…I’m a Doctor! Don’t worry, not a useful one, unless you want someone to look over your ancient fossils (not your grandmother). On Monday I passed my viva voce, a three hour examination that marked the end of the four year trial by science that was my DPhil. Given leave to supplicate, you can apparently now call me ‘Dr Leila Battison’.
It was spectacularly ambitious and terrifying complicated, but at 10:31pm Pacific time, the MSL rover, Curiosity, touched down softly on the surface of Mars, and sent back its first thumbnail image of the horizon through a fisheye lens.
I watched the rover’s launch in November from my bedroom and shed a private tear of pride and hope. Tonight I was at NASA Ames in California, sharing many tears of happiness and relief. Nearly ten thousand people packed out the parade ground inside Ames, watching the two huge screens as mission control checked off each automated stage from NASA’s JPL in Pasadena. Ripples of applause at the switching of antennae and data feeds turned to hearty cheers and then whoops and shouts of delight as entry began, the parachute was deployed, the retro-boosters set in, and finally, MSL touched down on Mars. It’s hard to believe any image has caused such universal joy as that first 64×64 thumbnail of the Martian surface.
Over the last few weeks I had become increasingly tired of watching NASA’s cinematic ‘7 minutes of terror’ trailer, and explaining the to best of my knowledge the intricacies of the upcoming landing. But the event tonight, experienced not only by the scientists involved, and the thousands packed into NASA centres across America, but by the whole world through unrivalled live streaming, is something that can not be easily explained or forgotten. Watching the landing, I had chills that had nothing to do with the coolness of the night, and seeing its success, there is a warmth and elation that is nothing to do with the celebratory swigs of fizz.
We have landed toys on Mars before, small rovers the size of remote control cars, and barely better equipped. In comparison, the behemoth we have just lowered out of the sky from a freaking jet pack, is a fully equipped geochemical and geological laboratory. It’s the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne, and we’ve just airlifted it from 500,000 miles away. It’s going to tell us more about the geological and habitable history than we’ve ever known before, and I get to work with that data to look for traces of past life. It’s going to be an unbelievably exciting couple of years.
But first, I’m just going to bask in scientific glory and pride. Today we touched Mars with curiosity, and Curiosity survives to tell the tale. What a fucking awesome time to be here.
Well, so much for keeping a regular travel blog. Little did I realise, but travelling half way across the world to an entirely new place, with an entirely new group of people, and entirely new kind of work, sort of knocks you backwards for a while. It’s been a little over two weeks since I arrived in San Francisco, and I finally feel like I’ve caught up with myself.
So, a fortnight ago I set off from rainy Wales, which became rainy London, and I soaked in the padded, rolling English countryside from the train window, only too conscious that it would be the last time I’d see anything like it for the next three months. A warm sunset with puffy clouds and contrails, like one of Marie Robinson’s paintings, was my last sight of England.
Twenty-four hours of transit was, as could be expected, near hell. As the hours ticked by beyond our scheduled departure from Heathrow, I was conscious of my dwindling transit time in Houston, and sure enough, I have never seen an airport at quite such speed. My impression of Houston, Texas was green – a lot more green than I had been expecting. But no time to explore and I was straight onto my flight across the mountains to ‘Frisco.
It was dark when I arrived, but I was welcomed like a lost friend into my cosy houseshare in the centre of the City. This Californian attitude is easy and heartfelt, and something that many places could benefit from. Never mind the acts of blatant generosity (dinner, wine, lifts to the train station), just a smile when you arrive is enough to dispel any gloomy thoughts.
Well, I was well looked after by my housemates, and the first weekend was spent exploring the city, getting my bearings. I think I had been in San Francisco less than 12 hours when I saw my first naked man. Five in fact, in the gay centre Castro, just a 15 minute walk from the house. Just sunning themselves in the square, they brought towels to sit on, although I’m not sure whether that was for their benefit or for the benefit of succeeding patrons.
The weather has been unseasonably warm for July, I am told. It has been mid to high 20s and clear most days in the city, although the dense marine layer of cloud blanket and fog usually rolls in around sunset, and perseveres until mid morning. The weather here is so dramatic and dynamic, it reminds me of this heartbreakingly beautiful time lapse of clouds over the Canary Islands. It could just as easily be here.
So once settled in San Francisco, Monday was time to start my new job. NASA here I come. The commute was ridiculously easy, buses and trains door to door – although so few people seem to use it. The numbers of cars are frightening. I’m carpooling now with a postdoc in our lab, and every morning we sail down the freeway that is packed bumper to bumper with one-commuter cars. It seems madness when the pubic transport is so efficient, but then I guess Americans sure do like their cars. Some of them even have six wheels. Why? Beats me.
NASA Ames is a lot more homely than you might expect. Nestled right up next to the Moffatt Airfield, the aeronautics heritage is ever-present. The science buildings are dwarfed by vast wind tunnels and hangars, used rarely now modelling technologies are so much more efficient. I was told that the largest wind tunnel there uses as much energy as the whole of San Francisco when in operation. Although that fact was later floored by the laser at nearby Lawrence Livermore, which in the few picoseconds of its operation uses as much energy as the whole USA. Anyway, big machines doing big science.
The second most amazing thing about NASA is how friendly everyone is. Must be California again. The lab is made up of a couple of PIs, a few postdocs, and a seemingly endless stream of short term researchers, interns, and summer students. Even those who are here short term are welcomed, inducted, and given free reign in the labs, permitting the kind of self-driven, self-motivated blue sky research that sets NASA apart from other universities and research institutions. All specialisations are mixed in together. I’ve had meetings with algologists, shared beers with geobiologists, visited the golf club with molecular biologists, and my office is sandwiched between the eminent Mars geologists that I spent my academic career referencing and respecting. I feel so different to the talent base there, and yet so welcomed for the skills I do have. It is a nurturing environment that I could easily get used to.
And so two weeks have passed already. I’ve set up my experiments, caught up on sleep, finished all the books I brought with me, and finally unpacked my suitcase. I’m on first name terms with the guy at the corner shop, and the guy who drives the NASA shuttle bus, and pretty much everyone in California, or so it seems. I’m looking forward to a profitable and fun six weeks in Frisco, with a short visit to Pasadena for AbGradCon, and then an epic road trip to take in all the sights that differ so much from the English countryside I’ve left behind. And then, who knows. I’ve got 2 months to think about that….
Not enough posts from me in the last month or so. Well, none at all. But I do have the best excuse of all. Try writing a 360 page thesis, and a 600 page atlas in a month, and then see how motivated you can be to write more than an email. Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I survived the experience, and the thesis was gleefully, if exhaustedly, submitted on the 6th June.
Since then it has been all change at Pen and Ink towers. After a week long conference, supposedly exploring the origins of life, but mostly exploring the local wine lists courtesy of the Lyon Institute of Origins, I packed up and drove away from Oxford for the last time, ending an eight-year era that has been the majority of my adult life. A tear was shed, but stepping out into the unknown can be exhilarating with a look to the future instead of the past.
The last week has been a complete change to the pure academic life I’ve been leading of late, as I organised and led the Diamond Jubilee tour of The Ancient Men Morris Dancers on their 107th tour in 60 years. This past week we have danced from Llandeilo to Llanelli, Camarthen to Cardiff, in some of the most inclement weather the UK has seen for years. An unremittingly wet, but unremittingly fun week was spent with some of the finest people I know, and while the bruises and blisters may take some time to heal, the memories will stick around for a good while yet. Here’s a photo of us after our last dance on the beach at Port Talbot.
So, onwards and upwards to this future, and I am now counting down the days before I leave for my summer of adventure. On Saturday, I fly out to San Francisco, to join the exalted ranks of NASA scientists as we strive for a truer understanding of our place in the universe. Or, more simply, I’m going to poke some algae for a couple of months. The plan is to try and approach some of the enigmas of early Earth microbial systems from a biological point of view, with a view to understanding what they may be doing, or may have done, if life arose elsewhere. I expect the work to involve collecting, culturing, and sequencing algal mats, as well as investigating nutrient flows and responses to extreme external stimuli. I have high hopes and am super excited for a new direction and a new location.
Also super exciting is the prospect of living and working in San Francisco. Renowned for its microbrewery and chilled out folk culture, somehow I feel I’m going to get on pretty well there. I’ll be living just off Alamo Square, and while its about an hour commute, I think its going to be well worth it, for living in the middle of everything. Recommendations for places to hang out, or things not to be missed are greatly welcomed!
As seems to be the thing these days, I’m going to try and keep some semblance of a travel blog/diary right here for those of you who will be missing me desperately, or want to find out how I’m treating San Francisco. So watch this space for considerably more updates on life as a Brit in the States, life as a Morris dancer in San Francisco, or life as a palaeontologist at NASA.