Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

Trip to a continent of whites,grays and blacks

After a career of teaching high school, Bill Philips, AG '71, '80M, took the ultimate field trip last winter, spending several weeks on a geological research expedition to an area in Antarctica known as the Dry Valleys.

Philips, 50, who retired in February after teaching science for 27 years in Delaware schools, was on a research team headed by Bruce Marsh, professor of geology at Johns Hopkins University. Marsh does research on the process by which magma, the molten rock in the Earth's core, comes to the surface, becoming basaltic rock when it cools. Philips was sponsored by a National Science Foundation program to send teachers to on-site research locations. Two of Marsh's graduate students and an undergraduate student from Reed College in Oregon completed the team.

Philips says he was lucky to be on a team headed by Marsh, who is tops in his field and who has been to the Dry Valleys four times in the last five years.

The Dry Valleys area is one of the few places in the world where basaltic magma is exposed above the ground's surface. Because of the unique cold, desert environment, NASA has sent astronauts to A train there as the environment on Earth closest to that of Mars.

Philips spent several weeks in training to prepare for a December departure that would coincide with the Antarctic summer.

Getting to Antarctica was not easy. First, the team flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, where they received the heavy-duty gear necessary to survive. From there, it was an eight-hour flight on a C-130 cargo plane to McMurdo Base, a former U.S. Navy base now jointly run as a research outpost with the National Science Foundation.

McMurdo is "close to an ideal-society" because almost everyone shares the work-no matter how menial, and there is an open intellectual atmosphere among the researchers, Philips says.

In early January, the team was flown by helicopter 100 miles from McMurdo to the Dry Valleys, where they established a base camp. Altogether, they spent 18 days in the Dry Valleys, camping in special "Scott" tents named for the famous Antarctic explorer Robert Scott, eating dried foods and chocolate and making do without showers.

Some non-scientific equipment found its way to the camp as well, including a Delaware flag from the governor's office that flew for the entire stay and a stuffed animal by the name of "D. Bear" on loan from a Hodgson Vo-Tech student.

A typical day for Philips began around 7 a.m with coffee and reading. After an 8 a.m. breakfast, the group would take a helicopter to its research destination that day, requiring flights of anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. They would work until 3:30 or 4 p.m., return to camp, eat dinner and talk about the day's research.

Philips also spent time each night with his laptop computer, working on his journal. Saved to a disk, the journal was taken back by helicopter to McMurdo and e-mailed to Delaware. Some of his journal was then posted on the Dover High School web site before he returned home, and students were able to e-mail questions back to Philips.

The journal reveals a man who not only loves science but is an astute observer of human nature, with a sense of humor. In words that are often more poetic than scientific, he records the unique society at McMurdo and his love of the stark, serene beauty of the Antarctic landscape.

For instance, upon arriving there, he wrote: "It is very difficult to describe the incredible beauty of this continent of whites, grays and blacks, so maybe I'll leave that for another time. Emotionally, I can say that I've been moved to tears by its appearance. I am awed by its vastness and emptiness. I am grateful to have seen it at all."

Despite the rigorous preparations for cold weather, Philips notes that his coldest time in Antarctica was when he was helping stock food in a storage freezer. Temperatures during his stay ranged from the low 40s to the high teens.

Philips' fascination with Antarctica began when he was a boy. Explorers of the continent from the first part of this century, such as Scott, Norwegian Roald Amundsen and American Richard Byrd, were heroes at the time. Philips and a boyhood friend began to read and think about visiting the land of ice someday.

Philips now travels throughout the state giving presentations to all grade levels via the Science Alliance, a cooperative program between business and education. He also runs field studies for Delaware teachers through the Delaware Teacher Center. He and his wife, Barbara, HP '71, a retired math teacher, will lead a group of teachers on one such trip to Arizona and Utah in April.

Philips' journal, photos and information on teachers in Antarctica can be found at: http://www.glacier.rice.edu/chapters/expedition/2_ usbases.shortterm.html

-Rich Campbell, AS '86