Monday, July 18, 2011

Tales from the Antarctic

Today Alex and I got up at the usual time to get ready for class. We got our stuff together and then walked over to the dining hall. In lieu of my usual fast breakfast, I went for the slightly more substantial pancakes and potatoes. All things considered, I’ve found the dorm food to be quite good at UPenn which was a surprise considering how bad many adults have told me the food used to be. I quickly polished off my pancakes, Alex also finished his meal, and we went back to our room to grab our backpacks and notebooks for the day. We had about half an hour to spare, so I spent a while catching up on a summer assignment for my English class, and then I spent a little time reading a physics book. The book I am reading right now is called “50 Ideas You Really Need To Know about The Universe”. I enjoy the book a lot because it is excellent at presenting many wildly different ideas in short articles. When I find an article that is particularly interesting, it is easy for me to further learn about the idea that I might not have otherwise been exposed to.

The walk to class was fairly typical, but every day I enjoy the beautiful campus and casual conversation with my friends. I arrived at class and enjoyed saying hello to all of my fellow students who I now know almost all of. In class, Bill began to lecture us about modern physics. We went over the ideas of special relativity and prepared for our guest speaker. In preparation for our guest speaker, we watched a documentary of the speaker who is named Mark Trodden. The video showed the last 8 years of Mark’s work which began with an idea for how to research the cosmic microwave background. For those that don’t know, the cosmic microwave background is the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. After the Big Bang which was extremely hot, huge amounts of very high energy waves were emitted. Because the universe is expanding, these waves hit the Earth as microwaves. The problem that Mark had to overcome to research these waves was that microwaves can’t travel through the atmosphere without being significantly altered. Therefore, Mark either had to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars for a satellite microwave telescope, or find some other way to get a telescope above the majority of the atmosphere. The idea that Mark had was was to use a weather balloon to carry his telescope to 135,000 feet above sea level which is above 99.5% of the atmosphere and therefore the microwaves strike his telescope with very little interference.

Mark’s story about his attempts at scientific discovery truly taught me about perseverance and why people always say that failing and learning from your mistakes is the most valuable thing you can do. Mark’s first attempt at launching a balloon was from Sweden where the balloon circled the North Pole for a few days and then parachuted back to Earth. While the launch went smoothly, the worst case happened and they found out right away that their telescope was not properly focused and therefore the trip was a bust. Mark’s next attempt was in Antarctica where the winds were more favorable and they redesigned the telescope from their mistakes. This time, they designed the telescope so that they could refocus it after launch and they redesigned the primary mirror which had fractured on the last launch. This time, 6 years after he began the project, Mark’s team finally got the data they were searching for. The telescope was perfectly focused and the data box with their hard drives full of their precious data parachuted down to Earth. Everything went perfectly until the data hit the ground where the parachute acted as a dragchute and dragged the entire several ton telescope for 120 miles and destroyed everything. On a stroke of luck, Mark found the data box which was white and nearly invisible on the Antarctic ice. The project was saved, and the data turned out to be extremely high quality and useful. I enjoyed Mark’s talk very much because he truly showed us what it can be like to be a scientific researcher. Who knows if it’s what I’m cut out for, but I really enjoyed the insight into such an interesting and progressing field.

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