Snowed in

Submitted by anelles on Wed, 11/18/2015 - 18:38

And here we are, sitting in our science tent again. Ironically it is sunny outside and a lot of the pictures we took look sunny and happy. What the pictures don't show, is that the wind is so strong that every hour, one of us has to go out to make sure that we will still be able to climb out of our tent. Because snow is piling up. And I mean piling up when I say this.

So, after I thought I make yesterday's story more dramatic -- near life and death when digging out the station -- I now conclude that it really was not that bad. Not to worry, we will stay at campy today.

More about camp life then. One of us is always on kitchen duty. This means getting up a little earlier than everyone else, going through the snow melting routine and making breakfast. Here is, where things get a little confusing for us. While the support in Antarctica is immaculate in all other cases, the food rationing seems to be to difficult for us to understand. You will get a long list with things that have been allocated for you, but no list that tells you whether you are only allowed the rations of egg for breakfast or also toast, cheese and oatmeal with the eggs. Since no one of us, feels like starving out here, we have been very good in rationing so far. However, this also means that we get very interested in our additional snacks. So somehow, this needs more improvement. I would have expected to see a list of meals with ingredients that you are allowed to take per day and/or meal, but maybe I am approaching this too scientifically.

What is on the menu? Actually we are not doing too bad. The famous "dehys" (dehydrated meals) are only meant for emergency purposes and we have about 6 days worth of them untouched. So on regular days we get to defrost food (no freezer needed surprisingly) like chicken breasts and vegetables. That sounds responsible? Well to be honest we mostly have been working on building up our cholesterol levels using the insane amount of butter and fatty meats that have been provided to us. You burn lots of calories in the cold and if we die out here, it might as well be from clogged arteries .. just kidding obviously.

And then we have our little stoves to make food. Interestingly, it turns out that not every stove is the same. We were asked, if we were okay if we got a big and a small one. Turns out, we should have said "no". The big stove is totally fine and very workable. The small stove sets of the "CO alarm" within five minutes of using it. CO is carbon monoxide, it is an odorless gas that is really not got for you. Turns out, it kills you. Well, after you had CO-poisoning. So you want to avoid getting CO is your tent at any costs. This one usually does by opening some vents. It turns out that the small stove is so prone to producing CO that you would have to open every opening in this tent. And in this weather, this is clearly not happening any time soon. So we are down to one stove, which makes cooking a logistical challenge. But hey, three people with advanced degrees should be able to handle that, right?

In any case, we are doing well even though the weather is pretty frustrating. So, you might wonder why we even bother being out here to search for neutrinos. In short, it is because we need the ice, so I should really stop complaining about it being so incredibly cold. The ice is for us at the same time the target that the neutrino hits and the medium that makes the radio emission that we are looking for. And since neutrinos really do not want to interact with a target (they are very light and not charged, so magnetic and electric fields do not affect them) you need a very big target in order for the neutrino to hit something. Think of it as a net. If you cannot get a net with a smaller mesh (i.e. smaller holes), you can just stick a lot of nets after each other and at some point you will catch you little fish. So, since we cannot make matter have "fewer holes", we need a lot of matter to catch the neutrino. Well, this analogy might not hold in all cases, but it might give you a better idea.

Also ice comes for free. In times, where funding agencies -- Hello there, if you are reading -- ask you to justify better what you want to spent money on and to cut costs at all possible angles, having a target material that is for free is always a good idea. And Moore's Bay seems to have lots of high quality ice that no one else has been claiming. That is why we are out here.

Why are we then looking for radio signals from neutrinos, where everyone else is looking for light signals? That is also partly very easily explained by costs. Buy a digital camera to detect light (make a photo) and buy a radio to listen to your local station. Which one is cheaper to get? Radios are very cheap and easy to built. I guess that is why we have radios first, before people started thinking about digital photography. Also, radio waves are longer than light waves so they are less affected by smaller homogeneities in the ice. So why has no one ever done this before?

Well, it turns out there are still people out there that do not believe that one can actually find a measurable signal from neutrino interactions. Should that discourage us? Clearly not, since we are scientist and believing is usually not part of the equation. But also, it has been a similar story for cosmic rays. In the 60s people thought that it might be easy to detect cosmic rays (small matter particles from outer space) by measuring their radio signals. With radio transmitting stations become more ubiquitous and the advancement of cars and other things with motors, however, it became very difficult to be able to tell whether a signal had been a cosmic ray or just the tractor of your neighbor. On top of that, atmospheric electric fields like in a thundercloud, affected the measurements. So, the whole idea was put on a shelf: "nice try". If I recall properly, the last review of radio detection of cosmic rays in the 70s ended by saying that nothing much is going to happen any time soon. However, starting a new effort (with better technology) in the beginning of this century proved them wrong. Radio detection of cosmic rays is now possible and is carried out almost routinely at several experiments.

And since the same simulation codes that correctly predict the radio emission of cosmic rays, also predict measurable signals from neutrinos, things look good for us. Still, the challenge remains that there are less neutrino interactions than there are cosmic ray interactions, so catching all of them is the challenge. So even if the weather is grim, we keep working on finding a signal, sooner or later.