Welcome WCATY Scholars

A special welcome to all scholars from WCATY visiting this web site. I am excited to work with WCATY again this year.

Welcome, WCATY Scholars!

As your meeting with some of the IceCube scientists draws nearer, you might be wondering why some of us have chosen to spend a year (or more) at the South Pole, of all places. Why do we need a research station at the most isolated place on Earth? Is the research we do really that important and how does it help us in the future? Isn’t it all basic research with no practical application? Some members of congress and senators go as far as asking: “What does the taxpayer get out of this?” Well, I asked some of the local scientist and here is some food for thought:

The purpose of South Pole Telescope, the BICEP telescope, and IceCube is to provide important clues about the origin and the destiny of the universe we live in. The pursuit of scientific knowledge is critical to mankind. It fulfills many needs of the human race including the need for technological advancement necessary to support an ever increasing population with its increasingly complex society and infrastructure, the desire to search for our origin, and our inherent need to explore and understand the unknown. This innate curiosity is one of the key elements that has helped sustain the human race and has allowed us to intellectually advance over other species. – J. Dana Hrubes, Winterover, South Pole Telescope (SPT), Station Science Leader

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Long-term atmospheric monitoring, of the kind performed by the NOAA/ESRL/GMD observatory at South Pole, will allow us to track human influences on the earth’s atmosphere, and thus on its climate, and allow us to better understand, to model, and, (we hope) to adjust those influences if necessary. – J. Booth, Winterover, NOAA

Other, more famous people, have answered these questions before:

We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity – Marie Curie

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My scientific work is motivated by an irresistible longing to understand the secrets of nature and by no other feelings. My love for justice and the striving to contribute towards the improvement of human conditions are quite independent from my scientific interests. – Albert Einstein

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It is my inner conviction that the development of science seeks in the main to satisfy the longing for pure knowledge. – Albert Einstein

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Questions I have many, answers but a few – Dolly Parton

There you have it. My personal motivation is that I just want to know. I think it doesn’t get more exciting than studying the origin of the universe and I am happy to play a very small part in it.

Wouldn’t it be a poor world in which science would be judged and funded solely based on its immediate usefulness? Who gets to decide what is useful?

I’m looking forward to talking to you soon. Stay warm in Wisconsin!

2008-04-05 Update: A few pictures from the event:

WCATY Group Picture

Bill with Bunny Boots

Sarah Dressed for Cold

South Pole Crew: Shaun Meehan (Communications), W. Lance Roth (Meteorology), Amy Cox (NOAA), and
Steffen Richter (BICEP)

Listening to the South Pole Phone Call

IceCube Presentation

[tags]Antarctica, BICEP, NOAA, South Pole, SPT, WCATY [/tags]

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21 Responses to “Welcome WCATY Scholars”

  1. Mr. Sinks
    March 29th, 2008 07:24

    Hi Steffen and what a wonderful (I want to say warm, but….:) greeting and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us before we even get started with our WCATY class on Monday! As Dolly Parton said I have lots of questions, but I’ll just start with one to begin! (there are advantages to being a WCATY instructor…I get to go first!)

    How did you get started in science? I don’t need to have a long answer or anything like as epistle, but was it the encouragement of your parents, a teacher, or were you just really interested from the get-go as a kid?


  2. steffen
    March 31st, 2008 03:30

    @ Mr. Sinks

    I have always been interested in all things technical and science and was allowed to pursue my interest from an early age. With the gentle guidance of some good teachers everything fell into place. I have been lucky enough to get some tutoring from a university physics lecturer, starting in 8th grade.

  3. Katelynn
    April 2nd, 2008 10:15


    I was wondering what your specific job is or if you have one so i can come up with some questions for Wendsday.


  4. steffen
    April 3rd, 2008 00:46

    Yes, I do have a job :-). I’m running the BICEP telescope during the Antarctic winter.

  5. Emma
    April 3rd, 2008 08:27

    Thank you so much for the phone call today during the face-to-face! That was really neat!

    I have another question (or two) for you – was there something in particular that sent you into this particular job, or just a general interest in the subject? Also, what are some of the worst parts of being stuck at the bottom of the world for a year?

    Thanks again!

  6. Emma K.
    April 3rd, 2008 10:30

    Just wanted to say thanks again for the phone call! It was really interesting to hear about your expieriences and what it is like down there.

    I have a couple of questions. When you were a child did you know this was the kind of career you were interested in, and if not, what influenced you to have a job like this?

    Another question, how often to you talk to your family and friends, and what do they think about you being at the South Pole?

    Thanks again taking your time to talk to us!

  7. Kimberly
    April 3rd, 2008 11:09

    Thank you so much for the phone call! When I came back to school, I told my friends about it and they thought that it was awesome! I noticed in the picture you sent us, that some of you were wearing short sleeves. Do they keep the buildings really warm?


  8. Nakia
    April 3rd, 2008 11:27

    I really appreciated your phone call today! That was awesome to have talked to you all when we are so far apart! Oh and I especially wanted to thank you for waking up at 3:00 AM for us! So I thought of another question a little later, (I asked one of the speakers a little later but I just want to see if you had anything different to say.) How do they find/get contracters to go to the South Pole to go make a building? Is it hard to find them? Where do they stay? Are there any other places they go? (She said they stayed in the old building as they built the new one but what about when they built the old one? Did they stay in tents?) I would appreciate your feedback and thanks again for taking your time to help teach us something new! Hope you stay warm! ;-)

  9. Nakia
    April 3rd, 2008 11:30

    I thought of another question! Also, what time zone do you use there? I’m pretty sure you don’t just have different clocks all over wherever you go because that would be pretty confusing I’d think!

  10. Morgan
    April 3rd, 2008 14:54

    Hello! Thank you so much for the phone call today! It was so neat to get to speak with you. Also, thank you for getting up so early to speak to us all. It was really a neat experience! I thought of another question I would like to ask. I was wondering, what is your favorite experience that you will remember the most from Antarctica and why?

    Thanks again for your time and for your phone call!


  11. steffen
    April 4th, 2008 01:50

    Hi All,

    It was great talking to you yesterday. I try my best to answer your questions.

    The worst case scenario would be if something happened to one of your family or friends back home. That is a very hard situation to deal with and unfortunately it has happened to some people.

    For your first question, I think my answer to Emma K. will cover that :-)

    @Emma K

    I think I always knew that I wanted to do something where I get to play with cool technical things. I was lucky in that I was allowed to just follow my interests. It wasn’t always a straight path, as I was living behind the iron curtain at the time and I had to take some politically motivated detours. Luckily, the wall came down just at the right time for me.

    I never thought about going to the South Pole, though. That just happened by accident. While I still was a university student I heard about the AMANDA project and I got myself a job writing the data acquisition software for the AMANDA detector, which led to my first winter down here.

    I think the most important thing is that you do what you really enjoy. Just imagine you are stuck down here for the winter and you don’t like your job!

    I talk to my family quite regularly, about once a week. I think they have made their peace with me being away for long periods of time. On the up side I have long periods of time off when I am not at the South Pole, which I use to catch up with family and friends.

    Most of the buildings are at room temperature, unless there is a requirements to keep them colder. For instance the summer berthing area is used for storage and is kept just above freezing. Some of the science and computer server areas are kept colder to help cooling the electronics.

    Our construction workers are an awesome bunch. They come from all over the place, but the largest groups seem to be from Colorado and Alaska. The company that hires the workers is based in Denver and the Alaskans seem to enjoy the lifestyle. Quite a few of them enjoy the seasonal work and when they are not at the South Pole they do things like working in Greenland or at some other remote location. Some of them only come once for the experience and then return to their professional lifes back home.

    We have a so-called the Summer camp. It consists of surplus tents from the Korean war, which are called Jamesways. You can get an idea of they look like from these pictures. During the summer some people, construction workers and scientist, live in the tents.

    The first South Pole Station was built for the International Geophysical Year in 1957/58. All the parts where airdropped and the Station was assembled in one short summer season in 1956/1957. You can read about it on Bill Spindler’s page. The construction workers lived in two Jamesways.

    The Dome was built from 1970 1975, while workers still occupied the old station, three quarters of a mile away from the Dome.

    During construction of the current Station we lived in the Dome and Summer camp, eventually moving into the New Station in 2003, while it was still under construction.

    One of the goals of the New Station was to eliminate Summer camp, which I think will never happen. South Pole science is a victim of its own success. We are already bursting at the seams. The Station was build to house 150 people, we now regularly have much more than 200 people during the Summer.

    We really could pick any time zone we wanted to. For logistical reasons we chose to be on New Zealand time. All our supply missions start in New Zealand. That means we are either 13 or 12 hours ahead of Greenwich time, depending on whether we observed daylight savings time or not.

    Oh, there are many things I will always remember. When I came down the first time in 1997 the Hercules LC-130 planes would pull up right in front of the Dome. The first time the doors opened and I stepped outside, engines roaring, and I saw the Dome, it was quite special. Seeing the Aurora Australis during the winter months is also something one never forgets and we are getting quite spoiled by the Aurora displays down here. Other highlight are driving up the flanks of Mt. Erebus with a snowmobile or visiting the old explorer’s huts in the McMurdo area.

  12. Morgan
    April 4th, 2008 03:31

    Thanks for answering my question Steffen! It sounds like you have had a lot of amazing experiences!

    Thanks Again!


  13. Tyler M.
    April 4th, 2008 07:31


    I enjoyed the presentation! I actually like science more than language arts! (sorry Mr. Sinks, but I’m getting 104% in science…)

    I finally thought of a question that I think is appropriate. (Is that how you spell it?)

    Ok. Here it is…

    Because it’s dark at the south pole for 6 months, does your internal biological clock ever get rearranged? And by that I mean do you ever switch between sleeping all day and being up all night or what people normally do?

  14. Garrett W.
    April 5th, 2008 03:18


    Thanks for the answers to our questions. Like Tyler I like science (sorry Mr. Sinks, but I’m getting 103% in science).

    I taken some time to think of a question,

    According to Wikipedia Antartica is the windiest, coldest and driest place on earth, is this true where you are?


    Garrett Wolff

  15. Haley L.
    April 5th, 2008 03:43

    Hi Steffen!
    Thank you so much for answering our questions Wednesday! I learned so much! It sounds like the south pole is a lot of fun!

    Have you ever considered a different job than the profession you are in now?

    Thanks again for talking to us on the phone! It was so interesting!


  16. steffen
    April 5th, 2008 04:33

    @Tyler M.
    The rhythm of day and night is certainly important for your biological clock. So you are right to assume that this could be a problem. A lot of people have problems sleeping and it gets worse as the season continues. Some things one can try to do is to keep a regular schedule, turn the lights on in the morning and dim them in the evening.

    Of course in the science jobs all bets are off. You just have to work when a problem shows up. Science never sleeps :-)

  17. steffen
    April 6th, 2008 00:28

    @Garrett W.

    The South Pole is not the windiest part of Antarctica. It tends to be a lot windier on the Antarctic coast. The cold air just rushes down from the Antarctic plateau under the force of gravity, picking up speed along the way. This is called the katabatic wind. Since we are pretty high, our winds tend to be pretty mellow. The highest wind speed at the South Pole was only 48 knots (55mph), recorded on August 24, 1989. Our average wind speed is only 10.6 knots (12.2mph). In comparison the Mawson Coast average wind speed is 44 mph. The highest recorded wind speed is 198.9 mph.

  18. Christopher Eom
    April 6th, 2008 04:22


    I’m so sorry I missed your call from the South Pole. Anyways, I was wondering how far from the South Pole do you have to be in order to see the first animals.

    Let me know!

    Christopher Eom

  19. steffen
    April 7th, 2008 02:48

    @Haley L.
    I sure have, but they wouldn’t allow me to use a snowmobile ;-)

    @Christopher Eom
    It has happened a few times that a Skua flew all the way to the South Pole. I have seen one.

    Otherwise, you have to be at the coast to see any animals. I have had a chance to see penguins, seals, orcas, and some Antarctic fish.

  20. Garrett W.
    April 8th, 2008 02:48

    Hi Steffen,

    It’s Garrett again and I was just wondering what you thought about the Big Bang Theory.


  21. Steve
    January 12th, 2010 03:47

    Why has there been no posts on here for ages? is the site no longer running?