Exploring the world of extreme science


Whether they’re running from bears in Kamchatka, building a lab deep underground, making fuel-efficient race cars, or monitoring climate change at far-flung locales, scientists from the University of Chicago, Argonne and Fermilab often engage in extreme research.

Panelists discussed their research and more on Nov. 17 at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory during “Xtreme Research: Interesting Places & Unusual Challenges,” the fourth in a series of Joint Speaker events for University of Chicago faculty and Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab scientists, researchers and engineers.

Moderator Gabriel Spitzer, WBEZ-FM’s science reporter, elicited colorful, scary and inspiring stories from a panel of scientists whose “typical day at the office” routinely includes extraordinary challenges and tremendous risks and rewards.

Albert Colman, professor of geophysical sciences, studies how atmospheric and oceanic composition has changed over geological timeframes. To do this, he treks through remote, volcanic hot springs to examine carbon monoxide cycling and to study organisms that metabolize carbon monoxide.

“Our research suggests that there is a vigorous carbon monoxide cycle at the microbial level that has not yet been appreciated,” he said.

While working in the field, said Coleman, “Most of the time, two members of our team do field research while a third person is on bear watch.”

Navigating through a mineshaft in Soudan, Minn., Fermilab physicist Regina Rameika said she’s more likely to encounter bats than bears. Rameika is working on the long baseline neutrino oscillation program, which shoots a beam of neutrinos through the earth to a lab in an abandoned Minnesota mine. Building the detector took two years and involved carrying five tons of equipment down the six-by-six yard mineshaft, piece by piece.

“It was like building a ship in a bottle,” she said. “Now we’re able to record five neutrino events a day and are planning to build another detector 100 miles farther north.”

Forrest Jehlik, research engineer at Argonne’s Center for Transportation Research, is testing the limits of engine components and fuels as he heads a Green Racing Program. By optimizing performance and engine design, Jehlik’s program was able to save one racing team $30,000 and drastically reduce its fuel consumption.

“We demonstarted that a high-performance racecar can have as little impact on the environment as a four-cylinder sedan,” he said. “Today’s racecar driver could become tomorrow’s environmentalist as well as a spokesperson for the goals of our program: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our country’s reliance on imported petroleum.”                               

Argonne scientist Doug Sisterson, a research meteorologist, views the entire world as his laboratory. Around the clock, the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility gathers atmospheric data at more than a dozen permanent and mobile sites around the globe for climate-change researchers. Scientists who apply for the measurement services select the sites, and the data is made available on the Internet near-real time for free.

“We’re trying to understand the physics behind how Mother Nature works so that we can incorporate that knowledge into models of climate change, looking forward and backward,” he said. “We get sent to places where forecasts and observations about climate do not agree. Typically that has been in faraway, inhospitable places, so if you forget the duct tape, it’s a long way to a hardware store!”

Extreme science is sometimes the first research that funders talk about cutting in tough economic times, but the panelists insisted that it should be among the last areas to be cut. The racecar research could help the entire automotive industry. The climate change research is 100 times as productive than it was when it started in 1995. And an unexpected plus from the neutrino program is educating thousands of students and teachers who visit the site every year.

Colman noted that important unanticipated benefits have come out of extreme research. “We wouldn’t have the human genome sequenced at this point if it hadn’t been for people studying extremophiles,” he said. “It’s not because extreme scientists set out to sequence the human genome. Rather, it’s because they were curious, they were set loose and they discovered unexpected things.”

The panelists agreed that passion motivates them to continue their seemingly impossible, sometimes dangerous work. Spitzer, who has interviewed many extreme scientists, believes researchers are driven by the rewards of their experiments, whether they reach their scientific results working long hours testing a hypothesis in a lab or by traveling “one thousand miles from nowhere” to places where “people are not at the top of the food chain.”

“They carry that passion with them everywhere they go,” said Spitzer.

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