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Laura Gladstone | MIT | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Life Underground: Anything Anyone Would Teach Me

Going underground most days for work is probably the weirdest-sounding this about this job. At Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso, we use the lab to be underground because of the protection it affords us from cosmic rays, weather, and other disruptions, and with it we get a shorthand description of all the weirdness of lab life. It’s all just “underground.”

ss17bis

The last kilometer of road before reaching the above-ground labs of LNGS

Some labs for low background physics are in mines, like SURF where fellow Quantum Diariest Sally Shaw works. One of the great things about LNGS is that we’re located off a highway tunnel, so it’s relatively easy to reach the lab: we just drive in. There’s a regular shuttle schedule every day, even weekends. When there are snowstorms that close parts of the highway, the shuttle still goes, it just takes a longer route all the way to the next easy exit. The ride is a particularly good time to start drafting blog posts. On days when the shuttle schedule is inconvenient or our work is unpredictable, we can drive individual cars, provided they’ve passed emissions standards.

The guards underground keep a running list of all the people underground at any time, just like in a mine. So, each time I enter or leave, I give my name to the guards. This leads to some fun interactions where Italian speakers try to pronounce names from all over. I didn’t think too much of it before I got here, but in retrospect I had expected that any name of European etymology would be easy, and others somewhat more difficult. In fact, the difficult names are those that don’t end in vowels: “GladStone” become “Glad-eh-Stone-eh”. But longer vowel-filled names are fine, and easy to pronounce, even though they’re sometimes just waved off as “the long one” with a gesture.

There’s constantly water dripping in the tunnel. Every experiment has to be housed in something waterproof, and gutters line all the hallways, usually with algae growing in them. The walls are coated with waterproofing, more to keep any potential chemical spill from us from getting into the local groundwater than to keep the water off our experiments. When we walk from the tunnel entrance to the experimental halls, the cue for me to don a hardhat is the first drip on my head from the ceiling. Somehow, it’s always right next to the shuttle stop, no matter where the shuttle parks.

And, because this is Italy, the side room for emergencies has a bathroom and a coffee machine. There’s probably emergency air tanks too, but the important thing is the coffee machine, to stave off epic caffeine withdrawal headaches. And of course, “coffee” means “espresso” unless otherwise stated– but that’s another whole post right there.

When I meet people in the neighboring villages, at the gym or buying groceries or whatever, they always ask what an “American girl” is doing so far away from the cities, and “lavoro a Laboratorio Gran Sasso” is immediately understood. The lab is even the economic engine that’s kept the nearest village alive: it has restaurants, hotels, and rental apartments all catering to people from the lab (and the local ski lift), but no grocery stores, ATMs, gyms, or post offices that would make life more convenient for long-term residents.

Every once in a while, when someone mentions going underground, I can’t help thinking back to the song “Underground” from the movie Labyrinth that I saw too many times growing up. Labyrinth and The Princess Bride were the “Frozen” of my childhood (despite not passing the Bechtel test).

Just like Sarah, my adventures underground are alternately shocking and exactly what I expected from the stories, and filled with logic puzzles and funny characters. Even my first night here, when I was delirious with jetlag, I saw a black cat scamper across a deserted medieval street, and heard the clock tower strike 13 times. And just like Wesley, “it was a fine time for me, I was learning to fence, to fight–anything anyone would teach me–” (except that in my case it’s more soldering, cryogenics plumbing, and ping-pong, and less fighting). The day hasn’t arrived where the Dread Pirate Roberts calls me to his office and gives me a professorship.

And now the shuttle has arrived back to the office, so we’re done. Ciao, a dopo.

(ps the clock striking 13 times was because it has separate tones for the hour and the 15-minute chunks. The 13 was really 11+2 for 11:30.)

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  • Xezlec

    I’m not sure it is grammatically correct to apply the clause “that I saw too many times” to the phrase “the movie Labyrinth”. I think you mean “that I saw the correct number of times”.