Busy busy busy busy…with science!

Last year I signed a contract with Penguin Random House to write a science book on a subject close to the hearts of everybody around the Pacific Rim.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, I’m a geek. I have three computers (temporarily) on my desk with “2001-esque” wallpaper. Headphones by Sennheiser deliver Nightwish at high volume. Click to enlarge.

A science book? I’m known as a historian. And I can legitimately call myself one if I want – I have post-graduate academic qualifications in that field. Indeed, the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, elected me a Fellow, on merit of my contribution. Which I very much appreciate, it’s one of the highest recognitions of historical scholarship worldwide.

However, I don’t label myself ‘a historian’. Nor is it my sole interest or qualification; I spent longer learning music, formally, than history – and my home field always has been physics. I began learning it aged 4, as I learned to read. Seriously. When I was 16 I won a regional science contest prize for an entry on Einsteinian physics and black holes, which I hadn’t learned at school – I had to read the papers and then deduce the math myself, without help, aged 16. (I am not Sheldon…really…)

What all this adds up to is an interest in understanding stuff – in seeing the shapes and patterns and inter-relationships between things and fields. And so – a book on science. Time was tight, but I wouldn’t have agreed to the contract if I thought quality might be affected. All writing has to be fast and good. If you’ve ever been a journalist (another of my jags) you have no option. The key is having writing as second nature – and planning. Good plans also have built-in capacity to adapt to circumstance, which meant that one weekend I had to sit down with a pile of science papers and:

1. Read those science papers. These included content such as: “Our estimate based on the seismic moment equation of Aki & Richards (2002, p. 48) (Mo = (X x D x RA; where Mo is seismic moment; (X is the rigidity modulus, D is fault plane displacement and RA is rupture area.”

2. Write a draft that drew from this and a lot of other stuff, in English pitched for a general reading audience. I did end up writing occasional sentences like: “This is known as the phase velocity, and is determined by the equation v = √g x d , where v is the velocity of the wave, d is the depth of water, and g is the acceleration of gravity.”  No other way of explaining fluid dynamics, you see… and well, this is science!

3. Revise that draft to clean up the wording. Final word count added to the MS in this 48-hour burst? A shade over 7000. That’s researched and mostly finished for publication. Think about it.

What got sacrificed was social media. That week and most others. I kept this blog going because I’d stacked posts. I’ll be back full force. Soon. What’s more, I’m going to share how to write quality, write accurately and quickly. There is, dare I say, a science to it. More soon.

The book is already being promoted on Random’s website. Check it out.

Science! A good word, that. Sort of thing the late Magnus Pyke might say. Science!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

 

Announcing my next book on the New Zealand Wars

I’m pleased to announce my first title for 2014. It’s being published by Libro International on 29 July. Here’s their media release. I’m quite excited, and I hope you will be too.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my next book.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history tells the tale (briefly!) of the thirty years of sporadic fighting that marked New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century.  Two of these wars played out at the same time – and with much the same technologies – as the US Civil War being fought on the other side of the Pacific.

It’s an era that had had its share of controversy and its share of myth-making. Late twentieth century historians reversed the way the wars had traditionally been seen. But were they right? And what was the actual story - in brief – behind the dramatic events of the day?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

I am often intrigued by the unlikely ways history has conspired to make the world we know today – the connections, often unlikely, that link the world.

John Trumbull's painting, of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

John Trumbull’s well known painting of the authors of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Take the US Declaration of Independence, for instance. I figure that it was thanks to a combination of this document and the fact that too many Englishmen were caught poaching that we have Australia and New Zealand as we know them today.

Let me explain. The British lost the War of Independence – and with it, one jewel in their Imperial crown, America. It had a significant ripple effect – and in ways nobody could have predicted. You see, Britain didn’t have a state prison system as such. After 1717, most poor criminals who weren’t hanged were banished to America. By 1776 some 40,000 had been bundled off across the Atlantic, where they were usually put to work as labourers.  That door closed with the revolution – just at the moment when, as far as anybody in Whitehall could tell, places to exile petty criminals were needed more than ever.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his ‘Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders’ (1820). British Library, public domain.

The problem was that the American Revolution came just as Britain also fell into the Industrial Revolution. That brought social upheaval on unprecedented scale. Authorities responded by tightening punishments on those dispossessed by the change, who had been reduced as a result to petty crime. But there were a lot of them, and by the early 1780s there was nowhere to put them, except the rotting prison hulks anchored around Britain’s harbours. Home Secretary Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, summed it up. These places were so crowded that ‘the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’

The prospect that they might also become a focus for uprising was probably not lost on authorities. There was only one answer; and at the end of August 1786, Sydney ordered the Admiralty to get moving on a scheme to set up a new prison colony on the other side of the world in Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.  The first fleet of eleven ships, led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in May 1787.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

The prison colony at Botany Bay soon expanded; other prisons were set up – all with the aim of becoming nuclei of proper settlements. And they began leaking. Prisoners who had no idea where they were took to small boats, thinking they might reach Tahiti – or home. Actually, many ended up in New Zealand, where there was virtually no European presence at the time. Others went across on ships – men given their parole who found work on sealers and whalers. All lived riotously, and they soon gave New Zealand a repute for wild lawlessness.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, were disgusted with the behaviours they saw playing out before them – and complained, on occasion, to authorities in Sydney.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

It was largely to curb this bad-boy behaviour by British subjects who were out of reach of the law that the British finally angled towards setting up a Crown colony, formally, in the late 1830s. But there was no money available, and prevailing mood in the Colonial Office was tempered by the Church Missionary Society. A colony, the Colonial Office insisted, could only be set up with free agreement of Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi followed – a three-clause document hastily written and signed for the first time at Waitangi in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in February 1840. Today it is regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, much as the US uphold the Declaration of Independence. And – by the path laid out here – likely wouldn’t have happened if the American colonies hadn’t decided to do something about the problems they were having with the British.

History, as I say, has some funny connections. Do you ever think about the way events conspire to connect – and create the world we know today?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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A glistening quote from the Wellington Writers’ Walk

I was out on the Wellington waterfront the other day with my camera and spotted the light falling just so across this quote from New Zealand’s best known short-story writer, Katherine Mansfield. She’s one of several authors commemorated in the Wellington Writers’ Walk.

My DSLR’s not new-tech, and CCD’s being what they are, I wasn’t sure a photo into the light would actually work. But it did. I had to share it.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

A visit to Makara Beach in the middle of a southern winter

Makara beach is only about a 15-minute drive from Wellington city, on the south-western coast. It’s rugged, wind-swept, stony, and carries a stark beauty that probably typifies this part of New Zealand.

It’s got an astonishing history. Peter Jackson filmed his first movie, Bad Taste, in the area over 25 years ago. During the Second World War, gun emplacements were built on the hills above. And last Sunday, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I spent a few hours there, the shortest day of the year. Needless to say, I took my camera.

Makara Beach, winter 2014. You wouldn't think it was winter, really.

Makara Beach, winter 2014. You wouldn’t think it was winter, really.

 

Old boat winch and rails, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Old boat winch and rails, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Tussock, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Tussock, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Makara beach township from across the bay, winter 2014.

Makara beach township from across the bay, winter 2014.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Visiting Peter Jackson’s amazing cinema in Miramar, Wellington

The other day She Who Must Be Obeyed and I went to have a look at the Roxy Cinema in Miramar, Wellington. It was done up a while back in classic golden-age cinema deco by Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, among others.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi frieze on the upper floor.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi sculpture on the upper floor. I took this photo hand-held, incidentally, and apart from adding copyright info and scaling back for the blog, it’s unedited.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork - Dr Grordbort himself in action.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork – Dr Grordbort himself in action.

There is a magic about the cinema that we’ve lost, these days. Except here – where it’s been recaptured with a vengeance. And more. It was like stepping back in time – not just to the magic of the 1940s, but the magic of the 1940s as they never were, a bronze-and-gold world of deco-infused dieselpunk, streamline moderne spaceships and fantastic planet-scapes.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Inevitably, it featured heavy Weta Workshop influence. Not least in the Hobbit Hole entrance leading up to the second floor atrium with its amazing Greg Broadmore ceiling featuring his iconic Dr Grordbort dieselpunk artwork.

And if that wasn’t wow enough, we also found a model of the Wotwot spaceship – and a glass-encased Lego model of the cinema, which was simply extraordinary.

Even the facilities had been finished with full attention to period detail, down to the shape of the handbasins – though it’s unlikely, I suspect, that 1940s cinema bathrooms had hand-movement sensors to turn the water on and off. But maybe, in the dieselpunk alternate world of this cinema, they did.

I had only one thing to say about the whole thing. OMG!

And when can I watch the Dr Phibes movies here?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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An ‘operational incident’ to them. Total train wreck to me.

The other week the Wellington, New Zealand commuter rail network was rolling along doing what commuter lines do. And then this happened.

Wrecked train with nose still jammed skywards on the buffer at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn't standing in the motorway - I was on the other side. It's what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

Wrecked train at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn’t standing in the motorway – I was on the other side. It’s what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

A friend of a friend saw it happen. Wham! Mercifully, only two people were slightly injured. I was out of town, but came by that night on my way home and saw the after-match action. It’s the second time in 13 months a train has rammed this buffer.

Look! All fixed.

There! Fixed!.

Personally I’d call this an accident. Would you? I ask because the railway operator didn’t call it that. No. To them it was an ‘operational incident’.

I love English. It’s such a loose language.

We happened to drive past on the weekend. They now seem to have hit on the idea of stopping the train hitting the buffer by putting a power pole splat in the middle of the line. Train can’t fail to ram that first. I can’t help thinking there’s something rather missing in the calculation here – I mean, if you want to stop your train hitting a power pole, wouldn’t it be better to put the power pole somewhere other than the middle of where the train must, inevitably, go? I suppose it’s temporary…but…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Remembering Jutland – and a double family connection

It is 98 years, this weekend, since the Battle of Jutland – the only fleet action of the First World War. My great uncle – H. C. Wright – was in the thick of it, on board the super-dreadnought HMS Orion.

The battle was fought over a hectic afternoon and night on 31 May – 1 June 1916; the last shots came as the sky turned grey with the loom of dawn, and a British destroyer torpedoed and sank a German battleship.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Uncle Bert was 19 years of age, serving with the Royal Marines. Like most Marines he was assigned a place in fire-control, one of thirty-odd people in the forward transmitting station, the link between the fire control director in the foretop and the Dumaresq plotter and Dreyer Fire Control Table. Between them, these mechanical computers produced a firing solution – all with 1900-era clockwork tech. The Dreyer FCT didn’t quite work in real time, but it was an astonishing machine.

Uncle Bert couldn’t see anything down in the depths of the ship behind 12 inches of armour. For him the battle was lit by the yellow-white glow of electric lamps and consisted of enemy bearings shouted from above via his Graham Pattern 2463 Navyphone, duly passed on to the half-dozen Dreyer operators – all punctuated by the thud and rumble of the ship’s ten 13.5-inch guns, which discharged 51 rounds during the battle.

The fleets only came to blows briefly, but it was a hands-down British victory. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the British Grand Fleet, out-manoeuvered the Germans twice and was only prevented from re-engaging next morning because of disastrous reporting failures by his scouting cruisers. But it didn’t matter in the longer run because the Germans ran for home – and on the grey  morning of 1 June, the British had total possession of the North Sea.

Sir John Jellicoe, as Governor-General of New Zealand, picnicking on Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22313306

Sir John Jellicoe, victor of Jutland, picnicking on New Zealand’s Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Photo: Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22313306

That was what counted. Jellicoe’s priority wasn’t sinking enemy ships, it was keeping control of those waters – which he did, and without major damage to his fleet. It was a masterful effort.

Unfortunately the general public had been conditioned to expect a second Trafalgar – to them, only the annihilation of the German High Seas Fleet counted as victory. Incredibly, despite having won the battle in every practical sense, Jellicoe found himself under a cloud and was soon ‘booted upwards’ to become First Sea Lord, while the dashing and popular Admiral Sir David Beatty took over command at sea.

The other family connection to the battle? My wife’s grandmother worked for Jellicoe when he came to New Zealand as Governor General after the war. He was, by the family account, a very kind man – modest, quiet, caring. In some ways it was curious that someone of his stature should come half way around the world to a government position. But from the British viewpoint it got him out of the way – this man who was still being blamed, even in the glow of Allied victory, for not giving Britain its second Trafalgar.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Flying saucers and other aerial crockery

A UFO was caught over the South Island the other week by an Australian film crew. By “UFO” I mean “unidentified object” which was “flying”. We don’t know what it was – and the objects could have been an artefact of the video.

Jupiter rising over Io - a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Jupiter rising over Io – a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Needless to say, I am certain they weren’t alien spacecraft, any more than any other UFO is.

I can hear the howling. ‘But the universe is big, surely other planets must have life?’

Sure. Space is enormous.  No doubt life’s emerged elsewhere. But – again – it doesn’t follow that the aliens have developed civilisation, jumped into spacecraft, and flown here. It particularly doesn’t follow that they’ve done so merely to lurk mysteriously on the edge of our vision, violating cows, revealing themselves to lone witnesses on dark country roads, and so on. Or that they’d be big-headed, big-eyed, child-bodied versions of us with an ethical view that fixes the faults of western society.

The fact that lay-people presented with partial evidence can’t explain an observed phenomenon doesn’t prove it’s an alien spaceship. The fact that science can’t explain it from partial data doesn’t, either. That’s false-premise logic.

I’ve seen plenty of weird aerial stuff myself. The best was over Wellington in April 1986, when I spotted a slow-moving fireball parallel to the southern horizon, shedding sparks. I knew what it was. The thing was moving in the direction I’d expect from the usual orbital paths, the only ‘unidentified’ part was whether it was US or Soviet.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. New Zealand is below - North Island to the right, South to the left. My house is directly under the aerial centre-frame. Photo: NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

To me the phenomenon of ‘space aliens’ is a product of the way western culture is conditioned to think. The trigger was the mid-twentieth century assumption that Earth was archetypal and that every world capable of supporting life would bear one intelligent species, probably a bipedal hominid. In due course, this would become civilised, space-faring and visit other worlds. Just like Europe’s explorers during the age of exploration.

It is no coincidence that we decided aliens were visiting just as we began to take spaceflight credibly. The idea emerged in June 1947 when US pilot Kenneth Arnold reported nine boomerang-shaped objects paralleling his aircraft near Mount Rainier. A journalist misquoted that as ‘saucers’, which promptly became the shape of the interlopers thereafter. The origin of that shape as a journalists’ misquote was rather lost amid the flood of blurred photographs of aerial lampshades that fringe enthusiasts were subsequently able to provide as proof of their own encounters.

Blue sunset on Mars - for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. An approximately true colour image by the Spirit rover at Gusev Crater, 2005. Photo: NASA/JPL, public domain.

Blue sunset on Mars – for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. NASA/JPL, public domain.

These 1950s-era aliens came from Mars or Venus and looked like us, only with handy super-powers such as telepathy. Alas, the Mariner and Venera probes of the 1960s revealed Venus was a runaway greenhouse oven – and Mars was a cold, cratered world without breathable air. Luckily it turned out, after that discovery, that the aliens really came from well-known stars on the school science curriculum, like Aldebaran. Then in 1978 Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit the cinema, and the current alien trope followed.

You get the picture.

My take? We have had civilisation for an eye-blink against the age of the Earth. It may only last another eye-blink, by that scale. Who says aliens have the same capability at the same time? They might have flourished and gone a billion years ago. Or their time might be a billion years in the future.

Space is also immense. Who says they’d find us anyway? Or that we could be important? To give that a sense of proportion, our sun’s invisible, without telescopes, from just under 60 light years.* I’ve heard it argued that ‘they’ could hear our transmissions – TV, radio, radar and so on. Actually, we’re just as invisible that way too. In theory I Love Lucy – which began transmission in 1951 – has just reached the planet we photographed, orbiting Beta Pictoris, 63 light years away. Actually our broadcasts, even high-frequency radars, don’t get that far because of the inverse square law, coupled with natural background radio noise. Our stuff’s lost in the static. Yet our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. Feel small? You should. And if aliens did arrive, would we recognise them as life? Or be able to communicate? They’re alien, remember. Maybe they’d be too busy talking to their own kind – you know, other algae.

Put another way – sure, we see stuff in the sky we can’t explain. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t explicable. Or that ‘aliens’ are among us.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

* Geek time. Muahahahaha. Stellar brightness is measured by magnitude, an inverse scale in which lower is brighter. The true magnitude of a star is its absolute magnitude. But this fades with distance (inverse square law), so its visual magnitude, the brightness we see from a distance, is less. This is known as the apparent magnitude. Any star of apparent magnitude greater than about 6 is invisible to the average naked eye. The distance where the apparent magnitude (m) fades to invisibility can be calculated from the absolute magnitude (M) using the distance modulus equation r = 10<exp>((m-M)/5+1) where r is the distance in parsecs. If you apply that to the Sun, absolute magnitude 4.83, you discover it fades to apparent magnitude 6 at about 57 light years, which is about 0.057 percent the diameter of the galaxy.