Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

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Boskone Panel: Brother Guy on Ice (or why the GT flag is flying at the South Pole)

I'm doing this one out of order because it's shorter.

Guy Consolmagno was the Special Guest; he's a Jesuit, astronomer, curator of the Vatican's meteorite collection [*], and science fiction fan. The talk was about his 1996 trip to Antarctica to look for meteorites.

[*] He did his thesis (?) on meteorites; the Vatican has a collection of meteorites that desperately needed a curator; and the person who assigned him to the Vatican Observatory didn't know either of those facts. *Brother Guy holds up his hands, looks at the sky*

My notes here were fairly sketchy, because a lot of the talk was fun facts about trips to Antarctica, and I've seen March of the Penguins and its making-ofs.

He said, "My idea of a fun vacation is a cabin in the woods where there's so much snow outside that you can't go out and can only sit inside and read science fiction." So, naturally, he found himself next to a stranger in a restaurant in (Portugal?) whose name translated as "Beast Meat," who said to him, "Jesuit astronomer, that's interesting. Would you like to go to Antarctica?"

Why Antarctica for meteorites? Three reasons:

  1. It's really easy to spot meteorites on all that white snow.
  2. Most meteorites contain metallic iron, which rusts and then breaks the rocks apart, so that under normal circumstances, most meteorites self-destruct in about a hundred years. However, in Antaractia's deep freeze, they can last 10,000 years.
  3. Snow and ice tend to slide downhill, except when they hit large ridges of rock, in which case they sublimate away into the dry air; so you get a kind of conveyor belt bringing meteorites to particular locations.

Random notes about McMurdo Station:

  • The big bus is called "Ivan the Terra Bus"; the wheels are as tall as a person.
  • The smell of wet wool never goes away.
  • Navy rules for showers because all the water has to be melted.
  • There is a large building with a year's worth of food that comes in on a ship: "a lot of frozen foods."

Their expedition was to Elephant Moraine (WoT folks will sympathize at my wanting to type that "Moiraine") / Meteorite City.

  • "I hate camping"—but what he hates is dew, mosquitos, and fumbling around the dark. None of which were a problem there!
  • Looking for meteorites: everyone spreads out on their skidoos. When someone spots something, they all gather round to watch it being picked up—okay, really, they all have tasks, including putting the meteorite in a bag (scissors were the tool of choice for this) and giving a preliminary assessment of them. Unfortunately he was in denial about needing bifocals and so couldn't really help with that . . .
  • He brought a purely mechanical camera, with all the grease replaced by whale oil, and a particular kind of film that's good in the cold. Even still, he couldn't get a full roll because the film got stiff, and some of the pictures he did take were cracked. And they're all really dark, even though it was summer, because the light meter just overloaded.
  • They were tent-bound for twelve straight days, with first snow and then waiting for the snow to blow away. The wind constantly rattled the tents, and on the second-worst day, extremely cold and windy, a set of VIPs came in by helicopter, so they got to act very nonchalant.
  • He nearly killed his tent-mate during this time, because his tent-mate (who knew he was a big sf fan) would do things like read a big anthology of science fiction stories, and upon completion deliberately tell him the entire plot of each story. They weren't supposed to go out alone, but his tent-mate finally told him to just go take a walk, within sight of the camp; and on this walk he found a meteorite! It turned out to be a piece of the Moon, one of maybe a dozen.
  • Something else they found was a white chunk of something that was not snow or ice. There are white meteorites, though they're rare; so it got packed up and shipped off to Houston. There, it was unpacked in the clean room, and the scientist cut it with a saw—whereupon it disintegrated, being really old, thoroughly dried—chocolate.

    They were not happy about what that did to their clean room.

  • Pet peeve: authors who send a small group of characters off away from everything else into highly stressful situations, and then have them all fall in love. A married couple was once sent to Antarctica and it nearly destroyed their marriage: "you can't get away from these people!" Also, the only bodily functions you think about are "Did you take a poop?" (because when your latrine is a hole in a snowbank, you only want to do that once a day).
  • The most important thing about choosing people is whether they have a sense of humor. All the skidoos have a second sticker, of Homer Simpson, because everyone will have regular "D'oh!" moments.
  • For instance: the throttle on the skidoos is operated by one's thumb, which is terrible in the cold. Someone had the bright idea of duct-taping the throttle; and when that skidoo was turned on, well, it was never seen again.
  • The title question was actually answered as everyone was filing out. GT = General Technics, of which he was a member; but the flag isn't actually flying at the South Pole, because (if I heard it right) it flew away in a windstorm, perhaps even before it was planted.

Leaving was dicey, because the wind created a whiteout of blown snow, with no horizon at all. On the second trip from McMurdo to their (former, now completely packed up) camp, the pilot said on the radio that they'd have to turn around, and then "Oh! We've just hit the ground, I guess we've landed."

And that was it, an entertaining though science-light talk.

Tags: boskone, boskone 2007, cons

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