The Golden Compass: a film review by Sasha Cooper (aka Jinx at HH)
It’s 1982. Several strangers sit in a darkened room, pondering a question that will set the tone of American cinema for the next quarter of a century: what the heck was “Blade Runner” about?
It’s an understandable question; none of the characters do what they’re supposed to and then the credits roll. It must be a difficult question, since it takes almost a decade to answer definitively.
The answer comprises subsequent audience responses to the version without explanatory dialogue and the overwhelming critical response to the director’s cut they prompted. It goes something like, ‘we don’t know and for the love of L. Ron Hubbard, keep it that way.’ Driven by this answer, Warner Bros. finally remove the explanatory voiceover and the artificial happy ending from the film.
Naturally no question that takes ten years to answer will give the modern American film industry ten seconds pause. Especially not when imminent sequels are at stake.
Thus while “Northern Lights” starts with the spellbinding line, ‘Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen,’ the film starts with a disembodied narrative. Chief elf witch Liv Tyler Serafina Pekkala thoughtfully exposits any sense of mystery away.
So it turns out that her world, with its dæmons, witches and brutal religious Magisterium overseeing Oxford, isn’t our own. (Where would we be without you, Serafina?)
What’s more, she helpfully tells us, the dæmons of Lyra’s world are actually manifestations of the souls that inhabit our bodies in this one. Hang on – wasn’t this film a vicious and controversial attack on all religion, according to the Christian Right?
The obvious response – ‘what isn’t?’ – is only half-valid. Flabbergastingly, and in a world-first, the director has toned down controversial elements.
In fact the book never specifies the precise relation of dæmons to their people. A character from our world suggests in Book Two a link between our idea of souls and the dæmons, but we’re not required to believe him.
It’s more illuminating to see the creatures as simply a part of her innermost self distilled into physical form. In Lyra’s world, Jiminy Cricket would have been just another dæmon.
You might have heard complaints about the film’s overly sanitised violence, and when a two-tonne bear cleaves off the jaw of another without spilling a drop of blood, they’re hard to deny. But oversimplifying the human-dæmon link eviscerates the most profound instance of violence in the whole tale.
In the film you can blink and miss it – Lyra makes a throwaway (though unmistakably Significant) remark about it being unpleasant to touch someone’s dæmon. When someone later grabs her dæmon she looks pained and then faints.
But inhabitants of Pullman’s original world carefully avoid interacting with others people’s dæmons at all. To an alternate Oxfordian, allowing someone else to touch your dæmon is the height of intimacy. To really abuse the point, a dæmon assuming a rigid form is a major symbol of its person’s transition to adulthood. So when an orderly manhandles eleven-year-old Lyra’s Pantalaimon, it’s barely metaphorical to call to call the act sexual assault. Similarly, slicing off a child’s demon is… self-explanatory.
So director Chris Weitz’s determination to neuter his own child surpasses even his antagonists’ desire to neuter theirs. Bizarrely, a prominent character, whose corpse should be festering in the arctic wilderness by the end, survives to see the credits roll. I don’t envy him his role in part two, but maybe Weitz thought the film needed a happier ending.
Ah, how far we’ve come since “Blade Runner”.
This review would benefit from ending here. “The Golden Compass” is an atrocious adaptation of an excellent book, much to nobody’s surprise. But for a sceptics’ journal, a review probably needs some balance. So, grudgingly, I’ll have to admit that I quite enjoyed the film.
Sadly, this reflects more on the quality of all the other films of the last few years than GC’s.
The film, its CG characters and all-star cast list are all quite pretty. Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee appear, exude their customary gravitas and then melt away. Nicole Kidman fails to exude botox despite having a smile that could slice through bank vaults. The effects are equally as pretty as in the last 50 movies you’ve seen. Why the Magisterium decided to adopt the MacDonald’s M for a logo isn’t clear, but I suppose it’s as good a marketing tool in one world as the next. And it fits with the film’s adherence to its industry’s ‘so tasty you’ll be chemically addicted’ ethos.
Unfortunately, the most important effects – the dæmons – are feeble. They should sound unobtrusive, semi-telepathic. Instead Freddie Highmore, the squeaky voice of Lyra’s dæmon, rakes the atmosphere of every scene he speaks in. One would think the advantage of having computer generated child-entities onscreen is that you don’t have to suffer the real thing. Why not someone like the Simpsons’ Nancy Cartwright for the role, if it had to sound childlike? Or, you know, a child who can act well.
Similarly, where they should look like animals (suggesting a certain kingdom that might have been suitable for the roles), the dæmons look every bit like computer graphics. But wait… Chris Weitz can clarify: ‘They really are part human, and they behave in subtle anthropomorphic ways. We wanted them to feel different than photo-realistic animals. The light hits them in a different way.’
My misinterpretation, sorry. They were supposed to resemble cheap plastic merchandising opportunities. Chipper effects all round, then. Fortunately, the screenwriter has obliterated most of the story. So the effects don’t fail to get in the way of anything important.
So in summary, “The Golden Compass” is insulting and yet inoffensive, bland but obvious and yet sometimes incomprehensible, but for all that it’s actually quite mediocre. If you haven’t read the book go and watch it. Badum-bum-bum baaa, you’ll be loving it.
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 TB grated orange peel
2 tsp vanilla
3 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked dried coconut
In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, orange peel and vanilla until smooth. Beat in egg until well-blended.
In a medium bowl, mix flour and baking powder. Add to butter mixture, then beat on low speed until dough comes together, about 5 mins. Mix in cranberries and coconut.
Shape dough into 1-inch balls and place about 2 inches apart on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 deg F for 11-15 mins. A shorter time will yield a chewier cookie; the longer time will yield a crispier cookie. Let cookies cool for 5 mins, then remove from baking sheet. Makes about 6 dozen.
English Toffee Squares
1/2 cup walnut halves
1 cup butter or margarine,softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 6-oz package semisweet chocolate chips
(Note: Milk chocolate chips can be used in place of the semisweet chips)
Heat oven to 350 deg F. Spread walnuts on a jelly roll pan and place in oven to toast walnuts, stirring frequently, until they are golden brown and fragrant, about 10 mins. Remove nuts from oven, chop finely, and set aside.
Mix butter with brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add flour, beating until well-blended. Spread dough evenly in a lightly greased 10″ x 13″ pan. Bake at 350 deg F for 20 mins, or just until dough begins to pull away from the sides. Turn oven off. Sprinkle chocolate chips evenly over the top and return pan to oven for 5 mins or until chocolate is soft. Remove from oven and immediately spread chocolate evenly until smooth. Sprinkle with chopped walnuts. While still warm, cut cross-wise into 2-inch strips, then diagonally into diamond-shaped “squares.”
Cool completely before removing from pan. Makes about 3 dozen.
Comments: This recipe is really easy to make and it freezes well, so I make a couple of batches and freeze them before the holiday crush.
Mint Layered Brownies
2 oz unsweetened chocolate (baking chocolate)
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup chopped almonds or pecans (if desired)
Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler or on low in the microwave. When melted, cool slightly. Beat eggs until frothy, stir in chocolate mixture, add sugar, then flour and nuts. Stir until well blended. Place batter in a greased pan, 9″ x 13″ x 2″. Bake at 350 deg F for 20 minutes or until tested done. Allow to cool in pan.
4 TB soft butter or margarine
2 cups powdered sugar
2 TB milk or cream
1/2 tsp peppermint or mint extract
Blend all ingredients together in a small bowl. When the cookie layer is cool, spread the filling over it. Chill for at least 10 minutes.
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
4 TB butter or margarine
Melt together in a double boiler or on low in the microwave. Cool slightly, then pour over the filling layer. Tilt the pan so the glaze will spread evenly. Refrigerate the pan for about 20 minutes. Cut into squares.
The Search For Truth: a book review of “The Golden Compass”, by Phillip Pullman.
I enjoyed reading the series of books by Phillip Pullman, but I especially enjoyed reading the first book in the series. I’m not good at hiding things; the title of this review gives away the punchline to the story before you read the review. On top of being an exciting and entertaining fantasy novel, “The Golden Compass” is in my opinion a metaphor for a particularly human pursuit: the search for truth.
This can be seen at many junctures of the storyline. Lyra Belacqua, at the beginning of the book, doesn’t know anything at all about her parentage. She spent many of her formative years being raised by musty old men at a college in Oxford. She knows that kids typically have moms and dads, and seems to perceive that she is in a unique situation. Through much of the first part of the book we have the story of how she comes about finding the true answers to her parentage. This is an example:
The Alethiometer, the Golden Compass, is a tool in the search for truth. You pose questions to it, and its needle swings around and points to symbols that reveal the true answer to any specfic question you might want to ask – if you have the abilities required to read it. Any answer it gives will be a true answer. It may not give an answer that the user likes, but it will always give a true answer.
As humans, we have tools in life that perform similar functions for us, albeit usually in a much more indirect fashion. Scientists pose premises, or notions or statements about reality in the form of a hypothesis. These hypotheses are in a sense a type of question; they make a statement about reality, and the scientist performs experiments to test the validity, or truth of the hypothesis. They use something called the Scientific Method to ensure the accuracy of their testing. And oftentimes, the premise is proven for one reason or another to not be valid.
The use Lyra makes of the Golden Compass closely parallels this process. She doesn’t have to like its results; there is no sacred topic upon which it doesn’t touch. When asked about a particular man early in the story, it tells of his death, which causes pain and heartache for many.
Some of the people in the world that Lyra inhabits fear her. They find her fierce pursuit of the truth scary and dangerous. Sometimes a pursuit of the truth can place your most sacred institutions at risk, especially when those institutions are built on lies. What if you believe something, you hold to a creed, when you know at the same time that the only reason that you hold the creed is that you were raised in it? Would you find someone that uses the tools she is given to singlemindedly pursue the truth no matter the cost scary? That is the position that Lyra finds herself in.
This book has been out for years. It seems odd and strange to me that it is not until a movie is getting made that people in our world would become afraid of the ideas that it presents. I find it laughable and naive that people are afraid of the idea that the characters of the story have daemons. The daemons are the souls of the people in the book and represent a distinct part of the person that reveals their character. It is a story device. It is not at all what is dangerous.
Some of the very same people are bothered by the Idea of how it presents the supposed death of a god. That is but a minor part of the whole storyline, and I find it laughable that people pick at that.
The real issue ought to be that it it teaches that there is no truth so sacred that it can’t be revealed. Some truths are so dangerous that they cut to the very soul, the essence of a person. The daemons help make a very vivid illustration of this principle. Other truths are subtle and slowly revealed over time. Some men warp the truth in the way they use it.
In my opinion, the things being protested by some religious people are trivial surface details. The really dangerous idea in this novel that ought to be protested is that the search for truth is a central aspect of human existence. It’s not worship of a god, or any other thing. Worship of a god becomes meaningless if the question is asked “Does the god even exist?” and the answer is no. But the search for truth stays central. And that is the real answer to the danger of this book. It lies in the search for truth.
This book review is a labor of love by a fan.
(which is an adaptation from the Greek word that gave the name to the Alethiometer).
Hi everyone, and welcome to a New Year’s Nutwatch! Today’s subject has a name which would be better suited to a backpack with special pockets for pencils and erasers, but don’t be fooled. In a world filled with demon attacks and nocturnal invasions, this website provides all the weapons and training that Christian soldiers need before marching off to war. It’s Dungeons and Dragons for the devoutly religious, even revealing a secret special language for christians; get ready for the LARPers in the whole armor of god, because the first Nutwatch of 2008 dismantles
By “Student” they mean West Point cadet, and by “Equipper”, they mean arsenal. Brace yourself for the shock and awe of battling Satan’s forces, mano a demono, as revealed in the Enemy Encounter Manual on
“There is an invisible spiritual realm where a battle is taking place beyond our ability to see with our natural eyes.”
I wondered why the author of this webpage needed to spell out what “invisible” meant, but then I realized that it was addressed to fundamentalists. At least they aren’t likely to wonder, as I did, about the point of a battle without a conclusion, achievable goals or casualties, much less why a supposedly omnipotent god needs anyone to fight such a battle on his behalf.
“It is from here where the demonic attacks the lives of both Christians and non-Christians.”
Why would Satan attack non-Christians? Didn’t they sleep in long enough on Sunday? Were they not apathetic enough in not celebrating his birthday?
“The articles you will find here on the Equipper will help you not only to discern demonic influence but to also gain victory in demonic spiritual attack.”
It’s interesting how different sites handle demonic spiritual attack. I’ve read some which relied on “mighty warrior angels” to defend the faithful, but this one gives +1 to Discernment, which makes the demons fail their saving damning throw. No need for angels when the christians are so powerful, though, endowed with all the skills and accessories described in the article on
“Early Warning System – The Lord can use this gift to even warn you of the presence of cultists who are about to approach you.”
Unprotected Christian : Oh look, there are some nice people in orange robes, with bald heads. They must be chemotherapy patients. Let us comfort them and convert them.
Christian armed with Early Warning System : Hold, brother! My spirit-sense is tingling! I detect the presence of cultists!
Unprotected Christian : Pfft, you said that in church as well.
“There may not be an visible signs to detect if someone approaching you belongs to a cult and aims to deceive you.”
Shaving of the scalp to find the 666 birthmark is not recommended unless the cultist is outnumbered.
“There have been incidences where, 30 feet away for example, the Holy Spirit can forewarn you in order to prepare you.”
The author must imagine christians watching the world from behind a red computer screen, a la the Terminator. Targets: 2. Distance: 30 ft and closing. Cult: Jehovah’s Witness (zoom in on copy of The Watchtower).
“Witnessing – The Holy Spirit can reveal how either a person is bound, influenced, or deceived. This can be a very insightful witnessing aide!”
I see why the author is careful to use the word “can”. No christian has ever approached me to say, “The Holy Spirit has revealed to me that you’re an atheist who was formerly a born-again christian”. Instead, they’ve come to me in all innocence, thinking I’ve never heard of their god or their holy book. They have all been speedily enlightened.
Hmm, maybe the deception isn’t on the non-christians’ part.
“Defense – Often times cultists like preying on young Christians.”
Please, Catholic priests are not cultists.
“The Holy Spirit may allow a Christian to discern the kinds of spirits hovering over the cultists attacking the Christian spiritually as the cultist attacks the Christian verbally.”
“It’s the Spirit of St. Louis and the spirit of Christmas past!” Seriously, though, I’m sure this is supposed to be a fierce battle fought on the spiritual plane as well as the physical plane (with the one being a mirror to the other), but it comes off as a scuffle between two sets of puppets. And the Holy Spirit is the more passive puppetmaster by far. The same theme carries into the next article. Christians are pretty much on their own when it comes to battling the forces of supreme evil, and the help they get from god amounts to damage control at best. No wonder the Christian Student Equipper tries to protect them from the greatest danger of all…
“You’ve probably felt it before. A “thought dart” suddenly strikes you, as if out of nowhere”
And you take 2d6 damage unless you were wearing the armor of god. Still, it’s good to know that thoughts, for the author of this webpage, apparently come out of nowhere. I can’t imagine living in such fear of one’s own brain.
“with thoughts like, “Why continue being a Christian?” “God doesn’t exist!” “Sex isn’t wrong. If it feels good, do it! After all, she/he wants it too!””
I hope the christian is right about the last sentence, unlikely though this might seem.
“A temptation, a lustful feeling, a sudden silent shout in your mind of destructive thinking. Satan plants a suggestion. Or he even tells you what to think!”
Perish the idea that christians might come up with naughty thoughts all by themselves. Apparently the devil made them do it.
“Satan will tell you to satisfy yourself, give yourself pleasure, recognition.”
By this logic, god will tell you to make yourself miserable, give yourself pain and go unrecognized. This is a religion for masochists.
“So when a flood of thoughts come, just ask God to cleanse your mind… Cut off all sources of sensory input”
Man, even Jesus stopped at the eyes and hands when he was describing body parts that could be amputated.
“that contribute and reinforce and magnify the direction Satan is trying to yank you.”
“Sex? You wanted sex? I’m Chaotic Neutered!” God seems uninvolved in the yanking or wanking, though god isn’t nearly as prominently featured as Satan in these sections of the Christian Student Equipper. Then again, the dark side of the Force is more proactive and powerful by far for these spiritual warriors, so they have to ask questions such as
“Some Christians are gravely concerned over the idea that Satan can read a person’s thoughts.”
That explains the lack of thoughts. It’s the only way to foil Satan the Psi Cop.
“Does it really matter? There is a tremendous difference between being able to see the future or into people’s minds, or Satan getting some demons to tell you through a fortune teller that a brick will drop on your head, and getting another bunch of demons to make a person perform the action some time in the future! Who knows? Who cares?”
Why can’t Satan just drop something on your head himself? And why does it take a “bunch” of demons (I have learned a new collective noun today) to make a person drop a brick? I also have no idea what Satan is trying to achieve through this complicated scheme – does he want to make his target send money to Madame Cleo, or does he just have a vested interest in inflicting brain damage? Most of all, why am I putting more thought into this than the author ever did? But perhaps that’s a natural consequence of thoughts emanating from one’s brain, instead of randomly dropping out of nowhere. I can see why the author might want to stop this dangerous process via gravity-propelled brick.
At least the final “Who knows? Who cares?” is very appropriate. It’s difficult to be concerned about demons who have to resort to the convoluted psychic equivalent of a Rube Goldberg device. That’s probably why the author describes demon rapists in the article on
“A “nocturnal invasion” is an attack that comes at night, especially when you’re asleep or in that half-awake state in which you’re between the states of being asleep and being fully aware of what’s going on. During this time, our defenses are naturally low…”
much like our pyjama waistbands.
“Night attacks have ranged from engaging in sexual fantasies and the coinciding physical self-gratification, to fear of an assailant broken into the house, to even demonic visitations where some have seen demons threaten to kill – or even rape – the victim.”
Apparently rape is worse than murder when it’s performed by demons, maybe because the former presents the risk of conceiving a half-demon baby, which of course cannot be aborted. Interesting, though, that the author starts out with a battle that couldn’t be seen through one’s “natural eyes”, but now claims that people have seen demons threaten rape and murder. Perhaps invisible wannabe rapist demons were just not scary enough.
“Some night attacks can feel as distinct as some unseen being sitting on your head and wrapping its legs around, and sinking its hands into your mind to initiate foul dreams.”
This is similar to the sensation of a pigeon sitting on your head, because that initiates fowl dreams.
“Whether you can audibly speak or not, just gather your wits”
Well, that shouldn’t take long at all.
“and stand firm… You may also want to follow up by prayerfully applying the Blood of Jesus over your mind to cleanse you of the incident.”
No one has ever bled as many useful liquids as Jesus has. Wine substitute, dye, detergent, lubricant… but speaking of body fluids, there’s a great line in the article on
“…lift up your hands and worship God, and let tears of love, intimacy and healing flow. It’s beautiful, and let those tears be your sacrifice unto God. God has a special bottle in which He collects all your precious tears.”
I wonder if this bottle has a rubber teat at the top. As well as a special bottle, god also has a special language (baby talk?) that christians can use to communicate with him, and it’s described in the article about
“This is the gift of the Holy Spirit by which you have a personal prayer language which you do not understand yourself, nor do other men understand; however, God understands it fully!”
I could understand praying in Godcode if this confounded the villainous schemes of any demons or cultists who might be listening. But if you yourself don’t understand the language, what’s the point of praying in it? Just to be special?
“Myself, I did not obtain the release to speak in this personal prayer language until five months later.”
It took the author five months to advance to Level 8, when he gained the Mystic Language skill. This was a great disappointment to him, since he was hoping for Berserker Rage.
“I did, however, experience a discerning of spirits and even laughing in the Spirit.”
What’s difference between regular laughing and laughing in the Spirit? Does the latter sound like “Haw Haw”?
“…we need to step out in faith and speak the first word that God drops in our spirit, however crazy it sounds. When we do so in childlike faith, God gives us the next sylable, and the next, until it flows into a mature and complete language.”
Christian with childlike faith : Cthulhu fhtagn.
God : Yesss. Goood. Morrrrre.
Christian with childlike faith : Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh! I don’t know what this means, but I’m enfolded in His love, and warmth, and tentacles!
There’s a great deal more nitwittery on this website, but these are the highlights of what must be a very entertaining fantasy lifestyle, from the secret language to the anti-cultist radar (praydar?) to the visits from incubi or succubi. Or both. The Christian Student Equipper’s grip on reality may be none too strong, but that’s part of its goofy charm. The only thing that makes me feel sorry for the author is the fear of sex, though I imagine the hardcore gamer warrior lifestyle goes a long way to protection in this regard. And this way, there’s more time to fight the demons, convert the cultists, gain special skills and write other amusing articles on the process. Win-win, all around.
Till next time, everyone!
Queen of Swords
Things found in the Ocean:
Welcome to the first installment of the Nontheist Nexus’ Monthly Science Links Article Thingy. I’m your host, Sarpedon. Why do I call it that? Because I have it on good authority (that is, some Columbian guy I know) that ‘Thingy’ is the most useful word in the English language, to be used whenever you can’t think of a better word. So, since it is the most useful word, logically there can’t be a better word, so it must be used in all cases and at all times.
Anyway, you didn’t hit this link to hear me talk about thingies, but to get other links to other sites. So here we go. This month’s theme: Things found in the Ocean.
The ongoing ‘Census of Marine Life,’ conducted by an international team of scientists reports that over 13,000 new marine species, most of them microscopic, have been catalogued in the past year. The total number of fish species is now above 15,000 and plankton nearly 7,000. Both these totals are expected to increase by the time the census is concluded in 2010. All these details and more are found at this BBC website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4033555.stm
In honor of this remarkable achievement in understanding the least-known part of the earth, I have dredged up (ha ha ha!) the following links to interesting marine life, including this excellent short video of bioluminescent deep sea animals, taken by submarine. As near as I can tell, this was NOT a part of the Census of Marine Life, as they operated by trawling.
In this article, new species of sea anemones discovered near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands are described. Their most notable feature is that, unlike most anemones, they move across the ocean floor as they feed, whereas most anemones are sessile. They do this by detaching themselves to drift with the current. This article has also revealed that I have been misspelling and probably mispronouncing ‘anemone’ for the last 20 years. In addition, a new species of kelp was found, which will possibly lead to new flavors of sushi rolls.
I also found this revolting article, which contains a picture of the so called ‘lumpfish’ which is considered to be the vector of the equally repellant ‘sea lice’ which has plagued commercial fisheries of late:
Another alarming thing found in the oceans is large pockets of methane. Many scientists fear that this gas, suspended in crystalline form by the high pressures at the bottom of the ocean, could sublimate into gaseous form due to rising ocean temperatures, bubbling up through the sea to add to the greenhouse gas problem, and gag nearby ocean-goers. This article sheds some good news on the methane situation, suggesting that most of the resulting methane gas would dissolve in the ocean water, and only a small fraction of it would reach the atmosphere.
Finally, a bit of pseudoscience, which it will be one of the missions of this Thingy to expose, mock and dispel.
For years, certain people have claimed that there are many health benefits to swimming with dolphins. The rising demand for this ‘therapy’ has led to many wild dolphins being captured (with many related dolphin fatalities) for this and more mundane dolphin swimming experiences. One such outfit charged 101 dollars for such a swim, only 30 minutes of actual dolphin time. The full blown ‘dolphin therapy’ costs 1000 dollars for a total of 100 minutes with the dolphins. The mathematics of this arrangement puzzles me, but this service is probably not for those of scientific temperaments.
Here is a quote:
“Ongoing research at universities and dolphin centers around the world suggests that the sounds that dolphins make when they communicate underwater have a therapeutic effect. It is believed that swimming with dolphins, due to their sonar function, improves a person’s immune system and stimulates the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, which are responsible for sensations such as peacefulness, happiness, self-awareness, and high self-esteem.”
No research is cited. Presumably since it is ‘ongoing,’ they have an excuse for not publishing it. There follows an impressive list of disorders that are cured by dolphins talking to one another.
Fortunately, actual scientists have had a look at this, and have begun warning people against this chicanery: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases…1218101131.htm
However, I predict that people will continue to give money to the dolphin people, presumably because they like dolphins, and are unaware of the harm dolphins suffer from being captured, transported long distances, and shoved in a big tank. This leads me to have hope for making money by offering a variety of services: Cattle Encounters, Bat Echolocation Therapy, and Swimming with the United States Navy Submarine Fleet.
That’s all for this month, see next month for another gripping adventure in science links, which may or may not have important therapeutic effects!
Also known as “What I did on my winter vacation”: an exciting account of how a working scientist spent her season in Antarctica!
Sometimes I still don’t quite believe it myself – I spent the past eight months wintering over in Antarctica! Eight months of extreme cold, howling winds, limited supplies, terrible food and undrinkably-bad coffee, long work weeks with no vacation, no way to leave, no sun, no trees/flower/animals, no pizza delivery, no bookstores, no fresh fruits and precious few fresh vegetables, no theaters; and yet those eight months were by far the best eight months of my life. I absolutely loved the work I did, I thoroughly enjoyed myself during my free time and I became good friends with many of the 119 quirky, smart, crazy people down there with me.
I arrived at McMurdo Station, Antarctica this February as a research associate, hired through Raytheon Polar Services and paid through the National Science Foundation, who oversee the three US Antarctic stations (McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (aka Pole), and Palmer (the tropical resort of Antarctica)).
My work involved collecting ozone data as part of an International Polar Year project coordinated by the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Germany and the University of Wyoming. The goal of the project was to track ozone in specific air parcels within the stratosphere throughout the winter and spring. I collected ozone data by launching ozonesondes – basically weather balloons with an ozone detector attached. I was responsible for all the balloon and sonde prep work, data collection and coordinating the launch team.
The balloons typically carried the ozonesondes to approximately 30 km (100,000 ft.) and are made of 0.3 mil thick polyethylene plastic (like dry cleaner bags) with a maximum volume of 19,000 cubic feet (~ 26 ft high by 37 ft in diameter). The payload consisted of the ozonesonde which uses electrochemistry to detect ozone, a radiosonde for measuring temperature, pressure and relative humidity and a gps unit. The radiosonde transmited the data back to the receiving stations for the duration of the balloon’s flight (usually about 3.5 hours). The payload package weighed about five pounds. That’s me on the far right of the picture, holding the payload just before launch (photo is by Chad Carpenter).
The ozone hole was actually a little less severe than expected this spring. This was likely due to the stratosphere being warmer than usual. When the stratosphere gets sufficiently cold ice crystals will form, producing polar stratospheric clouds. A chemical reaction takes place on these ice crystals, breaking down CFCs and releasing Cl molecules; it is the free Cl molecules in the stratosphere that destroy ozone. There were far fewer ice crystals formed this winter (an independent experiment at McMurdo studied the formation of polar stratospheric clouds) hence less ozone loss.
As much as I enjoyed the work I did at McMurdo, I still greatly appreciate time off and the crazy stuff that passes for entertainment in McMurdo in winter. Surprisingly, McMurdo has a decent amount of entertainment on site: a bar (smoking allowed – ick), a library, a gym, a bouldering cave, a craft room, a band room, a few hiking trails, a radio station, gear issue where you can borrow instruments and games, and a small store that rents movies. I took advantage of most of the on-site entertainment but it was the spontaneous, creative, free-form fun that kept me sane: big parties every other weekend, room bars, the “frostbite 4k” race, the polar plunge, radio darts, a wedding, martini matinees, pranks and practical jokes, the clothing-optional hot tub, live music, boondoggles.
Parties: I never really understood why, but all parties at McMurdo are costume parties by default. Some had themes (e.g. – the “P” party – dress up as something that starts with a p, the “sock” party, the “freakout”) but all of them had people in whacky attire.
Above is Tony playing a theremin at the Freakout party; Tony was one of my balloon team guys and head of the station’s small engine repair shop for the past four winters. To get some understanding of what people at McMurdo are like, consider that two years ago Tony spent weeks back in the states trying to find a wedding dress big enough to fit him so that he could bring it down for his next winter-over at McMurdo.
Here is a shot from the Sock party. Sandwich (the gal in the foreground) actually dresses pretty crazy all the time.
Below is a shot from the Luau. The guy in the middle with the blue veil is a NASA guy, kissing him is one of my best pals Rex, retired from the Navy where he spent many months on a nuc sub.
The Midwinter Run (aka the “Frostbite 4K”): This is a race done every winter at McMurdo. Its nickname is from last year when a new station manager who “didn’t believe in wind chill” allowed the race to proceed in a Condition 2 (wind chill < -70). Many of the runners ended up with frostnip or frostbite. This year there were no problems. The picture is of me crossing the finish line. As with parties, the race is usually done in costume; I found my costume (it’s a laboratory beaker) hanging in a closet in the research outbuilding where I would get telemetry during balloon flights. Antarctic slang for a scientist is “beaker.” This is down town McMurdo at midday on a winter Sunday – quiet and dark.
Polar Plunge: The Plunge is an old McMurdo tradition where the folks at Scott Base (the New Zealand station a couple of miles from McMurdo; the NSF won’t let McMurdo host a plunge themselves) cut a hole in the ice over McMurdo Sound and invite everyone over for a swim. The plunge is done wearing only shoes (so your feet don’t freeze to the ice when you get out) and a harness (so that the search-and-rescue team standing by can pull you out if you have a problem). This winter the water temperature was 28 degrees and the air temperature was about -25. The water didn’t actually seem cold when I jumped in – it just felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach, I couldn’t breathe and I was grabbing for the ladder before I had any conscious thought. Getting out was a challenge, with muscles already stiffening and hands numb, and then, when the -25 air hit wet bare skin, I did finally feel cold. With ice flaking from my arms and legs and a huge grin on my face I made the quick dash up to the warming hut and eventually thawed out. The vodka helped. I get chills and a grin just looking at that picture.
Radio Darts: Another old McMurdo/Scott Base tradition. Every Friday night Scott Base hosts an evening of dart games between McMurdo, Scott and Pole. The folks at Pole radio in their scores each round, and suspiciously do very well with no one to keep them honest. Some folks take the dart games seriously but most of us just go to drink Guinness and flirt with the Kiwis.
The Wedding: There was a wedding this year! Clive and Ruthie were two winterovers from New Zealand, although Ruthie worked at McMurdo. The ceremony was held in an ice cave near Scott Base, with the wedding march played on a freezing tenor saxophone. The bridesmaids wore traditional dark blue Kiwi thermals under artfully arranged and detailed dresses made from trash bags. Note the Guinness harp logo on the official’s hat (there was a Tui bird on the other side; Tui is a kiwi beer).
Party Hosting: The four of us winterovers who worked in the lab hosted a station-wide “Mad Science” party, with black lights, big Einstein posters, hundreds of dollars in free booze, liquor luges, a fog machine, strobe light and glacial ice martinis. It was a big hit although we got in trouble with station management about the liquor luges.
Bill-a-seltzer: For the Fourth of July carnival many of us ran game booths and gave away prizes. The centerpiece booth was the dunk tank. In the usual spirit of winterover craziness one of the guys on station decided to make use of the hundreds of expired Alka-Seltzer tablets the store was throwing away by gluing them to a shirt and having the last dunk tank victim be the NSF rep on station, Bill, wearing the shirt – Bill-a-seltzer!
And a final picture courtesy of my friend Antz.