9 June, 2004
One kind of important detail that I neglected to mention in the previous post:
Last night at the airport, Amanda received a phone call from the acting safety coordinator at University of Fairbanks (organization that helps run, and run smoothly at Toolik Lake field camp).
One of the pieces of equipment that we are using had apparently developed a leak. Ordinarily, a strip of duct tape would fix it right up; in this case, it was leaking radiation! (In the sound track of the saga, this point is where the especially dramatic, slightly dangerous music starts playing.) The Electron Capture Detector, or ECD, relies on a small piece of radioactive nickel foil (the element nickel, not the coin!) to give off beta parcticles (also known as high-energy electrons). Over the winter, the foil had apparently reacted with the air.
What does this mean? Worst-case scenario called for sending the machine to Texas, requiring us to prepare samples, run the experiments, but not collect data until we returned to Ohio State and Rose Hulman (remember that Rose Hulman is the university where Penney teaches). After all the hard work to get here, this option would result in a much less productive field season, and was the least favorite option of the researchers.
The team broke into several groups to resolve the problem: Amanda got on the phone with the manufacturer. Yo talked with the safety director and ran additional tests. Penney did research on impact of radiation at various dosages. After several harrowing hours, we came to the realization that the dosages that were leaking from the back of the ECD were so small that we could ignore them (10 million times lower than harmful dosages - Amanda suggested that it was like spitting in the ocean.) So we decided to bring the ECD with us and monitor the leakage periodically throughout our time here. Another important factor that led to our decision to bring the ECD is that beta-parcticles are the sprinters of the radioactive world; after traveling through only 5 cm of air, they will have lost nearly all of their energy. (For readers who have begun to panic, don’t: the last time you got an X-ray, you were exposed to radiation millions of times stronger; the last time you were on a plane, you were exposed to much stronger radiation as well.) The concern shifted from the radiation harming us or those around us to the functionality of the machine. Keep your fingers crossed that the equipment works as intended.
The more mundane part of last-minute preparations included stops at Fred Meyers (a store with nearly everything… from sushi to handguns to Scrabble and lamps to Starbucks to gasoline), the sporting goods store and Radio Shack (I am now the proud owner of a microphone, the better to record the beeps and whirrs of the lab, and the stillness of the night, and the crackling of the ice in the quiet of the early morning.)
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