Real physics is just weird sometimes. Like, totally.

One of my pet irks as a reader of science fiction is the way some authors play fast and loose with science. Sometimes it works. But usually, for me at least, the suspension of disbelief in SF is carried by the science as well as by story and characters. Goes with this particular genre.But that doesn’t preclude imagination. Physics sometimes gets very weird. Especially where our friend Albert Einstein is involved.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of his principles was that nothing can travel faster than light. The end. And that’s been proven over and over and over. Of course, this spoils interstellar SF plots, so finding plausible ways around this annoying limit has been a focus for SF authors ever since Einstein came up with it. But very few have explored the weirder consequences of FTL travel.

Try this. Imagine you’ve got the most powerful telescope ever made. You can see spaceships with an instant faster-than-light (FTL) hyperdrive around nearby stars. The drive, using the Principles of Handwavium, allows them to jump from any star system to any other in zero time. That means they are moving way faster than light.

One day, your friends arrive at your house fizzing about their recent FTL journey from Earth to the nearby star 61 Cygni A, then to Proxima Centauri, then home.

Four and a bit years later, you’ve got your friends over for dinner, and your telescope pointed at Proxima Centauri. You see their ship appear around that star.

Seven years and a few weeks later, your friends are again over for dinner. Through the telescope, you see their ship disappear from around 61 Cygni A, departing on its instant journey to Proxima – where you saw them arrive all that time before, from your viewpoint

In short, you can watch your faster-than-light friends departing after they arrived, even though the trip was in normal sequence for them.

How does it work? Well, it’s all relative. 61 Cygni is 11.4 light years away, so light from that star takes that length of time to reach us on Earth. If you watch stuff going on there, from Earth, you’re looking back in time to the tune of 11.4 years.

Proxima Centauri is 4.3 light years away. Same deal for time – 4.3 years.

So what’s happening? The ship moves instantly. But light doesn’t. The light from Proxima, showing the ship arriving there, only takes 4.3 years to reach Earth, so it arrives before light from 61 Cygni showing it departing. And the ship reaches Earth before the light from either star arrives. So from Earth, you see the journey in reverse order.

See what I mean about weird? I’m put in mind of a piece of doggerel which, I’m told, has an unusual provenance of its own:

There once was a woman named Bright
Who could travel much faster than light
She departed one day,
In an Einsteinian way
And returned the previous night.

It’s not something sci-fi writers often consider. But there’s probably a story in it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Forecasting New Zealand’s seismic apocalypse

This weekend’s tragedy on Japan’s Mount Ontake reminds us that life around the Pacific ‘rim of fire’ is often risky.

That string of tectonic plate collisions stretches around the whole circumference of the Pacific and has shaped life in many ways. It was cause of the 2011 tsunami that devastated eastern Japan. It gave the US Yellowstone. It provokes earthquakes. It has also shaped my home country, New Zealand – and has been doing so for at least the past ten million years. The obvious question is ‘what next’ – something that has exercised seismologists and vulcanologists for generations. One way of finding out is to look back into the past, figuring out where fault lines are and how often they move.

Karaka Bay - on the eastern side of the city where Port Nicholson opens out to the sea through a narrow channel.

Karaka Bay – on the eastern side of the Miramar ‘was-an-island-before 1460′ Peninsula

That’s certainly been a focus of ongoing work in New Zealand, which straddles the collision between the Australian and Pacific plates and is prone to massive earthquakes. And of all the historical quakes, it seems few were as spectacular as the series that ripped through the country around 1460, as an indigenous Maori culture began to emerge from its Polynesian settler origins. All of them were around magnitude 8 or higher. They began, it seems, in the south as the Alpine Fault moved. Then there was a quake off what is now Wellington. And another in the Wairarapa. And another at Ahuriri, creating the Te Whanganui-a-Orotu lagoon. Wham! Tsunami followed, 10 metres or more high.

Maori refer to the 1460 Wellington quake as Haowhenua – the ‘land swallower’. Superficially that’s a paradox; the quake created land, raising the channel between Miramar, then an island. But the quake also triggered tsunami, washing far around the coasts and inundating settlements and gardens on the south coast of the Wairarapa. For Maori, the key issue was the loss of food-stuffs by a disaster that had, literally, swallowed their land.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

This movie studio in central Miramar was underwater before 1460.

A succession of quakes of this magnitude remains unprecedented. Seismology, to date, has usually treated quakes as independent events. And yet it’s clear that earthquakes occur in clusters, and seismologists have been asking questions of late that point to connections. One of those is interactions between fault lines. A quake on one fault might deliver enough energy to a nearby fault to trigger it, providing that fault was already under stress. There is also the effect of ‘slow quakes’. This only emerged in the early twenty-first century when GPS measurements revealed that, at certain points where the Pacific plate dives under the Australian – usually east or west of the New Zealand land mass itself – there are areas where the two slip slowly, but not smoothly. Huge earthquakes follow, but the energy released is spread out over months and not detectable by conventional instruments.

What these quakes seem to do is stress shallower fault lines, east in the plate interface. Current analysis indicates that a slow-slip quake under Kapiti island in early 2013 was likely cause of the succession of conventional quakes that struck in a semi-circular arc around Kapiti from mid-2013 – the Cook Strait and Grassmere quakes of July and August; the Eketahuna quake of January 2014; and the Waipukurau quake of April 2014.

All were severe quakes, but not in the league of the 1460 series. As yet the jury’s still out on the linkages. If the hypothesis is right though, the issue is obvious. Slow quakes might provoke successions of conventional shallow quakes in New Zealand. And if the 1460 sequence was one of those, it’s clear these quakes can be large indeed.

That begs a question: what would happen were New Zealand to suffer a similar quick-fire succession of huge quakes? That’s something I’ve tackled in my book Living on Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House). I won’t repeat the details here – suffice to say, it’s spectacular and I can’t help thinking that Mars looks appealing about this time of year.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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The three questions all authors must ask before starting

It’s amazing how many writing lessons I find in music. When I was a kid and learning music, there was an attitude that rock musicians were musical Neanderthals who could strum a few chords while making animal noises. ‘Proper’ music was ‘classical’, around which the Royal Schools grade courses I was doing was framed.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable. Actually, these weren’t regarded as proper instruments when I was learning music, either…

The criteria for being a ‘proper’ musician, in short, wasn’t whether the performer provoked an emotional response in stadium-sized audiences and became a shaping force in western culture – but an ability to play 200-year old dinner muzak penned by Mozart, all built around diatonic chord progression – Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C No. 16, K. 545, for instance, uses chords running in descending fifths (vi-ii-V-I). The fact that ‘classical’ structure was a very narrow form of music – as Stockhausen, Cage, Varese and others revealed – didn’t enter into it.

The kicker? Rock music also uses diatonic chord progression – the usual string is I – V – vi – IV (try it, then sing Beatles ‘Let It Be’, Toto ‘Africa’, John Denver ‘Take Me Home’, etc). What’s more, the musicians who made it knew very well what they were doing. Some – like Rick Wakeman – were classically trained. When Ken Russell wanted to make a movie mashing rock music with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, Wakeman did the adaptations.

Today? The genre ‘made it’, to my mind, when astrophysicist and Total Rock God Brian May played ‘God Save The Queen’, on electric guitar, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. By invitation. Awesome! Music is music, ‘classical’ is but one corner; and the people who get ahead have got the chops. Here’s Dutch singer Floor Jansen with ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Puccini’s 1918 comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Typical ‘classical’ singing – you know, when they didn’t have microphones and had to be heard over the orchestra.

And here’s Jansen again, with her band ReVamp:

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

What does this have to do with writing? Attitudes of elitism are true of writing, too. Here in New Zealand, for instance, the academic community – on my experience – take the attitude that authors writing on their subjects for a popular market are not going to innovate – that these authors are ignorant of intellectual technique and not academically capable.  I used to get it all the time when I wrote history commercially – a supposition that work had to be judged solely against the narrow criteria demanded of the academy. I was simply an intruding Neanderthal who, presumably, would be better off leaving the territory to the real experts who filled their material with incomprehensible but ego-boosting sentences with the word ‘discourse’ in them. The fact that books written to academic criteria often don’t innovate – and are virtually unreadable, even to other academics, doesn’t enter the calculation.

The reality – and this is where the rock music lesson comes in – is that most people who can write competently know exactly what they are doing, and can also innovate. It’s part of the territory. What’s more, many have the same qualifications as the academics who diss them. I do, for instance. But I don’t work for a university – or see the need to validate myself in the narrow terms academics use to assert status to each other.

All of it comes down to the basic questions all authors must ask themselves before putting pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard, these days):

1. What is the purpose of this piece of writing?
2. Who is the audience?
3. Why will they want to read this particular piece?

Everything else follows – the pitch, the tone, and the content. Intellectual rigour applies, whichever way the ideas are expressed. And it seems to me that the widest audience won’t be the one that likes reading the word ‘discourse’ when ‘conversation’ means the same thing.

Hemingway summed it up. Why use the ‘ten dollar’ words when there are other and better words that do the same thing?

Quite right, too. And that, I think, is true of all writing whatever the subject or genre.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: writing as a whole concept

It has long seemed to me that one of the pitfalls of writing is the idea that ‘writing’ is finished when the last word goes on the draft. After that it’s ‘editing’, which I know some authors view not merely as a separate process, but also boring. After all, the book’s really finished… isn’t it?

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

It’s an issue because, really, a book isn’t ‘finished’ until it’s out there on the store shelves. Everything that comes before that is part of the process – of which the assembly of the first draft is a part. But it is not the only part, and it certainly isn’t an ‘end’. On my experience it isn’t necessarily even the most time-consuming part. The reality, if we look at hours spent, is that the time required to actually draft the words – to have something to start working on – is about half the total.

So where does the notion that ‘writing’ and ‘editing are separate come from? I think part of the issue is the way results in writing are defined by word count – witness the proliferation of ‘word counters’ that even show progress bars. It gives the illusion of completion when a certain number of words are reached.

The reality is that word-count is a tool. In the profession it’s a specific device for defining scale. Editors use it. Word count provides a measure of the space a piece will take up – allowing them to determine costs. For authors, that same scale also means they can plan structure and produce work with proper pace, balance of content, and flow within the requisite length. It is not an end-goal of itself.

There is also the issue of motive. A lot of the people who decide to pick up writing produce fiction, drawn by the appeal of free-flow creativity – of being able to tell a story rather than receive somebody else’s. But once that draft’s been written, the entertainment aspect goes away and it turns into a grind. The professional reality is that yes, writing does need to engage you as author; but it also isn’t a pastime.

If we go back to first principles, what is ‘writing’, really?

To me, the reality of ‘writing’ is a process of conveying an author’s thoughts and emotion to a reader, and perhaps triggering a different emotion in the reader. If we look on writing in that sense, all parts of the process become part of a broader whole.

Actually writing words down is a part of it, but so too is the planning, research, editing, the typeset-check, even the marketing. All these things are essential parts of an author’s work – part of that broader concept we call ‘writing’.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Why ebola puts the zombie apocalypse into proper perspective

I spend quite a bit of time wondering about the zombie apocalypse. Like why I and a few drinking buddies will be sole humans out of 7 billion who aren’t turned into zombies? If I put gym treadmills outside every window on my house, will that be enough to stop the zombies coming in, and can I generate electricity that way? And why do we suppose it will be a ‘human’ zombie apocalypse? Maybe we’ll be inundated with zombie llamas. Here in New Zealand someone made a movie about zombie sheep. Very funny it was, too.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

But really I shouldn’t worry. Zombies aren’t real. Unlike the ebola outbreak in West Africa, which is very, very real – and no laughing matter. So why the zombie thought? Well, a friend of mine suggested that the social impact of the ebola outbreak raging in West Africa has a lot in common with the way we imagine a zombie apocalypse in the west. Everybody you know and love is suddenly snatched away by a quick and lethal infection that seems to have come out of nowhere. It spreads by touch. If you help them – as you must, because we are all human and care is the highest human virtue – you risk getting it. It devastates families. It destroys organised society. And nobody is immune. Nobody.

This is actually true of any pandemic – ebola, of course, is far from the first serious disease to erupt in a population. I suspect that the fact that we envisage the social impact of a ‘zombie apocalypse’ in terms that so closely match a real uber-pandemic disease outbreak is indicative of the depth to which our fear of pandemic is etched into our cultural make-up.

None of that reduces the tragedy unfolding in West Africa. There is only one up-side. Viruses transmit in two ways. There’s airborne – usually meaning you breathe them in after somebody nearby has sneezed. Or sometimes the infected mucus settles on a surface, you touch that surface and fail to wash your hands, then transfer the virus to your mouth when eating. The other main mechanism of transmission is ‘serum’, meaning the virus is carried in body fluids.

Ebola is of the latter variety. You have to make direct contact with the patient’s body fluids. That makes it hard to catch. Medical professionals run a high risk while treating victims, as do family in close promixity to a victim; but it’s not in the ‘catchability’ league of airborne viruses.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Down side is that ebola remains live and infectious after the victim has died. That’s why health officials have been carrying bodies away with full bio-hazard procedures.

So why has it been happening? Ebola was first noticed in West Africa in the mid-1970s, though it was around before then. But it was always isolated. The disease was SO quick and SO lethal that outbreaks burned themselves out. But this time it hasn’t. From the viewpoint of the virus it’s a great survival mechanism. For humans? Not so much.

That’s not the only reason why it’s been so difficult to contain the outbreak. By one of the ironies that dog the real world, the countries it’s hit are the least able to handle an emergency of this kind. Borders are arbitrary and spanned by social groups, a function of colonial-age map-making – making ‘border closing’ difficult. Infrastructure is poor by western standards. Crowded living conditions and poor urban sanitation make serum transmission easier. Another issue is that it takes a week or ten days after infection for the symptoms to show – but during that time, the victim is infectious. And that makes for a perfect storm.

Ebola is unlikely to spread widely in the West as it stands. But if ebola becomes entrenched across populations in West Africa, as seems likely, it’s got more opportunity to mutate. And that’s where the bad news starts. Just to put ebola into perspective, the current lethality of about 90 percent is well above the 30-60 percent of the Black Death that ripped through Europe in the mid-fifteenth century. It’s way above the 10-20 percent mortality rate of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sure, there are vaccines in the works. It takes time to develop them, time to manufacture them – and time is something that just isn’t available right now. Certainly not for the poor folks affected in West Africa. Maybe for the world. Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Living on shaky ground – out this week

A major earthquake rattled much of the southern North Island of New Zealand during the early hours of Tuesday morning – magnitude 5.5. It woke Kiwis from southern Hawke’s Bay to Wellington and was classed as ‘strong’ by our seismologists.

Living On Shaky Ground 200 pxLuckily nobody was hurt, and no damage was reported. Good news in a land where earthquakes are a fact of life. Curiously, it came in the very week my new science book on seismology and earthquakes is being published by Penguin Random House. Living On Shaky Ground: the science and story behind New Zealand’s earthquakes. Good thing I wasn’t writing a book on the zombie apocalypse. Though, scientifically speaking, we get so many earthquakes here that I’d have been surprised if there wasn’t one when the book was released.

That, of course, highights why I wrote it. One of New Zealand’s biggest ongoing issues is earthquakes and the volcanoes and tsunami that go with them. It’s a vital subject – an immediate subject. Certainly that’s true for the long-suffering folk of Christchurch whose city was shaken to pieces, with terrible loss of life, in 2010-11. However, life atop the collision point of major tectonic plates is something that every Kiwi has to come to terms with.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

A photo from the book – one I took of Christ Church Cathedral – icon of Christchurch for well over a century and the raison d’etre for its founding in 1850, wrecked by the devastating earthquake of February 2011.

The real issue, of course, is what’s in store for us. That’s something science can tell us – the physics of earthquakes. I’ve looked into that in this book, outlining, for general readers, how the science works, what it’s about, and what we can expect from the scientific understanding. It’s a vital subject – certainly here in New Zealand, where earthquakes are a constant fact of life. And to me, that also makes earthquakes something more than just science. They are also a human phenomenon.

Pedestrians and cars at the bottom of Molesworth Street, Wellington, after the magnitude 6.6 shock of 16 August. Aftershocks up to 5+ magnitude were still rolling in when I took this.

Pedestrians and cars at the bottom of Molesworth Street, Wellington, after the magnitude 6.6 earthquake of 16 August 2013. Aftershocks up to 5+ magnitude were still rolling in when I took this.

What do I mean? To those living in earthquake zones the real issue is the human reality. Earthquakes are not a nebulous future risk; they are a certainty. The question is not if, but when and how. And to me, the human reality – the way we react to these cataclysms of nature – is as important a focus as the science, and something I’ve built into the book. Underscoring, for me, the point that science – for all that we view it as abstract – is really as much a human endeavour as anything else. Isn’t it.

So how do we react? And what is the science behind earthquakes? I’ve got a few posts coming up on that – though you’ll need to check out the book to get the full story. What I will say, though, is that such events almost always provoke people to find strengths in themselves that, perhaps, they did not know they had. That, to me, is such a wonderful testament to the reality of human nature.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

My top five writing records…

It’s over 30 years since I started writing my first book for publication. It’s been a pretty wild ride at times.  The whole lot has been through the traditional system – and today I thought I’d share the top five ‘record events’.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

1. The most money someone wanted for a license fee on any project I’ve worked on.
Not for a book, but I had to include this because it’s so crazy. The copyright owners wanted to charge $15,110.39 for use of one cartoon from a 60-year old magazine. Ouch. I could have commissioned new artwork for less than ten percent of that. The idea of using it was promptly dropped.  I’m still not sure what the extra 39 cents was for.

2. The fastest rejection.
Nine minutes, from a university press. They also told me never to bother them again. Usually a publisher rejects work through inaction – they neither know, nor care about, the hopeful author. But this was so decisive and fast that I’d obviously tripped up over a prior decision about dealing with me. The weird part? I was a total stranger. I have a shrewd idea as to what was going on. But it worries me that people I don’t know, and have never had an argument with, nonetheless feel so strongly they feel able to act as judge, jury and executioner, behind my back, and in absence of my knowing they have an issue. It’s not how western morality is meant to work, though it’s consistent with the moral void I’ve discovered every time I try to deal professionally with New Zealand academics or their wannabe hangers on.

3. The longest running contract before publication.
In 2003 I signed a contract with Penguin to write a biography of Sir Donald McLean. Before I’d finished, a biography of the same guy appeared, the existence of which was previously unknown to me or to Penguin. We agreed to put mine on hold for a while until the dust settled. It’s being published in February 2015.

4. The most books I had published in one calendar year.
Five. Four new titles and one reprint with amendments. I didn’t write them in one hit, of course – publishers stack ‘em for specific release times, and books chase each others’ tails.

5. The most danger I’ve ever been in as a result of writing.
There was the time when I was doing my aviation journalism jag, and I found myself in a C-130 Hercules, punting along at about 200 feet on a low-alt exercise with the rear door open and a Toyota Hilux bouncing on its chains beside me. But that wasn’t actually dangerous.

No, the most danger I’ve been in was in Archives New Zealand reading room, when a military historian who I’d never met before saw me, crossed the room, and stood over me with balled fists and red face, demanding to know what I was doing. He was very, very angry. I thought I was going to be hit, and I think I would have been if I’d stood up. I’ve had people back me into a corner and spit at me, in libraries, but this one wins the prize. Why did it happen? See (2).

Could be worse, of course – at least I’m not John Lennon.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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