For the first, I had built an instrument to measure the temperature inside a moving pyroclastic flow: like a hot rock avalanche. It was a 3m tall pole, with lots of thermocouples sticking out. I took it to Montserrat, where there was a valley which was being hit by flows every few months. We flew in by helicopter, dug a hole in the ground to fix it in, and cemented it in place. I came back six months later – it had been run over by a flow, and appeared to have survived. Again, we had to helicopter in. I only just had time to collect the data recorder before we had to evacuate. Back at the observatory, excitement rose as I downloaded the data – only to discover that we had a software bug: the instrument had run for 24 hours, and then switched itself off.. A simple loop command would have fixed it – and none of our trials had lasted 24 hours, so we had no idea! Unfortunately, activity at the volcano picked up for the next few months, and we were never able to go back to fix the instrument and run the experiment again..
The second is another fieldwork example. We had taken a ‘portable’ spectrometer to a volcano to measure the trace gases, NO and NO2, in the volcanic fumes. It weighed 10 kg, and was the size of a large crate – so was only just portable. In Nicaragua, where we tried this out first, the machine was running well, but the datalogger wasn’t recording the measurements – so we had to write them down manually, every 30 seconds. After a couple of days with no signal, we decided we had to make the measurements at sunrise, when the fumes were at their most dense (because of the water vapour/fog). This went really well, and we started to see small peaks in the data. Then just as the next wave of fume was coming over, two men appeared and started shouting at us (there were just two of us). Unfortunately, one had a machete, the other a rifle. Five minutes later, we had no money left, I had lost my camera and we had missed the last measurement opportunity of the day.. At least we were still alive! For obvious reasons, we didn’t try that experiment at night again. Later that year, we thought it would be a good idea to run the same instrument at a safer volcano; Etna in Sicily. We carried it out as ‘hand luggage’, and got it to the apartment we were staying in. Here, one of other science colleagues decided to test it out. Unfortunately, he thought Italian electricity ran at 110 V, so (without thinking about it), he hooked up a step-up transformer, switched on and burnt out the spectrometer!.
For these reasons, I am in awe of people* who can build field instruments that run on rovers in the middle of Mars!
* I was at college with Tom, if you follow the link
Oh yes. Often happens. Sometimes we end up binning the medicine (don’t develop it any further), sometimes we try to reformulate it – depends on how serious the bad results are. Not every experiment goes that way I’m pleased to say. But then, patient safety is my primary concern, I don’t want doctors to give medicines to patients that could potentially harm them.
So, SO truly yes! I really thought that a study that I had planned so meticulously would be a great study and would find exactly what I expected. It’s the one I’m working on right now. I brought teens in to my study in groups of friends or alone to pump up balloons for money. They had to pump them up as far as they could without popping them – they had to bank the money they made before the balloon popped or they lost the money (think Weakest Link). Well, I thought teens would take more risks when they had friends to egg them on, but it turned out the people who did it alone took more risks! I could tell you why I think this is but I’d love to hear what others think given that it’s kind of like the ‘gambling’ risk games you see on TV.
Anyway, I was so confused and annoyed when it didn’t go my way. But a friend of mine reminded me that this is the cool part about science. You do a good study, you find something new, and you share it with others, and it’s something to talk about! It’s kind of boring when it does go your way (okay, I need to tell myself that 20 more times, but it is true, it is true, it is true). My friend, who’s not a psychologist, says that all I do is show things that the real world already knew. I think I do more than that – I hope!!
Yes. When I did research for my MSc thesis (on developmental biology), some of it involved breeding fish that carried a specific mutation. It took weeks, even months to do that. Then one day after a long weekend, I came to the lab and realised that most of them had died – probably because the person on feeding duty had forgotten about it. I had to start all over again!
Of course!!! When I was doing my research project for my masters degree I spent days and days trying to get something to work but the key is to understand why something is “not working” if you can understand this then you are on the right track and will be able to put anything right that needs changing. Many factors need to be considered and so always try and consider everything when you’re trying to work out what is going on!