Our sky scanning optical instruments are starting to turn themselves off for the summer. The sun dips beneath the horizon for only a few hours each night and though we're still in the shadow of the South a soft blue glow persists the whole night through. I know this because for the last week I've been on night watch.
Coping with nights is much like coping with the rest of the time here. You have to want to read lots of books, watch lots of films, develop an addiction to crosswords or have a project to be getting on with. Otherwise you're left with little to do and a great void of time to fill. Beyond the battle against boredom the hardest thing about nights is that I'm stuck indoors and can only pop out for a ski or a kite just after dinner when my time shifted mind feels far too tired to do much. Anyhow, this week I forced myself to get a little exercise and had a nice walk out on the snow while more active souls enjoyed a good spot of wind.
While I'm not a great film buff I do know what I like and got through a couple of old favourites while concentrating on not falling asleep. It's nice on nights to have the lounge entirely to myself and see a whole film without anyone walking in part way through to ask what's happened so far. It's also possible to pick something to watch without wondering if everyone else has already seen it, or just to see the Wednesday feature that I missed from a couple of week's back.
For books I've devoured The voyage of the Why Not?, Ross in the Antarctic, Pratchett's Jingo and Cordwainer Smith's The Underpeople (a brilliant discovery in our tattered science fiction section - people near bookshops should find something of his in print immediately).
The Antarctic books show how little things change. Ross, using only sturdy sailing boats, spent three summers around 1824 bashing his way through the pack ice at various points around the continent then beating a retreat before getting frozen in at the end of each season. His first summer was the most successful and lead to the discovery of the Ross sea, the coast around McMurdo and the nearby Ross ice shelf which he called "the great ice barrier". (I think where we are would sound a tiny bit more gnarly if it was "the Brunt Ice Barrier".) He even named a mountain range after the Royal Society, which doesn't entirely trip off the tongue. The most interesting aspect of his expedition, though, was its conception as a mission to map the Earth's magnetic field and conduct measurements to determine variations in the field over time. Work that continues at Halley to this day. It's even possible that, had Ross been a little luckier with ice conditions, he might have discovered the area around Halley during his final season when he attempted to penetrate the Weddell sea but was repulsed by the pack.
Charcot (a Frenchman, read in translation) sailed South in 1905 in the Pourquoi-Pas? (Why Not?) and made discovereries of land along the western edge of the peninsula. He intentionally wintered his ship in a natural harbour on Petermann Island and conducted surveys, magnetic observations and a meteorological programme. His was a civilian undertaking, with support from the French government, and his experience was very like life today at Halley. They relied on electrical generators for lights, had a very routine social calendar, celebrated midwinter with a meal too large to eat and fed themselves from tins. Unlike us they supplemented their diet with seal and penguin meat, spoke in French and had an excellent supply of wines.
My project for the week was to edit a film to be shown at the dinner in England which will celebrate fifty years of research at Halley Bay. This is the first time I've tried to put anything like this together, and have new found respect for people that make editing their profession. Even selecting which snippets of shooting to show took the better part of two nights, and threading them together into a viewable state took another. It was interesting to try something new but not a hobby I'll be keeping up.
And then there's little tasks that keep me busy: playing the keyboard (but Oh! for a real piano), baking bread, tidying the place up a little, and the taking of met observations at three and six. The obs were especially pleasurable this week as the sun has been rising around six, giving a brief if spectacular show, then bounding away from the horizon to hide in the clouds or dominate a clear blue sky.
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