Poetry is More Important than a Working Laptop

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 24, 2015

Roger Topp with game face on.
Roger Topp with game face on.

You have to watch out for water when you are on a ship, because really, water gets everywhere. In Puerto Rico the humidity was so high it collected in the ceiling of the Main Lab (from a ventilation duct probably) and dripped down onto the floor and splashed a workbench. And when I say dripped, think collected puddle of water on surface where surface suddenly tips, like ships do, and all the water gets caught up in the excitement and goes to some new place fast and unexpectedly.

I have this sudden image/memory of a run of cold water going down the back of my neck — but I can’t quite figure out where the water’s coming from.

In the Caribbean, the department laptop was on one of those benches just a couple hours beforehand. Luckily it escaped catastrophe and remained safe for the rest of that cruise.

At the outset of this cruise it was revealed to me one of my dry bags (ferried down the lumpy road from Seward) had been thoroughly doused with sea water. Bit of an issue with a valve not being closed after repairs in the Wet Lab. No harm done, not because it was a dry-bag or an advertised “Wet Lab.” More that airport baggage handling has long since caused the “dry-bag” certification to be revoked.

Except for some level of embarrassment for the crew at having to unpack a bag with potential “underwear” inside (false alarm) to dry things out, nothing was damaged. And let me just say, this crew is professional — I would not have known anything had happened – so well was the repack – if someone (Carin) had not said something.

So today — I was outside this afternoon diligently working away in my office on the fantail when a great jet of water took out the department laptop. These things are unfortunate, unexpected, and they are rare, but they happen none-the-less, and in 3s. The deck crew was oblivious, busy, suited up against the 30 knot wind, and hard-hatted under the cranes. Strange — given there were no hosepipes in evidence at the time and we’re definitely becalmed in a sense of a lack of immediate open water.

I was oblivious too, because while I was outside where the water should be, the laptop was “safe” in the Main Lab (yes, that lab), and as I said, the boat wasn’t rocking – at – all.

The imagination’s “jet” of water was later refined down to “at a guess” three good squirts with a water pistol. Steve left me a note. The errant blast of (sea?)water stuck from one of the water supplies in the lab. Steve was definitely in the vicinity. Lucky too. The patient was treated with isopropyl and has been incubated in a space bag with desiccant. We were not required to unlock the hospital, and I am confident we will see a full recovery by morning. I will have to ask Steve if it was seawater that struck our “currently resting” department laptop. It SHOULD be seawater. I would prefer it, even if the salt makes a recovery more difficult. It can handle it dammit! Because poetry is more important than a working laptop. When things will end, they should end well. When stuff changes direction, there should always be a tease that everything could come back around. Chekhov’s gun, Murakami’s field well, white whales. Everything returns to the sea.

Typing as I am — now — is no strange magic after all. I have two laptops with me. I have back-up everything (never know when a dry-bag may be discovered storing water on the inside) — even after I throw the pair of jeans I’m currently wearing in the trash tonight. The hole in the crotch went from nothing to all encompassing in half a day. I brought 3 pairs. This happens to everyone right?

And I expect the laptop will pull through. I am hoping it had time to finish rendering the one-minute video of the ship breaking ice before the emergency shutdown — and I’m looking forward to sending that video to the shoreside server tomorrow. See! Now, if you see the video, it’ll mean so much more.

Grease ice. Photo by Roger Topp
Grease ice. Photo by Roger Topp

Poetry is more important than a lot of things. Like if I hadn’t quit oceanography 20 years ago, it’d be no big thing to be out here right now. Sure, new ship. New opportunities for exploration, big deal for the university —but 20 years returning to the near-very-thing that brought me to Alaska and UAF in the first place? That’s special.

Actually, I came to Alaska to work on acoustical oceanography, specifically a project to calculate ocean temperature using sound transmitted over long distances – like ocean basins. You know, acoustics! That was the key word in my letter that caught the eye of my to-be advisor. I wanted to work with sound. He had a new grant-funded project. And…as happens it went nowhere because turns out use of such noises in the water could ill-affect marine life. So, changing tacks, I did current meter research on data collected under a polynya west of Greenland. Never saw that polynya, but I thought about it today as we cruised around a big puddle in the Bering Sea ice field. Pleasant day’s sailing back and forth. We dropped nets and attracted gulls that must think the Sikuliaq is one poor fisherman. They can’t quite figure out how we got so big catching nothing bigger than a bath toy (and that was the jelly no one was interested in).

Benthic worm (upset). Photo by Roger Topp
Benthic worm (upset). Photo by Roger Topp

We cored! Twice! and pulled up a worm who vogued for us (who is really pissed off in the picture I am told — kinds sorta sticking his tongue, teeth, and throat out), and a couple of stars who were lucky enough to be captured intact atop a foot-deep, six-inch diameter cylindrical core, and ultimately unlucky enough to be captured by a scientist named Ann Knowlton, who said I could just leave them on the bench after taking their picture. She would subsequently, “Take care of them.”

Sea stars. Photos by Roger Topp
Sea stars. Photos by Roger Topp

They were a pleasant pair, all waving their arms about for a while and then quieting down remarkably, but — I digress.

Today I most appreciated seeing the grease ice. That’s the looks-blurry sheen collected into windrows on our puddle polynya. That’s baby ice-sheet, still conforming, stretching magically over the larger swells but completely damping the smaller wind-waves. It’s completely out of focus, coming into being. Hurry up kids. Spring’s already got most places.

Grease ice and gull. Photo by Roger Topp
Grease ice and gull. Photo by Roger Topp

So, it HAS been a good day despite a biting wind and the surprise (sea?) spray indoors. A good day thinking about previous cruises (3) and previous walks on sea ice (3), and living in tents for weeks at a time (3), and the number of new books read in February (3), and the number of other scientists sharing my head (3), and the number of empty chairs around this table. Despite the evidence of at least one of my previous lives, I’ve never really been into numbers. I mean, linear algebra is a trip and who doesn’t appreciate quaternions, but fluid dynamics is just ugly (okay, and elegant in a way). You pretty much have to set up these (doubtful) equations which are mostly (totally) partial derivatives and Greek (totally hazed), and then rationalize away most of it into something manageable/solvable. I’ll take a few kind words over that any day. Still, it’s sweet to be out here again. Watching textures on the surface of the water, admiring the sea birds for just not worrying about the windchill, capturing a setting sun! In the tropics, the sun sets every day. Here, things are thinner, greyer, more blurred, stretched out — seasonal.

The Board of Lies
The Board of Lies

Station #5. Ice Station Juha. Breaking news. The Board of Lies says I’m on the ice tomorrow. Hasn’t steered me wrong yet. I’d walk the ten feet and take a picture of the Board, but I’m too comfortable. Instead, thanks to the inflight entertainment system, I’ll just pull it up on the 2nd laptop (the one for words, not numbers) and take a screenshot. I’d stick a leg in the picture but I can’t quite reach out far enough and still hit the crazy function key three-finger combo.

Answer: It was seawater. The universe is just.

— Roger Topp (feeling exclamatory tonight!)


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