Thursday, 1 October 2015

Suitcase Science: travelling in hope

(Reflections on a life in science: #5 tales from a travelling scientist)

I am told that the Head of Department who had, earlier that year, appointed me to my one-and-only academic post launched into a speech of welcome at the staff Christmas party. I think it was in this context that the labels ‘suitcase scientist’ and ‘seasoned traveller’ were used (but perhaps those came in a later newsletter piece and I am conflating memories …). Unfortunately, by the time he felt it appropriate to quieten the gathering in order to speak, my wife and I had already left. A somewhat inauspicious event one might imagine; it certainly caused me more than a little discomfort when I found out about it, despite the fact that I had acted in complete ignorance of the planned formal welcome. Thankfully, he made no mention of it to me and evidently managed to move on; eventually, so did I. However, the label ‘suitcase scientist’ stuck with me for years and it is against that backdrop that I thought it might be interesting to review the less lustrous side of my research travels. Things that can, and do, go wrong and consequently mar the supposed glamour. However, before embarking on this trail of woes it is important to point out that in about four decades of research, the bulk of which has been dependent upon experiments at shared sophisticated national/international facilities distant from my university base, the outcomes of which are oft-times shared through conferences in one location or another, everything has progressed uneventfully, even pleasantly. Indeed, so uneventful in many cases that one might almost refer to it as blissfully boring.
The original Physics Laboratory building, site of that first staff Christmas party in 1985. (Line drawing by my wife; the 'social area' venue - now one of several snack bars - was behind the ground floor plate glass windows shown on the left.)

El Rancho will start the ball rolling in style. Against the backdrop of a difficult period for science funding in the mid-1980s, I was seconded from my job at the UK’s pulsed neutron facility (here) to the neutron research facility (here) housed in the ‘open’ part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (LANL). With my wife and our two-year old daughter we made the long haul for a four-plus month sojourn in this southwestern corner of the USA.* It really was a long haul: London to New York to Albuquerque, where we collapsed into hotel beds for a jet-lagged night before taking an 18-seater twin-prop for the final flight to Los Alamos. Oh how lovely it was to meet our hosts, with whom we stayed for a few days before decamping again, this time in our ‘compact’ leased car, to the single story house we had agreed to rent for the duration. The rental had been arranged prior to our journey via an office at LANL, although they were careful to point out that they were acting only as go-betweens. El Rancho was a small town at the end of a dirt road about 1000 m down from the 2000+ m elevation of the Los Alamos mesa; New Mexico can be hot in Summer, but altitude provides some relief from this and adds the benefit of low humidity – El Rancho had, shall we say, fewer such benefits. The property was of regionally typical adobe construction, and were there no other considerations one might have thought it quaintly reminiscent of the Old West (- we’re not far from the Rio Grande and from the Pecos wilderness, and Sante Fe was ‘only’ an hour away across the desert). However, the warning signs began to emerge very rapidly. Even before entering the house we were told that a neighbour had very recently been shot and killed on his drive and that alcohol-related crime was not uncommon. Inside the house we discovered informative documents laid out for us concerning the existence of rabies and the prevalence of fleas carrying ‘bubonic plague’ via the local mammals. We were also warned of venomous snakes and insects (noting the log pile just outside the door) before exploring further and finding that the beds comprised mattresses on the floor – one of which had a hanging basket of indoor plants (hosting goodness knows what) suspended over it. Imagine it: hot, vaguely hostile and insecure, and us with a two year old child. The final straw came early the next morning, after a less than completely restful night. The water for the house came directly from a bore hole via an electric pump; the water first turned yellow and then sputtered into nothingness. We learned later that this is not uncommon in the summertime, but no-one had mentioned this to us beforehand. We gave notice and left, a month’s rent out of pocket.

There was a silver lining, which began in the kindness of strangers in this strange land. Not only did my long-suffering host’s family generously offer to put us up again for a period, but after a visit from my wife a local realtor (= estate agent in the UK) took it upon herself to sort something out for us. She very quickly put us into a vacant unfurnished house for the interim, for which my new colleagues offered sufficient furniture to enable us to ‘camp’ there for a few weeks, before she come up with a delightful small apartment in the central part of town. What stars these folk were.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of other unpleasant stories associated with travelling to and from LANL as part of this project. If you’re nervous about flying then I suggest skipping this paragraph; seriously, move on. One occurrence concerns a problem with a DC10 that took me from London to the Dallas-Fort Worth gateway. On this occasion I was travelling with my UK line manager. Less than an hour out of Dallas there was a loud bang and almost immediately the plane began to descend. The descent was very rapid but, not that I’m an expert, it didn’t seem to be uncontrolled; in a strange way, the more concerning thing was observing the flight attendants rapidly strapping themselves into their seats. The other noticeable thing was the silence in the cabin: no outward panic, no screaming and shouting, just silence. People were lost in their own thoughts and prayers. After what seemed like several minutes, but was probably far less, someone from the flight deck informed us, in a voice that I recall as being almost laconic in its measured control, that a compressor which operated part of the landing gear hydraulics had ‘blown’ and that the landing might prove to be a little bumpy. We circled for a while and then began our final runway approach – which turned out to be towards a runway having all sorts of emergency vehicles ready and waiting to chase us as we touched down. The landing turned out to be as smooth as most are and after disembarking, clearing immigration, collecting our luggage and going through customs, my boss and I walked across the airport to our connecting flight; back in the saddle one might say. I have delighted in ‘boring’ flights ever since. The second bit of excitement takes us to a winter blizzard swirling around the canyon-bordered finger of land that was the Los Alamos local airport. This was a white-out of significant proportions. I had chosen this, unwittingly, as my arrival time from Albuquerque (two hours away by car, and bathed in winter sunshine as I recall) on the small twin-prop STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) plane that made the trip several times a day. These were normally relaxed flights, in the days when the pilot could pin back the cabin door and chat with passengers. On this occasion, we were instructed to strap ourselves firmly into our seats as he would need to undertake a powered dive down towards the runway in order to counteract the effects of the turbulent wind coming up the canyon walls. This was unquestionably more exhilarating than I’d have chosen it to be but, again, all went well.

Despite having read many of George Orwell’s books, I’ve never read his first full-length one: ‘Down and out in Paris and London’. It’s reputed to be semi-autobiographical, and although I suspect I could compete with him on some biographical fronts (- although perhaps not quite in the style of Monty Python shown here) my own tale of Parisian woe is
far more modest. Back in the days of yore, before mobile ’phones and when my wallet had yet to house a credit card, I found myself stranded in Paris. This misfortune arose from the inefficiency of the travel office that my university obliged us to use back then (the late 1980s): they had used the summer timetable to book my train tickets to/from the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France so that I could conduct a few experiments there – but this was wintertime. The times happened to be the same on the outward journey, and even on the Sunday return journey the initial Grenoble-Paris leg maintained my state of blissful ignorance. It was only once I’d crossed Paris to the Gard du Nord that the reality of my situation became evident: the last train of the day had already departed for the Calais ferry terminal. To say that I’m limited to survival-level schoolboy French is to be kind, but at least I could make a reasonable job of pronouncing the words in a phrase book, and armed with this I found an enquiry window still open in the station. In broken French and equally broken English the two of us came up with the agreed facts of my predicament and the only practicable options – I won’t call them solutions – to address the situation. There were no trains to Calais for more than 12 hours and the news regarding Boulogne was no better. I had very little currency with me: barely enough for some food, let alone a cheap hotel for the night. I could however cross Paris to Gare Saint-Lazare and use my existing ticket to get to Dieppe on a very early morning train and thence across to Newhaven. I’m not sure why I chose the latter option, although I suspect it simply felt better to be doing something rather than nothing. Off I went. I found somewhere to sit in the station concourse which looked quiet but wasn’t isolated, and I settled in to watch the night away. It happened to have been the day of a France v. Wales rugby match which at least meant I had a few wandering groups of fans, arms around each other to steady their wandering progress, to break the stressful monotony. I also got to see pools of yellow light emerge from dark corners now again as a match was moved to and fro under some aluminium foil for a while. Ah, the glamour of international science research. It was still fairly dark when I got on the train; never have I been happier to sit in an old and grubby carriage. I don’t recall speaking to anyone until I was on the ferry and in one of the lounges. The crossing took about four hours and everyone seemed to want to while away the time chatting to neighbours (- apart from a few rugby fans who were, evidently, hunting down a ticket tout accused of all sorts of wickedness). A rough-and-ready game of ‘What’s my Line’ seemed to emerge. One of our party was apparently returning to the UK after having run away some years before to join the Foreign Legion; I knew enough not to ask for additional details. Story-telling added something quite positive to the journey, whatever the veracity of their content. Amusingly, my coyness about volunteering that I was a physicist – learnt through years of watching eyes glaze over – led to the conclusion that I worked for the secret service; my amused denials of this seemed only to convince my companions all the more. I slept for a long time when I finally reached home.

Then come the riots and the earthquakes: oh yes, all the best stuff comes to us suitcase scientists. Although a year or two apart, both took place in San Francisco whilst I was there presenting research outcomes to a very large annual conference (- well over 1000 delegates, spread across more than two dozen themes running in parallel). I can brush off the earthquake as it happened at night and I was completely ignorant of it until hearing the news over breakfast. Thankfully, the damage was relatively minor and there were no serious injuries. It’s hard to miss or to forget a riot though. The troubles (see here for background/cause) were centred in Los Angeles, but rapidly spread along the coast. Along with two members of my research team, I was staying in a hotel a few blocks from the conference venue; as was our habit, we met in the lobby that evening in order to find somewhere to eat. However, there were armed security guards on the door and we were politely advised to eat in the hotel that evening. One doesn’t argue against advice of that nature. After the meal we sat in darkness in whoever’s room was on the highest level and watched it all progress through its scary sadness. Helicopters beamed spot-lights from above; small fires illuminated the unfolding tableaux below. By the morning, all was silent. We walked guardedly to our conference venue, passing shop front after shop front with their new borders of shattered plate glass fragments; it was a sobering sight.

The saddest story of all is a particularly personal one. I was spending a couple of weeks doing some experiments at a research centre at Studsvik in Sweden (now closed, here). It wasn’t an easy place to get to: a flight to Stockholm followed by a train journey of more than an hour to Nyköping, here) and a final 45-minute bus ride to the Studsvik site. In many ways this was a lovely place to work, sited as it was on the shores of an inlet off the Baltic Sea and within the woodland home of moose and other animals – but it was definitely isolated. For the duration, I shared one of the self-catering houses reserved for visiting scientists and engineers. In the early hours of one particular morning one of my housemates woke me to say I was wanted on the ’phone. It was my wife, informing me that my father had been taken seriously ill and that I ought to get back to the UK as soon as I could. Nothing could be done until the local staff started work; they were wonderfully helpful in terms of sorting out flight changes and getting me to Nyköping station, but I nevertheless arrived far too late. There is far more I could add at this point, but I’ll refrain.

I could talk about the sounds that kept me awake as they came through thin walls in cheap hotels used during the early years of my many experiments at the ILL in Grenoble, France (see here, and also, in later years, here), or of being stuck on trains and in airports in all sorts of places. I could mention the tight timing between an experiment and getting to my own wedding, and the longer-term issues associated with managing a sustainable work:life balance when so much of the work had to be conducted away from my home base. I won’t do that: I’ve probably written too much as it is, and you’ve probably got enough of your own ‘horror stories’ already. I will finish simply by reiterating that these tales represent the exception: most of my travels as a ‘suitcase scientist’ have been, as I said earlier, blissfully uneventful and for that I am grateful. Moreover, as I’ve said many times before, I have in the process been afforded the opportunity to make a small contribution to our knowledge of the material world around us, and I’ve had as an integral part of my job the privilege of meeting and working alongside some lovely, talented and creative people.

Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.

* In fact, although the three of us were there for less than five months, the project I was running extended over 15 months and as a consequence I made the return trip no fewer than five times for repeat stays of two or three weeks at a time. I wrote a little about this work here in the fourth paragraph; I’ll pick up on this again in a later post I hope.