Work to better detect the detonation of nuclear weapons is providing a side benefit for a group of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers.
In their travels around the globe, they've ridden elephants, seen penguins and nervously tasted monkey gland sauce.
Researchers at the national lab in Richland earlier worked on ways to detect radioactive xenon, which is released during nuclear explosions. Even in underground test blasts, when some radionuclides decay quickly and never seep up to the surface of the ground, some xenon will make its way into the atmosphere to circle the globe.
But xenon also can be detected from the operation of nuclear power plants and the production of medical isotopes.
Now researchers are collaborating in the International Xenon Measurement Project to characterize background readings to learn more about what detection of xenon may indicate.
They've taken measurements in South Korea, Germany, Kuwait and Sweden and this month are collecting readings at two sites in South Africa. Then they'll be taking the radiation detection system, a Swedish Unattended Noble Gas Analyzer, to Thailand and Nepal.
Mechanical engineer Lance Lidey, one of a group of about 15 taking turns traveling to the sites, didn't know what to expect when he made his first international trip to South Africa, he said.
But his first surprise was when his plane stopped in Senegal and insecticide was sprayed throughout the plane as passengers waited.
In Mafikeng, a rural area in northern South Africa, researchers were interested in what readings they would pick up because of a nearby medical isotope producer.
Program manager Ted Bowyer has made numerous trips for the project, but he was impressed by what looked like a junkyard from a distance on the drive from Johannesburg to Mafikeng, via Pretoria.
"There were maybe a million people living essentially in glorified boxes," he said.
In Mafikeng, every residence had a fence around it, usually topped with spikes or broken glass, the two men said. Cows and goats had the run of the neighborhood. Lidey decided to skip his usual run, thinking he might be mauled by dogs, he said.
Their South African hosts traveled with them to most places and arranged some African cuisine at their request, although they were warned that local dishes were heavy with tripe. They did eat oxtail stew and beef tongue.
"It turned out to be good," Lidey said.
At one restaurant co-workers talked him into trying monkey gland sauce. It turned out to be similar to barbecue sauce, with no trace of monkey.
A highlight of the trip was meeting radiochemistry students from the Mafikeng campus of North-West University in a series of lectures and to explain the xenon-detection equipment to them.
Some researchers at the Mafikeng site visited game parks, seeing zebras, giraffes, ostriches and rhinoceros.
But at the second research site in South Africa, Cape Town, they haven't had to travel to a game park to see some animals. Penguins live on the beach. And one of the researchers' international colleagues encountered a baboon. She rolled up the windows of her car, but the baboon opened the car door.
Bowyer already has made a trip to Thailand, the next country where measurements will be taken. He liked it, even though "it was ridiculously hot and sweaty," he said.
He rode an elephant, bought suits and ordered five-course meals for $8. He wanted to try the food offered at street stands, but was concerned about how safe the food might be.
He walked by one wok where the cook appeared to be preparing cashews, but a closer look showed it was silk worm larva.
"It did not smell good," he said.
He did sample durian fruit, which smells so rotten that hotels ban guests from having it in their rooms. The taste was something between peach yogurt and rotting onion, he said.
The work in Nepal will bring a new set of challenges, Bowyer said. Poverty is extreme and researchers expect electricity to be turned off at night, so they'll need a system to power equipment for 24-hour xenon measurements. Some supplies, such as helium, will have to be shipped from India, making it an expensive trip despite the poverty of the area.
Lidey, who will work on the project, said now that he's familiar with South Africa, he's looking forward to comparing his experiences there with those in another country.