Saturday, 22 November 2008

Postcard from Kolin

(disclaimer, this post drags on a bit)

It feels like ages since I last posted – ages in the sense that I feel like I’ve been put through the emotional and physical wringer about a dozen times. I had a brief period of calm at the reactor – combination of jet-lag and denial I think – before the sleepless pace I’ve been keeping for the prior couple of weeks resumed. With radiation training out of the way on the Wednesday, and appropriate accreditation and monitors hanging round my neck, on Thursday Andrew, who arrived late the night before, and I began the task of prepping all the samples for the neutron experiment. Jill would join us later that night. No pictures of the reactor or beamline this time BTW – security has been beefed up even more and I had to sign a counter-espionage form stating I would desist, for fear of being shipped of to some awful place should I be sprung with camera in hand. We had two experiments to perform, and decided to shoot what we perceived to be the “safe” experiment first. There was the usual yo-yo of emotions getting the samples ready. It’s fairly trivial stuff really, but when you are in an unfamiliar laboratory environment where nearly everything is different and calibrated for other purposes, and when you can barely keep your eyes open for most of the day, keeping track of the precious protein that you’ve slaved over starts to play on your nerves. We finally got the samples to good concentration and into dialysis and ourselves back to the hotel by about midnight. Might as well have been 4 am, however, because I only got about 3 hrs sleep that night, as for the previous night. My recollection of the rest of the experimental time is already a bit vague, but it went something like this;

Friday 14th. Beamtime starts 10 am. It takes an awful lot of work to prepare for these experiments, so it is somewhat pleasing when the first frame comes of the image plate and confirms that you have indeed made a cracker of a sample. Eureka moments like this in science are quite infrequent, so you’ve got to enjoy it when it happens, even if only for 5 minutes. Very exciting in a high-5 geeky sort of way – picture a bunch of nerds celebrating on The Simpson’s. With the data rolling off nicely it was time to get preparation of the second, and potentially more exciting, sample on the move. Finally got sample 2 up to concentration and into dialysis, and ourselves in bed by 1 am. Once again, despite being on autopilot for most of the day with horrendously bloodshot eyes, only snaffled another 2-3 hours night sleep. Did manage to read a fair chunk of Bill Oddie’s autobiography though. This body clock thing I was on is powerful stuff.

Saturday 15th. Got the reactor and confirmed that data collection had gone without a hitch through the night. Processed what we had. Looked good. Started shooting sample 2 late in the day but by about 10 pm we realized that we had major deuterium-related aggregation problems [I’ll say no more]. We set the instrument to record through the night and got to bed by midnight – snaffled about 4 hours sleep this night (an improvement!). Starting to think I’ve got this jet-lag thing licked.

Sunday 16th. Checked the sample 2 data and confirmed that this experiment wasn’t going to yield anything great, so decided to make higher concentrations of sample 1, (recycling what we had already shot), so we could get better statistics for certain data points. Very disappointing re sample 2 as I had worked bloody hard to prepare it over the week preceding the trip, although at least we collected A-grade X-ray data before getting on the plane. It was also on this day that I started putting some serious effort into a job application I had been avoiding like the plaque since stepping on the plane.

The job in question is one of the new fellowships on offer from the Rudd government as part of their Education Revolution. They will be difficult to procure, but the effort would certainly be worth the increase in salary if successful. After months of shameless shilly-shallying the administering body (Australian Research Council) finally announced the relevant dates for these so called “Future Fellowships”. Due in Canberra Wed 26th Nov, and due in the Sydney Uni research office (the forwarding administration) by days end Fri 21st Nov. Potential applicants were only alerted of these dates 4 weeks before applications closed, and 2 weeks before I was due to depart for the US. That’s what I call timing! I should add that normally grants of this size and complexity from the ARC take about a month alone to prepare.

During the wee hours of the lead up to the trip I managed to bash a basic skeleton of the proposal together. What it needed, though, was some serious fleshing out (aka spin and bullshitting). Well, with the assistance of a few very talented people in my corner (Thanks Jill and especially Joel) this fellow whom I barely recognize looks to now have a reasonable chance, I’d like to think. But it hasn’t been easy. Got an early one Sunday night (7:30!), but was wide awake at midnight, tapping away on the laptop – yes, another bit of technology I’ve begrudgingly embraced – till dawn.

Monday 17th. Today I left the bench work to Andrew (many thanks) and focused entirely on The Application. This is when Joel, out of the blue, offered to help from Oz and made some great suggestions. Jill departed that afternoon for Utah. Worked till 4 am, and finally grabbed 4 hrs sleep near the crack.

Tuesday 18th. Beamtime finished at 10 am, but we were already finished the night before, so it was just a matter of packing up everything and getting Health Physics to assay and give us radiation clearance on the samples which had been in the beam that we wanted to take home. After another brunch at Einstein’s Bagels (we had been operating on a 2 meals a day schedule for most of the trip), we had a hire car with useless Garmin (there you go Kev) to return, and a plane to catch in the afternoon. Was too trashed mentally to focus any further on The Application, so devoured most of the rest of Bill Oddie before eventually crashing to the soothing sound of a child screaming in my ear for most of the flight.

Wednesday 19th. Those few hours of ear-splitting Zzzzs between DC and Frankfurt were invaluable though, as they recharged me to the point of being able to thoroughly go over The Application during the 5 hours of stopover before my afternoon flight to Prague, and earmark where polish was most urgently required. Arrived at about 3 pm in a very windy Prague, where it was grand to be met by a beaming Karel. His English had been getting progressively more rusty in our email correspondence, but it all seemed to come back to him in bursts of laughter as we carried on about this, that and the other on our drive east to Kolin, Karel’s home town. It was great to see him. He says a big Hi, BTW to Ham, Greggles and BTi. We celebrated in the evening with a trip to the pub and a healthy dose of Gambrinus, Boskov (of course!) and finished with some Mataxa (orrible greek stuff that I hadn’t sampled before and don’t think I will again). I think it was the Mataxa nightcaps that did me in, as I was a bit hung over the next morning, but I did sleep solid for a about 6 hours – longest run to date!

Thursday 20th. With Karel and Jana out the door for work at 6:10 (!), I got going on The Application by 7:30, and only stopped to meet Karel at 1:30pm for lunch. However, after lunch, upon returning to the apartment I realized I had inadvertently locked myself out – not a smart thing to do as I didn’t know exactly where Karel’s business was, I was in sandals, and it was hellishly windy (gusts of 110 km/hr in neighboring Slovakia) and 5 C. Bugger – my teeth started chattering as the implication of what had just happed hit home. If only I’d bothered, after all, to lug along BTi’s bloody mobile phone!#@%! Fortunately my sense of direction didn’t abandon me and after about 20 min of very brisk walking, managed to find Karel and his work (well, the other way round; huge relief), who dropped me back and let me into the apartment. Got a few hours shut eye before once again getting back to The Application. Stopped for a yummy home cooked dinner at 9:30 (thanks Jana) before finally finishing the thing off, collating pages of The Application, and finally, after all this inhumane blood, sweat, tears and insomnia, getting ready to submit it in time for the close of business Friday 21 Australian time – which it would amply make if submitted there and then (midnight). However – you know it would have been too easy to have it just sail through… However, the wireless feature of the laptop Karel had brought home from work, which had been fine at 11 pm, spat the dummy when I tried use it again. It just wouldn’t connect to the server – something to do with the high winds, or maybe me inadvertently pressing the wrong buttons with letters in all the wrong places (also likely). Oh the pain! In any case, hourly during the night I checked to see if the server was up again. You can guess how much sleep I might have got last night!

Friday 21st. Which brings me to now. At 6 am Karel awoke, also couldn’t get sense out of the laptop, so bundled me into the car and off to his place of work, where I finally managed to get back on line and submit The Application, all 33 pages of the damn thing, at about 4:50 pm Australian time! Timing! Well, to be exact, although it is not quite as dramatic, I successfully emailed it to Joel back in Sydney, who acknowledged its receipt over the phone, and will take it from there (many thanks, once again Joel). So, hopefully, unless he discovers any clangors, that’s the last I’ll see of it, and the end of what has been a bloody stressful experience. It’s now 10 am as I finish typing this. I’ve just had a few beers to calm my nerves, and am about to have a shower and go to sleep for about a week.

But I won’t, of course, because on Sunday the meteorologists have predicted a patch of improved weather in the Alps over what we are experiencing now, and Karel and I have a mountain on the Austrian-Italian border to climb – The Grossglockner! Although now that I look at pictures of it I’m not so sure this is a good idea. I suppose we are at the mercy of the weather. Till later!


  1. Hi Dave, sound like quite a time. For The Application best of luck, I hope you do well, it sounds like alot of effort went into it. Nothing like a deadline to get the blood going and deny one of sleep, and doing it on the road as well makes more extra drama. Glad the work well OK, great for sample 1 and a thought to the keeper for sample 2.
    Please say hello to Karel (bloody bastard) and enjoy the climbing if you get the break in the weather. if not go to the pub and drink beer. I think we discussed this before you left and either climbing or pubbing (sp?) were both acceptable activities.
    Take care of the rest of your travels Dave.

  2. Hi Dave,

    Give my regards to Karel I'm certain he will ensure you have a great time climbing/pubbing etc. Enjoy the rest of your travels.

  3. Hey Dave, great to see your objective testing of the competitors GPS products. Bloody bastards. Say hello to Karel for me and stay away from the green spirits. Cheers