Why this week’s comet landing is way better than celebrity butt-fests

This week’s landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was a landmark in space history – not because the comet apparently bore a passing resemblance to the Kardashian backside that was competing for place in the news, but because surface gravity on 67P is about one millionth Earth’s. You don’t land so much as drift in and try like hell to stay there.

Potential landing sites on the double-lobed Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Potential landing sites on the double-lobed Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Add to that the fact that the cometary surface is like a rugged boulder-field and you have a recipe for Ultimate Challenge. That’s what made the landing so risky – and why ESA’s Philae lander was equipped with harpoons, ice-screws, and a down-firing thruster. When they failed, Philae landed on the comet, then bounced a kilometre back into space before the comet’s lazy gravity pulled it back. It was also a funny sort of bounce because the comet isn’t a sphere – it’s more like a dumb-bell. When Philae came down a second time, it bounced again before eventually settling.

For me the three-bounce landing (at 15:34, 17:25 and 17:32 GMT on 12 November) has a wow factor well beyond landing on a comet for the first time e-v-a-h. It’s also about gravity – and that means it’s about Einstein, one of my favourite physicists. Let me explain. Gravity doesn’t just cause celebrity butt-sag, after a while. It’s also why the comet’s where it is today. Fact is that 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko experienced a gravitationally-driven orbit change in 1959, when an encounter with Jupiter dropped its perehelion (closest approach to the Sun) from 2.7 to 1.3 astronomical units, giving the comet its current 6.45 year period. That’s why it’s where it is now.

Gravity is also how ESA got the probe to the comet. It was boosted, during a decade-long journey, by gravity assist manoeuvres, swing-bys of Earth and Mars that exploited space-time curvatures around the planets to accelerate the probe (three times) and decelerate it (once), without burning a single gram of fuel.

Ain’t physics neat. So just what is gravity? This looks like a stupid question. Actually, it isn’t.

Rosetta's long odyssey to the comet - with slingshot gravity boosts from Earth and a de-boost from Mars. NASA, public domain.

Rosetta’s long odyssey to the comet – with slingshot gravity boosts from Earth and a de-boost from Mars. NASA, public domain.

The thing is, we think of gravity as a ‘force’. But actually, according to Einstein, it isn’t. We just perceive it as such. Here’s why. Science started looking at gravity in earnest when all-round super-geek Sir Isaac Newton worked out the math for the way gravity presented in everyday terms, which he published as part of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. His gravitational theory worked (and still works) well at everyday level – you could calculate how apples might fall, figure out planetary movements and so on (the key equation is    F = G \frac{m_1 m_2}{r^2}\ , which defines the force between two point-sources of defined mass.) Newton’s triumph came in 1838 when astronomers realised that Uranus wasn’t quite where it should have been, based on the tugs of the known planets. French mathematician Urbain Leverrier and British mathematician John Couch Adams, independently, reverse-engineered the data to pinpoint where an unknown planet should be – and sure enough, there it was. Neptune.

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.

But as science began fielding more data, it became evident that Newton’s equations didn’t account for everything – which is where Albert Einstein comes in. His General Theory of Relativity, published in 1917, is actually a theory of gravity. General Relativity supersedes Newton’s theory and portrays gravity by a totally different paradigm. To Newton, gravity was a force associated with mass. To Einstein, gravity was not a force directly innate to mass, but a product of the distortion of space-time caused by mass/energy, which bent the otherwise straight paths of particles (‘wavicles’), including light.

The proof came in May 1919 when British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington measured the position of Mercury during a solar eclipse. Mercury’s perehelion – the closest point to the Sun – precessed (moved) in ways Newton couldn’t account for. Einstein could – and the planet turned up at precisely the place general relativity predicted. Voila – general relativity empirically proven for the first time. I don’t expect that Einstein leaped around going ‘woohoo’, but I probably would have. And general relativity has been proven many, many times since, in many different ways – not least through the GPS system, which has to account for it in order to work, because space-time distortion also causes time dilation. (If you want to live longer, relative to people at sea level, live atop a mountain).

Einstein’s key field equation, as it eventually evolved, is G_{\mu\nu}\equiv R_{\mu\nu} - {\textstyle 1 \over 2}R\,g_{\mu\nu} = {8 \pi G \over c^4} T_{\mu\nu}\, – which I am not going to explain other than to point out that it could be used to calculate the space-time distortion caused by the mass of, say, a Kardashian butt. This would be a hideous waste of brain-power, but at least means I’ve managed to put both Einstein’s field equation and a reference to society’s shallow obsession de jour in the same sentence. As an aside, I also think Einstein got things right in more ways than we know. I don’t say this idly.

Philae lander departing the Rosetta probe for its historic rendezvous with the comet. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Philae departing the Rosetta probe for its historic rendezvous with the comet. Taken by the orbiter’s OSIRIS camera. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

One of the key things about both Newton and Einstein is that their theories treated clumps of particles – a mass such as the Earth for instance – as if the gravity originated in a mathematical point at the centre of the mass, even though the gravity (‘space-time distortion’) is produced by every particle within that mass. And that works perfectly at distance. But in detail an uneven distribution of mass –  a mountain range, for instance, or even a celebrity butt – can introduce local pertubations. Small – but calculable. It’s because of ‘mass concentrations’ that satellites we put around the Moon eventually crash, for instance.

Which brings me back to the science adventure on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 28 light-minutes away outside the orbit of Mars. With a long-axis diameter of around 5 km and a composition of loose rocks held together by ices, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko doesn’t have enough mass to bend space-time much. It has, in short, almost no gravity. Orbiting it, as Rosetta has been doing since 6 August, is more like a lazy drift around it. To land is more akin to docking than anything else. There’s not a lot to hold Philae ‘down’, and it doesn’t take much to bounce off. To that we have to add the dumb-bell shape of the comet’s nucleus, which produces complex (if gentle) space-time curvatures, meaning a ‘bounce’ on the comet isn’t going to be a simple parabola like a ‘bounce’ on Earth.

All of which underscores the tremendous technical achievement of the landing – bounces and all. The final lesson? Don’t bother with celebrity butt. Einstein and comets are FAR more interesting.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Putting this week’s space tragedies into perspective. It’s ROCKET science, folks

I started writing this post after the Orbital Sciences rocket explosion earlier this week. Unmanned, nothing hurt except pride and stock price. I was going to begin with a joke about how the sound of a rocket blowing up is spelt.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith. Photo:NASA.

Rocket science in action. Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969. Michael Collins, in his autobiography, Carrying The Fire, figured the mission had a 50/50 chance. Public domain, NASA.

Then news came of the Virgin Galactic tragedy during test flight on Friday, and it didn’t seem right. Appalling news and certainly not something to joke about. In such moments we have first to think of the family, friends, and colleagues of those affected.

To me both accidents underscore the fact that rocket science is – well, rocket science. It’s gained that repute for a reason. We’ve long fantasised about space-flight becoming as routine as jumping into the car. But the laws of physics – particularly, the way the energy curves rise – tell me that reality is otherwise, especially when we think of going into orbit or beyond. While it’s tempting to put the Antares booster failure down to use of left over Soviet moon rocket motors from the 1960s, the fact remains that all rockets, and especially those required to boost something into orbit or beyond, are high-tech engineering that push the limits of materials physics. And complex systems, inevitably, fail in complex ways.

The problem is the energy curve, which is exponential. On the face of it, rockets are simple – so simple that medieval technology could produce them. Something burns in a combustion chamber, hot gases rush out a nozzle at one end and push the rocket in the other, thanks to the Third Law of our friend Sir Isaac Newton.

The penultimate firework - JATO units, seen here thrusting a B-47 into the skies. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The anti-penultimate firework – JATO units, seen here thrusting a B-47 into the skies in the mid-1950s. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Unfortunately it doesn’t scale up well. The Royal Arsenal, at Woolwich, was able to make fireworks into battlefield weapons by the turn of the nineteenth century, the ‘Congreves’ fired at Fort McHenry to produce ‘the rockets’ red glare’ of the US national anthem. But powder rockets were limited by chemistry. Other chemical reactions – liquid oxygen and an oil fraction, for instance – offered more energy, and by the first decades of the twentieth century, engineers were working on liquid fuelled rockets.

The problem engineers hit was mass ratio, the difference between the mass of an empty and fuelled rocket. This is everything in rocketry. The equation is R = (Mpt/Me) + 1, where R is the ratio, M is mass in kg, Mpt is propellant mass, and Me is empty rocket mass. It’s important because of the other rocket equation, Δv = Ve*lnR, where Δv is total change-of-velocity capacity, Ve is exhaust velocity and R is mass ratio. Ln is the natural logarithm of X, the exponent to which the transcendental number e (2.7182818…) has to be raised to equal X, which in this equation is R. See what I mean about rocket science? 

OK, enough geek porn. The point being that the lighter the rocket vs fuel mass, at all times, the better off you are. A rocket with half-empty tanks is lugging wasted mass, and that is a killer when it comes to the energy needed to reach orbit.

Atlas booster with Mercury MA-9 atop. NASA, public domain.

Atlas booster with Mercury MA-9. NASA, public domain.

That’s why Convair’s SM-65 Atlas booster, developed from 1951, was an aluminium balloon that dropped two engines on the way up. It’s why the Saturn V Moon rocket had three stages, renewing that mass-ratio every time it dropped an empty stage.

Achieving this wasn’t easy. In theory, a chemical rocket is simple – a tank of fuel (let’s say kerosene), a tank of oxidiser (let’s say liquid oxygen). Pump both into a combustion chamber, ignite them, and off you go. Actually, problems begin at once. Liquid oxygen (LOX) is super-cold – a light blue liquid that boils at 90.19 degrees Kelvin (-297.3 degrees Fahrenheit, -183 degrees Celsius). You have to pump it into the rocket at the last minute, because it’ll boil off fairly soon even in the best-insulated tank. You have to keep LOX away from its fuel (kerosine or liquid hydrogen, typically) until it’s needed. But sealing joints can be difficult. Early seals used Ulmer leather, which LOX tended to saturate and ignite. Today various exotic compounds are used. Duct tape is NOT among them.

Wait, there’s more. Kerosine and oxygen burns at 3670 degrees K – (3396.8 deg C, 6146.3 deg F). Even titanium melts at 1668 deg C. How do you stop your motor melting? One answer is to make a thin double-wall chamber and nozzle and use your LOX (or liquid hydrogen in a LOX/LH rocket) as a coolant, before sending it into the combustion chamber. Of course, you have to get the rate of flow right to make sure your cryo-liquid provides enough cooling – but relate that to the flows needed to burn properly in the motor.

That takes a ton of geekery. And there’s the fact that being super-cooled on one side and super-hot on the other is a Bad Thing in terms of metallurgy, one of many reasons why big rocket motors have reliable firing times, without maintenance, of minutes.

Apollo 12 lifting off. The SIV stage is the one just clear of the tower. Moments after this photo was taken, spacecraft and tower were hit by lightning. Photo: NASA http://www.hq.nasa.gov/ alsj/a12/ ap12-KSC-69PC-672.jpg

Apollo 12 lifting off. Moments after this photo was taken, spacecraft and tower were hit by lightning. Photo: NASA http://www.hq.nasa.gov/ alsj/a12/ ap12-KSC-69PC-672.jpg

That’s without considering pressures. Combustion chamber pressures in the F-1 motor that launched men to the Moon topped 70 megapascals – 1,015 psi, or around 69 times the pressure of the air you and I happily breathe at sea level. That makes ‘thin-walled’ a moot term with the only answer being – you’ve guessed it – more mass, even if you do something mathematically clever with curves and ribs to increase relative thickness.

The next problem is firing. Asymmetric combustion can cause shock waves strong enough to destroy the motor. Rocketdyne made their huge F-1 burn properly – and launch men to the Moon on the back of 750,000+ kg of thrust per motor – with tests that included igniting black powder charges inside the combustion chamber during engine firings.

Since the mid-twentieth century, developments in chemistry have offered ways of building solid fuel rockets that approach liquid-fuel energies without the mechanical complexity. But once lit, they can’t be stopped. That worried Space Shuttle launch controllers, who envisaged chunks of burning SRB crashing through the windows of the Cape control centre if there was an emergency abort-and-fly-back.

F-1 motor firing on test. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

F-1 motor firing on test. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Wait, there’s even more to rocketry. All the thrust is at the bottom of the stack – like trying to loft a pencil balanced on your finger. One answer is to add gyroscopes (more mass). What about control vanes in the rocket blast, or wings? The former have to stand up to metal-melting blasts. The latter add drag during the initial launch phase and (naturally) mass.

The current approach is to pivot the motors, though this adds mass – and then, how do you instruct that system? Yup – gadgets that add even more mass.

By any measure, the science demands expensive and exotic materials, expensively machined to miniscule tolerances, because the engineering parameters are completely unforgiving. A near-invisible scrap of loose metal in a valve – even an over-tightened screw with a slight burr over which a wire passes and abrades – might be enough to kill a system. That’s why rocketry is so expensive. It’s why I doubt we’ll get ‘gas-and-go’ car reliability for orbital rocket launchers. To do that, we need a different technology.

For me the amazing thing isn’t that rockets fail. It’s that they don’t. Much. They are incredibly complex machines – and they do stuff that, in an everyday sense, is not ordinarily possible. To me that underscores the tremendous skill and work that goes into any launch. Very, very talented people work like Trojans, doing very, very smart things, to make sure. I salute them. They are tweaking the nose of physics, as we currently understand it. And most times, it works.

See why it’s called ‘rocket science’?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Collisions of coal: an author’s perspective

My biography of coal in New Zealand was published this month by David Bateman Ltd. It’s a book taking as its subject a ‘thing’, but in reality telling the human side of that ‘thing’ in all its dimensionality.

Coal 200 pxReview comments so far have been excellent – ‘this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark‘ and ‘a fascinating read…such a good way of understanding NZ history‘ among them.

It was certainly fascinating to write. I’ve been trunking on in this blog about ways and techniques of writing – well, this book represents one way I put those things into practise.

All writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – must have structure, a theme, a dynamic around which to take the reader on an emotional journey. In fiction, that’s the character arc. In non-fiction, the author has to find something else; and for me the obvious angle was the intersection between humanity and this unique – almost chance – product of nature. That gave me the organising principle for the book, the thread around which I could weave the story. To do that I had to draw together a whole lot of thinking in areas that – on the face of it – seem quite disparate, but which in reality are all expressions of the one thing, our relationship with the world and with ourselves.

It was a story of collisions. You can’t tell the story of coal without delving into how it came to be, product of peat swamps and geological processes that, in New Zealand’s case, stretch over sixty million years. To give that context I decided to set it against the span of human existence – which, at best, is a tiny fraction of that time. The time during which we have dug up and burned that coal is shorter still, a tiny eye-blink against the span of years during which our coal resources formed.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

The question follows – why have we been so profligate in our burning? The answer, also explored in the book, flows from our nature and the way we think. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, when New Zealand’s coal was first exploited on an industrial scale, was an age of a particular style of thinking. It was common across the industrialising world but particularly evident on the whole colonial frontier from the United States to Australia and South Africa – and one of the key drivers of the impecunious pace with which we dug up and burned the coal.

That same thinking also introduced another side of the human story of coal – our attitudes to it; the way we relied on it and yet also saw those who dug it as a social threat; and the way we relentlessly found news ways of exploiting it.

One theme became increasingly clear throughout. We have been digging and burning coal, not just in New Zealand but around the world, with ever-increasing pace in the last 250 years. The fact that coal is no longer burned in domestic homes has disguised the fact that in the last few dozen years particularly, that pace has skyrocketed.

Today, coal combustion produces 43 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half. And the jury is back on climate change. It’s happening – and it’s an own goal. Big time. Making coal the chief villain.

That was why I ended the book the way I did. With – a well, you’ll just have to check it out for yourselves.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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My problem, as a bloke, with Top Gear, number plates and laddish silliness

I can’t see what the fuss is over Top Gear’s provocative Porsche number plate – you know, the one that got Jeremy Clarkson and the rest hustled out of Argentina before the wrath of a mob.

Aha - Clarkson's book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his...

Aha – Clarkson’s book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his (and in front of Julia Gillard’s).

Allegedly it was an off-colour reference to the British victory in the Falklands War of 1982. Personally I figure Clarkson’s protestations of innocence are correct. I mean, apart from anything else, wringing the meaning out of those letters demanded a fair amount of subtle thinking, and Top Gear isn’t exactly subtle. It’s a show about ‘Brit lads’ being ‘laddish’ with lad’s toys on a big budget with the help of a slick production team, some very fast sports cars and a good deal of British public school potty humour. This is the show, after all, who claim their engineering workshop is in Penistone. And who did have an intended ‘substitute’ plate for the Porsche reading ‘Be11end’.

Surprisingly, Top Gear didn’t make a point of visiting Urenui when the show came here. Depending how you translate it, the name is Te Reo Maori for ‘Great Courage’ or ‘Big Penis’. Instead Clarkson damaged one Toyota Corolla on a narrow bridge and drove another up Ninety Mile Beach. Not uber-fast, either. Once, the beach was the racing track where Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith went for 300 mph in an aero-engined streamliner in 1931, just in case anybody thought the Land Speed Record was exclusive to people named Campbell (Smith missed). But today it’s legally a public road, with a speed limit. (OK, so Clarkson’s Corolla wasn’t thrashed, it just got salt and sand sprayed through engine and running gear. I hope I never end up owning that one.)

You laugh at the British silliness. You think, ‘gee, I wish I had the chance to drive that’, that you could drive like The Stig, and that you too could play conkers with caravans. Or turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. But to me, these days, Top Gear seems rather tired. Formula. There are, I suspect, limits as to how long a band of middle-aged men can cavort through our Sunday evening TV being big-budget yobbos.

Still, I can’t complain. My latest book ended up stacked, cover out, behind Clarkson’s the other day – and one can but hope that the reflected fame was, well, reflected in the sales…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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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

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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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Essential writing skills: tackling the invisible hurdle

I’ve been posting these past few weeks about the challenges facing writers in the new environment. The biggest hurdle, of course, is so huge it’s invisible.

Books on sale in a real bookshop. Some of them mine...

Books on sale in a real bookshop. Some of them mine…

Let me explain. A few years ago the challenge authors faced in being published was – being published. The road was paved with hurdles. A starting author first had to write something good enough to be competitive with the professionals. Then they had to find the agent, who in turn had to get a publisher interested in circumstance where publishers, more often than not, went with previously published authors who had an established record.

Eventually, if everything went well, the book would appear. And – usually – not do too well. Most books didn’t do much more than break even – and publishers know the odds. The figure I’ve seen is that about one book in ten does really well. The rest don’t, and publishers accept that because having a reasonably broad range of books in their lists is part of the deal.

These days the paradigm’s changed. That world is still there, but authors also have the option of self-publishing through Amazon.

I could hear the cries of ‘squee – no entry barrier!’ all the way down in New Zealand.

There are two problems with this. The first is what Chuck Wendig calls the ‘shit volcano’ quality issue. Everybody can publish, so everybody does. ‘I learned English in school, so I can write…right?’

That sudden flood of authors (no pushing at the back) creates the second issue, which is just as big a barrier as the old agent model. Discovery.

In July this year Amazon listed 32.8 million separate titles of all kinds for sale. In that same month, they shifted 120,000 e-books a day, as best-sellers, of which 31 percent were indie published. You get the picture. Any individual book is going to be lost in the noise, no matter how good – or bad – it happens to be. Yes, the review system’s there, but a good book that doesn’t get good reviews – perhaps because nobody’s found it – won’t float to the top. That isn’t a problem for Amazon – they profit from the aggregate. But it’s a major issue for any individual author.

So – all that’s happened is that one ‘filter’ has been, effectively, replaced with another. One that cannot be reasoned with because it’s part of the environment, like gravity. The question is what to do about it. How can a writer – armed with an identical tool-kit to every other hopeful out there in internet-land – get found?

And when they are, how can they sell their stuff?

It’s a new paradigm. More soon. Meanwhile – what are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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