The Indiana Jones’ of 2011
A selection of the craziest places that scientists are sciencing
1. Underground pursuits
The search for neutrinos – the incredibly light sub-atomic particles that charge, ghost-like, through everything, has taken scientists to some fascinating underworlds. Underground is the best place to study them, and in Japan in 2011, the Super-Kamiokande detector, or Super-K, is at the forefront of the continued search, although this was compromised by the Japanese earthquake in March. Researchers sit in an abandoned zinc mine 3,300 feet underground, converted into a cavernous dome that houses a spectacular man-made lake. Its walls are covered in 13,000 sensors that detect neutrino activity in the otherwise seemingly placid lake.
2. Oceanic astronauts
Astronauts aren’t usually associated with the underwater world. Their expertise is above, not below. Not so, according to reports of the most recent oceanic astronaut mission, called NEEMO, in the Florida Keys. The practice of dunking prospective space travelers has been going since the 1960s, because water holds many advantages as a plausible simulation of space. The latest dunk happened in October of this year, when practicing astronauts endured six days of scuba.
3. Submarine science
Scientists in submarines! They had to be somewhere. Early this year the U.S. Navy revitalized a submarine ice-mapping program to chart environmental change in the Arctic. And in the Gulf of Mexico, researchers boarded submarines to study a more obvious catastrophic change: the ongoing damage wrought by the BP oil spill. Sadly, scientists concluded that the carnage on the sea floor is much longer lasting than previously believed.
4. Pirated waters
A personal favorite: the climate scientists that sought to set off into pirated waters this year. The team heads up one of the most prominent climate monitoring initiatives in the world, and they fixed their gaze on a risky patch of sea in the Indian Ocean near Mauritius, where they hoped to release instruments that measure temperature and salinity. They requested a special navy protection envoy in July to guard against the notorious Somali pirates, but until they get it, these scientists will have to tread the periphery of the pirated seas. Evidently, even pirates can’t dissuade a climatologist.
5. Jungle fever
The treed realms have long attracted scientists who pursue adventurous trails. In the tangled wilds of Sabah, Borneo, scientists managed for the first time in July to tag a loris, an elusive nocturnal primate threatened by the the illegal pet trade. Further south in Josef Conrad’s so-called ‘Heart of Darkness’, the war-ravaged Congo, researchers collect elephant dung from forest populations to monitor ivory poaching, and to learn how some elephant herds survive the insistent pursuit. In a different kind of jungle, scores of Citizen Scientists gathered in Central Park, New York, this December to conduct the annual bird census, a Christmas ritual that has been ongoing since 1900, making it the oldest wildlife survey in the world.