An interview with the 2013-14 IceCube winterovers

Summer is already showing up at many of IceCube’s collaborating institutions. In the meantime, at the South Pole, the detector itself stays safe and frozen a mile beneath the surface. These days winter is as tough as it gets for two IceCubers, the 2013-14 winterovers.

Dag Larsen and Ian Rees arrived at the South Pole in November 2013. The brand-new winterovers had already been working for IceCube for a few weeks in Madison, learning all the ins and outs of their new job. Now they were ready to take over for Blaise Kuo Tiong and Felipe Pedreros, who had been at the Pole maintaining the detector for the previous 12 months.

Ian and Dag

Ian and Dag are adventurous but also meticulous, a strange combination of traits shared by most people that decide to apply for a winterover position. Dag is a physicist, and he had already worked for other physics experiments, such as the ones at CERN, in Switzerland. Ian is an electrical engineer and had been working with renewable energies. One from Norway and one from rural northern Georgia, both willing to enjoy the South Pole and to keep IceCube performing.

Q: Had you ever heard about IceCube before learning about the winterover position?

Dag (D): IceCube is a rather well-known astroparticle physics experiment. I heard about it many times and in many places.

Ian (I): Yes. Way back when I worked at McMurdo Station (on Ross Island, at the edge of Antarctica) when IceCube construction was in full swing. My job involved moving fuel around, some of which was destined for IceCube construction at the South Pole.

Q: Why did you apply? What were you expecting from a year at the Pole?

I: That’s a simple question without a simple answer. I’d considered wintering at the South Pole for several years and IceCube seemed “right up my alley,” so I applied for this position a little over a year ago.

Generally, I think it’s good to come into this sort of thing without too many expectations. That said, I expected some of the obvious things: to have a long time to get to know my fellow winterovers, see some auroras, and experience some serious cold. Other than that, I tried to keep an open mind about the experience.

D: It sounded exciting. I like both the polar areas and physics, so I thought it could be a unique chance to combine these two interests. It is hard to define concisely what I was expecting from a year at the Pole. It sounded like it could be a special experience in several ways. It would allow me to contribute to a physics experiment, to visit a place not many people have the chance to visit, and perhaps also allow for some time to read and do other things that I had been putting off for too long time.

Q: Can you tell us what your tasks are and what you feel are your contributions or impacts to IceCube research outcomes?

D: Basically, our tasks are whatever needs to be done to keep the experiment running.

I: Yes, this means keeping the computers that run the detector operating well. By preventing problems, and fixing them as quickly as possible when they do come up, we help IceCube record more physics data. More data eventually leads to better quality research.

D: During the summer, it also involves participating in various upgrades. The winter, as Ian was saying, is more about fixing things that break, doing calibration, collecting data, and trying to improve things. There are many steps needed between collecting the data (which we do) to the published results. But no data, no papers…

I: Oh! I should also mention that we also have other tasks as station community members, from washing dishes to participating on emergency response teams.

Dag 1001
Ian and Dag
Dag, on the left, sitting in the IceCube office at the South Pole, where winterovers spend lots of hours. On the right, Ian is working in the machine shop. He prefers some action!

Q: What do you like the most/the least? What did you find most surprising about your job/life at the Pole?

D: What I like the most is the place. When one walks to the IceCube Laboratory (where the servers are located), and it is dark, cold and windy, it is fascinating to think how far away from “civilization” we are — to look out on this practically endless ice desert separating us from the rest of the world.

I: I like the people! There are some really fun and interesting folks wintering here with us, and there’s always something to do. What I don’t like at all, though, is the low humidity. Since the air outside is very cold, it can’t hold much water. When we warm up that air, we end up with only a couple percent humidity inside the station. Staying hydrated requires a bit of effort, cracked knuckles and chapped lips are common, and food dries out really fast.

D: I guess there is not that much that I “dislike.” Though I sometimes wonder why the detector appears to have problems most frequently at odd hours … The main surprise was that there were no “real” surprises. Before I got here, I was unsure whether my expectations were “realistic,” so I pretty much expected to be surprised.

I: I was surprised by the amount of work. Not that I was not expecting to work, but everything is busier than I would’ve guessed in the winter. Part of that is a couple extra jobs beyond IceCube I’ve ended up with, but boredom is something I definitely haven’t had to deal with.

Q: How do you like it so far?

I: I like it a lot! I’ve been here for a little over six months now and still occasionally stop outside to look around and admire this place. There are lots of challenges that come mainly from the cold environment and the isolation; I think those generally keep life interesting. We also have a constant supply of fresh cookies freely available just down the hall, that’s hard to beat!

D: Yes, so far it has been very nice. The work is interesting, and also I like the nature experience with the stay. The bright stars, the auroras, the darkness, the coldness are all fascinating. Also, people are friendly, and many of them have very interesting life experiences. I guess there are times when one feels it is a rather small world down here, and it would be nice to see other people and places. But it passes quickly.

Q: Would you recommend becoming an IceCube winterover to other people?

D: If going to the Pole, and also taking care of a large physics experiment, is something that immediately sounds like a thing you would like to do, I would definitely recommend being a IceCube winterover. But you really need to be sure you will like both the place and the job. After the last plane has left, there is no way back…

I: Wintering certainly isn’t for everybody, so I guess my recommendation would depend on the person. For me, it’s been a positive experience so far, and I’d consider doing this again if the opportunity arose. IceCube is a great group to work with. I’d definitely recommend working with IceCube in general.

Q: Finally, what one word describes what you think about each of the following:

a) IceCube

D: Soda

I: Big

b) IceCubers

D: Friendly

I: Friendly

c) the Pole

D: Exciting

I: Unique

d) other winterovers

D: Interesting

I: Eclectic

e) neutrinos

D: Elusive

I: Intriguing