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On Rock Gyms, Rocks, and Vacuums

I am tired tonight, so I don’t have much energy to write. I just went rock climbing for the first time after taking a break for a month or so (I was resting because of a small surgery), and I’m exhausted. I also feel like a weakling as my arms hurt so much after an hour of bouldering and a few easy wall climbs. How in the world am I supposed to climb up volcanoes now? I need to hit the rock gym and perhaps the regular gym to whip myself back into shape.

In addition to working my body today, I also worked my brain some. I read papers in the morning and then spent two hours this afternoon learning about Varian vacuum pumps and other technology that allows the noble gas mass spectrometer to reach very low pressures on the order of 10 ^ -10 torr.

Typing this now, I have to admit that spending two hours learning about vacuum pumps doesn’t sound very exciting. However, earlier today (before the rock gym wiped me out) I was really interested. My two, enthusiastic instructors were the engineer and geochronologist who run the argon lab where I’m currently in the process of dating my samples. They taught me the best way– by taking things apart. They showed me how pumps work by showing me some broken, dismantled pumps.

I learned all about ion pumps and turbo pumps. I learned about how they work, which I’ll write about on a night I have more energy, and also about some of their uses. According to the engineer, NASA has entire rooms that they turn into vacuums with giant turbo pumps. NASA tests equipment in these vacuum rooms, which simulate conditions in outer space. I also learned that vacuums are important in fusion research. The big tokamaks use many of the vacuum pumps.

In my excitement over my new-found interest in vacuum pumps for mass spectrometers, I agreed to sign up for a one-day course offered by the company making the pumps. I’ll get free lunch and learn all I ever wanted to know– and undoubtedly much, much more– about vacuum pumps. In my tiredness now, I wonder if I just signed up for an incredibly boring day. Nah. A useful day. That’s what I signed up for.

Now, my nightly push-ups and sit-ups (I need to climb those volcanoes, dammit!), and I’m to bed, exhausted.

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Me (in purple) exhibiting my impromptu field climbing skills in Montana.


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. Welll,

    I don't believe in magic.

    But there is something "magic" about 100 push ups.

    It's good to do this every morning…

    It can be 10 sets of ten, 5 of 20, or (like me 2 of 50) but it's a nice way to start the day.

    If' you're a rock climber, do them on your finger tips.

    You'lll never be sorry.


    (That means I HAVE to do MINE, tomorrow…man, I SUCK!!!…But I'm not sorry…I'm not sorry…there's no place like home…there's no place like home…)

  2. It bears repeating: a scientist / technician who understands just how their equipment works has (in my opinion), a great advantage over another who doesn't. If you know what a broken or defective part actually looks like, and how a device acts up when that particular part is not doing its job… Well, there you go.

    There are no doubt fields where these kinds of skills are difficult to acquire. As a layman, I have no idea how separated specialization is between theory and engineering in, say, particle physics. Still, I would hope that when a process or experiment depends on complex equipment, whomever is waiting for the results has a passing understanding of how their gadgets do the job.

    I remark on this, Evelyn, because you're clearly interested in the tools of your chosen field. And I wonder, in my layman's ignorance, how widespread is not only that interest but the requirement for that kind of understanding. Not only in your field, but modern science in general.

    To rephrase the question: is it possible for a modern scientist to have only a general grasp of how their tools actually work, and still do their job competently?

    Rock climbing… gaah! I will happily trudge up miles of switchbacks (given decent weather and hydration), but keep me away from verticle surfaces, thank you! To each their own…

  3. You know, nature abhors a vacuum. I hold a naturalistic world view and am, in fact, part of nature. Should I then, logically, abhor a vacuum?

    In full disclosure, I can be quite lazy about household chores, so in that regard I certainly do abhor THE vacuum. But I find myself quite fascinated by these 'vacuum rooms' and am struck with the urge to strap on some kind of protective suit/breathing apparatus and go pay one a visit.

    Have I just, logically, disassociated myself with nature? Oh no!! :-P

  4. Evelyn, after reading your post I thought about how many vacuum pumps are in the small (18'x23') lab behind my office. I realized that I had never counted them and I was surprised to note that there are 15 vacuum pumps in there!

    That's right, 15 vacuum pumps in a space the size of a large bedroom. No wonder it's so hot and noisy in there!

    For the record, I counted:

    8 mechanical roughing pumps

    3 turbo pumps

    2 diffusion pumps, and

    2 cryo pumps.

    My lab isn't big enough to hold one, but we do have vacuum systems here that have red emergency stop buttons INSIDE them, in case you are inside the machine when somebody tries to pump it down. Not one of your more pleasant ways to die, I imagine.

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