Hairy jobs for the bold

July 11, 1997

As the world gets smaller and science continues to push back the frontiers, scientists find themselves working in ever greater extremes. As researchers in Montserrat have discovered, being in the field can be tough and dangerous. Four scientists talk to Julia Hinde about life on the edge

BILL MCGUIRE on the edge of a volcano

"It was the middle of the night. We were aware of a jet engine sort of sound and the stars started disappearing."

Bill McGuire, a vulcanologist at the Greig Fester Centre for Geohazard Research at University College, London, was on the Caribbean island of Montserrat when it blew last year. A 14km-high plume of volcanic gas, ash and lava formed above the crater as 3,000 local people fled the explosion.

"We were sent nearer to the volcano to see what was going on. We were putting road blocks up after us to stop people coming back to their homes," he recalls. "Eventually we drove to within a few kilometres of the eruption."

Professor McGuire and his colleagues were on Montserrat to measure the activity of the volcano. Only three hours earlier they had been walking around the crater measuring the extent to which the ground was bulging.

"When I started I was keen on planetarian geology but there was no work. A project came up on Etna. I had always been interested in vulcanology so I took it," he says.

"I didn't really consider the possibilities of an eruption. Then, in 1979, there was one on Etna which killed nine. Since 1991, a dozen vulcanologists have been killed in action. This is a high number in a small community, many of whom have families. My impression is the relatives don't think about the possibilities - they put it out of their minds."

GEOFF ARNISON 1,000m underground

Dressing for work is a military-style operation for 59-year-old Geoff Arnison, from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

Donning overalls, hat, lamp and the obligatory self-rescue kit, the particle physicist is on the look out for Wimps (weakly interacting massive particles).

For the past seven years, he has worked alongside miners in a North Yorkshire pit, 1,000m underground in temperatures that can reach 37oC. In the search for illusive dark matter, hypothesised by cosmologists to make up 90 per cent of space, the mine is an ideal location for the hunt. This is because there is an absence so deep underground of the cosmic radiation that distorts the very precise instrumentation needed. But it presents immense problems for scientists.

"It's pitch dark and incredibly quiet," says Mr Arnison. "The equipment is heavy so within ten minutes you begin to perspire. All the time you have perspiration dripping on your notebook. "If you have not been down for a couple of weeks, all the equipment is coated in dust, so it has to be cleaned. We have to fit in with the miners so shifts are eight hours. There are no showers, toilets, or drinking water - you have to make your own arrangements.

"You have to take everything you need down with you. If you have forgotten screws you can spend hours hunting for them. It's frustrating - in a normal lab you can go to the stores cupboard."

Wimps have so far eluded the team but as Mr Arnison explains: "After seven years, we are getting better and better at doing the experiment. And we are lowering the threshold."

KEITH REID in the Antarctic

It may be more than 500km from the nearest town and only six kilometres square, but for Keith Reid of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, Bird Island, off the northern tip of South Georgia, is a home from home.

Supplies of food may arrive only once a year and the telephone and fax may have broken long ago, but with 700,000 pairs of penguins and 2,600 wandering albatrosses for company, the allure of Bird Island is too much to stay away for long. Mr Reid, 29, spent two-and-a-half years on Bird Island from 1991. He returned this Christmas. "The abundant wildlife drew me there. There's no transition between Britain and Bird Island. Arriving is like jumping from one world to another."

Except it is not so easy. After flying to the Falklands, Bird Island is two or three days further by ship and then requires a wait for calm waters to approach the island in an inflatable. Waiting can take up to a week.

"I thought it would be a really good idea to give something a proper go, to notice how different things were each year," says Mr Reid, who during the winter months had just two colleagues and a radio for company.

"We didn't know each other before we went out. You have to get on, which means being quite restrained.

"We get supplied with food, all dried, tinned or frozen, once a year. I probably missed food with texture and crunchy vegetables most. After a while tins all taste the same.

"The toilet is at the end of the jetty - things go straight into the sea. In summer it means between you and the loo there may well be 50 bull seals. They don't go for you, but still it's a bit scary sometimes.

"The magnitude of it all is the most amazing," says Mr Reid. "It's so photogenic - I keep people like Kodak in business."

MARTIN SINHA on the oceans

Luxury is a cabin of your own, says Cambridge marine geophysicist Martin Sinha. It may be only the size of two telephone boxes, but when you are sharing a small ship with 50 people for two months, a space to call your own is glorious.

For the past 20 years Dr Sinha has studied the geology of mid-ocean ridges. Annual cruises to locations as varied as the North Atlantic and the South Pacific have meant Dr Sinha visiting more ports than most. But the appeal is slowly waning.

"People I work with think it's terribly glamorous when I jet off to central America or elsewhere to join a ship," said Dr Sinha. "But when you are preparing for a cruise you spend a lot of time in seedy ports. When the ship arrives from the previous cruise, everything in the labs gets ripped out and you put your stuff in. By the time you sail, you are exhausted.

"As the years go by, the cruises appeal less and less. I mind about the impact they have on the family. But from a purely selfish point of view I like going to sea - you are extremely focused on your work.

"We are normally at sea for 30 or 40 days without a break, without new faces, without sight of land. Funding is hard to come by and ships are very expensive - Pounds 10,000 a day. There is immense pressure to maximise what you do."

"What you can do apart from work depends on the weather," said Dr Sinha. "In the north North Atlantic, there is not much you can do but eat and drink and read. The food is variable. It's good when you leave port and deteriorates rapidly. When I come back I really appreciate a cup of tea with real milk."

"We are all in very close quarters. You tend to find people with abrasive personalities don't stay in the field all that long."

See feature, page 19

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