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A year at South Pole - 2017/18

In May 2017, I accepted a job offer at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) in Madison - a job that will send me to the bottom of Earth. IceCube is a giant Neutrino detector at South Pole, and it will be my job to keep its computers running, together with my workmate and friend Johannes. For an entire year (November 2017 to December 2018) I will live and work at the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.
Being an IceCube "WinterOver" has been my dream job for years - und now the dream is real. This page is my journal of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Most of the content will be in English, but I will also drop some stuff in German occasionally. The journal entries are sorted by date (latest first).

[Go to first journal entry]

  • The Midwest: Where the wild things are
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  • 12. September 2017

The electric screwdriver utters a tiny bzzzzzzzd, as I affix the last bolt into the heavy lid of the IceCube cargo crate. I am now sitting on top of three metric tons of shit-expensive technical IceCube gear! Packing up all that stuff was a lot of fun - unpacking it at Pole in freezing -30 °C at an elevation of almost 3000 m: Probably not so much. The crate will leave for Pole this week, but will arrive about three weeks later than ourselves 'round the end of November.

While we've been busy packing up the crate, summer has returned to the city of Madison. As we step outside, we get struck by 30 °C and the mid-Wisconsin typical oppressive humidity. Time for a swim in lake Mendota! The water is pleasantly cool and so crystal clear that I can see the giant carps swimming around my feet. I close my eyes for a second to enjoy the moment... until suddenly someone nearby fires up a lawn mower the size of a pickup truck. Besides the fact you can't buy decent bread here, the one thing that bugs me about Madison is the CONSTANT NOISE. The lawn around the Capitol gets mowed daily (no kidding), and as soon as the mowers are gone, leaf blowers shovel fallen foliage from one pile to another and back again for several hours. There are always truck engines running everywhere, and the few seconds in between all of this are filled with the sirens of an ambulance.
But yeah, this really is complaining at the highest possible level - but sometimes I forget how privileged I am for the awesome job I have in this amazing city, and for the kickass company of my WO buddy Johannes.

Although WinterOver training has been getting tougher since the focus shifted from hardware to software, there still is enough time to explore the wild Midwest of America. The wildest thing we encountered so far is the "original Chicago deep dish pizza" - a 2 mm thin pizza crust topped with marinara sauce and 4 cm (!) of cheese. Yes, really. There are no regrets.

The sun does not always shine over Madison. In fact, it has been getting quite autumnal around here lately. A perfect opportunity to to get a little exercise in handling my new camera! Trust me though, for a fully-trained perfectionist like me it's not easy to pick up a new hobby just like that. But with a little help from all-time photography expert Johannes, I do manage to take a not-so-bad picture from time to time. My new favorite Madison photograph is also quite a luckshot I guess:

WinterOver facts #2

Here's to all the people who keep asking me: "Are you getting locked in freezers a lot for WinterOver training?"
The answer is: No. We have giant freezers here, but those are for DOM (Digital Optical Module) testing rather than for WinterOver natural selection. But luckily, deep-freezing WinterOver trainees still SEEMS to have a certain fascination on some WIPAC scientists, so I get to try the freezers out from time to time - and -40 °C is really not as bad as I thought. Until the cold starts creeping up your pants and sleeves. Then it's bad.

So what AM I doing all day? There is a lot of things WinterOver-to-bes have to learn before being released to the ice. They have to know the IT infrastructure of IceCube like the back of their hands - every single server and switch, all the power supplies, each cable. Ralf has us stripping down each machine to its pieces and putting it back together again - not in the actual IceCube data center obviously, but at the SPTS, the South Pole Test System. That means most of our time we spend between SPTS server racks. It's noisy, but also full of exciting sophisticated technical Schnickschnack! :)

Another WinterOver trainee task is to load the big IceCube cargo crate, which leaves for South Pole mid September. So far, we packed it up with roughly 1.5 metric tons of UPS batteries and spare hard drives - almost good to go!

Life as a WinterOver trainee is no walk
in the park - except when it is.

Last week, Johannes and I were roaming the State Capitol front yard, when suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of the Madison Outreach Pride Parade. Shiny cloths, rainbow flags, candy-coloured wigs and lots of exposed skin everywhere. Once we made our way through the marching bands and dancing people, we decided to get some pizza and enjoy the show from a distance - equipped with our cameras. I managed to catch the scenery in my favorite Madison-photograph so far - I decided to go with monochrome for this one, because the vivid colours would blind you for the true beauty of this moment.

For my 27th birthday, we enjoyed a couple of beers at the Union Terrace with Sarah and Khan, two other researchers from Germany we met in our VISA orientation class. We went to something called "Dane Dances" - and holy cannoli, when it comes to open air disco, the Madison folks are ON FIRE!
Speaking of beers, Madison has quite a selection of local brews. Take a look at the picture below, maybe you can figure out why we chose that particular one ;)

The first two weeks of WinterOver Training have gone by in notime, and I have been very much enjoying every little piece of it so far. Well that's not entirely true, there were some organisational issues to get over with (like getting an American bank account, American Health insurance, a VISA orientation class, all of which came with a load full of paperwork. And let me tell you, getting an American Social Security Number is particularly nasty ;)). But apart from that, it's a lot of fun. Everyone here at WIPAC (Wisconsin Particle Astrophysics Center) is excited to work with us, which makes me feel at home already. Besides, Johannes and I get along great, and I have no doubt we will make a good WinterOver team.

Having used the words "IceCube" and "WinterOver" a lot already, I figured this second entry of my journal might be a good opportunity to explain a little:

IceCube facts #1

The IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory is a huge particle detector burried in the almost 3000 m thick Antarctic ice sheet at South Pole. IceCube is looking for ultra-high-energy neutrinos. Upon colliding with the atoms of the ice, these tiny particles produce a little flash of blue light. This is called the "Cherenkov effect". The light can be seen by IceCube's thousands of optical sensors, which have been deployed on long chains by drilling deep holes in the ice. The data collected by these sensors is sent to the surface, where it is recorded and forwarded to the Northern hemisphere for analysis.
To get a better idea of IceCube, you can have a look at the picture below (courtesy of the IceCube collaboration) or visit icecube.wisc.edu.

WinterOver facts #1

South Pole works a little differently than what we are used to. There only is one long day (the austral summer) in which the sun never sets, and one long night (the austral winter) in which it never rises. Most people at South Pole only work there in the summer. However, there are a handful of crazy people called WinterOvers, who stay at South Pole station all year long. This is a demanding and also dangerous job for many reasons. During the long Antarctic night, there is no way of leaving Pole (because the weather is too bad and too cold for planes to land). There is limited internet and NO FREAKIN SUNLIGHT.
Every year, IceCube sends two WinterOvers who stay at Pole for 13 months. Their job is to keep the detector running at all time.

I will try to drop an IceCube or WinterOver fact every once in a while throughout my journal, so if you think I'm boring you might at least learn something ;).

"Passengers BUSSE and WERTHEBACH, please report to the Delta personnel at gate A75!"

The announcement echoes from the marble walls of the airport toilet. That's me!
I rush outside, where Johannes, my workmate for the upcoming 16 months, is waiting for me, already having grabbed our bags to follow the tinny instructions. It's not late at all, so what could they possibly want from us? Could they have mistaken the electronics kit in my luggage for a dangerous device? Am I being arrested??
"Congratulations, Ms. Busse, Mr. Werthebach. You have been upgraded to our Delta Business Class!" says the lady at the Delta desk to us, smiling over both ears.
Phew. Not what I had expected. Well I call that a fabulous start to my dreamjob!

After having enjoyed the comforts of a nine-hour overbooked flight to the very fullest (including a bed, free socks, cocktails and a gourmet lunch), we set foot to the lobby area of Madison Wisconsin airport, slightly hungover. Our supervisor Ralf is waiting for us. Both Johannes and I have been here before, when we were being interviewed in April for the very job we will start tomorrow. So Ralf's baseball cap already looks quite familiar to us, which makes him easy to spot in the crowd.

After grabbing some dinner in the "Great Dane", Ralf drops us off at our hotel. I am tired despite my ridiculously comfortable flight experience, so I drop into bed right away. The nightly glow of the State Capitol falls into my hotel room window, making sure everybody gets their well deserved slumber.