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So, You Want to Be a Penguin Researcher?

CAPE ROYDS, ROSS ISLAND, ANTARCTICA– What is required? I’ve been asked many a time.

Well, there is the usual sort of thing, like learning as much as possible in school about science and math, getting a good understanding about how the universe works, including the process of evolution. Then, it’s good, but not necessarily necessary, that you go to graduate school to rub elbows with people who have done research.

Anyone can be a scientist, really. In fact, ‘science’ is basically just a way of looking at things. In science, when you see some pattern out there in nature, or in a test tube, or through a telescope or a microscope, you formulate a preliminary explanation of what you see (which is called a hypothesis). Then, you try to be clever to find ways to DISPROVE your idea. If your explanation can withstand your testing, then you’re probably onto something.

On the other hand, if you are not a person thinking in a scientific way, then you just have an idea about something that strikes you as cool, and maybe you write a poem about it or paint a picture, or just continue to think it to be cool. Truly, there are ways of seeing things that are valid even if you are not being scientific. I’m not talking here about religion, or about morals, these two not necessarily being the same thing. I’m a scientist but I am also religious: I feel the vast and great forces of Nature all around me, and I’m awed and feel insignificant.

For a scientist, the cool part of it, besides the phenomenon itself, is coming up with an explanation that withstands concrete, observable alternate explanations. Then you see if someone else has had those thoughts (by reading stuff), and if not, you write a scientific paper about it and submit it for publication. This is the sort of thing you’d learn about in graduate school, mostly the process of being a scientist, that is, a person who finds stuff out and is responsible enough to tell other people through a publication.

Thomas Jefferson was a person who was not a ‘scientist’ but he was a great practitioner of ‘science’ and was very knowledgeable about nature, especially botany. He once said, in regard to his charge, Meriwether Lewis (the guy he sent to explore the Missouri and Columbia rivers before other white guys did), that “observation unrecorded is knowledge lost”. That’s so, so very true!!! In the olden days, people ‘recorded’ their observations and knowledge by intricate and constant story telling. Now we write things down, take notes, etc., and write papers and essays.

In any case, enough of this book learning side to being a penguin researcher. Let’s see, what did I do yesterday in this process of learning facts about penguins? Yesterday, and the day before and the day before that, we were engulfed in a major storm, winds up to 60 knots (though higher away from the shelter of where our platform tent is located) and from time to time snow so thick one couldn’t see more than a few yards. Well, Roald Amundsen, polar explorer extraordinaire, once said, “If you’ve had an adventure then you haven’t prepared!”

True, but sometimes there are ’small’ things that don’t go exactly as planned. And you have to deal with them before they become big things. This I was thinking, yesterday, upon hearing a thud and a clank outside, at the same time that our heating stove died. Seems we had a gust of wind from an unanticipated direction, which then took advantage of the fact that the propane in one of our canisters had been used up. Thus the canister was about 150lbs lighter than when I hoisted it in place.

Shoot, why now? Definitely not fair! So, I donned all my polar clothes… looking like the Dough-man… got a wrench, and out I went. I proceeded to wrestle with the two remaining, full canisters, which had blown over, too, upon the other becoming too light (these winds ARE strong). This isn’t so easy to do in a hurricane, wearing gloves and a parka hood that wouldn’t sit straight on my head. Thus I was usually seeing out with just one eye. Try untying and then re-tying knots wearing gloves in those conditions! Ultimately, though, I succeeded, made sure all the ropes on various tents and things were snug, and then back inside I went. Heating stove started right up!

That was the highlight of yesterday. Today, with lessening though still blustery winds I ventured down to the penguins. The penguins could care less, of course, what with this weather. The tent, though, which protected the computer that goes with our automatic weighing scale, was in need of help. Thought I’d gotten it right the first time, when setting it up! But the wind had torn some of the sewed-in loops out. So, it was kind of the same story, tying and un-tying knots in very strong winds, with tent flaps flapping etc etc etc, wind trying to take them one way, and me trying to force them the other. I sure am glad that my Dad and others taught me a lot of neat knots. They don’t teach that stuff in science graduate school! Finally, I got the whole thing staked down again in all its important parts. Then, after an hour or two, I went off to see how the penguins were doing. Taking notes as I went, of course, me being a scientist.

These are the kinds of things one has to do to have a successful season of field research. It’s a lot of camping and ‘surviving’ in order to be collecting data and taking notes, and thinking scientific thoughts. So, if you want to be a penguin researcher, do a lot of camping before hand, just to become comfortable with those little ‘adventures’ that arise day to day. Of course, some penguins live in places where the comforts of civilization aren’t all that far away. But I like camping out there in Nature, with my religion all about.

Part of our field camp.

Above is our lodging for this 2008-09 penguin research season. It’s called a RacTent (the blue and yellow structure). You can see the propane canisters in the back to the right, where the anemometer (wind gauge) is located (that pipe sticking up). To the left are the solar panels. Those have to be rotated now and again to keep them facing the sun, especially when there are lots of clouds and not much reflectance off the snow.

Inside the RacTent.

Above is the inside of the RacTent. In the far right corner is the propane camp stove, underneath which are about 5 boxes for recycling, one box for a different kind of stuff: food waste, cans, mixed paper, and non-recyclable stuff (plastic and cellophane food wrappers, etc). To the right is the propane heating stove. Anything put on the floor is liable to freeze, including your feet. Walking around, though, the upper half of your body is comfortably warm. To the left, you can see my ‘desk’ and laptop. Note the telephone on the card-table. That’s a wireless connection to McMurdo Station. The other morning at 5:30AM, the McMurdo Fire House called saying that someone from this number had called in a 911 code. Must have been some penguins fiddling with the antenna, or some electrons that the wind had overly excited.

The computer tent, with Adélies.

Here’s the tent containing the computer, with the automatic scale to its left. Solar panels that run the computer and scale are to the right of the tent. The wind is very, very clever about un-raveling things, wanting everything to enter a state of chaos. So, one has to keep paying attention to the small things, so they don’t become big and chaotic.

The green, plastic fence surrounding the penguins directs them to go and come by walking across the scale.

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2 Responses »

  1. What a good read! I especially like this part:
    “But I like camping out there in Nature, with my religion all about.”

    Time for me to dust off my tent and practice my bowline knot . . .

  2. I am curious about Graduate Schools that offer penguin research/marine studies. I am a penguin fanatic and would love to spend my life researching them. If you have any recommendations they would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and HAVE FUN!