Top hair-raising research moments

December 5, 2011

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Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of moderating a conversation among four scientists from local institutions, all of whom worked in rather unconventional “labs:” a mine shaft half-a-mile underground, a volcanic crater in Siberia, a racetrack in rural America.

The subject of the event was “Xtreme research” (cue air guitars!). You can listen in full via the link above (skip to minute 11:00 if you want to bypass my gobbledygook and cut straight to the panel). It was a really lively discussion and a great window into how science happens in unusual places. But for brevity’s sake, I’m including a few highlights here:

Hot foot

Albert Colman works in the geophysical sciences department at the University of Chicago, and he studies extremophiles – that is, organisms who like extreme conditions, such as boiling hot, oxygenless volcanic hot springs. His main venue is the Uzon Caldera in Kamchatka, off in far-eastern Russia. Beneath much of the ground there is basically boiling mud (think Yellowstone in Siberia), so nearly every step comes with the risk of punching through the crust into the inferno below. One time Colman was about to take a photograph there, and he stepped back just a bit too far, only to feel his booted foot sinking. This was quite perilous – like in quicksand, if you yank out your stuck foot you risk just working your way in deeper. Colman says it took a full minute to carefully extricate himself. When he did get it out, the footprint was already filling with boiling liquid.

Bat brain

Regina Rameika of Fermilab worked for a time in an underground lab in a Minnesota mineshaft. She studies the behavior of extremely elusive particles called neutrinos, which in this case are best observed deep inside the earth. Every trip in and out of the lab, including the construction of a 5,000-ton particle detector, had to go via one elevator, about 20-feet square. I asked Rameika what would be going through her mind on the way down, and she responded without hesitation, “bats.” The shaft is full of them, and she said her chief preoccupation on the way down is keeping them out of her hair.

Day at the races

Forrest Jehlik researches engine technology at Argonne National Laboratory, but much of his work takes place at speedways across the Midwest and South. He helps spearhead the “green racing” project, which aims to test uber-efficient engine designs in the context of circle-track racing. (He quipped that while his colleagues may have to fend off bears and bats, he has to worry about Coors-fueled locals who favor Ford, while he brings a Chevy.) At one race he and another engineer volunteered for pit crew duty. These guys are gearheads, to be sure, but not professional racing crew members by any stretch. At one point they improvised a fix to wring a few more horsepower out of the engine, which diverted a cooling system from the brakes. At one pit stop, Jehliks says the brakes got so hot they were “cherry red.” He says they burned through his gloves, and his skin, as he worked to remove them.

Gimme shelter

Doug Sisterson makes a beeline for the places where models of the climate don’t match up with the actual data. This typically means remote spots from Barrow, Alaska to Papua New Guinea. He’s a research meteorologist at Argonne, and he brings truckloads of cutting-edge equipment into inaccessible locales, to figure out what’s going on with the climate. He talks about caravanning his gear to an isolated village on the edge of the Sahara in Niger – a place where “if you forgot a roll of duct tape, it’s a long way to a Radio Shack.” When he got there he discovered that the site was completely exposed to the elements. So he asked the impoverished locals if they could help him build a research building. They enthusiastically complied, building a sturdy complex to house millions of dollars of sophisticated equipment, made entirely of what appear to be mud bricks.

It’s not at all clear that the skill sets needed to be a careful physicist or geochemist are anything like the skills needed to live and work in such extreme environments. I asked the scientists how they squared that disconnect. They all agreed: The common denominator is passion.