It is not an everyday occurrence for me to get an email from the South Pole. Several months ago, however, I was contacted by Ethan Rudnitsky, who was spending the winter at the US Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, and who asked me for instructions to build a model of an LC-130 Hercules. This is the aircraft used to fly people to and from the station and Ethan wanted to put the model on display in the station. TBB used the opportunity to find out more about LEGO fans at the South Pole in an interview and agreed to supply the instructions, stickers, and the parts to build the Hercules.
Ethan and I had yet to work out how to get the model there. Enter Martin Rongen, a physicist and LEGO fan, like myself, who contacted me from Germany having seen my LC-130 prototype. He was due to travel to the Pole around Christmas (summer in Antarctica) and wondered whether I was willing to share instructions so that he could take the LEGO model with him. How about that? Problem solved! We could ship the whole lot to Germany.
Martin also agreed to take a few pictures of the Hercules on the actual South Pole and to answer a few questions.
TBB: Martin, Thank you for taking the model to the South Pole and thanks for the interview. I know you’re a physicist and that you are down South for experiments/observations, but can you tell us a bit more about them? Why do they have to be done on the South Pole?
Martin: I am a collaboration member of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. We have built and operate the largest neutrino telescope in the world, which in 2013 discovered the existence of extraterrestrial neutrinos and has as such opened up a new observational window to the universe. The detector itself consists of over 5000 highly sensitive photodetectors (so called photomultipliers) that have been deployed into the Antarctic ice at a depth between 1500 and 2500 m covering a 1 km2 footprint. For the experiment to work we require such a large amount of ice with nearly perfect optical properties only found in Antarctica.
TBB: It can’t have been easy to get there. I know there’s a Hercules involved somehow, but how did you travel to the South Pole?
Martin: All flights operated by the US Antarctic Program start in Christchurch, New Zealand. Flights are only possible during the Antarctic summer between November and February. From Christchurch one either takes a C-17 (given good runway conditions) or a LC-130 Hercules to McMurdo at the Antarctic coast. Going by Herc, as I did, this flight takes about 8 hours. After one night of layover in McMurdo another Herc takes you to the pole in about 3 hours. The runways in McMurdo and at South Pole require a visual approach. In addition the Hercs have to return to McMurdo, as shutting off the engines in the cold is too dangerous. As such flights are only possible when there are good weather conditions in both locations.
TBB: Did you have to undergo some sort of extra training or instruction before you could go?
Martin: The preparations in the North mainly involved a very thorough medical examination. Once in Christchurch we had one day to familiarize ourselves with the cold weather gear and the rules associated with working in and conserving the Antarctica environment. Overall the life on and around station is very comfortable. For people working in field camps, sleeping in tents and carrying all their supplies by themselves, this is of course a different story.
TBB: How did you transport the model? Did it break?
Martin: I pre-assembled the model at home, glued some critical parts and then split it into three sections to fit into a transport box with foam cutouts. As such it did survive the transport with only very minor damage. Handling the delicate model with gloves turned out to be tricky and during my first clumsy attempts outside I actually broke the nose section. Luckily all parts could be recovered.
TBB: TBB is not a physics blog, of course, but here’s a question I get asked a fair bit and now I finally have the opportunity to ask somebody else. You’re a LEGO fan and a physicist; are these very different things or do you think there’s a connection between the two?
Martin: Most physicists seem to enjoy LEGO. I guess this is due to the fact that both disciplines at their heart involve creative ways of problem solving. On a more practical note, your readers might be surprised by how many LEGO machines are used in labs to achieve otherwise complex tasks.
TBB: Do you build MOCs or are you more of a collector?
Martin: I for sure do not have the experience and LEGO creativity to enjoy creating my own MOCs. Still I find the range of official “adult” LEGO sets rather limited. As such I usually search places like TBB for models that fascinate me and have instructions available. To source the parts only adds to the experience. So I guess you could call me a collector of MOCs…
TBB: What is your favourite model or set?
Martin: By now the Herc is very special to me. But I have to say the microscale LEGO LHC (a LEGO IDEAS set currently in review) still has to be my favorite. Capturing the sub-detectors and unique characters of all four major LHC experiments on such a small scale is pure art.
TBB: It must be pretty amazing to be able to travel to where you have. Do you plan to build some South-Pole themed models after you get back home?
Martin: Hmm, I hadn’t really considered this yet. I have seen a couple of builds of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, but I don’t think it makes for an attractive model. Maybe something going back to the days of the first explorers, a tent or maybe a hut on an ice shelf. This being said, the LC-130 is a pretty iconic part of Antarctic history.
Editor’s note: Our thanks to Ralph for a great model, to Martin for handling all the logistics and sharing his story, and to all our readers down at the South Pole!