Week One

Mar 26, 2017

I’ve been in Louisiana for almost a week now, and I’m slowly getting over the jet-lag and the change in climate from Glasgow, though I have fallen asleep over my dinner at least twice this week, so maybe I’m not handling it all that well…

My first full day in Louisiana was perhaps a little underwhelming; the hotel I’m staying in is just off a dual carriageway, and there’s no footpath (sidewalk) which goes anywhere. The nearest supermarket is a 30 minute walk away, but it’s on the other side of the road, and I’ve yet to summon up the courage to try crossing it. Fortunately LIGO has provided two cars for me and the four other fellows who are working at the site to use while we’re here. Unfortunately, both of the cars are at the other fellows’ apartments, and I’m, for the moment, in a hotel a couple of miles away. I’m also waiting on my driver’s license arriving from the UK, but that’s an entirely separate story.

Fortunately one of my fellow fellows was able to pick me up on Sunday morning and take me to buy some groceries. The nearest grocery store is a Wholefoods. I’d come across Wholefoods before, normally as the butt of jokes about middle-class living and hipster culture, so I guess this was a little exciting in its own right. It’s a funny place. It’s about as fancy as a Waitrose back home, (and the pricing of the food is comparable, or maybe a bit higher), but everything there is organic, often gluten-free, and generally not what I expected to encounter in Louisiana. This would be the first of my two grocery shopping experiences of the week, and they fit almost exactly with two scenes from an episode of Parks and Recreation… Of course, the amount of food which comes in barrels, which you then scoop out into paper bags, is certainly greater than you normally get in posh UK supermarkets. I spent most of the rest of Sunday trying to deal with my jet-lag, and went for Indian food in the evening.

Monday of course, was my first day on-site. I got picked up around 9am by the other fellows, to drive to the observatory. We all live in Baton Rouge, which is the state capital, and a fairly large city. Big cities are a fairly terrible place to put an observatory, especially a gravitational wave observatory, because it’s important to put them somewhere with as few ground vibrations as possible, and cities are full of tremors caused by trucks driving along the highway, and construction, and all sorts of other things. (I realise I probably need to write a post about what I’m doing here at some point, and I’ll talk more about what the observatory does then). As a result, getting to the observatory involves a 30 mile drive along the interstate, to a town called Livingston (again, I’ve managed to travel a sizeable chunk of the way around the world, and got back to somewhere which sounds like it’s from central Scotland).

The trip along the interstate was a little different to what I’m used to from UK motorways. In theory, aside from driving on the other side of the road, it should be pretty similar. In reality, the disturbing number of fragments of cars which decorate the hard shoulder are an indication that things are just a little different (though most of the evidence would suggest that these fall off cars spontaneously, rather than being the result of collisions). Other interesting sights include whole houses driving down the fast lane at 70mph, and frequent billboards advertising lawyers’ services. Around half way along the trip you also get hit by the smell of swamp gas, which is pretty similar to the smell of rotten eggs.

Once you turn off the interstate into Livingston you find yourself in a pretty different world from metropolitan Baton Rouge. Livingston parish (counties in LA are called parishes) was badly affected in last year’s flooding, and a large number of the houses in the area were destroyed by the disaster. The turn-off from the main road to get to LIGO is described in directions as being “the first right after the abandoned fireworks warehouse”; Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Hyndland any more.

The road winds through a pine forest for a few more miles, until you reach a stretch of the road which is marked out by bright orange traffic cones on the edges and down the centre, which accompany a big sign warning that the speed limit is 10mph. This is LIGO, and you’re restricted from going any faster because the impulse that big vehicles make on the ground when they break is enough to interfere with the measurements being made in the building a couple of hundred metres away.

A long concrete tube stretches off into the distance through a pine forest.

One of the LIGO beam-tubes.

My first day at LIGO mostly involved me getting settled in, and finding my way around, but there’s a lot to find your way around. You see, LIGO is an observatory on a scale which is almost unparalleled in astronomy. We don’t rely on pointing big dishes or mirrors at the sky, but instead we have two enormous tubes which run perpendicular to each other, through the forest. Each of these “arms” is 4,000 metres long. There’s a small bridge over one of the arms (to save a 16-km round-trip) to allow you to get into the area of land in the centre of the detector, and from there you can look along the arm to a building which looks pretty far off. That’s the mid-station, just 2-km away. My eyesight isn’t up to making out the end-station, where most of the science in the arm happens, at all. At the place where the two tubes meet there’s a building which is about four storeys tall, which contains the vast majority of the instrumentation for the entire experiment (again, I’ll get into what actually happens in another post, soon), but it also contains the offices, and the control room.

Now, the control room is, as you’d expect, the place where the entire experiment is operated from. When I was being given the tour I was warned “I know you computery people like screens, so don’t get carried away…”, but I wasn’t quite anticipating the wall-to-wall expanse of monitors showing dozens of different scrolling graphs. This is the most space-age I’ve ever known science to be. Annoyingly, I realise I’ve not taken a photo yet, so you’ll just need to imagine what it looks like until I sort that out (I travelled all the way here with an SLR camera and lenses, but no SD cards, so I need to remember to buy some…). When everything’s working fine the control room is a fairly calm (and quite chilly) place, but when we lose lock (which means that we stop being able to observe anything) things get a bit busier as people try to identify what went wrong.

During my first day the interferometer was behaving really well, and we maintained “lock” for the entire day. That’s an achievement which has only been reached quite recently, but the operators and engineers are now managing it more and more frequently, which is good news for us astronomers, because every interruption risks an event being missed. On Tuesday the detector is effectively turned off for maintenance, and the observatory becomes a hive of activity. Deliveries get made, the grass gets cut, and anything which would interfere with the running of the interferometer can happen. It also means that the lengthy lock stretch which had built up from the previous day was intentionally broken. The detector was re-locked at the end of the day, but during the rest of the week we got knocked-out again by a few things like earthquakes and the wind from an incoming thunderstorm.

As exciting as life around the Site was turning out to be (some other highlights included sitting outside to each lunch in March, watching the turtles in the pond on site, and having school groups walk past us on tours so they could see scientists at work), there were new experiences to be had in the wider world of Louisiana. After my Whole Foods experience at the beginning of the week, I ventured to Walmart. Walmart isn’t like Whole Foods at all. It’s much closer to an ASDA or Tesco in the UK, but about three times the size. Otherwise Walmart’s pretty unremarkable. It’s just big.

The rest of the week went by quite fast (which was probably aided by frequently falling asleep before 10pm), and on Friday evening a group of LIGO folk went out for drinks after work. I think they wanted to make the large UK contingent feel comfortable, because we ended up going to a “British” pub. This was my first experience of a British pub, and the specially printed newspaper which the fish and chips were served in was an amusing touch.

Saturday would bring the first of the severe weather I’d been told to anticipate here. I woke to rain (which isn’t an experience I’m unfamiliar with), but the weather forecast suggested that things were going to get worse before they got better. A group of us had planned to go and watch an Aussie Rules football game that morning (there are a number of Australians on the Site, and some of them play in the team), and that was being called into question. After some thunder and lightning things seemed to clear up, however, and we pressed on. It turns out Aussie-rules involves more swimming than I’d anticipated. The game was cancelled 3/4 of the way in just as a bank of dark and foreboding storm clouds was moving overhead, leading to a mad rush back to the cars, with spectators enlisted to help carry the gazebo, goal posts, and drinks coolers.

We headed off to a place called Chimes for lunch, where I had my first experience of gumbo, and on the way had my first view of the auxiliary use of the freeway; as a river. The right lane of a lot of the roads was completely flooded, making turning an unlikely challenge. And this was only a small thunderstorm.

Things are going to get interesting.