Monday, September 29, 2014

Two steps forward

The course of science is far from linear, but I'm sure that most of you know that already. When I met with Andrew today to continue work on our image analysis dataset, we ended up re-hashing and refining most of our ideas. I think we ended up in a better place than when we began, but it still means I'll have to spend a little extra time with the images. No problem - that's science.

I'm significantly excited about this project, and now that we have a clear plan, I'm honestly tempted to stay up all night working on it. I've always been one to race head-long toward a goal. I am frustrated by tangents, and I despise distractions. I want to move forward, straight ahead, no stopping. One thing I've learned from Andrew so far is the value of moving a bit slower, of thinking about each step as I go along. Andrew is really good at brainstorming, and he's not afraid to play with a data set until he notices something interesting. He pursues meaningful tangents that may or may not pan out, and he spends a good chunk of time just thinking quietly.

My science would probably be improved by taking a bit more time to think before I act. Even though our image analysis has turned sideways and changed shape now, it also became more refined, so I count that as progress.

The course of my projects in Norway so far has left me seeking an appropriate metaphor for the scientific process. The standard two-steps-forward-one-step-back paradigm is far too one-dimensional to reflect reality, so I refer you to a classic Monty Python sketch. Slowly but surely, with twists, back-steps, and unexpected falls, we move forward. See for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqhlQfXUk7w

Monday, September 22, 2014

On top of the world

Ok, so my settlement plates can't be deployed until Monday. The way I see it, that means I could spend Sunday doing one of a few things:

1) Go "make pretty eyes" at the Navy ship captain and see if he'll move his boat. (For the record, this was someone else's idea, not mine.)

2) Pick away at data analysis. Bleh.

3) Compose music (see previous post)

4) Take advantage of the fact that I am in an extremely unique and beautiful part of the world, and go for a hike.

I'll take Option #4. Peter put me in contact with another UNIS employee who has been going on a lot of hikes lately, so I got up the courage to ask her if I could join. She said yes, so I suited up in my best, most hard-core winter gear, and headed out.

The rest of the story can only be explained in pictures. Basically, I climbed two mountains. In the Arctic. And it was awesome.






The cluster of houses far below is Nybyen.


Abandoned weather station



Wild reindeer!

Ice cave!





Sunday, September 21, 2014

Midnight Sun

Apparently my video is too big for Blogger, so click on this link: http://youtu.be/ZL-kvtgrL7U

Here's the third movement of my "Arctic" violin concerto that I just finished writing. I titled it "Midnight Sun" after the famous summer phenomenon whereby the sun never sets. It's actually about one specific night in 2012, the last night of a two-week research cruise in the Fram Strait, when two friends and I decided to sit up all night and watch the sun from the ship's helicopter deck. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and chatted about everything possible just to keep ourselves awake. The background photo in the video is one that I took of the sun that night. In the morning, we were rewarded with views of spectacular cliffs as the ship entered a fjord and arrived in Tromsø, Norway.

The musical structure of this piece reflects the sun's pattern: it sank in the west, flirted with the northern horizon, and then came back up in the east. The notes of the solo violin part are all in a high-low-high pattern, and this pattern exists on multiple scales. Every set of three notes is high-low-high; every measure (3 groups of 3 notes) are high-low-high; every ~100 measures are arranged in a high-low-high pattern; and the entire piece is highest at the beginning and end and lowest in the middle. Make sense? Maybe? Please note this pattern only counts for the solo violin part; I did whatever I wanted with the accompaniment. If you have the option, turn up your bass or use really well-isolated headphones when you listen to this piece because the cello plays an essential role in driving the dissonant harmonies in the middle section.

Enjoy!

Molloy


video

If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link: http://youtu.be/dcSK92Pvj7c

I just finished writing and am about to post the third movement of my"Arctic" violin concerto, but for the sake of chronology, I'll post the second movement now. (The first, if you missed it, is "Longyearbyen.")

The second movement, "Molloy," was named for the Molloy Deep, the deepest point in the Fram Strait. I intended this piece to serve as the soundtrack to an ROV dive, as I wanted to capture the mystery, the loneliness, and the strangeness of the deep ocean. To be honest, I'm quite proud of how this piece turned out. I think that in a lot of ways, it wrote itself - like it was hanging somewhere in the air and merely chose me to put it on paper. I hope you'll agree it's not terrible.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Foiled by the Navy

"The best laid plans of mice and men
Oft go awry"
- "To a Mouse," poem by Robert Burns

We tossed my settlement plates in the truck. Daniel and Peter put on their dry suits. We loaded tanks, boots, flippers, hardware, the communication cable. We commissioned someone from UNIS to serve as lineman. We drove out to the dock...

...and discovered that it was occupied by a Norwegian Navy ship.

The Navy ship that delayed the start of my experiment. Alas.
You're not allowed to dive next to military vessels. They're afraid of sabotage, and they need to keep their engines on to generate electricity and fresh water for those living aboard. We spoke to the captain - a man probably younger than all of us - and received the most polite "no" in the history of humanity. Because the conversation was in Norwegian, I actually thought it was a "yes" by everyone's body language - until someone translated for me.

This doesn't mean my experiment is off. This just means we can't deploy the plates until Monday, when the ship is scheduled to leave the dock. Only one problem: Daniel, Peter, and a lot of other UNIS scientists are supposed to leave on a research expedition Monday afternoon, and I am also scheduled to fly out on Monday.

If the ship is gone on Monday morning, we're set, but if they don't leave until afternoon, we may run out of time and have to deploy the plates after the expedition. Settlement plates are supposed to be deployed at a variety of locations during the expedition, but we wanted to put them in Longyearbyen first as a trial run.

I'm feeling quite powerless right now, first of all because I'm not able to dive myself, and second because our plans have been way-laid by the presence of a ship that I have no control over. I am continually reminded that even the best-laid plans can be thwarted by simple outside forces, and that science is often an exercise in relying on others.

For now, all I can do is relax, wait, and trust that it will all come together.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Powerwashed.

My walk to and from UNIS every day could be the subject of an epic poem.

Oh Muse, speak through me,
That I may tell the tale
Of a young adventurous scientist
On a high Arctic island.

Robed in goose down, she departs
After a long day of work
She strives toward one goal:
A warm resting place
At her home, the house of Nybyen.

Treading up the gravel path,
She reaches the city center
Past shops of gear and three different inns
Among other similar travelers,
Faces barely visible, heads bent in the Wind

Brave Kirstin marches on, continuing up the valley
Uphill and against the Wind
A distant whistle she hears
Sirens to the musician's ear
Tempting her off-course toward the mountainside

The traveler stops to listen
Spinning her body around to discern the origin
Of that sweet, musical sound
Like a chorus of flutes, but she
Turns her face away, treading onward, uphill

The Wind makes a second attempt
To send determined Kirstin off-course
Squealing like rusty playground equipment
As she passes the Longyearbyen School
The Wind voice morphs into a howling dog
Stirring snow into a vicious vortex
Racing along the ground like a ravenous wolf

The adventurer spins around, turning her back
To the wind's deceptive snarl
No canine to be seen, no rusty swingset around
And the tumbleweed of snow
Rolls down the road

Still farther she trudges with backpack heavy-laden
Along the ice-covered road
With Nybyen almost in sight
The wind makes it ultimate attempt
On our young scientist's wits

Blasting straight down-valley
Opposing her motion with immeasurable force
A gale rips through her robe of feathers
And pelts her face with loose gravel

Young Kirstin turns her back to the wave
But its punishing force does not subside
Shielding her eyes from the rain of earth
Pulling her scarf over her chapped lips
Still the traveler trudges on
Foot after foot, step after step
As slowly as she must until the wind
Finally realizing that the determined student
Cannot be beat by force
Stays its hand and retreats into the mountains.

Finally arriving at Nybyen,
A journey so trying for even the most iron of wills
The adventurer shuts the windowed door
And looks on as the wind spins its tricks for an empty street
Laughing, she tosses off her boots
And speaks to a deaf room
"Not today, Wind, not today."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Poised and ready

Well, friends, we're almost there.

My day started with a shopping trip with Peter, and believe it or not, we had to go to three different places to find all the nuts and bolts that we needed. No, that does not mean we shopped at competitive stores and chose the one with the best price; it means we had to chase the bolts down. We inquired at one place, and they said to go to their warehouse. We went to the warehouse, and they only had half of what we needed in stock. We ended up buying a box of nuts from the mechanic shop at the car dealership. Yes, that means Svalbard has a car dealership - only one, and there were three examples of the same truck on display in the showroom.

Our lineman (well, linewoman) on the dock, holding the
communication cable as Peter gets into the water.
After getting all the necessary details worked out back at UNIS, it was time for a dive - a reconnaissance mission, if you will. Peter wanted to survey around the pier where my frames will be attached to get an idea of the pier's underwater structure and where the best attachment points might be. Daniel came along but stayed on the dock as a rescue diver in case something went wrong below. We also had another participant this time, a technician from UNIS who served as the so-called lineman. Scientific dives require a lot of communication, which is accomplished via a cable between the diver and the lineman on shore. I think there might be a little battery power involved, but it's basically a glorified string-and-tin-can system. The lineman wears a headset and can hear everything the diver says into their full-face mask. The communication cable must be kept untangled at all times, so the lineman is constantly letting out slack or pulling some in, depending on where the diver is.

It was a highly successful dive, and Peter said there was great visibility underwater. He was able to identify multiple possible attachment points, which he diagrammed for me back at UNIS. We chose the best one, so it looks like we'll be able to deploy my plates tomorrow. Progress!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Slow and steady

"I move slow and steady,
But I feel like a waterfall"
-"Slow and Steady" by Of Monsters and Men

Well, friends, my project is coming along, slowly but surely. As you can imagine, things are a bit complicated in the Arctic.

The big event of the day was picking up the underwater drill that will be used to bolt my settlement plates to their proper locations. It had just arrived from the mainland on a cargo ship. The drill is necessary because while some of my plates will be deployed on moorings, the majority of them will be bolted directly into the substrate - attached either to a cement pier or a vertical rock wall in the fjord.

This drill, as you can imagine, is pretty intense. The technology is nothing spectacular, the drill being powered by compressed air from the divers' SCUBA tanks, but it's very heavy. Rusted out in parts. Gnarly. What impressed me most were the drill bits - all in varying sizes, with different tip shapes intended for different materials. Whoever bought this drill thought of pretty much everything.

Peter pulled a bolt out of the box and explained to me why it would probably be the best option for securing my plates. This particular bolt has a metal ring on the end that goes into the rock, so that when you screw a nut onto it, the bolt is pulled slightly backwards out of the substrate, and the ring locks into place. The tension makes the bolt impossible to remove.

My next task is to buy or find approximately 80 such bolts by Monday. Peter and I visited Longyearbyen's one hardware store but found it closed for the day - at 4 pm. I guess when there's zero competition, shop owners can do as they please. We'll go back in the morning.

It looks like we'll be able to go for a survey dive to the Longyearbyen pier tomorrow morning, as soon as the UNIS dive officer approves the mission. With any luck, I'll have a set of settlement plates deployed by the end of the day tomorrow; the divers will know what to do, and I can feel confident my project is in good hands.

Slow and steady. Slow and steady.

Frosted world

When I woke up this morning, I looked outside and discovered a dusting of snow on the ground. I figured the temperature must have dropped because it was misting yesterday. I could hear the wind howling past my building.

If I was anywhere else in the world, I would write next that winter had officially arrived, but I suppose "winter" is a relative term around here. In some ways, it's winter year-round - you know, being the Arctic and all - but in other ways, I know this is only the beginning. This isn't winter. This is barely even fall.
The view out my window this morning.

And I love it.

My respect for Svalbard residents (Svalbardians?) increased during my walk to UNIS. I was being graciously carried along by the down-valley wind, and I had to stop myself from giggling at the grimacing faces of those headed the other way. Longyearbyen Skole (= school) is located up-valley, so the schoolkids were traveling both uphill and up-wind. Make no mistake: these kids are hard-core. Every single one of them was riding a bicycle.

As I got closer to UNIS, I passed through "downtown" Longyearbyen, so the density of the buildings increased. I noticed a whistling sound off to my right, and then all of a sudden, there was a chorus of whistling wind voices. High pitches and low pitches twisted around each other, reverberated off the mountains, and faded away in alternation - almost like a flute choir that's slightly out of tune.

Now, I have heard the wind whistle before, but never like this. At one point, I could hear 5 distinct pitches, each coming from a different direction. The air must begin to vibrate as it rushes past the buildings in downtown. It really was quite incredible.

It was a great start to what will hopefully be a productive day.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

This is a test.

As you are all hopefully aware by now, my main objective this week is to implement my settlement plate experiment with the help of SCUBA divers. A lot of things have to fall into place before we can conduct the actual dive, the first of which involved testing out some new equipment that one of the
divers had recently purchased. After working at UNIS today processing data, meeting with various people, and listening to a few lectures, I headed out with the two divers for a test dive with their new equipment.

Peter and Daniel, just before diving into Adventfjorden.
(By the way, check out the view!)
I've never been involved with SCUBA myself, so to see the preparations necessary for a dive was quite the learning experience for me. It took the guys a full half hour to suit up. Each of them had at least 3 layers of underclothes and then their dry suit on top. Once we got out to the dive site, a beach in Adventfjorden, it took them another half hour to adjust all their equipment and get in the water. Diving in the Arctic is no joke!

It was actually a little frustrating for me to not be able to help with anything, but that's just the way it has to be, considering my lack of experience. I mostly accompanied them as an act of solidarity, because I'm determined not to just pass off my labor to other scientists - especially those who were kind enough to volunteer without ever having met me before. We were actually laughing at the end of the dive when both guys realized they had forgotten their shoes and I finally had a purpose! I could jump out of the car and hand them their shoes!
Quadruple. Rainbow. 

Even if I couldn't really do anything, I got to watch an atmospheric spectacle while the guys were underwater. It was misting when we got out there, and by the time they hit the water, there was a glorious quadruple rainbow over the fjord.

I'm telling you guys: Svalbard is magical. I hope to make some more progress later in the week. With any luck, we'll get my settlement plates out there!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Longyearbyen

video

If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link: http://youtu.be/-6eBaLX8Bpo

It occurred to me that even if I can't post audio files, I can make audio files into videos to post. This piece is one I wrote in 2011 after my first time in Longyearbyen. I was only here for a few hours, passing through on my way to an expedition in Fram Strait, but I think the sentiment captured in the music is still valid for this high Arctic town 3 years later.

This piece is for solo violin accompanied by string orchestra, and it is intended to be the first movement of a concerto. I've already written the second movement of the concerto, but I'm still working on the third. Maybe I'll find inspiration for the rest of the concerto this week!

Words fail me

I cannot sufficiently describe Svalbard. It is fresh; it is cold; it is rugged. It is bright pastel houses and snow-covered peaks. It is thrilling. I went for a walk after working at UNIS today, so I'll just let my photos speak for themselves. This island is pure, unadultered magic.

Looking toward town, from the student housing

Looking away from town


"Downtown"

UNIS is the angular brown building.





This guy greets you as you enter the grocery store - the only one in town.

Look! My outfit matches the houses!

Where the mountains slide into the sea

I'm in Svalbard! Friends, this week is really the entire reason why I'm in Norway in the first place, because I'm finally implementing my settlement plate experiment! I've ventured to one of the world's northernmost research stations to figure out what will grow in high Arctic fjords. To do this, I'm outplanting a series of square plastic plates, which I will recover in January and in September 2015.

My view of Spitsbergen from the plane
I landed in Longyearbyen about noon today, and let me tell you, it is an absolutely gorgeous place. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement of the Svalbard archipelago, located on the main island of Spitsbergen. The word "Spitsbergen" translates roughly to "mountain peaks," and if you check out the photo to the right, you'll see exactly what I mean. The entire island is composed of snow-covered peaks, which end abruptly at the coast. The mountains slide straight into the sea.

The inside of UNIS. I dare you to walk sock-footed in this place.
It's just begging you to run and slide!
After landing in Dreamland, I was picked up by Paul, my Svalbard contact, and brought straight to the University Center in Svalbard (UNIS). It's a pretty modern building with all-wooden floors, walls, and ceilings. You have to take off your shoes at the door and make your way around indoors in either slide-on shoes or sock feet. I went around in socks most of the day, and because the wooden floors were quite smooth, it was incredibly difficult to keep myself from dancing or just running and sliding down the long hallway.

I met with the two SCUBA divers who have volunteered to outplant my settlement plates, and we hashed out some details of this week's deployment. They both happen to be German, so we were able to hold the meeting in German. I'm beginning to notice that the further my project progresses, the more nationalities of people are involved. I'm American; Andrew is Welsh; there are several Norwegians; both divers are both German; and someone threw out today that we should get the Polish involved! Heck, maybe I should find a Russian to help out just for good measure. All joking aside, I'm incredibly thankful that each person I encounter is helpful and puts me in contact with another helpful person. Throughout the entire experience of planning this project, finding the money, and putting it together, I have been continually impressed by the quality of the scientific community around me.

Stay tuned for more news from Svalbard this week! It's going to be good.

Epleslang

There are some days that I wish I was an anthropologist. Or a sociologist. Or a linguist. People are just so darn fascinating.

I was sitting out on the terrace with some of my housemates, just enjoying the sun, when one of them decided it was time to teach me Norwegian vocabulary. Their first choice: Epleslang.

The fruits of my first venture into the criminal world.
Epleslang is a Norwegian tradition that basically involves picking the apples from a tree that doesn't belong to you. You go after dark so as not to be seen, and you have to be quite stealthy - you know, when you're not giggling. I guess it's the Norwegian equivalent of teepeeing someone's house or going cow-tipping in the country.

When night fell, my housemates insisted we do an Epleslang. My policy is to say yes to everything, right? Well, that means I went along - but seriously considered redefining my policy to include a legality clause.

After our little adventure, my housemates informed me that Epleslang and mischief in Norway, at least in the month of December, is normally attributed to Santa Claus. "Seriously?" I thought, "He doesn't give you presents?" Well, apparently Americans have the Santa Claus story all wrong, because there are in fact three of them. Blue Santa Claus lives in the mountains and wears a pointy blue hat that suggests the shape of his home. Red Santa Claus wears really cheesy red sweaters and lives on a farm. These two are active in different years and are mostly responsible for mischief from December 1-23.

International Santa Claus, on the other hand - you know, the one with the elves and the toy shop - also exists, but he delivers presents on December 24, not the 25th. Oh, and Americans have been misinformed: International Santa Claus actually lives in Finland.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A thousand voices

Friends, I wish I could insert audio files into these blog posts, or that I had some way to adequately describe to you what I experienced this morning. It was nothing short of awesome.

I walked into church and was surprised to see a full choir and chamber orchestra set up in front of the pews. The altar was moved from its normal position to the middle of the main aisle, amidst the congregation. It took a few seconds for me to register what was going on, but once I spotted a poster for the Norwegian Church Music Symposium and Organ Festival, it all made sense.

I was in for a treat.

The sanctuary was packed with people, much more than on a normal week. I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of people attending my church in Stavanger anyway, and according to one of my housemates, Stavanger lies in the so-called Bible Coast. There is something so powerful, so validating about being surrounded by other people in church. It reminds me that I'm not alone in my faith.

The choir performed several arias, recitatives, and choruses following the sermon, and I was in musical heaven. Transfixed. Enthralled by the interplay of the clarinet and the second violin, by the lightness of the cellist's bow strokes, the spot-on intonation as the trumpet joined in unison with the soprano. Baroque chamber music, my friends, cannot be beat. No other style of music carries the same lightness, interweaves such a color tapestry of sound, lifts the heart like Baroque.

My fascination turned to heartfelt emotion when I finally opened the bulletin and discovered the piece just performed had been written by Johann Sebastian Bach, with words by Martin Luther. The text was written out in its original German alongside the translation into Norwegian. As the organist hit the bass to signal the beginning of the next hymn, it was all I could do to hold myself together. Friends, there is something so excruciatingly familiar about words by Martin Luther set to music by J.S. Bach  - it speaks to my childhood, my year in Germany, to every single thing I know to be true.

The organ, the cello, the choir, the hundreds of people around me that I can barely even communicate with, but who believe in the same God that I do - friends, this music filled the air like a vibrant, colorful gas. The very rafters of the church struggled to hold in the sound. I felt the bass line enter my body through my gut, vibrating my lungs, my rib cage, stirring me to song. The notes shot out of my mouth like lightning because what else could one possibly do in this beautiful crowd but sing praises to our God - sing, sing, with all that I have, even though my sobs threatened to steal the high notes.

I hit an E, then an F, following the notes on my page with moist eyes, but then realizing the sopranos soared an octave above me, reinforced by the viola line, dancing over the trumpets, as the violins twirled around them and the cello provided the foundation. The organ, that solid rock, pushed me forward until finally, it all came to a head and every voice ceased. It took a full minute for the church to stop ringing.

Of all of the things that are new and different about my life in Norway, church feels very much like home. Every time the organ sounds a hymn tune that I recognize, it reminds me that God is the same everywhere. He is my rock, the solid ground on which I stand. Praise be to God, who met me in church today.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The little things

There are certain things that you can only learn by experience - the little things that make a place unique. Here's a list of interesting details I've discovered so far in Stavanger:

1) Brown cheese. It's made from whey, and the lactose (milk sugar) is caramelized, making the resulting product sweet. It looks like cheese; it has the texture of cheese, but it doesn't taste like cheese. It goes best on fresh, hot waffles.

2) Another food item: fish on bread. And eggs on bread. In fact, anything on bread. I've seen many of my colleagues do this at lunch: you take a piece of nice bread, then layer it with any sort of animal product you like. Slices of cheese, brown cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, mackerel in tomato sauce. I tried that last one a few days ago, and I must admit, it's actually pretty good. You have to have a dark bread to complement the slight sweetness of the tomato. My favorite combination so far is smoked salmon on bread - now that is a good lunch.

3) I've become accustomed to industrial noise around me. It's certainly not obnoxious or constant, but especially at my institute, there's quite a lot of noise caused by the surrounding industry. I kept hearing a high-pitched tone followed by a couple beeps. The sound would last for about a minute and then stop. As it turns out, this is the warning sound for detonation of dynamite. Whenever you hear the high-pitched tone, don't go towards it, because someone is about to set off their dynamite. Once the sound ceases, all is clear. I think I'm usually just too far away to hear the actual boom of the dynamite, but when they used the same signal at a construction site near my house, I figured out the pattern. By the way: urban construction projects impress the heck out of me. How do you keep your mess contained within the confines of a narrow, populated street? Yeah, they do somehow. Keep it up, guys.

4) I learned today that rather than having a word for "the," Norwegians change the ending of a noun. They add either "-en" or "-et," so for example, my street, Kirkebakken, can be translated "the church hill." If it was just Kirkebakke, it'd be just "Church Hill." Make sense? Lots of streets end in "-veien," which means "the way," so for example, Ulaveien can be translated "the ula way." Very interesting.

Here's to learning by experience!

Lover of the light

It won't always be like this, they said. Someday it will rain, they said. Take advantage of the good weather while we have it, they said.

Well let me tell you something: I did.

Walking across Stavanger City Bridge
This afternoon, I decided to go for a walk in the area surrounding Stavanger. I had plenty of time to explore, even if I got lost, so I got ambitious and headed to the bridge over the fjord. There are pedestrian paths on both sides, so it wasn't difficult to stay away from the cars.

I think the only way to describe what I did today is "urban hiking." I was actually hoping to make it far enough out of the city that I would be really hiking, but I was actually in neighborhoods the whole time. Numerous suburbs surround Stavanger, but the landscape is still interesting enough to make the trek worth it.

In the space of a few hours, I crossed three bridges, set foot on four islands, saw probably eight marinas, four sailboats, and two ferries. I'm coming to love this city's relationship to the water, and I really need to meet a friend who will teach me how to sail. I also noticed numerous people walking, biking, or simply lounging in the sun. Almost every house here has a designated area for sitting outdoors, whether it's a patio, a porch, a terrace, or a balcony. During the months when light prevails, Norwegians are outdoors as much as possible.

I know someday, sooner than I wish, the light will grow shorter. That day is not today, so for now, I bask in the sun.
The view over the fjord from one of the islands I visited.
Downtown Stavanger is just off the left side of this photo.

The skies I'm under

"Hold me fast
'Cause I'm a hopeless wanderer
And I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I'm under"
- "Hopeless Wanderer" by Mumford and Sons

What, I ask you, is an American scientist in Norway supposed to do on a sunny Saturday in September? Go exploring, of course! My friend, Ingeborg, who grew up in Stavanger, knows all of the cool spots around here, so when she suggested we go for a walk on her favorite beach, I was definitely game.

Ingeborg at Solastranden
I didn't realize until I got into her car that I was wearing a T-shirt from London, a headband from Oregon, carrying a sweatshirt from Vancouver and a bag from Bremerhaven, Germany. Quite the international mosaic! We drove for about 20 minutes to a beach south of Stavanger, in a suburb called Sola. I never expected such a beautiful beach to be so close to my city! The water was crystal clear blue, and the temperature was just perfect. At one point, Ingeborg pointed out toward the water and said "If you take off from here and go straight, you'll land in England." Now that's cool.

One of the German bunkers, looking seriously out of context
on the beach. 
Inside Solaruinkirke
After we had walked in the sun for a while, we came across a rectangular concrete structure covered in graffiti. It definitely didn't belong on such a pristine beach. Ingeborg explained that during WWII, the Germans built a series of concrete bunkers all along the occupied Norwegian coast in anticipation of an Allied attack. Remember, this beach faces due west toward England. The attack never came, being carried out at Normandy instead, and the bunkers have fallen into disrepair. We climbed on top of one to have a look, and we both agreed that if we were German soldiers assigned to protect the Norwegian coast, we would have neglected our duties and spent our days lounging on the beach and taking in the view.

Not far from the Solastranden were the ruins of a 12th-century church that was destroyed in the mid-1800s. Naturally, we made the short ride over to check it out. Most of the church has been rebuilt in recent years, but the west wall was completely open and only protected by a pane of glass. I was able to get the photo to the right by putting my camera lens up against the glass wall. If you look carefully, you'll see the bricks in the arch above the altar are all numbered - someone must have carved the numbers into them to keep track of their proper order! According to Ingeborg, the church is a popular place for weddings because the glass west wall has a gorgeous view out to the beach.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Getting lighter

"I feel like I'll be another 20 lbs lighter by the end of this year too, except maybe in my soul too this time." - Katie Herring

The quote above comes from a friend of mine. Well, I'd like to consider her a friend. We don't actually know each other that well, but we've been in each other's lives forever. She is without question the best writer I know.

This line, from one of her own blog posts, occurred to me last night as I was biking home. I was chugging my way up a hill and noticed how light my backpack was. I'm used to carrying massive loads of stuff - laptop, planner, lunch, a notebook - to work and back, but here in Stavanger, I don't need any of that. My laptop lives at the institute because I can use other devices at home. I don't need to pack lunches because I always eat in the IRIS canteen. I had even left my notebook behind because I knew I wasn't going to think about science once I got back to my house.

This period of my life - the one where I'm in Norway - came at exactly the right time. It's refreshing to be in a place where nobody knows me. To be honest, I've surprised myself by not seeking out bucket-loads of friends and packing my schedule with extracurricular activities. I'm usually the girl juggling 50 things at a time - violin lessons, orchestra rehearsals, dance classes, church group meetings, and favor upon favor for my friends. So far, I've done none of that here. And I'm okay with that. 

I'm learning the value of rest, of having space and time to just think. Of dedicating myself to one passion, not five. It makes me happy to leave work when I've finished something, not when I have to rush off to the next task. I can feel myself getting lighter in both body and mind. 

I think this time in Norway will be my most productive, restorative period yet. I will go back refreshed.




Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Flow

Call me crazy, but quite often, the hardest part of my day is leaving work. My brain gets started on a train of thought, and it's so incredibly hard to stop. Most of the time, I have to finish a major task before I can feel that the work day is actually over - and then I'll start planning out what I'm going to accomplish the following day!

Today was one of those days, and let me tell you, it rocked. After my meeting with Andrew yesterday, I had a notebook full of ideas to pursue and quite a long to-do list. I started with the simplest task, then flowed into the next, reviewing my data set each time.

Naturally, as I went through the data again, I started noticing things about it. This lead me on a short tangent, then another, until I ended up answering a completely different question than I started with.

I didn't realize until the only other person in the building took off for the night that I had been in a deep state of concentration for several hours. I made some real progress on the data, and when I finally got to a good stopping point, it felt like I had just stood up out of a cloud of smoke.

Uninterrupted work days are great, and it always astounds me how much I can get accomplished when I have no distractions and just let my brain run. I look forward to putting together a nice data analysis!


Monday, September 8, 2014

When I grow up

From my comfortable white chair at the kitchen table, I reach around behind my laptop to grab my water glass. A bowl of chips, 2 laptops, a thick notebook, a hard drive, and several loose-leaf scientific papers are strewn across the table in front of me. To my left, Andrew, my host/adviser/collaborator/mentor, swirls a pen in the air about an inch above one of the few remaining blank pages in my notebook. His face has an expression of deep thought. I think he's trying to explain something to me, but he's started about 5 sentences in as many minutes and not finished any of them.

I take a sip of water. "What if we tried this?" he finally asks, and in an instant, we take off on another intellectual adventure, marching down uncharted passages of data analysis.

We spent the better part of the afternoon like this. By the end of it, we had come up with three or four solid, decent ideas for how to analyze my data set. Well, to be more accurate, Andrew came up with three or four solid, decent ideas.

I like to consider myself a good scientist, but whenever I sit next to a mentor that I greatly respect - someone with guts, brains, and decades of experience - I'm reminded that I'm still a Ph.D. student, and I still have a lot to learn. Andrew is an excellent person to learn from, because his ideas are original and often quite bold. More than that, he treats my ideas as valid and handles me with respect, even if I'm off my rocker. It is an honor and a privilege to work with him.

The rest of the evening was spent jumping on a trampoline with a five-year-old, learning how to cook some fancy-sounding French dish that basically amounts to chicken fingers, and sipping caffeinated tea at an ill-advised hour of the night.

I'm reminded of a graduate student, K, that I met in California. Both of K's parents were professors, so when she was growing up, her parents would often have their graduate students over for dinner. K grew up thinking that graduate students were the coolest people alive, and if you had asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would have said "A graduate student!" Well, by the time I met K, she was nearly finished with her Ph.D. and had begun to joke that she needed a new goal in life.

I consider it a privilege to be invited into another scientists' home, to meet their family, to eat with them. Andrew and Astri have treated me so well, so I can say this with certainty: When I grow up, I want to be the type of scientist that invites her grad students to dinner.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Learn from the inside

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain

Whenever I travel, I try to not just observe but become integrated in the culture around me. I imagine what life would be like if I had been born there, and I try to adopt the local cultural norms. I call this "learning from the inside." 

As a rule of thumb, I say "yes" to everything I'm offered - local food, weekend excursions, participating in traditions, even meeting friends' parents. I learn more if I have an open attitude. 

My housemates and I at dinner
That said, last night was quite the cultural experience. I told you before that one of my housemates is an expert in wine, so he put on a wine tasting for all of us. He taught us how to properly evaluate the color, smell, and taste of the wine (yes, there is a right and a wrong way to do it!) and introduced us to several different bottles. I have never thought so deeply about wine in my life!

After that, some of the girls from my house went out for dinner. It was fun to get dressed up and go to a fancy restaurant - ok, not an entirely new experience for me, but it was a good chance to get to know my housemates better. I was feeling a bit self-conscious as the only person at the table who couldn't understand Norwegian, but they all insisted on speaking English so that I could be included. It was a really kind gesture on their part.

The nice thing about European restaurants is that the portions are actually reasonable. You can feasibly finish your meal, in contrast to the U.S., where I always have to take half of my food home. I even ordered dessert! 

After dinner, we met up with some of the guys from the house, and it struck me that there's a really positive group dynamic. Everyone trusts and respects each other. I'm blessed to live in with such a great group of people. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Swords in the rock

Today I decided to explore one of Stavanger's best-known memorials, the Sverd i fjell (Swords in the rock). I had noticed the symbol of three swords in various different places downtown, and it's actually the symbol of my institute, IRIS.

Sverd i fjell, Stavanger
A little google-ing told me that Sverd i fjell is a memorial to the unification of Norway under one crown, that of Harald Fairhair, in 872. The tallest sword in the memorial stands for Harald, the victorious king, and the two smaller swords stand for the petty kings he defeated. The memorial also symbolizes peace, because the swords are stuck in the stone, never to be used again.

I'd like to go on about how cool it is to be in a country that can pinpoint its founding at 872 AD, but it's a bit more complicated than that. I'm learning that the Scandinavian countries were unified with and possessed by each other in various combinations throughout history. Norway was in fact owned by Denmark for about 400 years, and they didn't gain true independence back until 1814. My housemate, W, refers to this period as the "400-year night." Even after 1814, Norway was in a "personal union" with Sweden that didn't end until 1904.
Monument to the memory of the unification of the kingdom
in Hafrsfjord. Given by the Spare Bank Rogaland. Built by
Fritz Roed. Inaugurated May 7, 1983 by His Majesty King Olav V.

I think these historical patterns of unification are a big reason why Scandinavian languages are so related. Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes can understand each other pretty darn well (well, if the Dane is enunciating), and Icelandic is actually Old Norwegian! For some reason, the language stayed in its old form in Iceland but diversified into a number of distinct dialects on the Norwegian mainland.

There are some things that you can only experience by being in a place, so I'm glad to experience the effects of Norwegian history!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sing me a song

"Sing me a love song and then
Let your words remind me who I am"
- "Sing me a love song" by BarlowGirl

Living in Norway has been a different experience for me primarily because I don't speak the local language. When I moved to Germany in 2011, I was basically already fluent in German, so I could make my way around and blend in pretty well. In Norway, I blend in for sure with my dark blonde hair, blue eyes, and Scandinavian first name, but it's slightly frustrating for me to have to ask others around me to switch to English all the time.

I've picked up a few words here and there; I can figure out what they mean from signs. I'm trying to learn how to pronounce Norwegian words correctly so that when I do pick up more vocabulary and syntax, I don't sound like an idiot from another planet. To be honest, one of the hardest words for me to say is the name of my street, Kirkebakken, because each of the 4 K's in the word are pronounced differently. The first one is like the soft "ch" sound in German, almost an "sh" in English but with your tongue spread wide between your canine teeth. Then I have to throw the sound to the back of my throat and pretend like I'm going to spit on the hard, guttural R. The second K is barely heard, as are the E, B, and A. When you have a double consonant (KK), the vowel before it is kept short, so I basically have to fly through the second syllable of the word. I get to the very end and have to swallow the N because even though it's there, you don't really hear it.

Sometimes I feel like I'm tossing a piece of candy around in my mouth - the sound goes front, back, front, swallow. All just to tell people where I live!

I've made plenty of mistakes. For example, I once told someone that I had funding from the Froskningsrådet (this translates to "Frog Council") instead of the Forskningsrådet ("Research Council"). Ah, what a simple switch can do!

In a lot of American movies, Scandinavians are portrayed as very sing-songy speakers. The pitch of their voice is constantly going up and down. Imagine my surprise to figure out that Norwegians actually speak like that! The language has this incredible topography - you constantly have to speed up or slow down on certain letters, or raise and lower the pitch of your voice. I was astounded the first time I rode the bus and listened carefully to the names of the stops being announced. I had to stop myself from giggling because the stereotype is actually true!

I tried to explain how Scandinavians are portrayed in the U.S. to a Norwegian friend, and the best way I could think to explain it was to tell her about the Muppets' Swedish Chef. Needless to say, she was highly amused by the character. She then went on to tell me that Norwegians are portrayed the same way in European entertainment. She cited a Swedish program in which a Norwegian character was threatening another character with a knife, but the joke was that he was basically singing the threat. Nobody could take him seriously, and of course hilarity ensued.

It's definitely been an adventure so far, but I'm determined to learn at last some Norwegian while I'm here!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ties that bind

"Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart"
Proverbs 3:3

I love getting letters - old-school, hand-written letters on stationary from the other side of the world. Today, I received a letter from a friend in the U.S., and it was the most beautiful hand-written memorandum I have ever received. The letter was soaked in gratitude, encouragement, and tales of her recent adventure. Even the envelope was covered with her drawings and favorite quotes! I was floored by her thoughtfulness.

My new bracelet (left) next to ones from
Portland, OR (middle) and Auckland, NZ (right)
When I opened the letter, there was a hand-made yarn bracelet inside in our school colors, green and gold. She must have noticed that I wear ankle bracelets, and I'm thankful to have another one, especially from a good friend like her. I started wearing ankle bracelets in college as reminders of places I had been. I can tell you where and when I got each one, but I never make them myself; I either buy them or get them from friends. I tie each bracelet on once, and I never take it off. The bracelets are symbols of positive memories and places that I've been - places I'm not ready to leave. In some ways, the bracelets help me remember, and in other ways, they help me let go. When a bracelet falls off (which they all eventually do) I don't tie it back on. I let it go, and that's my symbol to myself that it's time to move on. By the time the bracelet falls off, I've probably already been on new adventures. Any lessons I learned have probably become so integrated into my consciousness that I don't need to be reminded of them anymore.

To be honest, I never fully understood the reason I wear ankle bracelets until I had to explain it to my brother. It's just something I did without ever needing to articulate why. They are my tokens, my reminders, my links to past times and places that I love.

I'm happy to tie on my new bracelet today because it reminds me of the best part of my scientific life in Oregon: mentoring undergraduates. When I was first getting into science, I was given incredible opportunities by those above me, and I vowed that once I was established as a scientist, I would do the same for others. This letter and this bracelet are proof that I have succeeded in that goal. Granted, I'm still on my way up in the scientific world, but I'm getting closer to being a finished product. In many ways, I'm proud to be able to say that I've become the person that I always wanted to be.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A story behind every door

I live in the coolest place ever. I don't just mean Stavanger; I mean specifically my house. It feels a bit like a college dorm, except that we're all young professionals and go to bed early. Tonight, I didn't get dinner until 9:30 because I spent a good chuck of time talking to one of my housemates, then another, then another.

W is from the middle of Norway, and he's really interested in wine and spirits. Not just drinking them - tasting them, knowing their history, how they were made, how they were grown. He's participated in the Norwegian Championship for wine, and for one event in the competition, he had to taste a wine and tell what region it was from, what grape it was made from, and other ridiculously detailed bits of information. For one of the wines, he guessed it was from a town in France directly adjacent to the actual origin. He was off by less than 100 miles. Who does that?! And oh yeah, he's also trained as a professional waiter.

Then there's T, who grew up in the Svalbard archipelago. That means she spent her childhood at one of the northernmost settlements in the world! You can't live closer to the North Pole than that! When she was born, her mom had to come down to the mainland to give birth, because the hospital on Svalbard is not equipped with life-saving equipment for infants. If something goes wrong, there's no back-up plan. You also can't live on Svalbard if you are elderly because there is no way for you to be taken care of. Her parents already bought a house on the mainland in preparation for retirement.

THIS is why I travel, my friends; this is why. My mind was blown twice in the space of a few hours, and the best part is that I get to live with these people! I'll continue to pick their brains over the next 6 months and learn as much as I can from them about facets of life that I otherwise would have never experienced.

EYES        WIDE       OPEN

Bring on the science

"Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk"
- Title of a Broadway musical

Well, it's about time I got some real work done. I biked to IRIS this morning, settled into my office, and evaluated what I had to do for the day. I actually spent most of the day processing a data set in preparation for a meeting with Andrew. When I was first introduced to him in 2012, Andrew gave me a hard drive with photographs from the bottoms of fjords. He knew I was interested in the organisms that love on isolated rocks, so he thought I could analyze the isolated rock communities seen in the photographs.

By now, I've made my way through all of the footage and created a matrix of numbers to represent what animals live where. Now it's just a matter of figuring out how to statistically analyze the data and create meaning out of it. Every data set has a story to tell, and we just have to handle it in the right way to get it to speak.

I've been really impressed by the community at IRIS so far. Most of my colleagues are in a state of stress right now because of an important deadline on Wednesday, but even so, they take the time to be kind to each other. Everyone eats lunch together in the canteen, and someone brought in a cake today. There is even a box of community fruit delivered every week. It's nice to be in a place where colleagues undertake some tasks collectively, even if it is just lunch, because it creates a positive group dynamic. It reinforces the fact that we are all part of something bigger, and it's not just every man for himself.

There are several signs posted around the office areas, but my favorite says, "Kindness doesn't cost you a darn thing. Sprinkle that stuff everywhere!"