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Meet the Doctors of Antarctica

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When physician Dale Mole stepped off the C-130 turboprop plane that had landed at the South Pole in January 2012, he felt a twinge of disappointment. It was only minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Granted, it was summer—but he had expected worse.

“The average winter temperature is minus 85,” he says. As the weeks and months passed, however, the thermostat dropped as low as minus 107. Mole’s exhaled breath would freeze in mid-air; no one dared leave bare flesh exposed more than 10 or 15 seconds; teeth would ache for hours after exposure.

Once, as Mole was cresting a snow bank, his face mask froze. “I had to remove my mask to breathe and the super-cooled air felt like ice daggers in my throat,” he says. “I was afraid my windpipe was going to freeze, which could prove fatal.”

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at twilight. Courtesy Dale Mole.

In Antarctica, the coldest and most isolated place on the planet, even the simple act of breathing becomes an endurance test. Home to three permanent U.S. expedition outposts—McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and Palmer Station—it’s inaccessible eight months out of the year due to oppressive weather conditions. Researchers from a variety of countries fly in with the knowledge they’re about to be effectively cut off from the world.

But what happens when a medical situation arises? More than 2800 miles from the nearest hospital in New Zealand, Antarctic crews must rely on the expertise of a single physician responsible for upwards of 150 people. (The number varies by season.) Working autonomously, the doctor is charged with analyzing x-rays and blood work, providing aftercare, overseeing pharmaceutical duties and even performing dentistry. Serious conditions that could be managed in a major facility become radical emergencies. Surgery is a major undertaking, and intensive care can’t be sustained.

Such adversity is not for the claustrophobic or easily shaken. But for Mole, volunteering was academic. “I signed up,” he says, “because I wanted the challenge of providing medical care in the most remote and austere environment on Earth.”

The Right Stuff

The view from the observation deck. Courtesy Dale Mole.

Scott Parazynski, M.D., had spent 16 years in NASA's astronaut corps and was an experienced mountaineer when the offer came to become Chief Medical Officer overseeing healthcare for the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). Having tended to climbers all the way to the summit of Mount Everest, he was familiar with the psychological and physical demands of practicing medicine without a net.

“It takes a really broad skill set,” he says. “I call it MacGyver medicine. What can you do to diagnose and treat conditions in a really remote environment when the chips are down? You have to invent solutions on the fly.”

Physicians who volunteer typically have backgrounds as surgeons or emergency room veterans. When Parazynski selected former submarine medical officer Mole to go to the South Pole, the 63-year-old underwent a rigorous screening: an EKG to assess cardiovascular health, an ultrasound of the gallbladder to rule out any simmering problems, and a psychological test.

Once approved, Mole left Denver for New Zealand, which connected him to McMurdo Station. There, a dentist gave him a crash course on fillings and root canals. After a week, he boarded a flight to the South Pole, where his patient base of 49 scientists and researchers studied everything from geophysics to astronomy in a fuel-powered compound; the dry air (the area averages seven percent humidity) forces residents to guzzle four to six liters of water a day. Mole was careful not to touch any metal with his bare hands—it can take the skin right off—and investigated his professional tools, a mixture of modern and museum-worthy.

“Some of the items I remember from visiting the doctor in the 1950s,” he says. There was a World War II embalming kit, a straitjacket, and glass syringes with reusable needles. “Some of our lab equipment was also designed for use on animals, but was perfectly suitable for humans. The x-ray unit was the portable kind used by veterinarians, but it worked.”

Ventilators, ultrasound, and critical life support devices are also present, though luxuries like an MRI device would be cost-prohibitive owing to the small population. “You’re relying upon clinical judgment and your resourcefulness,” Parazynski says.

Because the Antarctic workers are carefully screened for any major conditions, Mole and other physicians frequently find themselves treating conditions common to any industrial environment: slips, common colds, and lacerations. The plummeting temperatures and non-existent humidity also give rise to dry skin conditions and respiratory ailments. One, “the McMurdo crud,” is a hacking cough that tends to nag at patients.

Dawn at the American base. Courtesy Dale Mole.

Despite the cold, frostbite is not as common as one might expect. Mole saw only a few cases, albeit one that resulted in a patient losing part of an ear. Most injuries, he says, “were sports related, as many played basketball, volleyball and dodge ball on their off-duty time.”

Sean Roden, M.D., who stayed during the comparatively warmer summer months prior to Mole’s arrival, recalls that altitude sickness was a problem for many: Antarctic stations are 9500 feet above sea level. Staff and crew take Diamox, a drug that helps adjust the body’s chemistry to the environment, but it isn’t always effective. “I had a headache for over two months,” Roden says. “Everyone was just constantly short of breath, had a headache, had a hard time sleeping. You get winded just brushing your teeth.”

Summer also invites a scourge of insomniacs, with the sun refusing to go away and inhabitants putting up blackout shutters to try and cope with the irregular seasons. “People were walking up and down hallways, not really awake, not asleep,” Roden says, like zombies.”

When Doctors Get Sick

The modest inpatient ward. Courtesy Dale Mole.

It’s a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare: alone in the Antarctic, with the lone physician too ill to care for anyone else. Modern screenings have reduced that possibility, but the area has been home to a series of legendary crises.

Some countries require their doctors undergo an appendectomy to ward off the potential for appendicitis. If that seems excessive, consider the case of Leonid Rogozov, a Russian physician who diagnosed himself with a swollen appendix during a 1961 expedition. Trapped in the Austral winter with no flights in or out—the harsh weather can prevent aircraft from functioning properly—he deputized a few researchers to be his surgical assistants and cut out his own organ using only local anesthesia. He recovered in just two weeks.

In 1999, Jerri Nielsen discovered a lump in her breast. She performed a biopsy using only an ice cube to numb the area; upon discovering a cancerous growth, she had drugs air-dropped to her until she was able fly out for treatment.

If anything similar were to occur today, physicians would have the benefit of teleconferencing with colleagues. “We can look remotely in someone’s ear, eyes, listen to their heart, share views of ultrasound or EKG tracing,” Parazynski says. “We can look over their shoulder and be part of the decision making process.”

That assumes, however, communications are working. Mole says Internet access was available only a few hours at a stretch. Without it, “You rely upon textbooks you either brought with you or were available in the small South Pole medical library.”

Dental concerns are treated here. Note the armrests for ease of gripping and writhing. Courtesy Dale Mole.

Much of a physician’s time is spent in preventative preparation, training staff in the event of an emergency. During his stay, Roden orchestrated the medical evacuation of a crew member who had fallen ill with a neurological issue more than 400 kilometers from base. “We had rehearsed it in a drill, so we were prepped for it.” (The patient recovered and returned to work.)

Off-duty, Roden says numerous groups were devoted to salsa dancing, knitting, or Doctor Who viewing parties; Mole read, ran four to six miles a day on the treadmill, and ventured outside sporting at least six layers of insulation—anything to stretch out from his cramped 6 x 10-foot living quarters. He says he experienced none of the depression that can result from a lack of sunlight for months at a time.

“Being at the South Pole was like living on another planet, one with only one day and one night per year,” he says. “There was always something unique to experience, so I was never bored or felt an overwhelming desire to leave.”

Breaking the Ice

The remains of the cables used to power the station, stacked up by workers and dubbed "Spoolhenge." Courtesy Dale Mole.

After 10 months, Mole saw his first plane, thought of his wife, and breathed a sigh of relief. With winter over, he was able to return to the States in November 2012. During his tenure, he had attended lectures on art history, cared for a group requiring everything from dentistry to physical therapy, and trained non-medical staff to provide critical care in the event of an emergency.

Roden’s four-month stay was a kind of sensory deprivation. Back home, life had gone from being a blinding sea of white to glowing Technicolor. “Coming off the ice, seeing a sunset, the colors were just, wow,” he says. “Getting back to sea level was amazing. I felt great.”

Such experiences are more than an endurance test: they help inform future remote care in environments as varied as rural America, third world nations, and even Mars. Advanced handheld diagnostic tools, Parazynski says, are already on the way. “The notion is to develop a device that would have the diagnostic capabilities of a full lab in a major hospital. Not overly prescriptive, just basic physiological parameters, blood chemistries. It will help revolutionize healthcare in remote and in regular health care.”

While the efforts of Mole and other physicians are a valuable learning tool for future explorers, it’s the physician who may benefit the most. “The months of profound darkness, the majestic starry skies, the shimmering auroras, the icy desolation, going to bed at night a few feet from where all the lines of longitude converge …” Mole trails off. “These are the memories I will carry with me to my grave.”

This story originally appeared in 2015.

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9 Facts about Physicist Michael Faraday, the 'Father of Electricity'
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A self-taught scientist, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) excelled in chemistry and physics to become one of the most influential thinkers in history. He’s been called the "father of electricity," (Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison also wear that crown) and his appetite for experimenting knew no bounds. "Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature; and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency," he wrote. Faraday discovered laws of electromagnetism, invented the first electric motor, and built the first electric generator—paving the way for our mechanized age. Read on for more Faraday facts.

1. HE NEVER HAD A FORMAL SCIENTIFIC EDUCATION.

Born in south London in a working-class family, Faraday earned a rudimentary education in reading, writing, and math. When he turned 14 he was apprenticed to a London bookbinder for the following seven years. In his free time, Faraday read Jane Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry, an 1806 bestseller that explained scientific topics for a general audience.

2. HE WAS A SELF-STARTER.

Like Marcet, Faraday was fascinated by the work of Sir Humphry Davy, a charismatic chemist who had found fame by testing the effects of nitrous oxide on himself. (He let others, including poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, inhale the gas on the condition that they keep diaries of their thoughts and sensations while high.) In spring 1812, a customer at the bookbindery gave Faraday tickets to see Davy’s upcoming lectures. Faraday compiled his notes from the lectures in a bound volume (the one benefit of his toil at the bookbinder's) and sent the book to Davy, requesting to become his assistant—an unheard-of notion for a tradesman with no university degree. Sensing his intelligence and drive, Davy secured him a job at the Royal Institution, where Davy ran the chemistry lab.

3. HE INVENTED A MOTOR WITH MAGNETS AND MERCURY.

By 1820, other scientists had shown that an electric current produces a magnetic field, and that two electrified wires produce a force on each other. Faraday thought there could be a way to harness these forces in a mechanical apparatus. In 1822, he built a device using a magnet, liquid mercury (which conducts electricity) and a current-carrying wire that turned electrical energy into mechanical energy—in other words, the first electric motor. Faraday noted the success in his journal [PDF]: "Very satisfactory, but make more sensible apparatus."

4. HE ALSO CREATED THE FIRST ELECTRIC GENERATOR.

A decade after his breakthrough with the motor, Faraday discovered that the movement of a wire through a stationary magnetic field can induce an electrical current in the wire—the principle of electromagnetic induction. To demonstrate it, Faraday built a machine in which a copper disc rotated between the two poles of a horseshoe magnet, producing its own power. The machine, later called the Faraday disc, became the first electric generator.

5. HE SHOWED THE PULL OF MAGNETIC FORCE.

In a brilliantly simple experiment (recreated by countless schoolchildren today), Faraday laid a bar magnet on a table and covered it with a piece of stiff paper. Then he sprinkled magnetized iron shavings across the paper, which immediately arranged themselves into semicircular arcs emanating from the ends—the north and south poles—of the magnet. In addition to revealing that magnets still exert pull through barriers, he visualized the pattern of magnetic force in space.

6. YOU CAN VISIT HIS MAGNETIC LABORATORY IN LONDON.

Faraday served in a number of scientific roles at the Royal Institution, an organization dedicated to promoting applied science. Eventually Faraday was appointed as its Fullerian Professor of Chemistry, a permanent position that allowed him to research and experiment to his heart's content. His magnetic laboratory from the 1850s is now faithfully replicated in the Royal Institution's Faraday Museum. It displays many of his world-changing gadgets, including an original Faraday disc, one of his early electrostatic generators, his chemical samples, and a giant magnet.

7. HE POPULARIZED NEW SCIENTIFIC TERMINOLOGY.

Faraday's work was so groundbreaking that no descriptors existed for many of his discoveries. With his fellow scientist William Whewell, Faraday coined a number of futuristic-sounding names for the forces and concepts he identified, such as electrode, anode, cathode, and ion. (Whewell himself coined the word "scientist" in 1834, after "natural philosopher" had become too vague to describe people working in increasingly specialized fields.)

8. PRINCE ALBERT GAVE HIM SOME SWEET REAL ESTATE.

In 1848, the Prince Consort, also known as Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, gave Faraday and his family a comfortable home at Hampton Court—not the royal palace, but near it—free of charge, to recognize his contributions to science. The house at 37 Hampton Court Road was renamed Faraday House until he died there on August 25, 1867. Now it's known simply by its street address.

9. HE WAS FEATURED ON THE UNITED KINGDOM'S £20 NOTE.

To honor Faraday's role in the advancement of British science, the Bank of England unveiled a £20 bill with his portrait on June 5, 1991. He joined an illustrious group of Britons with their own notes, including William Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale, and Isaac Newton. By the time it was withdrawn in February 2001, the bank estimated that about 120 million Faraday bills were in circulation (that's more than 2 billion quid).

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4 Expert Tips on How to Get the Most Out of August's Total Solar Eclipse
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As you might have heard, there’s a total solar eclipse crossing the U.S. on August 21. It’s the first total solar eclipse in the country since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast event since June 8, 1918, when eclipse coverage pushed World War I off the front page of national newspapers. Americans are just as excited today: Thousands are hitting the road to stake out prime spots for watching the last cross-country total solar eclipse until 2045. We’ve asked experts for tips on getting the most out of this celestial spectacle.

1. DON’T FRY YOUR EYES—OR BREAK THE BANK

To see the partial phases of the eclipse, you will need eclipse glasses because—surprise!—staring directly at the sun for even a minute or two will permanently damage your retinas. Make sure the glasses you buy meet the ISO 12312-2 safety standards. As eclipse frenzy nears its peak, shady retailers are selling knock-off glasses that will not adequately protect your eyes. The American Astronomical Society keeps a list of reputable vendors, but as a rule, if you can see anything other than the sun through your glasses, they might be bogus. There’s no need to splurge, however: You can order safe paper specs in bulk for as little as 90 cents each. In a pinch, you and your friends can take turns watching the partial phases through a shared pair of glasses. As eclipse chaser and author Kate Russo points out, “you only need to view occasionally—no need to sit and stare with them on the whole time.”

2. DON’T DIY YOUR EYE PROTECTION

There are plenty of urban legends about “alternative” ways to protect your eyes while watching a solar eclipse: smoked glass, CDs, several pairs of sunglasses stacked on top of each other. None works. If you’re feeling crafty, or don’t have a pair of safe eclipse glasses, you can use a pinhole projector to indirectly watch the eclipse. NASA produced a how-to video to walk you through it.

3. GET TO THE PATH OF TOTALITY

Bryan Brewer, who published a guidebook for solar eclipses, tells Mental Floss the difference between seeing a partial solar eclipse and a total solar eclipse is “like the difference between standing right outside the arena and being inside watching the game.”

During totality, observers can take off their glasses and look up at the blocked-out sun—and around at their eerily twilit surroundings. Kate Russo’s advice: Don’t just stare at the sun. “You need to make sure you look above you, and around you as well so you can notice the changes that are happening,” she says. For a brief moment, stars will appear next to the sun and animals will begin their nighttime routines. Once you’ve taken in the scenery, you can use a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get a close look at the tendrils of flame that make up the sun’s corona.

Only a 70-mile-wide band of the country stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will experience the total eclipse. Rooms in the path of totality are reportedly going for as much as $1000 a night, and news outlets across the country have raised the specter of traffic armageddon. But if you can find a ride and a room, you'll be in good shape for witnessing the spectacle.

4. PRESERVE YOUR NIGHT VISION

Your eyes need half an hour to fully adjust to darkness, but the total eclipse will last less than three minutes. If you’ve just been staring at the sun through the partial phases of the eclipse, your view of the corona during totality will be obscured by lousy night vision and annoying green afterimages. Eclipse chaser James McClean—who has trekked from Svalbard to Java to watch the moon blot out the sun—made this rookie mistake during one of his early eclipse sightings in Egypt in 2006. After watching the partial phases, with stray beams of sunlight reflecting into his eyes from the glittering sand and sea, McClean was snowblind throughout the totality.

Now he swears by a new method: blindfolding himself throughout the first phases of the eclipse to maximize his experience of the totality. He says he doesn’t mind “skipping the previews if it means getting a better view of the film.” Afterward, he pops on some eye protection to see the partial phases of the eclipse as the moon pulls away from the sun. If you do blindfold yourself, just remember to set an alarm for the time when the total eclipse begins so you don’t miss its cross-country journey. You'll have to wait 28 years for your next chance.

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