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Antarctic adventure

At the end of the earth, Allen Foster enjoys a fantastic view of the heavens — and a longer shower​

It was summer when Allen Foster arrived at the South Pole in January on a plane that lands on skis. A graduate student in physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, he had come to operate a telescope that CWRU helped design and build at the bottom of the world. 

Before he began scanning the heavens, Foster laced up his boots for the annual Half Marathon of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. He won — besting a 20-runner field in the 13.1 mile race. 

Today, that trot across a sunny glacier must seem like years ago. In the frigid Antarctic winter, which stretches from March to October, it’s too cold and dark for scientists “wintering over” to do much outside. 

Fortunately for Foster, he has work to do. He’s operating the South Pole Telescope, a collaboration between CWRU and nearly a dozen other universities and research institutions. Since 2007, the radio telescope has sought out electromagnetic radiation from the early universe, lending insight into the structure of the universe and its expansion. 

Darkness, elevation and a complete lack of moisture make Antarctica an ideal lookout, said John Ruhl, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physics who helped design and install the telescope. He said Foster and a fellow scientist face a challenging task. 

“It’s being the point person continually for eight or nine months,” Ruhl said. “They’re doing data analysis and really looking at everything as it happens. If anything goes wrong, as it often does, they’ll fix it.” 

Foster does enjoy a toasty perk. As the winner of the marathon he received, in addition to a medal, 10 extra minutes in the shower. 

“Down here, that’s a hot commodity,” Foster told The Plain Dealer. “People definitely try to win for the sake of that alone.” 

Follow Allen Foster’s South Pole adventure on his blog.

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