9 Secrets of Antarctic Scientists

A scientist monitors one of the world's largest Adélie penguin colonies near Cape Crozier, Antarctica.
A scientist monitors one of the world's largest Adélie penguin colonies near Cape Crozier, Antarctica.
Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and sometimes the darkest place on Earth. And yet hundreds of people go there each year to conduct scientific research and work as support staff at dozens of stations scattered across the continent. In summer, the high season for polar activity, the sun never sets, offering scientists and support teams an opportunity to play soccer on the ice or sunbathe in blinding, cloud-free rays. Winter envelops the land in frigid darkness—and inspires the few "winter-overs" to indulge in naked footraces around the station. Mental Floss spoke to a few Antarctic scientists about what it's really like to carry out research there, including the hacks that help them survive the elements.

1. THEY LEARN ON THE FLY.

Scientists participating in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), which runs all of the American research and operations on the continent, go through an introductory briefing about living and working at the three American stations: McMurdo, the largest, which is located on Ross Island; Palmer, on Anvers Island off the Antarctica Peninsula; and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

But with so many complex protocols needed for daily life, new arrivals often find themselves on a steep learning curve. "There's no manual for a lot of things," Michelle LaRue, an ecologist who studies Adélie and emperor penguins and seals in the Southern Ocean and is often based at McMurdo, tells Mental Floss. "There are appointments for everything—food, field supplies, et cetera—and you need a certain amount of lead time before you get into the field. I quickly learned that even though you think you're ready, there's something else you're missing. Thankfully the support crew there is amazing. I don't know what we would have done without them."

2. THEY HAVE TO PACK CAREFULLY.

Gathering everything for an extended mission can be tricky if you can't depend on regular resupply shipments. "Packing for 18 months away is a total nightmare. Ever tried to work out how many tampons you might need for that long? Or conditioner?" ecologist Jess Walkup tells Mental Floss. Walkup began her career with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) studying albatrosses on South Georgia and is now the base commander at the BAS's Rothera station leading the 2018 wintering team.

"I ran out of anti-perspirant on one trip, and that was awful," she says. "Thankfully I was on an island with just three men and thousands of stinky seals, so no one seemed to notice."

3. THEY HACK THEIR CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS.

Scientists and support staff who serve in the Antarctic summer, from October through March, often contend with round-the-clock daylight. Many bring eye masks and blackout curtains so they can retain their regular sleep-wake schedule—but it's tempting to want to stay up. "After working all day, all I want to do is catch up with friends or go hiking. Time gets away from you pretty quickly, and before you know it, you're going to bed way later than you should," LaRue says.

The Antarctic winter, however, is another matter. The sun doesn't rise for several months, leaving the entire continent in extreme darkness (except for the twinkling of stars and the aurora australis). "I found that I was shattered all day and then slept badly at night," Walkup says. "In the early afternoon I would have a massive slump and feel like it was 3 a.m. and I had been awake for a week." She adjusted by using a SAD lamp on her desk and getting into a routine of winding down and going to bed at the same time each night. On the base, she says, "Your bed is one of the only places you can get some time alone."

4. THEY HAVE STRANGE TASTES IN MOVIES.

The Milky Way and aurora australis over the South Pole
The Milky Way and aurora australis illuminate the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter.
Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation

It's not all work and no play for Antarctic scientists and staff. The isolation and rough conditions create a sense of camaraderie that is celebrated at certain times of the year. To mark Midwinter's Day in the middle of June (the point when the sun begins its return back south), the BAS bases, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and many others watch The Thing ("the original, obviously!" Walkup says). In John Carpenter's 1982 horror film, a parasitic alien invades an Antarctic base and steadily takes over the minds of the researchers stationed there, with much gore, violence, and paranoia. Winter-overs also watch the 1980 classic The Shining, a similarly chilly flick featuring an unhealthy dose of insanity.

In August, many of the Antarctic stations compete in the 48-Hour Winter Film Festival, in which teams submit short films that contain five key elements and are made in less than 48 hours. "We then watch all the submissions and vote on the winners under various categories, like at the Oscars. It’s a great way to learn about the international Antarctic community and see the inside of other stations," Walkup says. (Watch a selection from the 2016 festival on Vimeo).

5. THEY MAKE TIME TO PARTY.

Sure, scientists spend many hours tracking neutrinos, conducting wildlife surveys, collecting ice cores, and fulfilling other objectives. But when they're off the clock, they like to kick back. "Depending on the time of year, there's all kinds of iconic parties and events to attend: Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner, the marathon, talent shows, the film festival, IceStock—that's an outdoor concert on New Year's Eve. If you're in McMurdo over New Year's Eve, you have to go to IceStock," LaRue says.

However, some of the games and competitions might seem fatalistic to those with a greater array of entertainment options. For example, when the temperature drops to -50°C (-58°F), scientists and staff strip naked and run around their stations' perimeters, Walkup reports.

Even that's not as crazy as vying for membership in the 300 Club. When the temperature drops to -100°F at the South Pole station, daredevils first warm up in a 200°F sauna, then dash outside (naked, of course) to the spot marking the Geographic South Pole several yards away, then run shrieking back into the sauna—having experienced a 300-degree range in temperature in just a few minutes.

The activities don't just keep boredom at bay; they actually ward off the lethargic, depressive state one gets from living in extreme isolation, which the winter-overs call "toast." As Sven Lidström, a Swedish engineer who helped build the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory, wrote in a 2012 blog post, "the cure for winter-over toastiness is fun and entertainment."

6. THEY START CRAVING SALAD …

McMurdo Station in Antarctica
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Elaine Hood, National Science Foundation

According to Jason C. Anthony, author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, much of the culinary history of the southern continent consists of "isolated, insulated people eating either prepackaged expedition food or butchered sea life." Now, 21st-century scientists chow down on three freshly prepared meals a day at McMurdo and other stations. "Of the five seasons I spent in, or worked out of, McMurdo, I only really remember one where freshies"—local slang for any kind of fresh produce—"were in noticeably short supply," LaRue says.

But scientists and staff still have to cope with the lack of some favorite foods—and those whose fitness for eating is debatable.

"We only really get two deliveries of fresh food a year, one around December and then again around March. All our milk is powdered, and I got used to that very quickly. Some people hate it, but in a cup of tea or a bowl of cereal, I don’t really notice. I wouldn’t drink a glass of it, though," Walkup says.

Walkup devised ways to test if months-old foods were still edible. "We were eating eggs nine months after they had been laid," she says. "Some eggs that look moldy on the outside, and even on the inside, are fine to eat. The trick is to break each egg into a cup to check that it is OK—i.e., doesn’t smell—before adding it to whatever you're making. If the eggs are starting to go, then this is vital—you don’t want to ruin your mixture with a bad egg."

They also get some surprising cravings. "The thing I missed was salad, as that doesn’t travel well," Walkup adds. "I was never a huge fan of salad before I went south, but now I love it."

7. … AND BOOZE.

No planes can fly supplies into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for up to nine months of the year, because at temperatures below -50°C, the jet fuel freezes. That leaves the small group of winter-overs to their own devices. The company operating the station supplies the scientists and support teams with huge pallets of wine, beer, and spirits that give rise to a makeshift bar at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station dubbed Club 90 South. Phil Broughton, a health physicist who spent one long, dark winter there in the mid-aughts, was its de facto bartender.

He developed a protocol for distributing alcohol: serve enough to help the patrons get through the darkest weeks of winter, and then make sure that those who were completely plastered didn't go home. "The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide [the drinker] over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85°F night," Broughton wrote in a blog post.

Plenty of scientists carry in their favorite spirits, just in case their base runs out halfway through the season. Says LaRue, "Bringing scotch with you is a must."

8. SOMETIMES THEY ACTUALLY FEEL TOO WARM.

Scientists in the field have to wear layers upon layers of insulating clothing, bring more hand and foot warmers than they think they'll need, and stay active to avoid hypothermia. "I distinctly remember one snow machine trip back to town, where the wind was just whipping across our faces, my fingers were numb. It was really cold," LaRue says. "As soon as I parked the snow machine I got off and just ran as fast and as far as I could to warm up."

In the summer season, though, being bundled in Gore-Tex can make them too hot. The extremely dry climate prevents the chilly damp feeling of more temperate regions—and if the sun is shining, its rays bounce off the reflective ice and fry the researchers. "Sometimes you can get really warm and even work in shorts and a t-shirt," Walkup says. "At 79 degrees south it can be -10°C [14°F] in the height of summer, and the sun is really strong, so on a day with no wind it is warm enough to sunbathe—just don’t lay down in the snow."

9. THEY DON'T SEE POLAR BEARS.

Antarctica teems with wildlife: six species of penguins, six species of seal, countless seabirds, and majestic whales are the southern ocean's most charismatic fauna. Scientists won't see any mammals from that other pole, however. Says Walkup, "people always ask me if I have seen polar bears. I haven’t—they only live in the Arctic."

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

Buckingham Palace Used to Have a Bar For Its Staff—Until They Started Getting Really Drunk

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

You don’t have to be a member of the royal family to enjoy some of Buckingham Palace’s spectacular perks. According to Insider, the staff has its own gym, swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, choir, book club, and 24-hour confidential counseling services.

They even used to have a private bar, but management was forced to shut it down after staff members kept getting too drunk. Insider reports that Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press secretary, shared the not-so-posh tidbit in a new documentary called Secrets of the Royal Palaces, which is airing on the UK’s Channel 5 this month.

It’s not clear if a few irresponsible employees ruined it for everyone or if there was reckless over-imbibing across the board. Were the famously stoic Buckingham Palace guards among the guilty? We’ll probably never know—Arbiter kept his comments on the matter concise and rather vague, explaining that staff had gotten “too worse for wear,” so “they had to get rid” of the bar.

Though it’s highly unlikely that the 93-year-old queen was tossing back tequila shots with her ladies-in-waiting, she has been known to enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time. Her drink of choice is gin mixed with Dubonnet, and her former chef Darren McGrady told CNN that she also occasionally indulges in a glass of German sweet wine with dinner. “Just in the evening,” he emphasized. “She certainly doesn’t drink four glasses a day.”

Perhaps the possibly brief, definitely wondrous life of the Buckingham Palace staff bar will be covered in a later season of Netflix’s The Crown.

[h/t Insider]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER