A Window on Space

Dr. Iain Coleman, a space scientist, joined the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) following a PhD in astrophysics at the University of Glasgow. Like many scientists at BAS he does not visit the Antarctic, but uses data from spacecraft and a network of radar covering the north and south polar regions to find out more about the outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere and the space environment. Here, he describes a recent week at BAS.


It's a chilly winter's morning in Cambridge, and summer at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The canteen is only half full, because a lot of staff are South for the summer season. Over the next couple of months they'll trickle back to HQ, until only a few dozen wintering staff are left at the antarctic research stations. In my 4 years at BAS I've got used to this inversion of the seasons, although my wife still finds it odd that we go to midwinter parties in June.

After coffee, there's a meeting to discuss our plans to deploy optical instruments in Antarctica. We'll use these to make routine observations of the aurora, as part of our science mission to understand how magnetic interactions between the sun and Earth affect the upper atmosphere. Today the scientists and engineers are getting together to thrash out the various options, as a first step toward designing and building the kit. It eventually comes down to a choice between a simple, low-power system that we could make cheaply and deploy anywhere in Antarctica, or a more elaborate and powerful system that would have to be installed in one of the research stations. The first option gives us a lot of flexibility, the second gives us much better quality data. I argue that there's no point in building an instrument and sending it out to the most remote region of Earth if the data we get back isn't good enough to do useful science with. The rest of the scientists agree, and we go for the more powerful instrument. It's now up to the engineers to come up with a detailed design.

In the afternoon I get back to work on my own research project. The sun's magnetic field is distorted when it comes into contact with Earth's field: We call this "draping". There are various theoretical models of how this draping happens, and we think it's pretty important in determining where and when the magnetic fields interact. The funny thing is, there's been hardly any experimental work done to see if these models are any good or not. I'm trying to set that straight, by comparing magnetic field measurements from spacecraft upstream in the solar wind with the same measurements made by spacecraft nearer to Earth. This involves trawling through years of data from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, writing software to analyse it and produce pretty colour pictures, and then trying to figure out what it all means. That last bit has been eluding me for quite a while now.


First thing today is a meeting with the other scientists in my team: Mervyn, the project leader, Mike, a senior radar scientist, and Gareth, my counterpart on the experimental side of things. I do the theoretical modelling work, and together we're trying to understand how the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth interact in a process called reconnection. We've all been working on the data from a particular day when the telltale signs of reconnection were seen at the same time by spacecraft at the edge of Earth's magnetic field, low-altitude meteorological satellites, and the ground-based radar network that includes the BAS radar at Halley Research Station. We're trying to tie all these observations together into one big picture, using my theoretical work to trace the magnetic connections between deep space and the upper atmosphere.

We've been battering away at this for a few months, and it's been getting pretty frustrating. We just can't get all the bits of the jigsaw to fit together well enough to convince ourselves, let alone the rest of the scientific community. Mervyn suggests a whole new approach, in which I fit my model to the spacecraft observations first, and then we take it from there. It's worth a go.


I'm interrupted in my modelling work by an e-mail from my brother, Jamie. He's in Glasgow, working in medical research, and he wants some advice. There's a mathematical model that he's trying to apply to blood vessels, but his forte is dissections rather than equations. Can I help?

It turns out that he's looking at exactly the same mathematics that some of the guys in my group have been using to explain the explosive release of energy in Earth's magnetic field. I give Jamie some pointers, and I'm sure we'll talk more about it over some beers next time I'm north of the border.

Back to the space physics, and I've figured out that I can make sense of the spacecraft data if I assume that Earth's magnetic field has been eroded away on the day in question, by a prolonged interval of reconnection. I meet up once more with Mervyn, Mike, and Gareth and show them my calculations. We decide that I should redo my modelling of the whole system on this basis, then if the results seem to make sense Gareth can use them to grind through the data once more.


The big news today is about our main supply ship to Antarctica, the Ernest Shackleton. Since December, she's been unable to make it to Halley Research Station due to heavy ice. They've now decided to transfer the people and equipment from the ship to the base by aircraft, involving about 40 round trips of 600 km. Sitting here in a warm Cambridge office, it's easy to forget the heroic efforts that the people down South have to make to keep our science projects running.

Today I'm organising my own travel for this year, which will be a bit less demanding. I'm off to the sunny south of France, for the European Geophysical Society's annual conference in Nice. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Every Thursday afternoon, we have a seminar for the group, given either by one of us or by a visiting scientist. This week's speaker is Mark, one of our atmospheric scientists, who talks about the various instrumental effects on measurements of magnetic activity over the past 150 years. It sounds deathly dull, but it turns out to be an intriguing detective story, and a cautionary tale to anyone who uses long-term data sets.

In the evening, I spend some time on my second job. I've just started work as a tutor with the Open University (OU), on a brand-new advanced astrophysics course. I did some tutoring as a postgrad in Glasgow, but since I joined BAS I've done no teaching at all. It's good to be a full-time researcher, without the added burden of having to prepare lecture courses and so on, but I do miss teaching students. It keeps your own understanding of the subject fresh and broad: Without continually revisiting the basics, you quickly forget a terrifying amount. So that's why I've starting work with the OU: well, that and the cost of living in Cambridge.


Some bad news today. I've just learned that a friend of mine has decided to quit research. He's been bouncing around Europe on various short-term postdoctoral contracts, most recently in France. Now he wants to settle down in France with his wife, but can't get a long-term research job there. So he's leaving science, reluctantly, and going into the computing industry. This is a damn shame, not just for him, but for the community as a whole: We're losing a first-rate scientist who made a unique contribution. He shouldn't have been forced to choose between his scientific career and stable family life.

This brings it home to me how well-off I am here at BAS. These guys are stuck with me till at least 2005, possibly longer. It's pretty rare for a young scientist to have such a long-term position in an academic institution, and most end up rushing from 1-year contract to 1-year contract. This means personal insecurity and also makes it hard to do really long-term work.

Speaking of work, I finish the revised modelling and show it to the team. It all seems to make sense: Mike is quite happy with the match-up between my calculations and his radar data, Mervyn agrees that it all seems to hang together pretty well, and Gareth takes away the results to do some serious number-crunching on the polar electric fields. Rather him than me.

Leaving all that in Gareth's capable hands, I get back to my draping work. I've come up with a new way to analyse the data, and the results are actually starting to make some kind of sense at last. Just in time for the weekend.

Want to send an email to the author?

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers