Antarctic Medical Evacuation 2003

I’m putting this here to, potentially, stop questions.

I, honestly, remember near to nothing about the medevac we had in late 2003. Hypothyrodism due to protracted exposure to cold and dark takes a lot of forms and mine was memory loss and appalling Yoda like grammar. I remember very little about September 2003 and near to none of October other than excruciating frostbite at the very end.

I remember two people leaving. One due to a serious medical issue and one who wanted out before he got lynched.

I remember a plane basically didn’t stop moving for fear it would freeze up and never move again.

I remember a BBQ that needed a continuous propane torch to keep burning because it was too cold to go otherwise. That probably has nothing to do with the medevac flight.

I know there is another one happening now in the 2016 winter season, in the dead of austral winter. September was bad enough, but at least the continent was warming up at that point. Late June, right after Midwinter really, is as bad as it gets. Wish them well, everyone. This is dangerous as all fuck and they wouldn’t even attempt if it wasn’t dire.

Great Moments In Teaching – Fecal Samples

PLEASE NOTE: there is a very good reason there are no pictures associated with this story.

As some of you may know, I teach radiation safety course at a local community college. A while back, we were discussing bioassay techniques (read: ways determine if there’s been an uptake of radioactive material in the body, where, how, and how much) in my radiation safety class. 

My fellow instructor, after explaining how fecal dosimetry techniques work, declared that no one, not the subject providing the sample, not the dosimetrist who has to process it, certainly not the rest of the lab staff, nor even the lab building’s neighbors, likes it when you have to do fecal samples.

I begged to disagree before the class. I clearly remembered an occasion that a world renowned health physicist and internal dosimetrist loudly declared in my presence “I LOVE FECAL SAMPLES!

I stared at him very hard. He saw me staring. There was then a several beat pause…

He then corrected himself, declaring somewhat less loudly, “I love the numbers I get from fecal samples.”

Once again, I love making sure lessons hit home and stick for life with memorable vignettes like this to hang the information on. I’m proud to declare all our students aced that part of the exam. I’m just sad no one took video of my “Rubbin’ My Ass On Uranium” dance to demonstrate proper dosimeter badge usage.

The Picric Acid Tale or “Why I Can’t Have Four Day Weekends Anymore”

Once upon a time, the radiation safety officer (RSO), let’s call him Bob, had been out performing the inventory of source material* and ran across a bit of excitement.

In this particular lab, they had approximately 10 grams of uranyl acetate, a very common contrast stain for electron microscopes.  The poor unfortunate grad student who was trying to wrangle things for the RSO presented the uranyl acetate to Bob for him weigh and verify, but Bob ignored him.  Bob was looking over the grad student’s shoulder at the fume hood behind him.  Bob took a picture of it for us all to enjoy later, evacuated the lab, and told the grad student to get the department chair down here RIGHT NOW while Bob called the chemical safety folks to come up and help.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Picric Acid Sat. Sol. 3/18/69 ☺ – You see, the ☺ means it must be safe.

Flash forward to the staff meeting as Bob presents his pictures.  I may have let out a pained yelp of terror when this one came up on the screen.  I apologize for the lack of detail for this picture, but the brown bottle has a handwritten label that reads “PICRIC ACID, SAT. SOL., 3/18/69, *happy face*”

Bob: “So, does anyone see any problems with this picture?”
Me: “YES!  There’s a four fucking liter bottle of picric acid!”
Bob: “Note that the bottle says ‘Sat. Sol.’  How would we know if it weren’t safe?”
Me: “Well, I suppose if it wasn’t safe they would’ve labeled it with a frowny face instead of a happy one.”
Bob: [gives me a glare] “Right, no more four day weekends for you.  You get sarcastic if we give you too much time off.  I was referring to the crystalline sediment in the bottom of the bottle that shows this is clearly a supersaturated solution now.”
Me: [emits another yelp of terror]
Co-Worker 1: “Jeez, they haven’t cleaned their lab in 40 years if that’s been lying around since it got labeled.”
Co-Worker 2: “No…the building they’re in now has only existed for 17 years.  The had to move it here from somewhere else first…*trails off into contemplative horror*

Supersaturated picric acid is a shock & light sensitive bomb, similar to unstable crystallized ether.  There have been an awful lot of lab explosions over the decades due to forgotten picric bottles which is why it is pretty much banned in anything other than microquantities.  A 4L bottle is a job that even the bomb squad is reluctant to touch.

As a nice bonus, if you look closely you’ll notice that there’s a bottle of 70% percholoric acid next to it, which is another potential bomb. At the very least, a POWERFUL oxidizer to help promote the coming firestorm when everything goes sideways.

The happy ending is that everything worked out nicely and nothing had to be detonated with a sniper rifle from a safe distance. This time.

 


* Source material is defined as naturally occurring or depleted uranium or thorium materials which could, potentially, be refined and enriched.  In practice, this normally translates to “anything we feel like nailing you for not having on your inventory already” as this is stuff any member of the public can buy, but as license holder you have a responsibility to keep track of it.

No Pants-Bear Bad

Adding this slice of life from almost a decade ago at LLNL to the permanent record of Funranium Labs as a reference point for Test Subject Vision Scientist (subcategory: Male)

[SCENE: Early April 2008, Lawrence Livermore Nat’l Lab. The transition to the new managing private consortium, primarily run by Bechtel, has proven to be very uncomfortable and isn’t improving. All the people involved in this story, and even the departments, have moved on or are dead.] 

The only thing I hate almost as much as group projects are All Hands meetings.

There is nothing more fun than a one hour meeting that runs a half hour over where no useful information is conveyed despite actual insightful, searching questions from the audience.  It was very much a meeting because management felt it necessary to Say Something, except that everything anyone wanted to know they couldn’t say.

After then All Hands meeting I went to go visit a former co-worker who now works in the Department That Doesn’t Get Out Much Because They’re Too Busy Thinking Terrorist Thoughts.  She asked how things were going out in the Lab at large where people get to see sunlight.  After due consideration I described it, speaking very fast and panicky, “Ohgodohgodwe’reallgonnadietheskyisfallingit’scoldoutsideilostmypantsandthere’sabearthatwantstoeatme!!!”

She blinked a few times and then she began laughing in way that I felt justified in grabbing the spill clean up kit just in case, which only made her laugh more. They’re a little short of entertainment in there.

This morning I was shocked to hear someone else describe a situation as “No Pants-Bear” Bad. I’ve gotten a stern finger waggling whilst sniggering by my manager for creating a new term that is spreading through the Laboratory like curium-244 contamination.   I now give it to you to enjoy and share with the rest of the world.

Klingon Scrabble and Odd Units of Measure

The other day I was trading tales with the former BBotE Ambassador of NYC, @EditrixW, and after sharing my new favorite Beatles cover song from Mongolia we drifted by COMPLETELY REASONABLE CONNECTIONS to the reason why my Lovely Assistant and I haven’t played Scrabble in quite some time. You see, we used to play it in a way I like to call Klingon Scrabble; you aren’t playing for the actual points but rather for honor. You can claim honor with such things as, but by no means limited to:

  • Longest word
  • Most words made at the same time
  • Dirtiest word
  • Bingos are still impressive
  • Most swear words
  • Most ridiculous acronym which you can explain
  • Really, you managed to play “HITLER” on the board more than once?
  • AND “STALIN”?!?!

And because both my Lovely Assistant and I hold science degrees, a PhD in her case, some latitude has been made to allow scientific terms because they also hold honor and are generally pretty hard to play. Also many scientific terms are proper nouns, so we had to kinda give up on that rule too but took it on a case by case basis. A complete list of the words played by each player should be written down for use to create a story, which is also a source of honor. Now that you’ve got the setup, let me now tell the tale of the last game of Scrabble we played which more or less went as follows.

SCENE: a late Sunday afternoon sitting at the dinner table, playing Scrabble.

Lovely Assistant: [plays the word “EXAM”, claims a triple word score]

Me: [looks hard at the letters on my rack, has a staggering realization, starts giggling]

LA: (very suspiciously) What?

Me: I got a bingo! [lays down the rest of my tiles after the M in “EXAM”]

LA: [making a Face] “EXAMONGOLIA” is not a word.

Me: Sure it is! It’s 1018 Mongolias.

LA: There is only one Mongolia and it is a proper noun.

Me: In the infinite multiverse, there is a similarly infinite number of Mongolias.

LA: No. You can’t just add unit prefixes to things. Mongolia isn’t a unit.

Me: It is too. Mongolia is the unit of hordeosity.

LA: [makes the Face again] Hordeosity isn’t a word either.

Me: When you have a group of people, you have to look at them to assess their likelihood/capability of going on a rampage. This is how horde-y  they are. Their hordeosity.

It is too totally a word

EXAMONGOLIA – 21 Points For Straight Letter Value Isn’t Bad (it is totally a word)

LA: [looks at me quietly with the Face that says she is working really hard to remember precisely WHY she loves me]

Me: Obviously, the Mongolia is one of those ridiculous basic units that’s hard to use like the Farad, Tesla, and Becquerel.

LA: Nope. We’re done here.

 

To end this story, she would like me to remind all of you that examongolia is totally not word. I, in turn, encourage you to contact the International Bureau of Weights and Measures to get this new fundamental unit recognized.

More Volcano & Coffee Contemplation

As mentioned in the previous post, I fled the mainland for a week to escape Super Bowl madness in the SF Bay Area to the lovely Big Island of Hawaii. As my Lovely Assistant had never been to that island before, we split our time between Hilo and Kailua so she could experience both sides. Given my druthers, I will happily spend any and all time possible in Hilo. It reminds me of Santa Cruz, CA before the 1989 Loma Prieta quake forced the urban renewal that stomped the a lot of the kindness out of the town too. To be fair, I haven’t crunched a syringe underfoot in well over a decade in downtown Santa Cruz but then my desire to go wander around downtown for fun is gone too.

As I read back over this, that’s probably not be the tourism recommendation the Hilo Chamber of Commerce is looking for. It’s a quiet and beautiful town that hasn’t been destroyed by a tsunami in well over 50 years, so high fives. No really, they changed their urban planning in the 1960s to create a flood plain for typical tsunamis (yes, Hawaii gets enough to have “typical” ones) to exhaust themselves in a serene park. To be fair, that park used to be a fishing village separate from Hilo proper, but after the second time you get wiped out within a generation you start reconsidering your real estate development options.

Years ago, I mentioned that I did work as an undergrad that involved pulverizing a lot of volcanic rocks. To be more specific, I was doing isotope geochemistry on volcanic rocks trying to answer an important geological question: Does what goes down come back up? TL;DR answer is yes, but it’s complicated. if you’d like to know more you’re welcome to read this paper, which became someone else’s PhD outlined by my undergrad thesis, that resulted from me playing with a lot powerful acids and reducing rocks to tiny samples that I then vaporized on a mass spectrometer. Trust me, this is actually relevant to coffee.

That fundamental question was tested by looking for something that had a very distinct isotopic mix, subducting under another plate, with a resulting volcanic arc. If you take the Pacific Ocean, away you can see the chain of dead volcanoes extending  across the plate from the vicinity of Midway all the way to Izu-Bonin volcanic arc. These are big mountains, the kind that are large enough to deform the oceanic crust around them, which makes big troughs on either side that collect sediments, which are mostly landslides from the seamounts and chert from dead abyssal plankton. The Western Seamounts basalt, when mixed with the chert, makes a quite particular isotopic profile that, funny enough, isotopically looks an awful lot like the volcanic island directly above the where they subduct, AKA the island of Guam. As you move north or south from Guam, that isotopic signal fades away.

Which lead me to an odd thought: hey, Guam is in the Coffee Belt and has the right volcanic soil, I wonder if 100% Guamian coffee tastes close to Kona coffee? The mode of volcanism is different but the chemistry is similar. Or, at the very least, I could answer the question of what would coffee grown on the slopes of the submerged mountains I did my thesis on; Guam is as close as I can get. This, unfortunately, is an academic question as Guamian coffee appears to damn near impossible to get outside of Guam as pure varietal as there is very little under cultivation there anymore.

Speaking of Kona coffee, I drank a great deal of it. I also made a point to sample as much Ka’u, Puna, Hilo and Hamakua coffee as I could get my hands on just to compare the very different flavors from what is, more or less, very similar volcanic soils. In particular, I would like to give appreciation to the work of Hilo Shark’s Coffee, which you can hang out at for hours in downtown Hilo. Their coffee, chocolate, and vanilla is coming from their farm on the Hilo coast up the road a bit. When you order a hot chocolate and the whipped cream is sprinkled with nibs rather than dusted with cocoa powder, that’s a damn good sign. The small bar I bought is some of the best bittersweet dark chocolate I’ve had. While sitting savoring our coffee and cocoa, I remarked to my Lovely Assistant that if they had a tea plantation I might have a hard time getting her to leave. She immediately began searching and found one a few miles away from the Sharky Farm so, umm, if Hilo needs a PhD chemist who’s a also decent programmer I think you’ll have little difficulty convincing her to move there.

WELCOME TO THE WAIPIO VALLEY OUTLOOK - Please look, but don't touch or enter

WELCOME TO THE WAIPIO VALLEY OUTLOOK – Please look, but don’t touch or enter

There was one unfortunate thing that happened while there which was a fresh outbreak of dengue fever. The Waipio Valley is beautiful but difficult to get to at the best of times, which also makes treatment for re-eradication of disease difficult. Unfortunately, sick visitors and workers regularly bring dengue back to Hawaii and it sets up residence to make a disease reservoir anew in Waipio. I was ambivalent about finding this sign: while I’m glad this sign exists for me to take a picture of for my collection of interesting safety signs, it’s telling that it happens enough that they have this sign ready to go. As a friend who is now responding to this outbreak said, “It could be worse. They didn’t just leave the sign up at the overlook and add an extra sign & lights of WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING.”

The Waipio Valley in its lush and drizzly glory

The Waipio Valley in its lush and drizzly glory

But that doesn’t do justice to Waipio. Really, it is gorgeous there. I’ll leave you today with this picture from the overlook.

Apologies For The Weird Production Windows

The production window closing on January 23rd, which was a long one due to CES 2016, has pretty much sold out and shipped. The next production window will be completely open on Saturday (some slots are already up) but its going to be a short window ending on February 2nd.  “Why?” you might ask. Because my Lovely Assistant and I will be heading to the Big Island of Hawaii for a week to get the hell out of the SF Bay Area during the Super Bowl. I hope everyone enjoys the game and general festivities but, honestly, the getting around here is bad enough at the best of times. Adding a couple hundred thousand extra people means it’s time for me to be elsewhere.

As has been previously discussed here, I love me some volcanoes and doing isotope geochemistry on their rocks has informed some of my coffee palate. As my other convenient volcanoes require serious snow and winter gear at the moment,  Hawaii is the name of the game. It’s been almost a decade since I’ve been there so I’m excited to see if my golden, transcendent memories of drinking all the coffee at the Kona Pacific Coffee Co-op hold true or it was all just a dream.

So, get you orders in now for the short pre-Hawaii tip production window. The window after that will go until February 27th. Sorry for the weird production windows to start 2016 but the holidays and travel have made things tricky.

As a slice of life from bartending at my friend’s hospitality suite for the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, by far the weirdest moment was helping another friend, Fr. Gabriel, say mass. You see, the EZPR Suite is the happiest place in Las Vegas during CES as it has a well stocked bar, run by me, and a collection of wonderful people to hang out with, which happens to include a Dominican priest. Travel was badly messed up for everyone coming into Vegas so Fr. Gabriel got in painfully late and missed getting to mass at the cathedral. Its helpful to think of priests and monks as dedicated computers that run a very particular program, mass.exe, and it must be executed at least once per day; doesn’t need to be done in a church proper, doesn’t need a lot of people, but the program must be run.

It's sacrilicious!

Fr. Gabriel’s INSTANT ALTAR! Just add wine.

To this end, Fr. Gabriel has a Portable Altar which looks REMARKABLY SIMILAR to my 1960s portable bar from Executair. He was just going to use a closet in the suite, but I had the bright idea that there’s a bunch of wedding chapels in the hotel, usually unused, and maybe they’d be willing to let him use it as a quiet space. As happens a lot in my company, we got told “That’s a new one on me”, “I thought I’d heard everything”, and “No one’s ever asked that one before” a lot.

Please imagine, if you will, a fully decked out Dominican priest saying mass to himself, functioning as celebrant and congregation all in one, with an altar in miniature in the alcove of a casino chapel where they normally put the flowers and gifts. Please also imagine me, a long hair bearded ginger in shorts and Fallout t-shirt, elsewhere in the chapel trying to arrange refrigerator repair by phone at the same time. If there wasn’t a bunch of people gathered around the security monitors asking “What the fuck is going on here?” I’d be very surprised.

Regarding Breathalyzers in Antarctica

As I have been asked by a number of people about the latest Office of Inspector General’s report, and in the case of Wired they interviewed me and generated a very cherry picked set of quotes designed for maximum clickbait, allow me to share my collected thoughts about it here. TL;DR version: the NSF response to the audit is good and proper in my opinion, not that my opinion is all that important, though I’d worry about breathalyzers a bit.

  1. Remember there are three different groups of people going to Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation: grantees (research staff paid by NSF grant, AKA beakers, from various institutions around the world), contractor (station support staff paid by any of a number of management contractors and subcontractors), and military (the Air National Guard provides flight support and the Navy Cargo & Handling Group does ship offload). That said, the NSF has overarching responsibility for all the operations going on there.
  2. Compared to contractor personnel, grantees going to the continent have a “license to kill”. This is not to say they are unsupervised or lack any repercussions for their actions, but the chain of command over them and enforcement for infractions is looser. This is supposed to be intentional over the whole population to leave the latitude to manage a small and remote crew with as much flexibility as possible through the long winter. The NSF Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines that no contractor is allowed to be looser than, but in practice the contractor has much more management staff on site to enforce their corporate policies, which tend to be more strict than the NSF. It’s a matter of perspective.

    In my opinion, the NSF has been doing the right things to keep things open enough that the program is responsive to needs as they arise. Codify things too tightly in the safety of an office back at home and you may be inadequately prepared for problems as they come up.

  3. The station managers are deputized as special Deputy US Marshals to deal with the worst contingencies of human behavior that can happen in a remote place. This isn’t exactly law enforcement and it sure isn’t part of the day to day duties of a station manager; it’s an emergency response role. Response to incidents that require using this aspect of their duties is something I suspect is documented quite well and rare.
  4. The idea of using of breathalyzers for cause by managers to insure fitness for duty isn’t all that out of the ordinary anywhere in the American workplace, particularly under government contract. The weird thing for the Antarctic stations is that your workplace also is your home. What you do in your own time should be up to you, but for South Pole Station the population is small enough that there are no separate emergency responders. If you’re in no shape to respond to an alarm going off, that’s a tricky problem. Can I be upset with you for not being respond outside of your regular work hours?

    During work hours, just like anywhere else in the world, if you’re staggering up to a piece of heavy equipment because you just had a three martini lunch, people are going to notice and have cause. If you’re so badly hungover from the night before that you can’t clearly see which buttons do what on a console, same deal, testing for cause. Your boss would be delinquent in their duties if they didn’t pull you aside and send you to the doc.

  5. Now, whether those breathalyzers are going to work properly on the Antarctic Plateau is another question entirely. You’re hard pressed to get most manufacturers to certify equipment for high altitude, very low humidity, or temperatures below -40 and without that certification any actions you take based on the results will lack foundation. Hell, I couldn’t even get the manufacturer of my “arctic expedition grade sunglasses” to give me assurance that they wouldn’t fall apart at Pole. That said, it can be done, but it’s going to require some testing. The contractor says they’ve found one that will work without calibration so all the better. Where there’s a will there’s a way to make this happen for almost any gear.
  6. The bar culture of Antarctica is not a bad thing and it had the best interests of the crew in mind when established by the US Navy. Thousands of jokes about sailors aside, the Navy has long experience of how to manage crews in tight quarters, morale building, and how to blow off steam. Acknowledging that people were going to drink, the bars were created make sure they were drinking safe booze rather than homebrew hooch (which happens when you go “dry”) and to bring people together to reduce consumption. You might not think of a bar as a place for moderation of drinking, but it gives your fellow crewmates a chance to watch out for you. If you’re drinking alone in your room, and hoo nelly is that a bad sign, there isn’t any potential for the positive aspects of peer pressure to help rein you in or ask if you’re doing alright.

    When I got asked why I wouldn’t cut people off, it’s because I was much happier for them to pass out in front of me in the warmth and safety of the bar than have them “finish the job” alone or, worse, lose consciousness in the cold on their way back to their room. Really, the bar is a safety mechanism.

Welcome to the Wasteland

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a piece of Nevada that America decided was expendable. It had eaten countless settlements, boomed and busted so many times with the precious metal of choice, and the taken the lives of settlers with it. We then sacrificed it on the altar of national security and science, to forever be removed from the world, burning it with nuclear fire. The Nellis Bombing Range, AKA Nevada Proving Grounds, then renamed the Nevada Test Site (NTS), and now known as the Nevada National Security Site. Because for most of my life, certainly during the period when I worked in the complex, it was known as the NTS that is what I will refer to it as in this post.

NOTE: I once held endorsement to go to the Nevada Test Site in an official capacity but never actually made it out there. This was the first time I ever made it there and it was as a member of the public, not as the privileged and clearance holding.

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

I was lucky enough to get to take a public tour out there back in March. If you have the slightest interest in the desert and Big Science, or you’re just an atomic tourist, you owe yourself putting your name in the hat to take one of these tours. Slots normally open up in June, so keep on eye on the the DOE/NV Site Office Website for further announcements about tours. Yes, you will need to do some paperwork and possibly use a fax manchine. If you aren’t an American citizen, you may need to do even more.

Your tour begins at the Atomic Testing Museum at UNLV, which I’ve previously discussed, at 7:30 in the morning. Why so early? Because the next thing you do after collecting your badge is to climb on a bus as it drives an hour north of Vegas to the south entrance of the NTS. As a matter of entertainment, you’ll pass by Creech Air Force Base and have an opportunity to watch an air field that seems devoid of humans but with drones buzzing by regularly. The nearby town is boarded up, but the skies are humming.

I should add that I didn’t go alone on this trip. I was accompanied by my mother and sister, my Lovely Assistant, and Test Subjects Mortician & IT to Porn. This was a trip I had tried to organize before my father passed, but it took a couple extra years to get it all together. Some of the observations I’m sharing are collected from the larger group.

Once you actually arrive at the NTS, your first stop is badge check at the main gate. Just because you got issued a badge already doesn’t mean someone that shouldn’t be there hasn’t snuck aboard in the last 50 miles of lonely highway, so they check. This is the location that most of the old “No Nukes” protestors probably remember best as this is where the civil disobedience arrests used to take place. Our minder related his memory of when things had started to get a bit rowdy and there were too many people at one time to easily deal with, so they built a holding pen out there. Funny enough, the sherrifs discovered if you put too many likeminded people of a certain age together, of opposite sexes, bored, and possibly (very likely) stoned out of their minds… well, you need to build two holding pens. As described, it sounded like practice for future Burning Man camps.

Our next stop after going through the gate was the small town that is Mercury, NV because we’d been on the road for over an hour already, and there wasn’t going to be another good bathroom stop for quite a while; remember, this place is big, as in comparable to some states in New England. The more I think about it, town is much too generous a term for Mercury. It’s a quasi-military encampment that been there for decades, but it has a post office and zip code, therefore the place has to have a name and the original postmaster dredged up one of the old ghost town names for the area. Honestly, ghost town is a really good description for what Mercury was like. Other than the cashier in the NTS Cafeteria & Steakhouse, I saw one other person in Mercury who wasn’t on our tour.

Regarding the Steakhouse & Cafeteria, the Steakhouse wasn’t open when I was there, but I did peek through the window on the heavy wooden door. It reminded me of the fake rustic doors of old 1970s Italian restaurants you find in mini-malls, the ones with the tiny watery glass window with bars over them. On the inside, well, it wasn’t impressive. It reminded me of some of the less cared for VFW hall bars, except it lacked the character that comes with the old soldiers adding memorabilia and decor. Trestle tables, plastic table cloths, and a menu featuring Sam Adams as it’s microbrew. While it doesn’t look great, I’m to understand the steak is quite good, especially after a 12 hour long training exercise.

In the cafeteria proper, we who had woken up far too early for the tour had a chance to get desperately needed coffee. This was a mistake. A venerable government machine urinated into a cup for us. Test Subject Mortician took a sip, made a face, and said, “Tastes like its filled with scalding sadness.” I similarly winced and agreed with him, while my mom looked on and laughed at us for, truly, nothing had changed. The term she’d learned at Harris Technologies for this, circa 1970, for the magical machines that dispense coffee, tea, and chicken noodle soup, which all came out tasting identically horrible, was “Let’s get some kerosene”.

We then piled back into the bus with our snacks, to head out into the desert. Our minder for the tour was a former program director through 1980-90s for the non-nuclear experiments at NTS, so we got some interesting insights and tales of experiments that we might not associate with the place. For example, answering questions like “If you were to successfully shoot down a SCUD missile with a Patriot, which is POWERFULLY unlikely, and it’s loaded with chemical weapons, would the results of the interception be any worse than not doing anything?” or “If I wanted to try to weld a pipe onto the side of leaking chlorine rail car that’s leaking DID I MENTION THAT IT’S LEAKING to try to safely offload the contents, is there a way to do that without starting a chlorine fueled metal fire?”

Our next stop was the three mile line for the the Plumbob test series where, in addition to doing bomb performance studies, we were also doing survivability tests for different architectures and materials of typical infrastructure. We piled out of the bus and then looked up at the desert rusted heavy steel structure of the box girder train trestle, bent from blast forces, bolts sheared or yanked out of the concrete. The circle of concrete pediments continued at three miles from ground zero. We then kept driving and saw pummeled concrete domes, blasted houses, quansit huts. At the three mile mark most things survived; at the one mile mark, even the strongest, thickest, reinforced dome bunker looked like it had been smote from above.

The last stop I want to tell you about, because I want to leave some surprises for your own trip, is ICECAP (see photo above). In 1992, President Bush the First signed a temporary nuclear test moratorium. It’s still temporary, but the original 9 month moratorium has now become the more or less permanent 23 years and counting. Like anything that’s an ongoing process you bring to an end, not only is there something that has to be the last one but there also was going to be a next one. ICECAP is the nuclear test that never happened.

Depending on who you ask, ICECAP was either days, weeks, or months away from being ready for testing. It was intend to be what’s known as a String of Pearls test where more than one device was tested/disposed of at once, one stacked on top of another. But in particular it was intended to be a test of a British nuclear device where they were interested in perfomance in freezing temperatures, so there was an integrated freezer unit. They had the hole drilled, all the cabling and the diagnostic equipment prepped, and devices in preparedness to be loaded down the hole.

Why would we be testing a British nuclear device in Nevada? Once upon a time, the UK used to test in northern Australia until it got pointed out that the wind patterns weren’t great, hey, how about we test your stuff underground in Nevada instead? We’ve got a lot of Nevada, it’ll be great.

And then the moratorium took effect. Allow me to assemble a sarcastic, abbreviated year of diplomacy for you:

Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE): We really wanted our test.

US: We just put a moratorium in place. Sorry.

AWE: That’s your moratorium. We didn’t sign any of moratorium. We want our test.

US: Well, test away. Just not in Nevada.

AWE: We spent many, many millions of pounds for this test!

US: Cool.

AWE: NOT COOL! We want our test! We want our money back!

US: [whistles to itself walking around the desert]

AWE: C’monnnnnnnnnn

US: Nope.

And this is how a Smithsonian grade museum exhibit of late 1990s nuclear testing capabilities came to be in the middle of Nevada Site. Thanks, British government!

You will also get to see the Sedan Crater (which is the very large physical remains of the Plowshare Program), visit the nuclear waste facility where the remains of the Manhattan Project are slowly buried one football field worth at a time, and drive through Bilby Crater so you can say you’ve been to Ground Zero of a nuclear test. I cannot stress what a wonderful history and atomic archaeology nerd once in a lifetime experience this is. My only regret is no pictures, I have to hold it in my head as a dear memory.

Carbon Dating Primer

That Feeling Of Relief Which Comes With Really Good Rant

That Feeling Of Relief Which Comes With Really Good Rant

This was originally written on June 16th, 2012 after my family’s Father’s Day viewing of  “Prometheus”. It was then published in the final issue of Coilhouse. The editor of Coilhouse, Meredith Yayanos, immesuarably improved my words by adding excellent illustrations, such as the one to the right.

Hollywood, we need to talk about your dating habits. In particular, how important it is to have a reference to verify ages before you get in trouble. No, I’m not talking about the hypersexualization of 12 year old girls trying to pass for 18. Nor am I talking about the 60-somethings trying to pass for 18 as well. That is a totally separate head shaking situation.

I would like to blame the movie Prometheus for this rant, but they’re hardly the only guilty party; it’s just the one that finally made me snap. Hollywood, you don’t understand how carbon dating works, that there are other dating methods that sometimes work better, and that the true (unattainable) goal is to find the perfect point of reference to scale them all against. But underlying all of that is a body of scientific work and assumptions that you’ve conveniently ignored in the interest of “character driven plot”. But I have news for you: your characters and your plot make less sense when you take these shortcuts. And when you do this people become confused as to what science and technology actually are, to the point that we have to deprogram juries and judges of the CSI Effect in capital punishment trials because Reality. Just. Doesn’t. Work. Like. That.

You have science advisers. You ignore them at your peril. To quote Atomic Robo‘s Brian Clevinger, “What’s particularly frustrating is that it takes so little effort to find the intersection between plausible science and your fiction such that the audience will go along with everything.”

I’m here to help though. I’m giving you this quick primer on dating methodology, and the humorous ways they fail, for free. Of course, you get what you paid for.

We start by discussing cosmic bombardment. No, not “Nuke ‘em from orbit” Ripley-style, although I like the way your mind works, but rather the continuous rain of high energy particles blasting from The Great Beyond.  By far the biggest source is our own sun, but that just because it’s so close. But we also have all our neighboring suns of the Milky Way, many of which are much larger and energetic than ours, and the monstrous galactic core belching stripped nuclei at relativistic speeds at us. Oh, then there’s the entire rest of the universe, supernovae, black holes and all, sending nuclei (mostly hydrogen & helium) at us at 99.999% of the speed of light, exploding in particle physics collisions with our atmosphere. The atomic fragments of this are still energetic to have a half dozen more of these collisions. This is what is known as the “cosmic ray air shower”. NOTE: at no point in the process do you create the Fantastic Four.

Next, let’s tackle radioactivity and isotopes. For any given element, its chemical properties are dictated by the number of protons, and thus electrons, that it has. Chemically speaking, you can have any number of neutrons you want in the nucleus and it will still be the same element; those different mass nuclei with varying numbers of neutrons are known as “isotopes” of that element. However, nuclei with too few or too many neutrons are unstable and they will shed energy, in the form of light or ejected particles, to try to achieve a stable nuclear arrangement. This is radiation. An isotope that emits energy in this manner is “radioactive”.

For the bonus round, the particles generated by the cosmic rays can interact with the stable nuclei of the atmosphere to create new radioactive isotopes. Carbon-14 (or as I will shorthand it from now on, C-14) is one of the many naturally occurring isotopes, in this case generated in the atmosphere due to the cosmic ray bombardment of nitrogen-14 with neutrons. Cosmic ray bombardment of Earth does vary with latitude and the Earth’s magnetic field but due to atmospheric and water mixing, the ratio of radioactive C-14 to plain old stable C-12 is considered to be constant through in the environment.  When an organism dies, no new C-14 is taken into its tissues and it starts to radioactively decay away.  We can date thus things based on the changing ratio, relative to the half-life of C-14 (5712 years).

“How does this all relate to dating?” you may ask. Through some rather painstaking observation, we’ve been able to establish that any given radioactive isotope decays away to stable ones at a constant rate (the time until only half of the starting amount is left is known as the half-life). If you know how much of the radioactive isotope you started with and observe what’s left, you can then calculate how much time has passed. Simple, right? All I need to do is go measure how much C-14 is left compared to normal non-radioactive C-12 and, bam, I know old the thing is. Let’s examine the underlying assumptions of let C-14 dating techniques. Please remember that anytime the words “every”, “always”, and “only” appear in assumptions, one should be wary:

  1. A living thing has the same concentration of C-14 in it as everything else in the world, right up until the moment it dies.
  2. C-14 concentrations are the same everywhere on Earth and always have been the same.
  3. C-14 is being created in the atmosphere at a constant rate by a cosmic ray bombardment that has always been the same.
  4. Cosmic ray bombardment is the only source of C-14 production.
  5. We have a KNOWN C-14 reference point in time to calculate against calibrated to our calendar.

To seemingly completely change gears on you, My Lovely Assistant found this article regarding the oddity of the Dry Valleys near McMurdo in Antarctica.  I would like to bring your attention about two thirds of the way down to the picture of the Most Important Seal Carcass EVAR.  “Why is this most important seal carcass”, I hear you ask, “Do you have the brain worms again?”  No, I don’t but let me explain myself.  It is important because:

  1. It is a good example of the danger of doing science and not questioning your assumptions.
  2. It is used as a basis of support for Young Earth Creationism (YEC) that is less shaky than the idiocy of carbon dating dinosaur bones and I want you to be able to call bullshit on it.

Carbon dating is not perfect.  First, you need to calibrate the carbon “clock”.  We’ve done this by comparing the carbon ratios in organic matter that we are pretty sure of the age of, such as tree rings.  In particular, we tie specific events we know the date of, like volcanic eruptions in the historical record, and a particularly ashy tree ring. Sadly, we have no trees older than ~6000 years.  Second, your ratio is only as good as your ability to detect AND count the beta radiation from the decay of C-14.  The amount of C-14 in the environment is minuscule, hard to detect, and it doesn’t get any easier as there is progressively less of it.  After about ten half-lives (~60000 years for C-14), we in the radiation detection game declare a radioactive isotope to be effectively gone.  Really good mass spectrometry equipment can see beyond that, but the error bars on the measurements get progressively larger as you have less and less material to work with.  For this reason, we add spikes of C-14 to bring really old samples out of the background noise.

For these reasons, carbon dating is best used within the last 6000 years or so and gets progressively less accurate the further back you go.  Beyond 60000 years, your dating is more or less useless.  If anyone tells you they carbon dated something and got a date older than 60000 years, you are allowed to call bullshit on them or you should closely examine their method and decide if you need to award them the Nobel Prize.

This should go without saying, but carbon dating is useless on something that wasn’t organic material to begin with.  If you want to be really, really picky you could point out that limestone and calcite, both being calcium carbonate, were originally teeny tiny organisms’ shells so they’re organic material, right?  I would give you the finger for being a smartass, albeit a correct one.  However, it tends to take more than 50000 years to create a limestone deposit.  Sure, I can go hit the tops of coral reefs for samples but I don’t have to drill very deep on the reef to find coral too old to accurately date.

Back to Antarctica…

Down in the Dry Valleys, there was a researcher had been passing by this seal corpse every day and decided “Dammit, I want to know how old this thing is” and took a sample for dating.  The corpse read as being about 10000 years old.  This was somewhat mindblowing as the specific seal carcass was a modern seal. The problem cropped up when they dated a bit of seal from a recently collected sample to help calibrate the carbon dating “clock” for the local area.  The fresh sample, from a living seal that unhappily flopped away, dated as being 2000 years old.  Uh oh…

Sharing these results, this turned into an immediate proof for refutation of carbon dating, and thus all science that might suggest an Earth older than Bishop Usher’s estimate, by the YEC believers.  A simultaneous contradictory thought accepting carbon dating commonly held by YEC that carbon dating of dinosaur bones shows them to fall in the last 10000 years.  They generally fail to discuss the likely contamination from sample collection (say, perhaps, plaster…) and that DINOSAUR BONES ARE FUCKING ROCKS, NOT ORGANIC SAMPLES. Sorry, I get excitable about these things.

Scientists, on the other hand, were very puzzled by the discrepancy.  They repeated the experiment several more times.  Except for elephant seals and orca, every time they sampled a local organism, they kept getting an anomalously old carbon date.  The exceptions were what broke the mystery; every other organism they sampled did not leave the Southern Ocean on its migration.  From this, we learned to question the underlying assumption of carbon dating, that the C-14/C-12 ratio was constant in the environment.  It’s not.

Imagine, if you will a place that is very cold, and isolated from the global carbon cycle due to the austral circumpolar flow of air and surface water.  Relative the carbon cycle, it is an island.  There is deep flow of the cold water along the ocean floor to Antarctica, but it takes centuries to get there.  The low intensity of the high angle cosmic ray bombardment on Antarctica means there is less locally produced C-14 inside of the isolated area.  Antarctica is a naturally C-14 poor environment.  Relative to the carbon dating calibration curves of the rest of the world, everything looks ancient.

From this we also learned that our numbers get skewed in the vicinity of volcanoes; they’re big CO2 carbon output from very old carbon locked in the Earth’s mantle that ends up saturating the local environment. So, while it’s great to use that nice ash layer in a tree ring to help set your chronology clock, you might not want to carbon date that specific ring when choosing your samples. Also, we figured out that we have completely screwed up carbon dating for the future (without creating major correction factors) by dumping huge amounts of most venerable carbon into the global cycle by burning fossil fuels.

Humanity also kind of, sort of, if you want to be really picky, manufactured a bunch of C-14 through nuclear testing that we’ve blasted into the atmosphere that negates the assumption that cosmic ray bombardment is the only source of C-14. For this reason, when we do carbon dating “The Present” is defined as January 1, 1950. It’s the consensus date the scientific community could agree upon where, after that, we’d muddied the waters with nuclear blasts too much to do dating. Because I’m funny that way, I created a word to describe this: nuclearche, the onset of nuclear activities that are widely observable in the geologic record. Truly, we live in the Anthropocene Epoch and the pulse of interesting isotopes and their decay products will be the signpost that the geologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists of the future uplift raccoons society will use to study our times.

(I might be wrong about the raccoons. It could be crows. It pays to be nice to your future corvid overlords now.)

To bring this all back to complaining about the science of Prometheus, all of this goes out the window when you leave Earth. All those assumptions don’t hold true 100% on Earth, much less another planet. We established the primordial radionuclide dating system thanks to meteorites, which we assume (assumption 1) are made from the same uniform mixture of starstuff (assumption 2) that condensed into the solar system. These systems might work for Mars, but you have no idea what an alien solar system’s chemical and isotopic make up is. We have no signposts for alien worlds. Sure, we could take the time to establish what the C-14 generation rate on a given planet is, but we have no frame of reference when we first get there.

THE (SPOILERY) CONCLUSION:

When the good doctors date the corpse of the Engineer’s head and body they discovered with the Magical Dating Stick of Science, they immediately come up with 2000 years. The only way that possibly makes works is if he was born and bred on Earth, made of atoms from Earth, went to LV-223 in a vessel with no cosmic ray bombardment, and then died promptly on arrival without breathing or eating much of anything on that moon.

And this all is what went rattling through my brain and distracted me from the rest of the otherwise very pretty movie. Not nearly as bad as when I stood up in the middle of The World Is Not Enough and yelled at the screen, “THEY NEVER LOOK LIKE THAT!” at scantily clad Denise Richards when she introduced herself as an IAEA nuclear physicist.

But that’s a rant for another time.