Special report

Extreme scientists on the cutting edge

Six researchers reveal just how far they go to discover some of nature’s deepest secrets or test novel technologies.

To many people the very word “scientist” brings forth a stereotypical image of people in lab coats and goggles, toying earnestly with glassware and garishly coloured, bubbling fluids, very probably in a rather dull air-conditioned lab with little natural daylight. No wonder many European youngsters consider science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the disciplines vital for economic success – tedious and nerdy. This image is, of course, nonsense. Scientists are just as likely to be doing their work in the field, in freezing or sweltering locations, above the planet or deep inside it, taking risks and producing exhilarating results that lead to technologies that change our lives.

They are like high-level athletes, marshalling strength, both mental and physical, as well as courage, patience and endurance to achieve their goals. Some of their locations verge on the mind-blowing – aboard spacecraft, beneath ice caps, on glaciers, on the seabed, in deserts or even inside a volcano.

Technologist looks in on six people doing cutting-edge science in some very extreme places.

extreme scientist volcano orbit fullwidth - Extreme scientists on the cutting edge

Listening to the earth

Name: Karin Sigloch
Function: Geophysicist
Research site: La Réunion, Indian Ocean

What?

Did a plume of hot rock shoot up from the earth’s core to form the volcanic island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean? That’s the question geophysicists led by Karin Sigloch at the University of Oxford are trying to answer on their continuing mission to understand what is happening as the earth’s core cools since its formation 4.5 billion years ago.

The immediate mystery is this: La Réunion sits in the middle of a tectonic plate far away from the volcanic activity usually found at plate boundaries. Yet it still has an active volcano. How did it get there?

“It is one of the best suspects for a mantle plume, an upwelling of mantle rock heated by the fluid iron core 3,000 kilometres down,” says Sigloch. The hypothesis is that the fluid core warms the lower layers of mantle rock, which become buoyant and rise viscously in the shape of a plume that mushrooms up to the surface – though melting occurs only in the last 100 km. This plume, they suppose, is always anchored to the same spot on the core. But it burns through the crust at different points because, while the plume is stationary, the tectonic plates are moving. “So the plume leaves tracks and burn marks on the sea floor. We think the plume first rose in India, later forming the Maldives, then Mauritius and most lately Réunion,” she explains.

How?

At sea in the Indian Ocean for many weeks. To see if there really is a superhot magma conduit rising up beneath La Réunion, the European team decided to compute 3D images of the crust and mantle below the island in a novel way: using the seismic waves from earthquakes all over the planet to “illuminate” the deep rock structure. Heat distorts seismic waves and should give a telltale image of the plume.

This meant a sweltering, stormy five-week research voyage in October 2012 performing sonar surveys of the seabed, seeking clear, flat locations before dropping 57 seismic motion sensors in a 1500 x 1500-km area around the island. The sensors – 30 cm long cylinders of 30 cm diameter – were left logging earthquakes for a year and then retrieved in a six-week mission in November 2013. “I loved it, even though we had to endure a tropical storm. You’re working very hard and can be very focussed as there is no one to interrupt you like in the lab,” says Sigloch.

One problem: they used sensors that were sensitive to seismically induced motions of just 1 nanometre. So they picked up everything from whale song to distant icebergs breaking up, storms and ship wakes. Cleaning the quake data of such signals means the construction of the 3D image has yet to start. “But we’re hoping for a convincing detection of the plume,” Sigloch says.

Testing systems from orbit

Name: Andreas Mogensen
Function: Astronaut Engineer
Research site: Low earth orbit on the International Space Station

What?

The International Space Station (ISS) offers astronauts the chance to test nascent technologies in microgravity and also to perform earth observation and communications tests from orbit. European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen performed all these on a flight to the ISS in September 2015. “I was delighted that I would be flying to space so soon,” says Mogensen, an honorary associate professor at the Technical University of Denmark. He first learned that he had been accepted as an ESA astronaut in September 2009 and was amazed to be flying just six years later. “It might seem a long time but it’s actually a short time for an astronaut.”

As an aerospace engineer he is full of admiration for the veteran Soyuz, the 1960’s era Russian spacecraft he flew in. “The Soyuz is a magnificent vehicle in many different ways, despite the fact that we would not build a modern spacecraft that way. It has an old analogue layer of instruments, for instance, that still serve as our backup today. It’s a very robust, reliable vehicle.”

How?

Astronaut Mogensen undertook a clutch of experiments 400 kilometres above the earth as the ISS travelled at 27,600 kilometres per hour. A key capability of future manned Mars missions will be to steer ground-based rovers and robots on the Martian surface for automated mining operations or

perhaps even to assemble ground habitation for human crews someday. ESA has developed a tactile feedback robot-control system which Mogensen got to test, driving robots at ESA’s lab in Noordwijk, Netherlands, via radio link from space.

The tasks included pushing a metal peg 4 cm into a hole to make an electrical connection. It worked – and the force feedback allowed Mogensen to actually feel when the robot arm on a rover met resistance at the hole edges. “Andreas managed two complete drive, approach, park and peg-in-hole insertions, demonstrating precision force-feedback from orbit for the very first time in the history of spaceflight,” says André Schiele of ESA’s Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory.

As Denmark’s first astronaut, Mogensen tested some Danish technology too: a novel biomimetic membrane designed to keep the space station’s drinking water bacteria-free. Its chief benefit? It requires no energy on a spacecraft where every joule of solar power is precious.

Detecting neutrinos at the South Pole

Name: Elisa Resconi
Function: Particle Physicist
Research site: IceCube Neutrino Observatory, Antarctica

What?

Where in the cosmos are the violent supernovae and super-massive black hole cataclysms that create the very high-energy neutrinos that bombard and pass right through the earth? That is what 45 institutions and 300 scientists from 12 countries are attempting to discover at the South Pole Neutrino Observatory.

Around 100 trillion neutrinos pass right through your body every second as the nearmassless particles interact only very weakly with matter, colliding infrequently with atoms. That makes them

incredibly hard to detect, says Elisa Resconi, a physicist at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). And that means, she says, that an observatory seeking to sense even the high-energy neutrinos from supernovae need a whole new approach to astronomy.

Until now most astronomy has involved the detection of photons: radio waves, ultraviolet, infrared, visible light or high-energy gamma rays. Adding neutrino detection to the picture offers another advantage, says Resconi: it gives scientists an entirely different picture of the universe. “For instance,

the photons reaching the earth from the Sun are coming from its surface. But neutrinos are coming from fusion reactions at its core. So we are looking at the Sun in an entirely different way.”

How?

In the IceCube Neutrino Observatory – a cubic kilometer of ice, equal in volume to one million swimming pools of water, at the South Pole. An initiative of the University of Wisconsin, IceCube has

been peppered with more than 5,000 detectors, called photomultipliers, in a 3D matrix than can sense the ultraviolet Cherenkov radiation emitted when a high-energy neutrino collides with an atom. Holes drilled in the ice with hot water drills have allowed the sensor array to be placed between 1.5 and 2.5 km below the surface to prevent interference from atmospheric neutrinos: the cosmic ones of interest actually power through the earth from the North Pole.

Completed in 2010, IceCube made its first major discovery in 2013 when an analysis showed that it had sensed 28 ultra-high-energy neutrinos from sources outside our solar system. Such results make the work of Resconi’s colleagues at the South Pole extremely “emotional, challenging and intellectually fascinating”, she says. It is her role to decide which of her 10 staff go to the Antarctic for two to three months at a time to tend TUM’s part of the IceCube experiments – and it is a popular posting. “They are eager to go there and they are very motivated about the science.”

TUM physicist Martin Jurkovic spent two months at IceCube in 2014. “It was so exciting to get off the plane at the South Pole to find the temperature was -45 °C,” he says. “The air pressure is low, equivalent to an altitude of 3,200 metres, so if you do any exercise you have to catch your breath.” His strongest memory of the extreme science site? The sheer beauty of the snow sculptures built up around the observatory by the wind. “They are just gorgeous,” he says.

Diving to understand evolution

Name: Jon Copley
Function: Deep-Sea Ecologist
Research site: Cayman Trough, 5 km below the Caribbean

What?

The main aim, says Jon Copley, a marine ecologist at the University of Southampton in the UK, is to find out how different species evolve at the different hydrothermal vent outcrops strewn around the oceans. Also known as “black smokers”, these superhot deep-sea springs form where the earth’s crust is being pulled apart by the inexorable forces of plate tectonics.

If an ocean quest to identify species variation might sound slightly familiar, it should. “It’s similar to the way the 19th-century naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin travelled around islands and discovered how different species related to those on other islands, or the mainland, and figured out species dispersal and evolution. Similarly, the deep-sea vents can be thought of as little islands of life on the ocean floor. That’s why we do this,” says Copley.

The mineral-rich superheated seawater gushing out of a deep-sea vent is at 400 °C. That means heat-loving creatures such as the Hairy Chested Hoff Crab can evolve around the vents. This denizen of warm Antarctic vent waters nurtures a garden of extremophile microbes on its hairy chest. It then uses comb-like mouth parts to harvest and eat them. Such critters are the quarry of Copley and his colleagues.

How?

In a manned submersible. In June 2013 Copley joined Japanese colleagues in one of the few craft that can carry people to depths of 5,000 metres, the Shinkai 6500, to investigate the hydrothermal vents in the Cayman Trough, 5 km below the Caribbean, between Jamaica and Cuba. “Although it looks like a 7-metre-long sub the bit that carries the people is actually a pressure-resisting titanium ball that’s 2 metres across on the inside. The titanium is 71.5 mm thick and if it were not perfectly spherical to within 1 millimetre it would not hold the pressure. It’s an incredibly precise piece of engineering,” Copley explains.

The Shinkai 6500 freefalls to just above the ocean floor – and then uses its own thrusters to explore the area. Bioluminescence in the creatures of the deep ensures that even at the seabed, 5 km down, there are some flashes of light in the gloom. What is most striking is how alien the landscape around the vents can look, Copley says. “That’s because the terrain has been shaped by very different forces to the features we are used to on land, like hills and valleys. That vast, dark landscape looks so different to anything we are used to. My nose was up against the porthole the whole time,” he says.

Networking geckos in a tropical forest

Name: Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury
Function: Network Ecologist

Name: Nancy Bunbury
Function: Conservation Biologist

Research site: Praslin Island, Seychelles

What?

The question is whether ecological interactions among species – including humans – could threaten the fragile ecosystems and biodiversity in the tropical forests of the Vallée de Mai on island of Praslin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Seychelles.

A major concern is the endangered coco de mer palm, Lodoicea maldivica, which produces a massive, talismanic fruit that looks like a double coconut. The fruit grows only on two islands in the Seychelles and is poached as an aphrodisiac; its loss would be a major biodiversity hit for the islands. The species has separate male and female trees, and scientists are trying to establish which creatures are its chief pollinators. “Something is transporting the pollen from tree to tree using bridges in the forest canopy and we want to know what that is,” says Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury, a network ecology expert at the Technical University of Darmstadt who researches the issues with his wife,

Seychelles science program coordinator Nancy Bunbury. The aim is to see what combinations of insects, birds and animals most effect pollination – and mapping that in the form of mathematical network interactions.

How?

The researchers work in the tropical forests of the Seychelles for eight months of the year. It can be gruelling fieldwork with temperatures peaking above 50 °C, but with sudden three-hour tropical storms just as likely to leave them soaked and cold, he says. “I can lose 12 kg in a season and I am not a particularly big guy anyway,” Kaiser-Bunbury says. “It’s a lot offull-blast mountain work, day and night, and extremely strenuous.” Keeping hydrated, and with salty snacks at hand, is important. In addition to field ecology, however, the pair have also been testing some advanced ecotech.

Since one suspected coco de mer pollinator is the 30-cm-long giant gecko, the pair tested intelligent GPS radio tags developed by Microsoft Research to track it. These tags connect with each other to form a mesh network that relays messages through a chain of geckos, so researchers need to access only one critter’s tag to download data from many of them.

The tags are too heavy, however. “The 18-gram GPS tags need to be shrunk. The battery is the main issue,” says Kaiser-Bunbury. Next, he says, he would like to use drones to observe the Seychelles’ saltwater manatees, called dugongs. The noise of boats scares the dugongs away, so drones are ideal observation platforms as they are quiet at altitude. That will allow the researchers to check on dugong numbers, feeding habits and risks like the choking threat from the plastic micropollution caught up in the Indian Ocean’s swirling “gyre” current.

Karin Sigloch (University of Oxford), Andreas Mogensen (European Space Agency), André Schiele (European Space Agency), Elisa Resconi (Technical University of Munich), Martin Jurkovic (Technical University of Munich), Jon Copley (University of Southampton), Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury (Technical University of Darmstadt), Nancy Bunbury (Seychelles Islands Foundation)