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Photo. Raft from Libya. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

A Compass in the Migrant Crisis

In June 2015, as the migrant crisis intensified on the Mediterranean, I asked a friend Carol Devine, who has a long history of working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), if it would be possible to collect objects that document the medical dimension of this experience. She immediately mobilized to have a message sent to MSF staff on the MOAS rescue ship MY Phoenix stationed on the Mediterranean. Simon Bryant, a Canadian physician on board, took up the challenge. During his tour, he set aside a range of objects – a mariner’s compass found on an overcrowded inflatable raft, children’s flotation aids, emergency medical devices for maintaining a patient’s airway, a disposable white coverall, a sign for the consultation room door, as well as a worn flag from the Phoenix – all with images and detailed provenance.

Photo. Pool Floatie recovered during Mediterranean rescue mission in the summer of 2015. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

Life Jacket and Pool Floatie recovered during Mediterranean rescue mission in the summer of 2015. Floatie reads on back: “NOT TO BE USED FOR BOATING … NOT A LIFESAVING DEVICE.” Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

The first contact between migrants and the West has often been through rescue efforts on the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015 MSF launched sea rescue operations with Migrant Offshore AID Station (MOAS) because so many were drowning or lost at sea during the treacherous voyage from Libya and Turkey and had health needs upon arrival in Europe.

In many cases, there are immediate medical needs on the ship, so capturing that encounter was the focus of my initial request. Dr. Bryant’s subsequent selection of objects represented a broader snapshot of life in the rescue zone. By choosing the sign from the front of the consultation room, he was drawing our attention to the the migrant perspective amidst the turmoil of the rescue ship and challenges of language barriers.

The “Consultation in Progress” side of the clinic door window sign. Photo by Simon Bryant.

The “Consultation in Progress” side of the clinic door window sign. Photo by Simon Bryant.

One of the floatation devices was in fact a pool floatie “NOT TO BE USED FOR BOATING” (increasingly used by migrant children), while the other was a certified device; the Guedel airway devices were a constant in Dr. Bryant’s pocket during his tour; the mariner’s compass was a brass-coloured plastic instrument manufactured by a navigation and fishing equipment company in China.

Photo. Mariner’s compass made by Zhanhui Industry, Ltd. Guangdong Province, China. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant.

Mariner’s compass made by Zhanhui Industry, Ltd. Guangdong Province, China. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant.

The objects have become migrants on their own remarkable journey. In the fall of 2015, shortly after they arrived in Ottawa, curator Dan Conlin at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax took up the challenge to display these objects for the public. The exhibit, Perilous Crossing, communicated the migrant crisis in simple and powerful material terms, which at that time had become the top story in the Canadian news. This May, the exhibit and artifacts will be moving to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg for the summer of 2016. And there are now more requests to showcase these objects after the summer (the compass may be going to the Shanghai Biennale 2016), completing their unexpected voyage around the world, while building complex biographies – from Chinese factory products, to consumer goods (who bought the compass, where?!), to survival items, to cultural artifacts.

Simon Bryant wrote about his 2015 rescue tour in a blog “Bringing Home the Rescue-Zone.” Joshua Hammer also profiled life on the rescue ship Phoenix (with photos of Dr. Bryant at work) in his Sept. 2015 piece for Outside Magazine. Below, I am including the story of the compass that Dr. Bryant submitted for our acquisition files:

The compass story submitted by Simon Bryant

On August 3rd 2015 at about 3 a.m.,103 adults and 15 children from fourteen countries embarked on a nine-metre inflatable raft in Libya and proceeded north, propelled by an old 40-horsepower outboard engine and the need to escape from violence, poverty, and persecution in their countries of origin.

Photo. Raft from Libya. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

Inflatable raft from Libya, August 3, 2015. Photo by Dr. Simon Bryant

They relied on this gimbaled marine compass, provided by the “smugglers” who organized their trip, to maintain a northerly bearing. It is typical of those found on many of the boats and rafts.

 (Ironically in most instances, cardboard packing inserts remained in place around the compasses themselves, as seen in the photograph below; They prevented the gimbal mechanism from keeping the compasses level regardless of the boats’ movement, and undoubtedly made it difficult to navigate a straight course…) [Below], a similar compass to the one in the museum collection, with (white) shipping cardboard still in place.

Photo:  compass with packing in place, photo by Gabriele Casini

Compass with packing in place, photo by Gabriele Casini

After a distress call was received, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome instructed the search and rescue vessel Phoenix, a collaboration between MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) and MSF (Medecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders) to proceed to the assistance of these people. They were subsequently intercepted without incident at 10 a.m. about 20 nautical miles north of Zuwara, Libya, at latitude 33 24 north, and longitude 011 57 east.

 The accompanying photo of the inflatable raft and its occupants was taken on first approach from the fast RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) dispatched from the Phoenix, just prior to lifejackets being provided to those in the raft.

 All aboard the raft were transferred by several shuttles of the RHIB to the Phoenix, where they received drinking water, food, dry clothing, and medical care as needed. Later the same day all those rescued were transferred to two Italian Coast Guard vessels, and taken to Italy. The Phoenix then returned to the search and rescue zone.

Country of origin, and number of rescued (15 children, 103 adults)

Nigeria 69; Ghana 15; Sudan 6; Gambia 5; Eritrea 4; Senegal 4; Guinea 3; Morocco 3; Mali 2; Niger 2; DRC 2; Libya 1

 

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Summer School in India

From July 20-24, I had the privilege of being faculty at a challenging and inspiring Summer School at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH) in India (co-organized by Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature). Graduate students from across India came together for a week centered on the topic “Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism.” As a break from the seminar format, Varun Bhatta (MCPH), Roland Wittje (IIT Chennai) and I organized an outing to the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the Kasturba Medical College of Manipal University. The museum, one of the largest of its kind in Asia, is used primarily for medical teaching, but has a growing role in the region for education and outreach.

Participants examining a specimen in the section devoted to the Nervous System.

Participants examining a specimen in the section devoted to the Nervous System.

We broke off into six groups to examine objects and critique the displays. Each group carried out examinations based on specific themes or questions, for example to “analyse biases in the displays,” “record personal responses,” “analyse local and cosmopolitan elements of a specimen or display,” “propose alternative exhibition themes” and “analyse the processes – technical and cultural – that go into making the final specimen.”

I was nervous about a session with human specimens, having more experience teaching with conspicuously designed and manufactured artifacts of metal, wood, glass and plastic. Would the students be able to “culturally dissect” the specimens within a seemingly airtight scientific setting?

Preparation, choices, tools and technique - Heart specimen as a cultural artifact.

Preparation, choices, tools and technique – Heart specimen as a cultural artifact.

The students presented punchy, brilliant critiques (all within 30 minutes!) that took us far beyond the traditional medical categories of the museum. They raised a number of issues related to translation (between English and Kannada) for words like monster in “Anencephalic Monster”; ethical concerns of the specimen sources; implications of specimens arranged and displayed as art pieces; cultural questions behind the choice and presentation of certain display themes and objects; the absence of information about the tools, processes and techniques used in specimen preparation; questions about labels, language and audience (the larger panels were all English); questions behind choices – technical and cultural – that go into making a seemingly non-problematic museum encounter; notions of objectivity in medical education and practice; and, strong gender themes throughout the displays.

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Remarkably, in a very short time, we analysed the specimens and displays using careful observation, questions and multiple perspectives. India has vast, underexplored collections of scientific instruments, specimens, and archival materials. These collections have enormous potential for this kind of open-ended group exploration that inspires new approaches to teaching, research and exhibit development.

Locally made c. 1950s? There were several of these plaster and wooden anatomical models on display. They were all identical, but each featuring different anatomical systems.

Locally made c. 1950s? There were several of these plaster and wooden anatomical models on display. They were all identical, but each featuring different anatomical systems.

The Manitoba II , Physics Department, University of Manitoba

Field Notes: Mass Spectrometry at the University of Manitoba

On the 1st and 2nd of October, I visited the Physics Department at the University of Manitoba to learn more about their program in mass spectrometry. It has been over one hundred years since British scientists developed methods to deflect ions (charged particles) of different mass in order to study the constituents of materials. Scientists at U of M have since become masters of these effects, making significant contributions in two areas of mass spectrometry – the determination of fundamental mass units, and the analysis of large biological molecules. Researchers, engineers and instrument makers around the world use U of M findings and technologies in physics, chemistry, health sciences and industry.

Why Winnipeg? I found answers in some of the original instruments, and of course, the people who made, developed and used them.

The “Manitoba II” is a central instrument in Mass Spec studies at U of M. It is a room-sized, high-resolution mass spectrometer that has set international standards for determining atomic masses. Ions are deflected and detected after racing through a curved one-meter radius electromagnetic track. Physicist R.C. Barber designed the Manitoba II with many small, precision parts built in the departmental machine shop headed up by Bob Batten, a British-trained technician. It replaced the “Manitoba I” that came to U of M in the early 1960s from McMaster University with H.E. Duckworth.

The Manitoba II , Physics Department, University of Manitoba

The Manitoba II , Physics Department, University of Manitoba

The room and instrument document over forty years of toil and triumph – there are shelves of log books, abandoned parts, tools, signs, layers of black board sessions, trade literature, texts and aged off-prints. The instrument shows countless modifications, inscriptions, warnings, heat streaks, and tape – lots of tape. “It really is built from scratch,” says Physics Chair, Kumar Sharma who was a student of Barber’s in the early 1970s when the instrument was built. The Manitoba team constructed the parts for the electrostatic analyser (ESA)  in collaboration with Canadian Westinghouse in Hamilton. The stainless steel for the case was cut and bent there with the actual welding done by a workshop in King Township, Ontario.

Sharma remembers the Manitoba II being covered in black welding soot when it first arrived in the lab. They had to electro polish it to prevent unwanted contaminants from entering the high-vacuum chamber. “It was the best vacuum I had ever worked with,” recalls Sharma, “made possible by the homemade metal to metal seals.” The vacuum chamber had to be machined, annealed with some surfaces ground flat.

Manitoba II laboratory

Many careers such as Sharma’s have been built (and shaped) around this instrument. Barber had trained under H.E Duckworth, who had trained in Chicago under A.J, Dempster (of Toronto bakery fame). Sharma is now working on the next generation of MS instrument at the Canadian Penning Trap at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.

In the late 1970s ion deflection turned into straight flight when Ken Standing and his post doc, Brian Chait, developed a way to analyse big organic molecules using Time of Flight (TOF) mass spectrometry. TOF had been invented earlier, but Standing and Chait developed a method for accurately timing the flight of the big molecules produced by ion bombardment. Werner Ens joined Standing as a PhD student just as this instrument began to work, and with contributions from many others, there followed a succession of advances that lead to major patents and spin-offs in industry. Their work is now a fundamental part of the emerging field of proteomics, the study of protein quantity and structure in life forms. Ens joined the faculty in 1987, and in 2010, Standing and Ens won the Manning Innovation award for their achievements.

Standing attributes his success to good students. “I tend to leave my students alone,” he says. In fact, Ens recalls that his first job was to re-build a filament (for a surface ionization ion source) from scratch. On one of his first days in the lab he burned out a filament that Chait had spent weeks preparing and testing. “I was about as green as graduate student could be,” he recalls. Standing came by this pedagogical approach honestly; In the early 1950s his supervisor, Princeton physicist Rubby Sherr went on leave and left him alone in one of the best nuclear labs in the world. “I was lucky to think of something to do, and I did it.”

The first U of Manitoba TOF instrument from 1979. “It’s just a pipe” says Ken Standing in jest. Photo: Storage room, Physics Department, University of Manitoba.

The beauty of collecting physics is that the most abstract of variables such as time and space become concrete, local and sensory. In the TOF labs, I surveyed a vast landscape of electronic equipment that transformed molecular flight times into accessible digitized data. In the early 1980s Ens had spent much energy building software to interface with time-to-digital converters – a pivotal part of their innovations in precision timing.

Ken Standing with TOF2

Ken Standing with TOF2 representing key developments in TOF mass spectrometry at the University of Manitoba.

Precise vacuum production is basic to the TOF enterprise. When visiting the laboratory, one experiences a constant drone of vacuum pumps for precisely managing experimental vacuum conditions. Ken Standing took me into a backroom of their laboratory to see the original TOF 1979 instrument. I could barely hear (record) him through the clamour of vacuum pumps, each connected to different machines in the lab.

TOF 3 Mass Spectrometer, built at the University of Manitoba, Physics Department c. 1990.

Part of TOF 3 Mass Spectrometer, built at the University of Manitoba, Physics Department c. 1994. The TOF3 combined three innovations – orthogonal injection, MALDI techniques and collisional cooling.

Many factors contributed to the development of Mass Spec at the U of M – post-WWII research in several areas at the department ( e.g. nuclear) drew top faculty and students (local and international); there were good instrument makers – “at one time, you heard many British accents in the machine shops,” Standing recalled; there were connections to the Chicago physics scene through Duckworth and Dempster; there were pivotal Russian (Soviet) influences brought in by Standing as a result of a fortuitous tour he made in preparation for a possible conference; and there was an entrepreneurial leaning that opened the door to successful commercial collaborations (AB SCIEX)

And, there were local questions deriving from agriculture. In the mid 1970s Standing and Chait used the new U of M cyclotron to analyse protein levels in kernels of grain. “They were looking for new applications for the cyclotron,” Ens said. “That’s what gave them the connection to the biological world, and they began to see that maybe mass spectrometry was a better way to look for those proteins.”

References:

Connor, R. D. and University of Manitoba. Dept. of Physics and Astronomy. (2004). The expanding world of physics at Manitoba: a hundred years of progress: Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manitoba. Winnipeg, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manitoba.

Hughes, Jeff. “Making Isotopes Matter: Francis Aston and the Mass-Spectrograph,” Dynamis: Acta Hispanica ad Medicinae Scientiatumque Historiam Illustrandam 29, (2009), 131–166

Nier, Keith A. “A History of the Mass Spectrometer,” Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia. Robert Bud and Deborah Jean Warner, editors. 1998. New York & London: The Science Museum, London, and The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, in association with Garland Publishing, Inc. Pages 552-56.

Sharma, K. S. (2013). “Mass spectrometry—The early years.” International Journal of Mass Spectrometry 349–350(0): 3-8.

Standing, K. G. (2000). “Timing the flight of biomolecules: a personal perspective.” International Journal of Mass Spectrometry 200(1): 597-610.