Fairbanks Alaska, GoPro and the Democratization of Science

04.14.12

I’ve hardly blogged because this week has been a whirlwind of activity. The folks at GoPro brought a few bloggers and invited MSM to join them on an expedition with some rocket scientists while we launched weather balloons into the night sky.

Here’s how it unfolded.

Monday:

Bring the kids to school. Go home and pack everything I own plus some of my friend Alison’s stuff into a bag. My tennis partner has offered to drive me to the airport. This, I think is awesome, later I will remember why this is not awesome.

At 3pm I leave Los Angeles for Seattle. Bulkhead seat and a non chatty seat mate. Huzzah!

I spend the dinner hour in Seattle eating something and wishing I was there already.

Score! I’m in First Class from Seattle to Fairbanks. I have four hours of a flight attendant being nice to me. I try to watch the Descendants. Maybe on a big screen it’s not a terrible movie? I realize that I’ll never like things the rest of the world enjoys and I take a nap.

Arrive in Fairbanks close to 11pm, the sun hasn’t set fully. I’m relieved to meet some of the folks on the trip. Everyone is nice. Everyone is smart and interesting. This is unusual and lovely.

Tuesday:

Breakfast and a trip to the grocery store. I spend the next four days pulling organic apples and baby bel cheese out of my purse for anyone who might be feeling peckish.

Not everyone has arrived and we can explore Fairbanks for the day. We decide on the Chena Hot Springs and I’m all Reddit told me this would be good… you know because everyone should plan their trips with Reddit (and they should).

We toured the hot springs, the ice sculpture museum and the geothermal energy production. They are completely off grid and producing their own lettuce and tomatoes year round. At the ice museum we enjoy appletinis. I don’t typically enjoy appletinis but these are not to be missed.

After soaking very briefly in the hot springs we head back to the hotel for a powernap. On the way back to the hotel we see a moose. Kelly and I scream MOOSE so loudly that our host surely must be rethinking his entire career.

We have dinner, a few more people arrive including Stefanie and at 11 pm we head out to launch the first of three weather balloons. This is the map we use to get there.

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Remarkably we get there. Apparently there aren’t many roads in Fairbanks. We pile out of a fleet of Suburbans and stand around waiting for something to happen.

The scientists fill the balloons and attach the payload. The payload is a half dozen GoPro Cameras, a GPS, some bacteria and an American Flag. The balloon will go about 20 miles up before popping and we’ll track it with the GPS and retrieve it.

 

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At about midnight an arc appears in the sky. It’s light green, almost lemony looking. At the southernmost point of the arc red spikes start to glow. I think it must be the city of Fairbanks but then I realize that it’s the show. During the next two and half hours the sky swirls and explodes with rays of light turning red, green and purple. They shine and dance and we crane our heads and delight in what we are seeing.

I stand with Dr. Bering and ask him about what I’m seeing and he explains solar flares, solar storms, plasma and energy. I nod and I understand what he is saying but know that I am unlikely to remember. I wish my husband was there.

Reluctantly we leave at 3.30 in the morning and try to get some sleep. Sleep is hard to come by. We’ve just seen the majesty of science and I’m too excited to sleep.

Wednesday:

It’s too hot for dogsledding in the afternoon so it’s been pushed to 10am. We have a 9am breakfast and we pile back into the Suburbans.

Dogsledding is awesome. The dogs are small, the sleds are fast the mushers are Alaska’s version of surfers. They’re all passionate, fit and adventurous. The only unfortunate part is that the dogs are incredibly affectionate and they smell slightly worse than goats. I refuse to believe that Junior is related to them.

After dogsledding we grab a quick lunch and regroup. There is an optional trip to snowshoe out to retrieve a payload that had been launched a few days before. It’s approximately a mile away from the road. Maybe a three hour trek.

There aren’t enough snowshoes. At first I try being polite and saying I’ll do what’s best for the group and then I remember that this is my first and possibly my only trip to Alaska and I really want to go snowshoeing. They come up with another pair of snowshoes and we hike in to the middle of nowhere.

It’s magnificent.

Sometime around 8pm I’m lifting my leg out of two feet of snow and warm washes over me. This is the first time in two years that I’m not arthritic. I’m fighting back tears and I’m standing at the edge of the earth and my hands, hips, knees and ankles don’t ache. I’ve ached for so many years that I fear I’ve forgotten how it feels to not hurt.

There’s snow to my knees, my coat is too heavy for the relatively warm weather, I’m dripping with sweat and I’m crying a little because I think, just maybe, that I’ve hit that magical remission that the doctor had said we might get.

Here is the payload.

We get back to the Suburban by 8ish and pile in wet and smelly. Heroic we join the other 20 or so folks at a really nice restaurant in Fairbanks. Dr. Ben Longmier holds the payload over his head victoriously and everyone cheers.

There is a curious absence of ego. Perhaps that happens easily in a room where everyone is highly accomplished?

After dinner it’s back to the hotel for just 15 minutes and then back to our hilltop site to launch two more balloons.

This night the northern lights give a show that makes one woman weep. There are rays of light zooming into the sky with such power and such force that it’s hard to believe that we aren’t in a movie theater or an observatory.

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Luke Kilpatrick took some amazing photos with a camera loaned to him by Robert Scoble. Luke was incredibly generous with his shots and shared them with everyone asking only for attribution. He explained that Robert had lent him the camera and he would share with same openness.

Which brings me back to the fact that this experiment costs approximately $1,500 for the first trial and significantly less thereafter. Science doesn’t require a million dollar lab.

I was tired and folks started leaving at 3ish. Back to the hotel at 3.30 again and it was a little easier to fall asleep this time.

I was sad to leave Alaska but thrilled to be reminded of the magnificence of the universe.

Thursday:

7am wake and pack.

7.45 go to the airport.

8.30 am Score first class and settle in to sleep. I don’t realize the plane has taken off. I didn’t know there was a delay. I was sleeping. Wake up ravenous and the flight attendant gives me a plate of scrambled eggs. I touch them to my tongue and realize they are shit. I am starving and eat them anyhow. I quickly fall back asleep.

Noon: Disembark the plane knowing we are late for the next one, look around and realize we are getting back on the same plane. I moan about how shitty my seat is and score another first class upgrade. Lucky me.

12.30 board the plane with a splitting headache.

12.45 lose breakfast.

12.55 apparently there was more breakfast.

1.15 angry flight attendant takes pity on me and gives me crackers she’d brought from home

1.25 goodbye crackers

At this point all of first class is using the lavatory at the rear of the plane. I’m too tired and puny feeling to even be embarrassed by this.

3pm in the taxi line at LAX and I have to let three cabs go. They smell so awful that surely I’ll retch. After some frustration I tip the guy at the curb nicely and find a cab driver that neither douses himself in cologne nor smokes.

5pm I’m cooking dinner at home. Because… ya know… they’re hungry.

The Northern Lights with GoPro

04.11.12

Last night we set out to see the Northern Lights with a special bent. A group of scientists (I’ll name drop later) set out helium weather balloons equipped with GoPro Cameras in order to get video of the Aurora Borealis from Space.

It’s mind boggling.

Essentially the GoPro cameras will be 20 miles up into the atmosphere recording the greatest light show science can provide. The launch can be done for about a thousand dollars and the cameras get an incredibly high quality. Higher in fact than any that’s been recorded from space.

I’m operating on four hours of sleep as we were watching the northern lights until 3am and then we were up bright and early for dogsledding. I’ve got a tiny break right now and then we’ve got a two mile hike (snowshoeing maybe?) to retrieve the cameras.

I am so excited to share the GoPro footage with you but in the interim here’s a video of last night’s display. Mike Kofsky from the Wall Street Journal took 3,000 one second exposure images and then threaded them together into 45 seconds of majesty.