There’s never a dull moment in the life of Carl Wernhoff. In February, he was at the South Pole chasing photons in the icy cold weather. Now, he is aiming for the theatre.
Carl Wernhoff speeds forward on a snowmobile with camera in hand. It is February 2011 and he is on his way to work on the international neutrino telescope IceCube near the South Pole.
He publishes the film on YouTube.
It boggles the mind. The obvious communication choice of today set against the weak photon traces from outer space, the things that can give researchers clues about the structure of the universe and its properties, dark matter, string theory and other remarkable things.
IceCube has just been completed after six years of construction. 2.5 kilometres down in the crystal clear ice hang detectors on a kind of string, 86 of them. A total of 5,300 light sensors send information about 2.5 million photon hits every second, 24 hours a day, up to the computers in IceCube Laboratory on top on the ice.
Carl is there to install an electronic circuit (FPGA). This circuit implements an algorithm directly in the hardware that sorts the signals received from the weakest photon traces from space and the traces of electron neutrinos from the sun that happen to collide with a molecule down in the ice.
“The collisions cause a weak trace of small impulses of light, namely photons. If you can find the traces of light and see the direction they are travelling then you can understand where in space the neutrino came from”, explains Carl after returning home to Stockholm.
“Right now it feels unreal that I have actually been there.”
50 degrees below zero in tunnels underneath the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station, taking a sauna with a dash to the South Pole a few hundred metres away is not exactly something you experience every day. The station is situated at a height of 3000 metres, with the air pressure at the Pole the equivalent of 4000 metres. As Carl puts it, it can cause certain intelligence problems:
“Just before we landed I pulled my boots on, but despite frenetic attempts, I was suddenly unable to tie the laces.”
Apart from that, we cannot identify any other problems with him. It was when Carl was considering a subject for his thesis as part of the MSc Programme in Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering (Y programme) at Linköping University that he contacted the IceCube project.
“I emailed the American researchers and discovered that researchers at Stockholm University were also part of the project”, he says.
At the time, guest professor David Nygren was in Stockholm. Nygren has Swedish ancestry and comes from Berkeley, San Francisco.
“He is one of the leading figures in instrument physics. He had an idea about an algorithm that could be implemented in hardware, which could provide a much greater computing capacity than software in the computers.”
Carl Wernhoff wrote his thesis amongst particle physicians at Stockholm University. It concerned the algorithm and electronics in physics applications. Following his graduation, Carl worked at implementing it and building the actual Track Engine circuitry that is now on site at IceCube.
“The preparatory work was enormous because the design is so complex and everything needs to be tested – every single subcomponent. I have written about 10,000 lines of code for the software in a test environment that I also had to develop myself.”
Two small red boxes containing Track Engine, one as a reserve was included with the baggage to the South Pole. The first card worked fine.
“However we also wanted to get the reserve card working in the event of potential problems during polar nights when the station is completely shut off from the outside world. Then there was a hitch with the power supply.”
Up until the last minute prior to the return journey, Carl Wernhoff was sitting at the South Pole thinking, re-soldering and testing new solutions until everything was working properly. Yet, before leaving the lab, he made time to put up a picture of King Carl Gustaf in full dress uniform.
Now he sees instrument physics as a kind of advanced side job and will instead focus on theatre training.
Not entirely surprising. He was on stage even as a student, such as when he was master of ceremonies at the great welcoming party for new students. Together with fellow student Jonas Månsson, he was given countless assignments as toastmaster at parties and events. He was also a student comedian.
At the same time, Carl was engaged in the student union, was class representative and served on the student committee. He was also busy welcoming new students and helped to start the Swedish section of a European organisation for electronics students (EESTEC).
“Before starting my studies I had made up my mind that during the years I studied that I would do everything I possibly could.”
He also found time to actually study; that being the Y programme with an international focus on German. He spent an exchange term in Regensburg and took half a year study break to work at Cybaero, which developed unmanned helicopters.
“I even went to the United Arab Emirates to deliver helicopters.”
Life has swung between electronics/automatic control technology and theatre/music. For the past three years, he has studied music either full or part time. Studying classical composition in Härnösand left its mark on an entire web site and it also encouraged him to focus on theatre and his own songs.
This autumn he will continue his theatre training. He has been admitted to the Stockholm
Fundamental Theatre School (Stockholms Elementära Teaterskola) and hopes to be able to continue propping up his finances with part time work at the the Physics Department of Stockholm University.
Perhaps we shall see him one day soon as a thespian on stage. The country boy from Östra Skrukeby outside of Linköping. Maybe we will think: isn’t that the guy that went to the South Pole?
Text Gunilla Pravitz
From LiU magazine no 2 2011
- Name Carl Wernhoff
- Place of residence Stockholm
- Education Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering – International
- Current activities Focusing on song and theatre and working a little on the side with the particle physics group at Stockholm University.
- Recently completed an electronic circuit and installed it in a lab at the South Pole.
- Best teacher at LiU If I have to choose, it would be Peter Münger, who was a phenomenal lecturer
- on electromagnetism for one of the most difficult courses in the programme.
- Favorite memory The premiere and the performances the first time I performed in Holgerspexet, a student music theatre group.
Last updated: 2012-11-27