Historical headlines in the style of internet click-bait…

I hate internet click-bait – you know, those annoying two-phrase teaser tags that tell you how you’ll respond to some open-ended assertion.

What if headlines had always been written that way? Like these:

  1. You won’t believe what Neil Armstrong said on the Moon!
  2. This common domestic product will destroy movies – find out what studio execs hate!
  3. Chamberlain lied! See what he lied about here!
  4. You won’t believe who was hiding on this train to Finland!
  5. These brothers snubbed the Smithsonian – find out how they did it from their bicycle factory!
  6. You won’t believe what happened to Charles II of England!
  7. 5 facts about the solar system that the inquisition didn’t get from this man!

For a bit of holiday season fun, what do all these refer to? Comments please!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The stupidity of Nazi super-science. And hurrah for British boffins!

Anyone remember Nazi super-science? You know, the science for when ordinary super-science isn’t evil enough. I’m not talking about atomic Nazi super-soldiers led by Zombie Robo-Hitler. I’m talking real Nazi ‘super-science’ of the early 1940s – the ‘secret weapons’ Hitler insisted would win the war.

Heinkel He-177 four-engined bomber in Denmark, 1944. The engine arrangement - two engines in parallel - virtually guaranteed fires and bomber never worked properly. Public domain.

Heinkel He-177 four-engined bomber in Denmark, 1944. The engine arrangement – two DB 601 motors in tandem (dubbed ‘DB 606′) per nacelle – led to fires. Public domain.

Of course there were a couple of problems. One was that by the time the Nazis ordered German industry to build ‘super’ weapons, the war had already been lost – the tipping point came in mid-1943 when Hitler broke his own army trying to take Kursk against the advice of his generals. The Eastern Front was the decisive front of the war; after the Germans lost Kursk it was only a matter of time before superior Allied production was able to fuel a Soviet drive west.

The other problem was that Nazi super-weapons weren’t very ‘super’, even by 1940s standards. Hitler and his cronies thought they were. But what can you expect from people for whom conviction trumped reason? A regime convinced of their own destiny, buoyed by their sense of exceptionalism, and where state power pivoted around a tight integration of industrial complex with economy and government.

The main thing the Nazis were good at was evil – epitomised by one of the nastiest super-weapons their science devised; pure methamphetamine (‘P’), exploiting the prior discovery of pep-pills. This was the outcome of their quest to find a drug that could turn their own soldiers into psychotic killers immune to pain, no matter how much damage the drug did. It was actually used in 1944 by the Waffen SS as a combat aid. Alas, the recipe didn’t die with the Nazi regime – meaning ‘P’ is actually a Nazi drug. Uh – thanks, Adolf, Heinrich, et al. Yet another legacy you’re still inflicting on the world.

Messerschmitt Me-262 captured by the Allies, on test flight in the US. Public Domain.

Messerschmitt Me-262 captured by the Allies, on test flight in the US. Allied pilots during the war referred to these aircraft as ‘blow jobs’, presumably because they flew by jet thrust. Public domain.

The Nazis also encouraged rocketry, thanks to Werhner von Braun, an honorary SS Lieutenant and member of the Nazi party who was responsible, later, for America’s Saturn V Moon rockets. The problem was that the V2 missile project soaked up colossal resources – and lives. More people died making von Braun’s missile than were killed by it. But the rocket was pushed by Hitler’s regime anyway – a symptom of ‘conviction mentality’ presented as ‘logic’ and ‘reason’.

Other Nazi super-weapons that soaked up more than they delivered included August Cönders’ V3 ‘Fleißiges Lieschen’ ultra-long-range gun, which never worked; and Ferdinand Porsche’s Maus 188 tonne tank, which was too heavy for most bridges. That was dwarfed by Edward Grotte’s 1000-tonne ‘Ratte’ land battleship armed with 11-inch naval guns and powered by U-boat motors. Hitler was a fan, but Albert Speer cancelled that particular expression of Nazi megalomania in 1943, before it got to hardware.

Heinkel He-162 'Volksjager' emergency fighter, captured by the US, at Freeman Field in 1945. This wooden jet was meant to be produced in huge numbers to tip the air balance. Actually it was difficult even for experienced pilots to control, and in the hands of the half-trained boys the Nazis intended to use as pilots would have been a death trap.

Heinkel He-162 ‘Volksjager’, captured by the US, at Freeman Field in 1945. This wooden jet was meant to be produced in huge numbers to tip the air balance. Actually it was difficult even for experienced pilots to control, and in the hands of the half-trained boys the Nazis intended to use as pilots would have been a death trap.

Super-weapons that did work included the Fritz-X TV-guided bomb that sank the Italian battleship Roma in 1943, and a plethora of jet and rocket fighter designs since beloved of the “Luftwaffe 1946” fantasy brigade. Of these, the Me-262 made it to combat in 1944-45. These jets were about 100 mph faster than the best Allied piston-engined fighters, such as the P-51 Mustang flown by Chuck Yeager – but he shot down an Me-262 anyway, and damaged two others at the same time for good measure. That’s not hyperbole – here’s his combat report of 6 November 1944.

The Nazis also deployed the Tiger II tank, underpowered but with gun and armour comparable with Cold War tanks into the early 1960s. And other stuff, like tapered-barrel guns – since standard – and automatic rifles.

All of which, Hitler insisted, would win the war. They didn’t, partly because the real arbiter was industrial scale. In a war of attrition, Germany couldn’t build enough super-weapons that did work to make a difference, and the ones that didn’t soaked up resources. It has to be said that the Allies also pursued dead-ends, such as the giant Panjandrum – but to nothing like the Nazi extent.

Gloster Meteor Mk III's, seen here during operations in 1944 - yup, the Allies had jet fighters at the same time as the Nazis.

Gloster Meteor Mk III’s on operations in 1944 – yup, the Allies had jet fighters at the same time as the Nazis. Public domain.

Even so, the Allies had it all over the Germans when it came to super-weapons. Starting with the atomic bomb, the most powerful weapon in the history of the world. The German effort failed partly because their competent physicists fled to the United States in the face of Nazi persecution, partly because the Nazi bomb program was never fully resourced.

The Allies built two other key war-winning devices – effective radar, based on the British cavity magnetron, and the first radar proximity fuse for anti-aircraft work – using thermionic valve technology. General Electric did it to a design by British scientist Sir Samuel Curran. As Vannevar Bush pointed out, that fuse was decisive in key ways. The Nazis? Rheinmetal’s parallel effort was cancelled.

That’s apart from Allied jet development which paralleled the German – the British had the Gloster Meteor and the Americans the Lockheed P-80. The difference was that the Allies didn’t prioritise them. The RAF whipped the Meteor into service to help meet the V1 threat, but industry otherwise focussed on existing weapons, which they could build in overwhelming numbers. And so – fortunately – the west won the Second World War.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

I give Russell Crowe an F in Gallipoli history

If Russell Crowe had put what he’s reported to have said yesterday about Gallipoli in a history paper I was marking, I’d have given him an F.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The interview, on Australia’s Seven Network, included Crowe’s suggestion that the landing by Australian forces on 25 April 1915 – part of a wider landing on the peninsula – was the invasion of a sovereign nation that, he is reported to have said, ‘we’d never had an angry word with.

Sigh. The Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915 weren’t an unprovoked invasion of sovereign territory. The British and Ottoman Empires went to war on 28 October 1914, on Turkish declaration. By the time of the Gallipoli landings there had already been fighting around Suez, also Ottoman sovereign territory.

Gallipoli was an attempt to end an existing war by knocking out the belligerent. Crowe is right to the extent that there was no earlier dispute between the Turks and the Australians or New Zealanders. Nor was there later, a point made clear in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal – Kemal Ataturk – who commanded the defence against the Anzacs and later became President of Turkey:  ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country … You mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away the tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace after having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well…

However, the fact remains that the soldiers of both sides were doing their job, and the ethics of the war were not defined by the military operation intended to end the fighting. They flowed instead from a far broader picture, including the reasons why the Ottomans felt obliged to declare war in the first place. In this, Britain was not blameless, though it is facile to point to their taking over two Turkish dreadnoughts completing in British yards, in August 1914, as the provoking factor. The factors ran deeper than that, and German realpolitik cannot be discounted in the mix.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.

The cover of my book ‘Shattered Glory’ with a marvellous painting of the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, by Ion Brown. Now out of print, but I have a few personal copies. If you want one, contact me.

From both the Australian and New Zealand point of view the more crucial historical issue remains the way the Gallipoli campaign has been mythologised. In New Zealand, Anzac Day – the anniversary of the landings – has become a nation-defining moment, upheld as the day when New Zealand strode forth on the world stage and began asserting itself as something more than just a scion of Britain.

I won’t go into all that here, other than to point out that the men were motivated to join the war not to assert New Zealand, but for Empire –  for ‘our nation’, Britain. This was the age when New Zealand was Britain’s imperial Boy Scout, all enthusiasm and jingoism, to the amusement and ridicule of everybody else.

New Zealand’s reinvention of that day as a nation-defining moment began in 1916 with the transformation, largely at the hands of the Bishop of Auckland, of the Gallipoli defeat into a victory. It was still defined as an Imperial victory; but the road led, eventually, to the re-conception of the whole campaign in that nation-defining sense.

One of the outcomes is that our day of remembrance, along with that of Australia, is 25 April – the day we landed in another country. Not the day the First World War effectively ended, 11 November, which is how just about every other Commonwealth country remembers it.

Because we are still buoyed by that mythology, few have yet questioned it – and given the way history works as a discipline, we probably won’t for another generation or two.

As for Crowe – well, sorry, mate, I know you’re a fellow Kiwi, fellow Wellingtonian and all that…but that really is an F-grade historical comment.

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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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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