flavors of doing science

I’m glad that we got two days of rest after that last field day.  Tomorrow we go out again for the third (and last?) time, and I think I am well rested for it.  Today I spent the day in the lab filtering snow and ice samples.

operating the hand pump for sample filtering

Field work and lab work is rather different from working on computer simulations.  I’ve done both before in different flavors, but somehow I’d forgotten.  It’s definitely more of the kind of thing that most people picture when they picture science.  We are measuring things and doing experiments.  It’s nice not to sit in front of the computer all day long, and something about it feels more authentic too, since I am not immune from being influenced by our social constructions of what a scientist is.  At least we challenge the image of the scientist as old and male.  Our research party is majority women and the men are on the younger side too.

I don’t know why more people don’t cross over and engage in multiple approaches to doing science.  But every sub-field I’ve explored in the physical sciences has a rather arbitrary divide between the theory and experiment people.  When you’re out in the field you develop intuition about the complexity of the system you are studying, as well as a sense of the variability and its scales.  But you can only look at limited areas over limited times, and ultimately it’s nice to be able to generalize.  If you’re thinking about how you would model a complex system, perhaps you ask different questions in the field.  I’m not sure.

As I’ve engaged in this filtering process, I’m reminded of something my undergraduate advisor said about lab work: it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit obsessive-compulsive.  That’s very true for this work, for which we want to keep the whole process, from collecting samples to melting and filtering in the lab, obsessive-compulsively free of contamination.  Since what we are measuring is the content of light-absorbing material on the filter at the end, it wouldn’t do to introduce other materials at any stage of the process that aren’t found in the snow and ice when we got to the field site.

plume from the Longyearbyen power plant

It should also be noted that we get to the field site via snow machine.  There is exhaust and sometimes other snow machine tracks nearby, although we try to get away from the well-traveled paths.  Furthermore, we are about 40km from Longyearbyen, where a giant smoke stack in town spews pollutants and there are mining operations nearby.  Our samples are not representative of the Arctic or long-range transported pollutants.  They are, however, combined with the other measurements, part of a dataset that is useful for understanding optical processes in sea ice.  We don’t need representative ice to study how concentrations of particulate impacts how light is absorbed, reflected, and transmitted.

    • Fred and Sandy
    • April 25th, 2011

    Thanks for keeping us posted on your adventures. Can’t wait until we see you in September to see more pictures of the land of Trolls and other creatures. Hope the polar bears keep their distance.

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