pole because it turns out its one of the best places on the planet to observe the Cosmic Microwave Background. This type of light is absorbed by water in the air. The South Pole is very dry and at a high altitude, so there is very little water in the air above our telescope, which is great for observing the CMB. When I was in college, I started working on this project and I continued on to graduate school and had a chance to help design a new camera for the telescope, so when it was completed I got to come down and help install it.
So one way to get to the South Pole is by being a scientist working on research that requires the conditions present at the Pole. There are other cosmologists like me making similar observations of the early Universe, but there are also scientists that study the air (the South Pole has some of the most pristine air in the world). There are geologists and seismologists that study the Earth underneath the ice. There are scientists looking for neutrinos (very light particles that rarely interact with other particles) using all of the ice down here as part of a giant detector. And there's even more science happening down here.
Another way to get down to the South Pole is by working at the station. From mechanics to keep all of our machinery running, to cooks to keep us fed, to IT folk who make sure all the computers and networks are working correctly, and lots and lots of other jobs, there is a ton of work that's done to keep the station operating. A lot of people apply for these positions solely for the chance to come down to Antarctica and the South Pole. It CAN take some time. Some people try several years in a row to get a position, but with persistance it's not impossible.
So, with a high school degree, and maybe a little bit of college, you can get to Antarctica as part of the station support staff with persistance and a little bit of luck. If you want to go as a scientist, it's generally going to take a lot more education and training, and a little luck so that the project you work on has a reason to be done at the South Pole or Antarctica in general. For example, after high school I went to college for four years, and I'm in my sixth year of graduate school after college. It's a lot of work, but every once in a while you get great opportunities like this one!