How to stoke your Kindle with “Coal”

I’m delighted to announce that my book Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand (Bateman 2014) – which was released in print a few months ago – has also been published internationally through Kindle.

Coal is an irreplaceable resource, formed over millions of years, yet humanity has been burning it as if there is no tomorrow. Today it’s responsible for 43 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. We stand at a cross-roads; and the story of coal – of which the New Zealand side is a microcosm and case-study – plays a large part in the journey.

Reviews of the print edition so far have been excellent:

There have been many books written about coal mining in New Zealand; however this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark” – Robin Hughes, NZ Booksellers, 13 October 2014.

a fascinating read, and it is such a good way of understanding NZ history” – “The Library”, 15 October 2014.

…mines a rich seam of interesting content on many things relative to coal…” – Ted Fox, Otago Daily Times, 24 November 2014.

And so, without further ado – welcome to the Kindle edition:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Did T-Rex really have feathers and taste of chicken?

Think dinosaurs and the first thing most of us imagine is a large two-legged carnivore with 15-cm teeth, power-shovel jaws and dinky forelimbs. A beast of prey that spent most of the Upper Cretaceous going ‘raaargh’ and having absolutely anything it wanted for breakfast.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes the Great White look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f3.5. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

It was thanks to those jaws and 6-metre body that Tyrannosaurus Rex – named such in 1905, over a decade after the first fossils were discovered – was captured by popular imagination well before it became the surprise anti-hero in Jurassic Park.

Never mind the fact that – if we DID meet one, Lost World-style, a bullet or two would turn the hungriest T-Rex into T-Rug. Still, the point that humans are Earth’s all-time apex predator didn’t stop T-Rex speaking to nineteenth and early twentieth century concepts of animal machismo. It was still one of the most dangerous animals to walk this planet. And that made it scary to imagine a meeting. Especially for someone not equipped with a Remington Model 700 BDL. Or running shoes.

Part of the magic came about because Tyrannosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago. And that remove in time has given them mythic status. We know them only through bones. Our imagination fills the gaps. And that’s why we keep re-inventing them, even as science and new discoveries, together, unravel an increasingly clear picture of what they were like.

Guanlong Wucaii - an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Guanlong Wucaii – an early Tyrannosaur from China. Note the feathery coat. I took this hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. Yes, that’s a third of a second. I held my breath…

Let me explain. To nineteenth and early twentieth century science, dinosaurs were scaly, lumbering, tail-dragging reptiles of which the most ferocious – and certainly the hungriest – was the Tyrannosaurus Rex. That name, ‘King of the tyrant lizards’, said it all.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus - complete with Iguanodon's thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Classic Victorian-age thinking. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus – complete with Iguanodon’s thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The image came out of nineteenth century ideas of ‘progression’ and the ‘tree of life’ (a pre-Darwinian notion) which helped shape popular concepts of evolution as directional ‘advance’ from reptiles to dinosaurs to mammals, each ‘superior’ to the last and thus dooming its dull-witted predecessor to extinction. It was a mind set that took decades to shake – hence the dispute in the 1980s over whether dinosaurs generated internal heat endothermically, like mammals and birds, as asserted by Robert Bakker.

The actual answer, of course, was staring us in the face all along – and Bakker was right, though it wasn’t until the early twenty-first century that enough fossil evidence had been collected to convince the whole scientific community.

Dilong Paradoxus, an early Tyrannosaur. Photo I took hand-held at 1/13, ISO 800, f 5.0.

Dilong paradoxus, an early Tyrannosaur. Photo I took hand-held at 1/13, ISO 800, f 5.0.

We’d known for a while that birds were related to dinosaurs – specifically, theropods, which is the same dinosaur group T-Rex hails from. But the truth didn’t emerge until the early 1990s when increasing numbers of fossils were found in China with clear feather impressions. All, initially, were theropods – the bird ancestors and cousins. But then, earlier this year, a dinosaur species not associated with the bird descent line was found to be also feathered.

Dilong Paradoxus - a reconstructed model. With feathers...

Dilong paradoxus – a reconstructed model. With feathers…

The old idea of dinosaurs as reptiles had already been under fire. And suddenly the truth became obvious. They weren’t reptiles at all. Dinosaurs, like birds, were feathered. Not for flight, mostly, but for insulation – and, doubtless, display. Not only that, but we already knew dinosaurs all had the same skull structure as birds, the same specific skeletal features including pneumatised bones – and half the dinosaurs were, in fact, bird-hipped. They laid eggs in nests. And if it looks like a bird and tastes like a bird… Well, the reality is that birds aren’t descended from dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs. We’ve even discovered the genes inside the chicken genome that atavistically give chickens dino-jaws with teeth, instead of a beak.

The fact that birds are surviving dinosaurs resolves a lot of questions. Want to know how dinosaurs lived? Look out the window at sparrows. Want to know if they were endothermic? Stick a thermometer in a chicken’s – er, well, anyway, you get the idea.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

Think Velociraptors were like the ones portrayed in Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a human….and looked like this… And NO, it is NOT going to get its temperature taken, thank you.

As for our King of the Tyrant Lizards? Well, it turns out that T-Rex was among the last of a long family of Tyrannosaurs, not all of which were quite as big and ferocious as the Big Guy. They all had feathers – not for flight, but for insulation. They all laid eggs. They were all bipedal. And their tails didn’t drag – tendons kept them agile. If you met one, you might think it was a funny looking bird. One that wanted you for lunch.

Here's the diorama - Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right - yup, their close relative, Gallus Gallus. A chicken.

Here’s the diorama – Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right – yup, their close relative, Gallus gallus domesticus. You don’t think I’m the ONLY one to make chicken jokes when discussing dinosaurs, do you?

Of course the world of the dinosaurs is long gone – not because they were doomed to be out-evolved, but because their environment changed, literally with a bang. And that comet-driven extinction, 65 million years ago, didn’t just kill dinosaurs. It killed just about everything. Of the dinosaurs, only flying examples – the birds – survived.

All this was brought home for me, graphically and with a lot of special effects, when I went to check out an interactive exhibition in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s National Museum. It’s where the first Iguanadon bone ever found is held – it was brought to New Zealand in the 1840s by Walter Mantell, son of the discoverer – and it’s where I took these photos. And if you want to see me personally dodging Tyrannosaurs and see others prancing along the Wellington waterfront – well, I took some photos…

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a zombie apocalypse

New Zealand has been hit by three significant earthquakes in the last two days. Luckily not strong enough to do damage, and remote enough that even a larger shake would have been more nuisance than apocalypse. But they are a sharp reminder that we live on some very ‘shaky isles’. The next one might well bring tragedy.

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.

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.

It’s to get a better handle on that looming apocalypse that GNS Science have been exploring the Alpine Fault this past few months – drilling far down to set up an early warning system that will give us some prior hint when is about to rupture. Not if, but when – this fault moves every three centuries or so, and it last ruptured in 1717. Go figure.

Well, actually you don’t have to. A study published in 2012 indicated there was a 30 percent chance of a devastating quake occurring on that fault some time in the next 50 years – before 2062. Because probabilities are calculated as bell-shaped curves, this did not mean a quake would occur precisely in 2062; it meant the quake might occur any time from 2012 (low probability) through the mid-twenty-first century (high probability), to the early 2100s (a low chance of it happening that late, but a very high probability of it happening, if it hadn’t happened by then).

This fault is thought capable of generating quakes with magnitude of up to 8.3. Huge. A Civil Defence exercise held in 2013, built around that potential, can best be described as scary. While researching my book on earthquakes, I contacted the author of the exercise – who filled me in on the details. Uh…ouch.

For obvious reasons the science of earthquake engineering is well developed in New Zealand. Some of the world’s leading systems have been invented here, notably the lead-rubber base isolator. This is designed to keep a building ‘floating’ above its foundations. When an earthquake hits, the ground moves – but, thanks largely to its moment of inertia and the reduced energy being transmitted to it, the building doesn’t. Not so much anyway. The first system was installed in the early 1980s in what was then the Ministry of Works building, and major structures to receive it since have included Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum; and Parliament buildings.

It’s a clever idea. And tricks like this – along with a raft of others – all have to be applied quite seriously in earthquake zones. One of the outcomes, certainly as far as civil defence planning is concerned, is that the likelihood of casualties during the quake is reduced. Buildings constructed with proper attention to earthquake-proofing won’t collapse, and if they’re done right, they also won’t shed parts that crush people beneath. That’s what caused most of the casualties in the 1931 Napier earthquake, for instance, which provoked New Zealand’s first serious earthquake-proofing regulations.

Study, inevitably, is ongoing. But what I can say is that New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a ‘zombie’ apocalypse. The ‘earthquake’ apocalypse we’re actually facing is serious enough. For more…well, you knew I’d say this – it’s all in my book.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

Close encounters of the meteor kind – this weekend

Back in 2013, I wrote a piece that mashed Pope Benedict’s resignation with the science of the meteorite that exploded over Russia. I was Freshly Pressed by WordPress on the back of it. Good stuff.

The fly-by. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

The fly-by. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

This weekend, a similarly sized chunk of space debris – about 20 metres in diameter – is rolling past Earth with closest approach of just 40,200 km, directly over New Zealand, at 6.18 am on Monday 8 September, NZT (18:18 Zulu, 7 September).

I use the word rolling deliberately. Everything spins in space.

The meteor’s called 20214 RC (R-C) and was detected only on 31 August by the Catalina Sky Survey at Tucson, Arizona. And that raises a point. The spectre of Earth being clobbered by even a modest piece of space detritus has haunted science for decades. Right now, we’re doing something about that – scanning near-Earth space in a hunt for likely impactors.

The orbit. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

The orbit. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

What we’d do if we found such a thing, other than despatch Bruce Willis, isn’t clear. Nuking them isn’t an option – the evidence is growing that some of these space rocks are just clumps of loose-ish ice and dirt. In any case, you’d end up with a cloud of debris, still hurtling for Earth and still able to deliver virtually the same kinetic blow to the planet. Personally I think we should splash one side of any likely impactor with black paint, but that method (which exploits asymmetric re-radiation of absorbed thermal energy) requires several years’ warning. This new encounter comes just a week after discovery – with all that this implies.

There’s no danger from 20214 RC (R-C). It’s got an orbital period of just over 541.11 days, which is different enough from Earth’s to mean there won’t be another encounter any time soon. But one day the orbital mechanics will mesh and it’ll be back in our vicinity. It won’t be an impact danger. But we don’t know what else is out there.

Yup, you’ve got it. That old sci-fi doom scenario involving a meteor suddenly sloshing the Atlantic into the US Eastern Seaboard and Europe? It’s baaaack…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Finding another Earth isn’t easy. Unfortunately.

Are you looking for a second Earth? We need to – humanity is on the fast track to ruining our one.

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice what's wrong with it?

Simulated Exo-Earth. A picture I made. Apart from the fractal artefacts, does anybody notice the science issue that I didn’t correct?

Of course it’s not an easy task. A planet discovered the other week with the help of Kiwi astronomers underlines the problems. Four astronomers here in New Zealand contributed data to the OGLE microlensing follow-up network program in 2012. The results were published recently – and the good news is, OGLE found a planet.

OGLE, incidentally, stands for ‘Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment’. An apt acronym. It works by exploiting a quirk of Einstein’s theory of relativity – that mass distorts space-time. Massive stars bend light around themselves, acting as ‘lenses’ and enabling us to point a telescope at the massive star, and so detect faint objects passing directly between us and them, that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to observe. The gravity lens around the distant star is known as an ‘Einstein Ring’, and the method is usually used to pick up planets orbiting in the ‘halo’ of a star – the debris orbiting it, like our Oort Cloud. These are known as Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOS). Cool or what?

Anyhow, back to the news. The planet is called OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb, and it’s about 3000 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia.

The good news?

- It orbits its sun at 0.8 AU – nearly the distance of Earth (yay!)

- It’s about Earth sized – mass is thought to be only twice ours (yay!)

- That doesn’t imply twice our surface gravity (yay!) [I can’t calculate it unless I know the radius and density of the planet, which I don’t, but if density is the same as Earth, average 5.5 g cm <exp>3, then the surface gravity won’t be double because surface gravity is also proportional to the radius. Just saying.]

- It’s orbiting just one star in a binary pair (Tattooine, sort of – yay!)

Let me illustrate mass vs surface gravity. Although it has a mass 14.5 times that of Earth, 'surface gravity' on Uranus is just  89 percent that of Earth. That's because the radius is about 4 times Earth's. I made this picture with Celestia.

Let me use Uranus to illustrate mass vs surface gravity. Although it has a mass 14.5 times that of Earth, ‘surface gravity’ on Uranus is just 89 percent that of Earth. That’s because the radius is about 4 times Earth’s. I made this picture with Celestia.

So is this Earth 2? Well, if I were you I’d take warm clothes. The bad news is that the star is a red dwarf, 400 times less energetic than the Sun, so the planet has a surface temperature of 60 degrees Kelvin – in centigrade, a chilly -210 degrees. (Booooo!)

The search for Earth-like planets has got exciting lately as we’ve developed the tech to discover them. Problem is, the gear is not good enough to image them directly. We can’t learn much other than the size and orbital distance – from which we can derive its year, mass and temperature. If we’re lucky, we might also get a handle on its atmospheric makeup, via spectrography as it transits its sun.

For these reasons, usually when we detect a planet that’s otherwise in the ‘goldilocks’ zone, we don’t know whether it’s actually like Earth. It might be like Venus – runaway greenhouse with sulphuric acid, crushing atmosphere and oven-like temperatures. We don’t know. Don’t forget, if astronomers 3000 light years away were using the same techniques to analyse our solar system, they might conclude there were two Earths here from the planetary mass and orbital data.

The way things are going, of course, we’re likely to end up with two Venuses. Venuses? Venii? You know what I mean.

And it’s a worry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Ever get that feeling of quake deja vu?

Monday was the provincial anniversary holiday in Wellington, New Zealand. Kind of cool – the provinces were abolished in 1876, but we still get the holiday.

Around 4 pm the house began shaking – slowly at first and then quite violently. We get a lot of small quakes. This wasn’t one of them. In fact, it seemed up there with last year’s big quakes.

The science behind it is fascinating. New Zealand has an automated seismic network that publishes estimated figures to the internet in near-real time. The first official figures – calculated by the duty seismologist – were available within fifteen minutes, with a final refined value just over an hour afterwards. This quake, at magnitude 6.2 and with an epicentre near Eketahuna in the Wairarapa, was classified ‘severe’. It was 33 km deep – felt widely, but not so destructive as the shallow quakes that hit Christchurch in 2010-11 and Wellington in 2013. It occurred in the Pacific plate subduction zone, where the plate is being driven down by the Indo-Australian plate riding up over it. It’s no coincidence that this is right under New Zealand – the islands are a product of that collision.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal - a marvellous example of the model-maker's art.

I don’t have a photo of the Wellington airport eagles, but this is Gollum – taken last year – near the model that fell into the foodcourt. Click to enlarge.

Where I live the ‘felt intensity’ was at the high end of V on the Modified Mercalli scale. Damage around Wellington included the Weta workshop model of a Hobbit eagle  in the airport terminal, which crashed into the food-court. It was worse across the lower North Island in centres like Palmerston North. Fortunately nobody was killed or hurt.

Quakes have been on the rise in New Zealand lately. Archaeological work reveals that quakes cluster in decades-long patterns. The late twentieth century was one of the calmer periods. And now it looks as if we’re back in the action again. Christchurch, alas, may have simply been the beginning. Are they linked? Possibly. Certainly a quake in one area can increase stresses in a fault nearby that’s already under tension. But there also seems to be a general process of rising and falling activity.

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.

The Christ Church Cathedral, Christchurch – photo I took in early 2013. Click to enlarge.

Best case is it will settle down. Worst case – well, there is a disturbing precedent from the fifteenth century, where a succession of massive quakes estimated at magnitude 8+ tore along the length of the country over just a few decades. One of them, circa 1460, struck just south of Wellington and filled in one of the two harbour entrances, the Te Awa-a-tia channel. Motukairangi island – modern Miramar – became a peninsula and the water within its hills swampy terrain. Peter Jackson’s studio is built on the uplifted land.

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

Warehouses opposite Peter Jackson’s Park Road headquarters, Miramar – under water until 1460. Click to enlarge.

Maori named the quake Haowhenua (‘the land destroyer’). The evidence is still visible as the flat land of Miramar and the Wellington airport flats – and as beach lines at Turakirae Head. The name seemed a puzzle – a ‘land destroyer’ that produced uplift? Then archaeologists discovered evidence of 10-metre tsunamis at the same time.

The question is not ‘if’ this will happen again – but ‘when’. New Zealand has many fault lines – the largest is the Alpine Fault, which moves about every 300 years and generates quakes of magnitude 8+. We are due for one, statistically, within 50 years. Recent studies point to the existence of other large faults each side of the South Island. They are still being researched. Scary? No.  We have to accept the reality as it unfolds – and be prepared.

Do you live in an earthquake zone? If not, what natural disasters do you face?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and humor. But hopefully not more quakes. For a while, anyway.

Why is the weather going mad? Humanity’s limitless stupidity, that’s why

The weather these past years seems to have gone mad, and not just in New Zealand – though here it’s been bad enough, we’ve had successions of intense storms with record-breaking wind speeds.

Wellington was in chaos for days after a ‘one in a century’ storm in June – our third in a decade – knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes, felled trees and smashed commuter infrastructure.

Two mornings after, and still raining. Photo I took of debris on Petone Beach. Storm surges drove timber from the Hutt river right up on to the road here.

My photo of debris on Petone Beach, June 2013.

The Dutch half of my family tell me that, over in the Netherlands, winter decided to give spring and summer a miss. It never warmed up until a couple of weeks before summer was due to end. Nothing seemed to stop the rain.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there's a lot more water in it than this.

Drought 2013, Hutt river. Usually there’s more water in it.

This week Boulder, Colorado, was awash with 1-in-1000 year floods – I picked the story up via blogs, and then news came of a couple of Kiwis living there who had to flee before the deluge. (Check out Susie Lindau’s blog, in my links. and Phil Plait’s awesome science blog ).

Meanwhile Japan – including the damaged reactor at Fukishima  – is being hammered by Typhoon Man-Yi. Half a million people have been ordered to evacuate.

I have an interest in understanding this because I’ve been writing a book on coal, environment and our attitudes (coming out next year). So is all this global storminess a coincidence? Mathematically, that’s possible. Random events – to human perception – appear to cluster. But there is a common cause. A recent analysis attributed about half the recent extreme weather to human-created climate change. Bearing in mind that ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ are not the same thing,  we’re facing the first obvious consequence of our 250 year crusade to dump fossil carbon into the atmosphere.

I’ll blog later about the science of climate change. To me, though, the way things are panning out reveals a great deal about the human condition.

My reasoning at the broadest level is this. We’ve been playing our usual trick of exploiting resources until they’re gone. That was an essential survival skill in the last Ice Age. Other species of human – the Neanderthals, the Denisovians, the ‘Hobbits’, all died. H. Sapiens alone survived – we had, it seemed, the ‘tude (it seems to have been a function of our greater ‘working memory’).

A diagram I made of where we think everybody was, mostly, using my trusty Celestia installation and some painting tools.

A diagram I made using my trusty Celestia installation and some painting tools.

It worked a treat when the human population was a few thousand. When environments were exploited, people moved on – or dwindled, as on Easter Island. But it got industrialised. World population was around a billion in 1800. Factories, locomotives, ships and households in burgeoning cities began pouring coal smoke into the air. Humanity began exploiting the environment not on a regional scale, but globally.

There was but one outcome – the biggest ‘own goal’ in the history of the world, and we’re staring down that barrel now. Into which, as far as I can tell, has swept that other component of the human condition; stupidity – intellectualised, given traction by its rational gloss. But still stupidity.

It’s evident in the way we’ve reacted to climate change. It’s been emotionalised, rationalised, politicised, reduced to catchechisms, polarised between ‘warmists’ and ‘deniers’. All for reasons that have little to do with science, and a lot to do with vested interest, political need, even personal conviction over what constitutes reality. All of it slowing efforts to understand what is happening – then take steps to fix it.

Look at it this way. Past biomass – mostly plants – built up over tens and hundreds of millions of years, has been dug up as coal, gas and oil, then burned in what, by geological standards, is an eye-blink. We’ve dumped the waste products of all those millions of years worth of ancient ecosystems into Earth’s current system in just 250 years – which, when we’re thinking on these scales – amounts to one swift hit. It’s like taking a century’s worth of household rubbish and trying to jam it into a bag that’s only good to hold the rubbish from this morning. And then we try to rationalise our way out of the consequences?

I mean – duh! What did we think was going to happen?

The people at the receiving end of unprecedented weather events are the first victims.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this weekend: “Write It Now” and “Sixty Second Writing Tips” return.