Engine Trouble and Singular Time (J. S. Sweitzer) -- Jan. 5, 1995

Everything started out on time today, although it was awfully early. At 5:15 AM we reported to the CDC for what's called a "bag drag". That means that you get dressed in your cold weather gear and pack a small bag with more emergency clothes. It's called your hand carry bag. You're supposed to grab it if the plane has to make an emergency landing. The rest of your Antarctic clothing and equipment goes into another orange bag that is crated and stowed in the back of the aircraft. Everything else gets locked up at the CDC until you return.

Next, you drag your tired self and bags over to the departure terminal. You then sit around waiting for further instructions. This is a full flight, with some forty people headed for McMurdo.

Since I am still a bit jet-lagged, this early rising wasn't too much of a problem. New Zealand is now 19 hours ahead of Central Standard Time. But I prefer to think of time difference being really five hours behind Chicago time. That means 5:15 AM is like late morning for me. (Never mind the fact that I also effectively went to bed at 4 AM CST.) You then have to add an extra day to get the date right. Traveling to the land of the Kiwis means going west five time zones, so where does the extra day come in? It's because you cross the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean just east of New Zealand. Because of the way the Earth's time zone coordinate system is laid out you have to have a jump in date like this. They put it way out in the Pacific so it wouldn't affect too many folks -- only travelers to and from NZ and the US.

At 8 AM many people are talking, reading or wrapped up in their parkas trying to sleep. The commanding officer of the Navy crew that will fly the plane comes in to make an announcement. She regrets to say that one of the engines has sprung an oil leak, so they are going to have to delay the flight. We must check back at 2 PM for an anticipated 4:30 PM departure. People groan for a while, but then realize it's an excellent opportunity for breakfast.

Back to time..... Actually, the South Pole is a place where our time zone system gets in trouble similar to the date jump at the International Date Line. People often ask me what time it is at the South Pole. I usually give the correct and simple answer, "It's New Zealand time." I explain that the reason is because that is where our supplies and logistics come from.

But that's not what people are thinking about when they ask the question. They know that all of the Earth's time zones come to a point and meet at the South Pole like pieces of a pie. So, you can literally be any time zone you like. In fact you can travel through an entire day in less than a minute. Of course you don't, so what's going on here?

The time zone system breaks down at the South Pole, because it is really an abstraction that works quite well over most of the Earth, but at Pole reaches what's called a singularity. That means that the system for time zones no longer has meaning when the zones come to a point. Actually, astrophysicists run into this problem with their mathematics all the time, but I won't go into that here.

At 2 o'clock the word is that the plane won't leave today. We are to report at 8:15 AM tomorrow. I ask someone for a technical description of what's wrong and he simply says that the plane is broken. I know that this sort of waiting game is typical when traveling to Antarctica. I'm not too disappointed and know that I still have plenty of days to make it down for the broadcast on January 10th. And today I have time to catch a bus into town to see the Antarctic displays at the local museum and have tea.