One Hell of a Long Day - A Summer Working at the South Pole

Uploaded by GoogleTechTalks on 23.03.2011

COHN: All right. Thanks all for coming. So first, a couple of quick questions that may
seem to be orthogonal here. One is, how many of you had--had been--had been following along
on the road trip blog while I was gone? Whoa. And, how many of you have taken the machine
learning course here? That's pretty impressive. Okay. So there's going to be some aspects
here that are familiar to everyone. Okay. First of all, hi, I'm Pablo. Thanks for coming.
I also have, in the audience; I'm going to embarrass Zach. A fellow Polee, Zach Lash,
who is one of my best friends down there, and a South Pole veteran as well. And I'm
going to be picking on him as my--as my plant in the audience when I ask questions. Excellent.
Great. So--so this all, you know, just the high-level background was--this started about
two years ago when I was sitting--sitting around with an old friend who I'd lost touch
with and finding out what she'd been doing for the past decade. And it turned out she'd
been working at the South Pole. And I said "Wow. What was that like?" And she looked
up and said, "Magnificent desolation." And I said--how many people recognize that phrase?
Okay. What it's from? >> Your blog.
>> COHN: No. Not, yes, not from my blog. But... >> Apollo Missions.
>> COHN: What? Okay. >> Apollo, right?
>> COHN: Yes. It was Apollo Mission's Buzz Aldrin. That was how he described the moon.
Okay. I'm going to be a bad Frisbee thrower here. Can you pass this back? Oh, dear. That's
a U.S. Antarctic Program patch. For the first correct question. Sorry about that. Okay.
So, yes, that's how Buzz Aldrin described being on the moon. And then I said, "I know
that quotation." And she said, "Yes. When I was a kid, I wanted to work on the moon
base. And they haven't built it yet, so I figured the South Pole is about the closest
I can get." And I said, "Tell me more." So that was about two years ago. And I spent
the next year sort of thinking about and looking at the various Antarctic Program job postings,
and slowly building up brownie points so that my wife and kids would let me go away for
that long. And made as much--as many friends as I could--did as much research as I could
and after a surprising amount of luck, I landed a position with the program and I spent the
last roughly three months from the end of October till the beginning of February working
at the South Pole, doing tech support. You know, being the guy who fixed your computer
if you happened to be at the South Pole. So, since I'm an engineer, you know, I have outlines
for everything, and this is going to be the rough outline of the talk. First, I want to
straighten out and get people properly oriented of what Antarctica is and why the heck people
are down there. Talk about the process of getting to the Pole. For me, the real meat
of it is going to be here, just like work, life, play. What it's like being at the Pole?
And then questions. I've got a Dory page set up. And we've also got microphones, so, you
know, don't be shy. So, okay. Actually one important disclaimer here. Almost all of the
pictures we've got here are either things that were fortunately up on my blog or that
I've stolen from friends who have posted things or I grabbed off of the web because we lost
all of our pictures in the Christchurch earthquake on the way back. Yes. I guess, you can't stay
away from adventure. Okay. So let's start with basic Antarctica orientation. Okay. How
many people recognize this? This is the Arctic; it's at the top of the planet. It's got about
15 feet of sea ice. There's no land under there, just floating sea ice. And there are
polar bears up there, no penguins, okay? That's up at the top. Okay? The other end is Antarctica.
Okay. Antarctica is actually a continent. It's a real hunking big continent. Instead
of 15 feet of ice or so, it has roughly 9,000 feet of ice. No polar bears. But around the
coast, there is sea life, like penguins, for example. Okay? Let's get this straight. Arctic
top, Antarctic south. Okay? Now, another thing--another popular misconception is Antarctica is really
big. So, you know, we have a familiar continent here. Well, familiar country at least here.
Antarctica is one and a half times the size of the United States. It's big. It's got 90%
of the world's ice, 9,000 feet stacks up a lot of volume, and 70% of the world's fresh
water. It's worth keeping in mind. It's got a lot of other superlatives. Okay. Highest,
driest, windiest, coldest and emptiest continent on Earth. Highest. Average elevation, surface
elevation in Antarctica is 9,000 feet. It's got a lot of mountains. You don't see most
of the mountains, because most of the mountains are buried below the ice sheet. Yes. But,
still--the tallest mountains in the Antarctica are over 16,000 feet high. The South Pole
itself is at 9,500 feet. Because of atmospheric effects, it actually--the physiological elevation
is 10,500 feet, in any case. So it's high. It's dry. Antarctica is a desert. In the South
Pole we get less than two inches of precipitation annually. We get a lot of stuff blown in from
other places but--and that's--but it's a desert. It's dry. It's the windiest. It regularly
breaks 200 miles an hour at some places in the continent. It's the coldest. This [makes
sounds], this is my friend Marco, who's actually from Palo Alto. He's a winter over. This is
him geared up to go on his morning run. This is him after about half an hour coming out
of his morning run. He sent me this photo last week when it dipped down to -89. Now
let's put some real numbers on this. Just to get a feel for cold, okay? Late October,
when I headed down, Palo Alto was a chilly 68 degrees Fahrenheit, okay? From Palo Alto,
flew to McMurdo. McMurdo Station is the big station on the coast. It's basically the summer
limits of where the sea ice melts, where ships can actually get. This is as far in as you
can get. It's a big base. And McMurdo, in late October, it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
So this is springtime, okay? Ten degrees Fahrenheit. Okay. So then, we went from McMurdo to the
South Pole. Now this is a difference of 58 degrees. This is not a small amount, okay?
So from McMurdo in Antarctica, I want to reemphasize that, we went to the South Pole where it was
-48 degrees, okay? Now, 58 degree difference here and a 58 degree difference here. So the
same difference between Palo Alto and the edge of Antarctica to edge to the center.
Now, if you do this iteration one more time, carbon dioxide comes out of the atmosphere
as a solid of its own accord, okay? But, you know, it turns out that, you know, you actually--you
can--you can beat the pants off of that. Because, at the Pole, in the winter, it's gotten down
to -117. I've talked with people who--who've over wintered in conditions in like this.
And they say they were actually looking for the carbon dioxide, but they couldn't actually
tell it from the rest of the stuff that was coming out in the air. But, you know--but
in terms of low temperatures, the Russians think that, that we--we Americans at the Polar
are wimps because they've got Vostok Base, which has recorded temperatures even colder
than that. So, emphasize, I just want to kind of, let it set in. Is it cold? Yes, it's cold.
Okay. Also it's the emptiest. Around the coast, you know, people, you know, around the coast,
there is marine life. But for marine life you actually need access to water, which you
only have around the perimeter. Remember this thing is one and a half times the size of
the United States. Okay? So there are no indigenous peoples who have ever lived in the Antarctica
unlike any other continent. And in the center of the continent, there's nothing that lives
there. Nothing lives there that wasn't brought in on a C-130.
>> Bacteria. >> COHN: Bacteria, yes that was a--bacteria
came on the C-130. Okay. This is a bit of a pet peeve. Because whenever I told people
I was going to the South Pole, they said, "Oh, take a picture of a penguin for me."
Okay? It’s okay. No penguins at the South Pole, they're around the coast. But remember
this is a big continent, telling--this would be akin to somebody's telling you that they
were going to--coming to the United States, "Where are you going?" "I'm going to North
Dakota." "Awesome. There's this great whale watching tour." There are as many penguins
at the South Pole as there are whales in North Dakota. That's about--and it's about the same
distance. Okay. Okay. So that's the overview of Antarctica. South Pole, obviously, isn't
the only base. There are a lot of bases all over the place. All of the bases by--from
all of the countries are governed by the International Antarctic Treaty; which basically says, "There's
no commercial exploitation, no military activity but you can only have scientific and environmental
studies there." You can't leave any trash there, just pick up after yourselves. All
of the U.S. bases are administered by the U.S. Antarctic Program under the NSF. There
are three bases. There's McMurdo, which I've already mentioned, that's down on the coast.
That's the big city. There are about--in peak of the summer, there maybe 1,500 people there.
You know people all live in dorms and they work in separate buildings et cetera. Out
on the Palmer Peninsula there's Palmer Station, which is a very small base. This tops out
at about 40 people in the summer. They mostly do biology. Yes, quick question?
>> Well, that's about say east and west? >> COHN: East and west. Yes, well...
>> But it doesn't work. >> COHN: Actually, let me take just a moment
to--that--that's a good question. Stand by. Excellent question. Because normal coordinates
don't work, we use what's called grid coordinates. And the meridians are our coordinates. So
the Prime Meridian, zero degrees is north. Ninety degrees--90 degrees east latitude,
east longitude is east, 90 degrees west--longitude is west. So, you know, this is pointing towards
Greenwich, this is pointing towards the International Dateline. Excellent question. Yes.
>> You use the technology throughout Antarctica or you only do the South Pole?
>> COHN: Throughout Antarctica. Okay. So there's Palmer Station, they do a lot of a--lot of
the marine biology, and that's about 40 people. And then there is my home of homes, South
Pole. Okay. This is what it looks like. South Pole has about 200 to 250 people in the middle
of summer going down to about 40 people over wintering. This is a sort of a view from the
distance of the entire complex. There's the main station here. There is the big physics
stuff over here, there's the ski way, it's not a runway; it's a ski way because the planes
that land there have to use skis. And, so the Pole, what's special about the Pole? Okay.
It's defined as the rotational axis of the Earth. Because of that, you know, so you've
got the Earth turning like this. The sun doesn't go up and down like it does in normal latitudes.
So, it basically just goes around and around and around everyday. And as the Earth process--moves
through it--its orbit, eventually the Earth moves to the point where the sun is behind
the body of the Earth. And so, thus we have one day and one night. And each of them last
exactly six months. So, what's wrong with this picture? Being the South Pole and all,
right? It's not. It's--it's--there is something else wrong with this picture.
>> [INDISTINCT]. >> COHN: Good. Good. So, is--this isn't actually
the South Pole. That's the South Pole. This other one, this is the Ceremonial South Pole
that sort of stays put. But the geographic South Pole is computed each year, and a new
pole marker is put in place. And right now, they're about 70-80 yards apart, maybe a little
bit more. Okay. So I said one day, which we sometimes call summer, and one night which
we often call winter. Summer is when most of the activity happens. Sunrise happens about
September 22nd to 23rd and--and it's actually not around it. It actually takes--it actually
takes two days because, you know, it gets lighter on the horizon and it gets a little
lighter, a little lighter, a little lighter, and eventually the sun breaks the horizon.
Late October, it's finally warm enough to get the flights in. Temperature peaks in late
December. We have total around 200-250 people, depending on what's going on. January starts
getting cold quick. By mid-January, the temperature's dropping 2 degrees per day. By mid-February,
it's so cold that even airplanes can't land and get off again. They like that getting
off part. So, they have to get the last of the summer population out. And the winter
over population, as I said, is about 40. Sunset is from March 21st to March 22nd. I just get
the picture which, I wasn't clever enough to load up here from one of my friends there
of showing--showing sunset--a few pictures of sunset as it moves around the horizon.
Okay. So that's rough orientation South Pole; big, cold, harsh. Why are we there? There's
one important word, Science. Yes. We are there to support science. And it's important--the
nice thing is that, at the--on the South Pole, Science is a mass noun. It's--I remember sitting
there on one of my early days and there's just some banging upstairs at my desk and
I look over and I said, "I thought we're done with construction here?" And Ben leaned over
and said, "Yes. Somebody decided they needed to nail some more science to the roof." So,
why do you come to the South Pole to do science? Well, there's some special things about it.
First of all, it's remote. So it's great for stuff like atmospheric studies where you don't
have humans polluting things. It's quiet seismologically. There's very little radio frequency and light.
In the night there's no light interference, and it's rarified. You're two miles up, thin,
very dry atmosphere. And at night, the atmosphere is perfectly stable, perfectly smooth. You
want to shine? You want to get good--good pictures of space? You can't do it any--you
can't get any closer to space than here in the winter. Okay. So because of that, as you
might imagine, there's a lot of atmospheric studies. This plot, by the way, I don't know
if you can read it, should scare you. These are the carbon dioxide measurements at the
South Pole going from 1955 to present day. Seismology. So this is the--there's a seismic
vault as I mentioned at the South Pole. Lots of physics. Physics is the single, largest
scientific endeavor at Pole. Oh, pretty picture at--oh, gosh. Is that--can you guys actually
see that? No, that's just way too dark. It looks nice on my screen. That's the South
Pole telescope at night with aurora borealis and great stars over it.
>> Whoa. >> COHN: Oops. Thank you. That was gratifying.
Okay. I want to just talk about one physics experiment in slightly greater detail. Because
it was the biggest part--it was the biggest experiment that was being worked on while
I was there and because it's so freakin’ cool. Okay. Neutrino's go through matter like--like
it wasn't there. Because Neutrino's just don't notice these things. In order to get a Neutrino
to interact with something you have to put it through a whole bunch of matter. And then
to detect that it's actually hit something, you have to be able to see through that matter.
So what you really want is this large, dense, clear volume of something with no other photons
around. Yes, ice. So, what--what these guys have done is they've taken basically a square
mile of surface area and drilled 88 holes a mile and a half down and embedded these
digital optical modules called DOMs into the holes and they have embedded a cubic mile
of ice with sensors and computers. So that when a Neutrino goes through and happens to
hit--interact with a water molecule, the light can detected via from all of the DOMs. Pass,
compute and they say, "Yo, we have a Neutrino." It's--it's a scary huge experiment. I mean,
think about--a cubic mile is a lot of space. In any case, so that's science at the Pole.
That's why we're there. So I decided I wanted to go--yes, Eric?
>> [INDISTINCT]. >> COHN: Yes, they have--they have been getting
Neutrinos. If you go to--I think it's University of Wisconsin is the U.S. partner
there. They actually, I think, have live data; they'll show you of, "We got another one."
So, getting to the Pole. Step number one; get a job at the South Pole. I'll talk a little
bit more about this during the question period because it's--it's--there's not a real easy
way of describing the process. There are two main groups of people at the Pole. There's
the support staff, who keeps science going. They're roughly 150-250 in the summer, 30-40
in the winter. And then there's the science staff. The--or as the support staff referred
to them; the Beakers. And they tend to rotate through some--some only come up for--come
down for a week to do their experiments. Some are there for the entire season. Some like--like
Robert Schwartz are there as far as I can tell haven't left for the past decade. So
that's step one, get a job at the Pole. Number two, step two is actually get yourself to
the Pole. To get to the Pole, it starts out in the U.S., you fly down to Christchurch.
And there, you stop at the Antarctic Program Center where they give you the ECW gear, the
Extreme Cold Weather gear. As people are fond of saying, "There's no such thing as bad weather,
only bad gear." This stuff, you put it on, you go outside, you don't notice the weather,
at least, for a little while. Zach is giving me a grin. He's spent more time out in the
weather than I have. Okay. You've got your gear. Once you've got your gear, next day
or so, if the weather holds, you get on a C-17, which my friend, Beth, calls the magic
tube. Has no windows, you get in on it--you get in it, you sit down; and a few eight hours
later, you get off, and you're somewhere else. You're on the Ross Ice Shelf outside of McMurdo,
and you're already in Antarctica and you're going, "Wow." Okay. But the adventure has
only started. Because the next day, if the weather holds, you get on a C-130, also known
as--oh, it's a C-130 Hercules. Just referred to as a Herc; that flies you from McMurdo
the thousand miles inland to the Pole. Some interesting things about the Herc. Skis, JATO
rockets. They don't usually use JATO going McMurdo to the Pole just because they don't
need to. That's more for the field camps. Okay. So you climb into the Herc, you're wondering
around your board, you make new friends, you look out the window, there is a window there.
And then you have--so you suffer through a landing unlike anything you felt before. Imagine,
you know, unless you used to fly--unless you used to fly U.S. Air back in the '70s where
you have 130,000 pounds of military aircraft with skis. No shock absorbers hitting two
miles of ice, boomp! And just the sound and feel of it is something completely unreal.
And then it gets a little scarier because then the engines stop and they say, "Okay,
time to get out." You climb out and this is like--this is like, "Okay, two miles up on
an ice sheet that is as large as the United States. It's minus 45 not counting the substantial
wind chill. And you discover you can't really breathe. When you blink, your eyes freeze
shut. That was a new one for me. And you realize you've never been happier in your life. You
are at the South Pole of the world. You're, "Wow!" [makes sounds]. Funny thing is that
you get used to it pretty quickly. I'm going to try and see if I can shift over here to--this
is a video that I shot with a friend of mine just a couple of weeks after getting there.
Let me get this back. "Okay, good morning everybody, good morning temperate friends.
We're at the South Pole." You'll notice I'm wearing a Flannel shirt. "I'm above low. It
is Sunday morning. It's about minus 42 and we're going to do an experiment here. We've
been asked all sorts of things about what happens when water is exposed to the atmosphere.
We've heard if you toss a cup of water up in the air it will freeze. We've heard if
you toss a hot cup of water up in the air it will freeze. We've been asked, what happens
if you pee off the second floor balcony will it freeze? We're going to do--try to do some
of those experiments." Not only those experiments. "So here we have a hot mug of water, we must
come out here to the edge." That's worth listening to the sound when I checked this out. "It's
remarkably calm air." And so it's nice and steaming hot. Let's get the camera right off
to the edge so we can watch what happens. And we're going to go, 1, 2, 3, and wow! That
was neat. Okay." It makes it--it makes this sound and then it's gone. You can have a lot
of fun. Okay, in any case. So, you've now gotten to the pole and you, sort of, gotten
used it. Now we're going to, sort of, dive into the main part which is, sort of, work
and life at the pole. Life at the South Pole station. This is your world effectively. This
is the station. There are the out buildings, et cetera. And the station itself is a work
of modern engineering. It's got all of the comforts of home, so we've got--and we've
got a gym. There's the greenhouse, there's the galley. Hallways, you know, where--this
is basically what I--what I work, you know, walking around. And except--instead of wearing
these because I had to tie these up I was--I'd wear my fuzzy slippers. And here's the dorm
rooms--the dorm rooms are nice, and shiny, and modern, they're small. They're very small
but they are, you know, they're quiet and comfortable. And they--and they--they house
about a 100 people. Now, what's wrong with what I've just told you?
>> [INDISTINCT] population [INDISTINCT]. >> COHN: Yes, okay. Did I already give you
one of these? >> You have not. You [INDISTINCT].
>> COHN: Oh, we're good. >> Pretty good.
>> COHN: Okay. Yes. So the thing is that not everyone lives in the station. The low folks
on the totem pole, the people who are supporting science live out at what is euphemistically
called the summer camp. Summer camp because it's only habitable in the summer and it has
all of the comforts of summer camp. Summer camp is actually a series of 14, 1950s era,
Korean War surplus army tents. They're called Jamesways. They're insulated. Gosh, this--that's
really dark. Well, but in any case, this is what they look like from the outside. This
is what it looks like from the inside. You've got, sort of, plywood separators on either
side. An unheated floor, something that is over here--the thing that separates you from
the hallway is a glorified military bed sheet. And you have nominally privacy. It's about
8 by 8. You have nominally privacy but you hear every sound that everyone in the dorm
knows, you know... You wait a little while and, you know, at 11 you're going to have
to sit up and the yell, "Bruce, you're snoring!" And, you know, that Cornell's going to come
in. He's going to shut the door, he's going to turn around, he's going to whack the thing
on the back of his back pack against the frame, and it's going--everything's going to go "thung!"
And he's going to say sorry. And he's going to do that tomorrow night too. So, in any
case--so that's what life looks like for us low folks on the totem pole. So let's go--just
go a little bit on to a "Day in my Life." So, I wake up and I was one of the lucky ones
because these Jamesways have been around for so long, the people who have lived in them
especially if they are carpenters--we have a lot of carpenters down there--have made
their own little improvements. So I had--instead of having a bed sheet I had a plywood door.
I was the envy of my Jamesway for having a door. I also had a window which was pretty
awesome except that the sun never goes down. And so every night I had to, sort of, take
my jerry rig cover and covered it up, so I'd have some dark and then take it off in the
morning. So this is my Jamesway, but that's the hall way at night. So I stumble, you know,
I throw on big red and I throw on my car hearts and my big bunny boots and I stumble out in
the darkness to--this is my front door, and everyone else's front door. And I stumble
the roughly 50 yards across the snow to get to the bathrooms. The joys of summer camp.
And, you know, where I, sort of brush my teeth, and shave maybe. And I look at my watch and
if it's Wednesday or if it's Saturday then I say it's a shower day. We're allowed--because
all of the water there has to be melted from ice. And all of the ice has to be melted with
jet fuel. And all the jet fuel has to be flown in. Hot water is a scarce commodity. So we're
allowed to two showers a week. Two minutes of water per shower. You'll get used to it.
Okay. Yes. >> Did you make it all the way to the bathroom
at night? >> COHN: Did I make it all the way to the
bathroom at night? This is where the unheated floor is a bonus. We have...
>> [INDISTINCT] take anything out, it would just disappear, it would vapor.
>> COHN: We're not going to repeat that one but it's a good point. Well, most people who
live in Jamesways have--have water--non-euphemistically called "Pee buckets." You have your little
jar or whatever of and instead of going outside and now you. And it helps that the floor freezes
because--that the floor is unheated because you put that under your bed on the floor and
it freezes solid. >> Ooh.
>> COHN: Yes. Okay, can we get the collective, "Eew."
>> "Eew." >> COHN: Thank you. That's what I felt like
also. In any case, so finally it's time to go in to work. And I go walking, you know,
walk across the roughly quarter mile of snow to get to the station, big imposing station
with steam coming off of it. So, I'm going to walk up the backdoor. This is the backdoor
to the station is called Destination Zulu. The front door is Destination Alpha. This
is DZ versus DA. And in the door that's an industrial freezer door, inside destination
Zulu, I take my gear off. I shuck off my bunny boots and my--and my big red. Put on my fuzzy
slippers and go upstairs to breakfast. Food is one of the great joys at Pole. The galley--it's
not quite as good as Google. But it is awesome food. The galley staff is there because they
want to be at the South Pole and their--they love their Polees and they want to work their
butts off. They really go out of the way. The--let's see, so what do we have here? Oh
yes, this was the real imitation crab bakes and it's labeled with artery clogging sauce.
And over on the left it was labeled the cheesy meat eater’s pizza of doom. This is--this
is Christina, when she took over the breakfast things she just--we got these amazing--yes.
Zack's nodding his head, yes. Remember the Raspberry Mascarpone Stuffed French Toast?
>> Yes. >> COHN: Yes, yes. You eat well at the pole.
Yes, Cat. >> Do you need to eat more than usual?
>> COHN: Do you need to eat more than usual? You got to eat more than usual, it's great.
Four hot meals a day. Actually, there are the three normal meals and then there's what's
called mid-rats. Midnight rations for the folks on swing shift. And because mid-rats
folks are only cooking for about 40 people instead for 200 people mid-rats is really
nice. If you're not working swing shift or--you actually have to get permission to attend
mid-rats. And so, you--I'm over there. The time--the last week I went over to a split
sleep schedule and was going to mid-rats. I remember there was the Montego Bay Shrimp
with some, sort of, pilaff and a molten chocolate hotcake. I'm sorry, I'm getting hungry here.
Okay, so they feed you really well. So, after breakfast I actually have to go to work. So,
like... >> So, what are the people in winter eat?
>> COHN: People in winter eat stuff as good as mid-rats. Actually I've been told--Ben
was telling me that it's even better than mid-rats in winter. Yes. He's just taunting
me. >> I mean what--I mean they can't fly it in
frequently, right? I mean. >> COHN: Right under the--you're right. They
can't fly anything and in during the winter. So basically the summer is spent stocking
up on stuff that's not perishable. Freezing it out in the berms to be retrieved and also
getting the greenhouse started so that they have fresh vegetables to support--to support
40 people over the winter. That's a great question, thank you. Okay, so it's 7:30 in
the morning and I have to show up at my desk. My desk is there. There's Ben. Yes, Eric?
>> ERIC: [INDISTINCT]. >> COHN: Good. What is--what do I mean by
7:30? All time is an illusion, starting time, doubly so. No. Excellent question. What we
do is we use New Zealand's daylight time. I don't know why. It's roughly 21 hours ahead
of time here or three hours past the next day. So right now, it is 4:30 in the afternoon
on Tuesday at South Pole. No. Other direction? You're right. It's late morning. Yes. Devin
has practiced for four months. Yes, Mike? >> MIKE: Do you actually adjust your clocks
for Daylight Saving Time? >> COHN: No. It's all--it's all New Zealand
daylight, NZDT. Yes. It just makes it so that we have to get up early to meet with the folks
in headquarters in Denver. I think that's why they do that. Yes. Those versels have
to get up at 5:30 to talk with us, hand me some more coffee cake. So any case is, this
is what my desk looks like. I sit down and I start fielding problems. Usually, there's
mail from overnight of people who are having problems with their email, people whose computers
aren't working, people who have forgotten to plug the printer in, et cetera, you know,
desperate, desperate urgent needs from Denver to, you know, let them know something irrelevant,
et cetera. And I do this from 7:30 until about noon when or, you know, whenever it is that
we decide that it's lunch time and we go off and get lunch. But actually, one of the big
problems is, "Is the Internet down?" "Yes. The Internet's down." I don't know if you
can read this. This is--this is one of the signs that I hung on my desk is, "Yes, the
Internet is down. Yes, we're working on it. No, we don't when it's going to be fixed.
Would you like to hear a knock-knock joke in the meantime?"
>> Sure. >> Sure. Yes. Knock-knock.
>> COHN: Who? Wait. No. No. So, it's knock-knock. >> Who's there?
>> COHN: Not the Internet. And then the reason is--the problem is is that--so we're at the
Pole and there are all of these wonderful geostationary and geosynchronous satellites
that are supposed to cover. Yes. And so, you do the geometry and they would have to go
through the Earth to get to the Pole. So, it's only the satellites that have some eccentricity
there or it's not eccentricity. What is it called when you're out an angle? Some inclination.
Thank you. I'm going to run out of these things. I'm getting better. I have some inclination
that actually come up over our horizon for any amount of time. And because we're a National
Science Foundation project, we are at the bottom of the pecking order for any sort of
bandwidth. So we only get the cheap slow satellites, when they happen to come up and when nobody
else wants them--to use them. Okay. I don't spend all of my life behind the desk. Sometimes,
I get to go and fix other people's things, like plug-in a printer at the--next door over
at the med lab or go over to comms where Tina has some sort of problem. And then, I'm always
scared to go over to comms because Tina says, "I can't get this thing to work." And the
prob--the reason why I'm scared is because Tina will have already tried everything I
could think of. I am irrelevant with comms because Tina can do her job and mine better
than me. But, you know, sometimes, it's, you know, I actually get to leave the building
and go, you know, down into the tunnels underneath where the power plant is because Rick, our
power plant guy, is great at breaking computers. I think he went through three different machines.
Or else often for logistics arch which--this is where our materials that are brought in
from the berms are brought in here to thaw out to minus 55 until we need them upstairs.
This--walking through the arch always made me feel like I was in the last scene of Raiders
of the Lost Ark. It just--it never went away. So, this is what I do six days a week, 10
hours a day. One of the things that really threw me was you've--you don't get--it's not
obvious--that the impact of having discretionary vacation days, like, "You know, I'm not feeling
well today," or, you know, "I'm kind of burnt out. I want to go out and do something." You
know, "I'm going to take a vacation day," you don't get to do that at the Pole. It's--there
are no--you know, you get--you get Sunday off but the kind of, "I'm going to take a
day off." No, because you're the guy and there aren't any spares. And that sort of gets to
you. But I'm not one to complain because I am what folks who work outdoors in the real
weather, folks like--what, folks Zach refer to as an indoor house pet. I show up at the
gallery for lunch in my fuzzy slippers with my mug and I sit down next to these folks,
you know, like Eric would come in and his cohorts would still be--still be smoldering
from where he had set himself on fire. It was just--I have nothing to complain about.
So it's either people do hard, crazy, real jobs. They're basically, you know. These are
people who are really working as opposed to me. And--so let me just backup a little bit
and talk about what people do. Yes, what sort of people do you have out there? You know.
So we're a very homogeneous crowd here, you know. We are Silicon Valley kind of--well,
yes, we are. At the Pole, you need every sort of skilled labor and unskilled labor that
you would need to run a town; actually, to build a town, you know, 2,000 miles from anywhere
else and minus 57 degrees. So because of this, you end up working very closely with the people
who you ordinarily wouldn't encounter in your life and you end up depending on each other.
And so, you end up having, at the galley, you know, you've got, you know, across from
the principal investigator, a Harvard professor of this $100 million project sitting, exchanging
just stories how his day was with, you know, folks who've never made it through high school.
You've got left-wing liberal hippy freaks from California buddying up and talking about
airplanes with right-wing redneck conservative folks, and they're your friends because they're
the folks you live with and they're the folks you work with. Let's see. So here are just
some of the--I don't--as I said, I don't have all of my pictures of the people who I hung
out with. These are things I managed to grab. So this is Bryce. He's one of the cargo guys
I worked with, Iraq combat vet. Jared. Jared is another cargo guy, forest firefighter,
smokejumper, Montana smokejumper and yoga instructor. Elisa. Elisa itinerant mini--Minnesotan,
drives the largest tractor ever made for her day job. Self-proclaimed folkloric banjo aficionado.
Ricky. Ricky Gates, the fastest man in Antarctica. Dishwasher. He also holds a number--he also
holds a number of world records such as the speed on running time up the top of Pikes
Peak and things like that. Ben, oh gosh. You can't... This is... Well, you could--you can
see his--you can see his electronic shirt. Ben was our cicid man. He was the one who
fixed things when no one else could. Daniel, Senior PC Tech, also professional musician
in his spare time. Ben and Danny Needle were the guys that I worked most closely with.
Meegan. Meegan is a South Pole sort of lifer. She's been spending the last decade or so
working at the Pole as much as she can. >> [INDISTINCT].
>> COHN: She's--well, Meegan is not quite human. I mean, she's been coming down to the
pole for a really long--I mean, this is probably spring, yes, so it's probably--it's probably
only minus 20 or so. So, Meagan's great, you know, you'll be sitting around talking about
stuff and she'll say, "Well, love to keep talk--love to keep talking with you folks
but I think I need to go downstairs and play tractors for awhile." This is not the biggest
thing she drives, this is only a D7. Haley, I love this picture. This is a picture by
Ricky, the--Ricky and Haley are all both incredible photographers. Haley was our grub logger.
She was the one who's responsible for getting the food that was down in the logistics arch
up to us in a form that the kitchen staff could actually turn into food. We love Haley.
Kayak instructor, no actual home, owns a car I believe. But that's--has no actual residence,
just an awesome, awesome person. Also we have--oh, the GA's. A lot of people come down to pole
as general assistants, which basically means they get to shovel snow. And shovel snow and
shovel snow. So then we also have Joel and Marie and I think that's Max up there. Occasionally
they get to do interesting things like drill holes, put dynamite in it and blow them up.
Yes, big shovel. Cap--Captain Don, Captain Don is our fire chief, also on certain occasions
Captain Christmas. This will become more explainable in just a minute. This is actually one of
my favorite--it's an example of the people you end up working side-by-side with. So we
have Lutry, who is a very traditional grandmother from Albuquerque, and Rachel who is--has a
Master's Degree in International Policy, used to work for the U.N. doing conflict analysis
in Somalia. They both decided they wanted to come to the South Pole, and they spent
the summer washing dishes just so they could do it, and they were just happy. They were--yes,
they were very pleased with these choices, and it's--and then there's this guy, that's
me, being a wimp. I'm all bundled up, and this is a--this is--this isn't just logistic
search, but in any case. So it's just that you encounter a lot of folks you wouldn't
normally encounter, and one of the nice things is you actually really grow from it. You spend
a lot of time realizing the things you have in common. Understanding their lifestyle,
and--and appreciating it. Why do they live there? Okay, I think you're crazy, but I can
understand how a rational person would--might have that as a [INDISTINCT]. And also, in
the sort of--because you're under a microscope as much as they are, you know when--you know,
Dan and I are sitting there looking across each other--at you after a recent conversation
about politics. You know, he's going, "Well, I guess he's a nice guy even though he's loony."
It gives you an opportunity to think more about who you are, and how--why you've made
the decisions that you have made. And it's been--it's a wonderful huge groaning--growing
experience. And all of these people, no matter how different they are from you, well like
with one or two exceptions, become your friends. And because you're--so this is the last part
here. This is--these are the people loading up, because I said you know, you live with
this people, you work with this people, you play with these people. There isn't really
a work/life balance because these people are your life while you're down there. And you
become--you just, when everything, anything needs to be done if it's your job, you do
it. If it's not your job you probably still do it. So you know, once or every week or
two, Tina would get on the, I'm going to say, "Good morning Pole." Sort of like, Robin Williams,
but without people shooting at you. "Good morning Pole, we have freshies at D.C. we
need people to bring in freshies at D.C. and the front-loaders would bring in these pallets
of full of fresh vegetables that have been flew in on the C-130 and everyone would throw
on their stuff, and line up down the stairs, and just do basically, a bucket brigade coming
up. You know, everyone from, you know, you know, G.A.'s who--who are using this as an
excuse to, "Hey, I can put the shovel down. I don't have to--I can..." To folks like,
you know, John Ram who's been coming down to pole for--he actually--probably 40 years,
he helped to design the new station. He is so far above the hierarchy. He's like royalty.
You know, the dish pit, they always need help, always need help washing dishes. So we've
got here, let's see one of the--one of the plumbers, one of the firefighters, our meteorologist,
and the head of the South Pole Telescope Project. Just rubber gloves on all pulling in together,
the greenhouse. So that's kind of working. That's--there's also a lot of playing together
you know, who else--who else you're going to play with? South Pole Ski Club. Yes, you
can ski at the South Pole. It's not very good skiing. Marco again, Marco brought a bike
down. The bike turned out to be amazingly popular. We all wanted to borrow the bike.
Lot's of music. I'm going to go into that little later. There's a nice gym, swing dance
classes, basketball, all sorts of stuff happening. Now, let's see if this one will work.
>> “Ready. Yay!” >> COHN: So that's sledding at the South Pole.
Quick, what time of day is it? >> [INDISTINCT].
>> COHN: Oh, good, good. Very good. >> Ready.
>> COHN: I'm going to pause this though. So Zach, you should be able to tell. Look at
the shadows. >> [INDISTINCT].
>> COHN: Shadows are coming--coming that straight that way. That's north. This is a little bit
after midnight. This is one of the things that kind of throws you as you realize that
all of those things that you wanted to do after work before it gets dark. Not so much
of an issue. Yes, yes. Cat? >> [INDISTINCT].
>> COHN: Oh, awesome, awesome question. Why is the station built up on--okay, if you guys
duck, my range isn't that good. >> [INDISTINCT].
>> COHN: Well, let me--let me answer that after I've gone through some more slides,
but that's a really important interesting question. Carl?
>> So you guy’s videos, did you have to get some kind of special rugged cold resistant
camera? >> COHN: Did I have to get a special camera?
No, no. I just, sort of, kept the camera inside big red and popped it out. When I was doing
the panoramas that I tried shooting for Street View, we took a Nikon D90 put a thermal sock
around it and stuffed it full of chemical hand warmers. So they're also quiet indoor
activities. You know, we've got a great reading room, this is a pool table, arts and crafts
room; good places where people, kind of, hide--head out and mellow out. In terms of mellowing
out, not everyone uses the recreation time for recreation. A lot of people who've come
down to the Pole, let's say as dishwashers or janitors, actually have aspirations of
kind of moving into another jobs. And so what people often do, is when they come off from
their normal shift at 5:30 they go volunteer on somebody else's swing shift. So, a GA who's
tired--who wants--who likes Pole but doesn't want to keep shoveling will volunteer down
at the machine shop to maybe kind of develop some skills, build the personal relationships
so that next year they can get hired as a heavy--as a machine operator or as a carpenter.
And you would basically build skills this way. I wasn't particularly looking for a new
line of work, but because I was an indoor house pet and I'm not really in--I get--I
got restless. I started volunteering after work with--at the swing shift cargo team,
which was huge amounts of fun. And I learned what it really meant to be cold. So, I got
to learn how to--how to marshal and direct the 130s and [INDISTINCT]... You know, helped
the fuelers, helped build pallets, I got to learn how to drive a skid loader. It--they're
just--this is something you can't do anywhere else. And so--so I'd like to think that if
the Google thing doesn't work out, I could probably get a job as a--in cargo. Three months--well--yes,
actually if you do--if you do the early season in McMurdo, you can work it a little bit more.
What was the free...? >> [INDISTINCT]
>> COHN: Frequency of flights? When the weather was good we could get up to like four flights
a day. But there were weeks that we just didn't get flights because of the weather. And, you
know, then they'd all stack them in. Yes? Another question.
>> Were there, like priests, monks, rabbis there kind of do their thing?
>> COHN: Oh, right, religion. There--there were--there were chaplains that rotated through
every--you know, would come down to a mass or, you know, priests, you know, chaplains
to do a service maybe once a month or so. And other than that we were sort of on our
own. Yes, Randy. >> RANDY: What [INDISTINCT] do you need [INDISTINCT]
you were talking about during the winter [INDISTINCT]? >> COHN: That's... Yes. So during the winter,
in theory they can parachute, they can airdrop stuff. Airdrop is something that is a really
awful, awful thing it turns out. Later in the slideshow if we--I don't think we got
there. When you airdrop stuff it ends up embedded about six feet into the ice and you have to
go out there and dig it out. And if it's minus 100 degrees, it's just--it's no fun. So airdrop
is considered sort of the last--the last resort. Let's see. Okay. Real play at the Pole, let
me just, you imagine a lot of stress builds up doing this stuff and when it's time to
cut loose, people like cutting loose and we have a lot of opportunities to do so on the
weekends. So, you know, things like Thanksgiving, Christmas, et cetera are pretty well-celebrated.
You know, Thanksgiving the kitchen staff really goes all out. We've got, you know--I forgot.
What did we have for Thanksgiving? Well for Thanksgiving there was obviously turkey. But
I think the Beef Wellington and lobster was--that was Christmas, right? Four different kinds
of turkey that was it, that was the big thing for Thanksgiving. So, good meals, special
meals, lots of music. So, open mike nights--New Year's Eve. So you have 200, 250 people at
the Pole. New Year's Eve we had three different bands. Polees love to dance. They went until
a New Year's Eve--or it was near Year's Eve since it was--we celebrate holidays on the
weekend, on a Saturday, so you get a two day weekend. So we celebrated on the second and
it went until 3 a.m. The Race Around the World, that's another fun thing. That's Christmas
day. People familiar with Bay to Breakers? Okay. Bay to Breakers meets Burning Man. It's
a two and a half mile run around the compound and it composes both the geographic and a--and
a ceremonial pole. And people dress up. There are some serious runners and people create
mutant vehicles. And let's see what else is there. Yes, in January we have the South Pole
International Film Festival, SPIFF. Where--this year we had seven entries of--if you come
to me after, so I can point you to the SPIFF films that are online. Some really good stuff,
some starring members of the audience--in duress. And then suddenly it's February and
you go whoa, it's time to go, temperature's minus 40 again, and starting to see contrails,
and it's time to pack up your Jamesway, get on the Herc and head home. And you find yourself
back here and you go, "Whoa." And everyone asks you one question, "Would you do it again?
Yes." Let's do--I need--I need to answer Cat’s question. Okay. Excellent. We're going to
do this by going to some history here. This is the--this is not old--the original Pole
station 1957, the new dome, you can see there are these nice long metal arches and the dome
and everything. And 15 years later, the dome is mostly under snow and ice. And the arches
are completely under snow and ice. What happens is even though we don't do as lot of precipitation,
all of the stuff blows in from everywhere else and the surface pack raises by eight
inches per year. Old Pole, the original Pole stations are now 40 feet underneath. The dome--they
got tired of trying to dig it out. Actually, you--here you can see it with the construction
of the new station. Here is the dome in sort of this crater that they keep carving out.
So, the new station they just put up on pylons and the idea is that every 20 years or so,
they jack the pylons up a bit more. Okay. Other questions--oh, you know, I should--I
realize I should go to the dory because I've--I think we're nominally almost like out of time
but I should really do the dory thing. Come on, dory questions for Pablo at the Pole.
Has anyone actually submitted them? No. Boo. Oh, like Carl has another question though.
>> [INDISTINCT]. >> COHN: Sure.
>> So, the personality--as you mentioned all the great people, right? Is there some kind
of personality screen for [INDISTINCT]? >> COHN: Yes. Is there some kind of personality
screen? Yes, so a lot of it is--so for the winter-overs--the winter-overs, you actually
have to go through a psych test. And they ask you, are you, do you want to--do you want
to spend winter at the Pole? Say, yes. You're crazy. No. No. The summer--the summer it's--you
have to go through a fairly extensive physical eval and the--it's mostly personal interview,
because during the summer if you turn out to be unworkable they can send you home. But
there is a personality that definitely works and a lot of the hiring is not who can do
the job the best. The criterion is who is not going to screw up. Who's going to be perfectly
adequate at the job, but I'll be able to deal with in close quarters for the next three
months. And that's why so much of the hiring is kind of face to face, in person. Yes.
>> [INDISTINCT] or you? >> COHN: So how do we get to keep in touch?
So, there was email and when satellites were up. When the TDRSS--the high speed satellites
were up. TDRSS the high speed satellite had about the bandwidth of a cable modem for the
entire station. Then we would--you could actually--so we weren't allowed any video chat, that just
too much of a bandwidth hog but you can actually make phone calls through. And in fact my desk,
when the satellites were up, I had a phone on my desk that was--that rang through from
a Denver area code. So, you know, if people in the station or people from McMurdo or Denver
could call me, also that meant, wrong numbers could call me. And I was one number transposed
from a funeral parlor in Las Vegas. And so I kept getting these phone calls like, "Hi,
is TJ there? Sorry Ma'am this is not TJ's funeral parlor. Oh, come on, I know, he's
trying to avoid me but just tell him that Brenda called. [INDISTINCT] you have not called
TJ's. Well, who is this? You wouldn't believe me. TJ, tell TJ--you don't want to tell them
that they've called the South Pole, because either they're not going to believe you or
they're going to believe you and they're going to tell their friends, hey, call this number
again and you're going to talk to the South Pole. Yes.
>> How would you get one of these jobs? >> COHN: How do you get one of these jobs?
We've gone over the--okay, we gone over the official time. So, let me say, thank you to
those who wanted to bail out and then I'll sort of pause for 15 or 20 seconds so they
can escape and talk a little bit more about the jobs things. Okay? Thank you all.