Field Fails

Since we had some fun with backpacking, maybe worth a moment to contemplate that complementary joy, screwing up in the field. This is a bit more science-related as fewer people do scientific fieldwork, but it still is entertaining–and it helps to clarify just how science is really done as opposed to the borderline sterile/brilliant mode in movies and TV.

So a couple of examples that come to mind.

One was while running a backcountry array of seismometers way back in 1988. The antiquated equipment (it was antiquated then, now would be a museum piece) required us to use a 2-input portable digital oscilloscope to get a time correction.  We had hot-wired things so that we could power this oscilloscope from an external battery present at each site. All you had to do was to connect the red wire to the red connector and the black wire to the black connector.  One  assistant was a Caltech EE grad and–you’ve guessed it–he connected black to red and red to black and *poof* no more oscilloscope.  Fortunately, opening up the scope revealed that there was a resistor set up to blow if something like that happened and even more amazing was the spare on the board just for this problem.  So out came the 12 volt soldering iron and we were once again in business.

Until the next time he used the equipment, when he again connected red to black and black to red.  No spare resistor this time, though.

Mistakes are hardly limited to the relatively inexperienced.  A famous seismology professor from back east was working with GG on a field experiment and we were installing seismometers.  You like the seismometers to point north so that the horizontal components are north and east.  There is a nice arrow on top of these particular instruments to help with that. Said professor came out with his Brunton pocket transit all set up, had the magnetic declination set to 16 degrees, which is what we had in this area, and off he went with piles of gear and shovels and all that.  It wasn’t until 2 or 3 seismometers were installed that we found that he had set the declination for west of north, while where we were it was east of north.  His seismometers were 32 degrees off from the usual orientation…. (and the data is archived where others can use it; hopefully they take note of the information buried in the databases).

Some fails are just a parade of bad luck colliding with a smaller goof.  In 1983 we had a field experiment in Utah with smoked paper recorders (look it up; this might have been one of the last real experiments using such equipment).  Towards the end of our stay, it rained.  In northern Utah, where we were, there were a lot of dirt roads.  One particular road wound through wheat fields and in the rain it turned to a nearly frictionless mud.  One truck from the University of Utah, driven by a Brit and a Swiss national, found itself sliding off the sloping road into a field.  After a couple attempts at forcibly driving the truck out led to axle-deep trenches scarring the field, the two abandoned the truck and hiked back in heavy rain to the interstate for a ride back to base camp (amazingly they were able to hitch a ride; this predates cell phones, BTW).

Ah, so sad, but hardly the worst thing that could happen.  The field chief (Steve) had the task of calling the landowner to let him know we had stuck a truck on his property.  “Oh,” said the landowner, “that isn’t my land you are on–that is my brother’s.  And his house is in view of where you stuck the truck.” So poor Steve called the true landowner, somebody we had never spoken to all this time, and the fellow was enraged, having seen this truck stuck up in his wheat field (Steve could hold the phone well away from his ear and the sound carried through the diner). After endless apologies, Steve hung up.

Since the truck belonged to the University of Utah and we had no means to rescue it, we left the task to Bob Smith at the university.  We came back there a few days later, having pulled out all our equipment (and having gotten stranded on another road but had the good luck to waive down a tractor in a nearby field for a tow) and informed Bob of the great mess his truck was in.  Bob looked unhappy but headed into his office, closing the door.  After awhile he emerged with a smile: he had found that he had gone to high school with this fellow and now they were best buddies; we would give him a leftover deep cycle battery and all would be good. (Bob had repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny ability to discover some relationship with nearly everybody in the field area, making gaining access for the experiment far easier than it could have been).

There are other tales, but those will do for now.  As before, if you have a favorite tale, feel free to add it to the comments…


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