Real physics is just weird sometimes. Like, totally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Forecasting New Zealand’s seismic apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This movie studio in central Miramar was underwater before 1460.

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

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Why ebola puts the zombie apocalypse into proper perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Buy from Fishpond.

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Living on shaky ground – out this week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Living On Shaky Ground

I’ve got three books being published between now and February.

Here’s a preview of Living On Shaky Ground: the science and story behind New Zealand’s earthquakes. It’s being published by Penguin Random House on 26 September. My advance copy arrived a few days back. And after thirty years and over 50 books, I have to say that the thrill of receiving the advance, unseen by anybody else except the publishers and the printers – never goes away.

My advance 'author copy' of Living On Shaking Ground - with its delivery packaging...

My advance ‘author copy’ of Living On Shaky Ground – with its delivery packaging…

And here it is in its 'natural habitat', a bookshelf, lined up with both editions of my last book on earthquakes.

And here it is in its ‘natural habitat’, a bookshelf, lined up with both editions of my last book on earthquakes.

The book includes over 50 photos I took myself, a lot of science text on earthquakes, and the story behind some of New Zealand’s bigger ones. The main – er – thrust of it it isn’t about the past, of course, but the future – what’s going to happen next?

More soon. And if you want to buy…it’s available for pre-order now, via New Zealand’s online bookstore Fishpond.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond.

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond.

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

Is high-tech REALLY indistinguishable from magic?

A fellow blogger asked for help the other week. What was the specific source – by page reference – to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law’?

It was first published in his book Profiles of the Future – which was variously issued from 1958. My edition is the revised version published by Pan Books of London in 1973. And on p. 39 of that edition, as a footnote, Clarke outlines the Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

It was a throw-away point in a footnote to a lengthy chapter discussing the way conservative twentieth century science usually fails to admit to progress.

Fair point in that context, but I couldn’t help thinking of Europe’s history of exploration around the globe, which was built around wowing locals with techno-trickery and then bashing them with it. Toledo steel was one of several ways in which Hernan Cortez and subsequent marauders knocked over South and Middle American kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

It was a disparity that became extreme as Europe’s technical base improved, leading – ultimately – to the appalling massacre in 1893 of spear-wielding Matabele warriors by a handful of Cecil Rhodes’ Maxim gunners.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/ the Maxim Gun/ and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in wake of the battle.

The conceit of the age – echoed in Clarke’s Law – was that the indigenous peoples who saw European technology looked on it as magic. And it’s true to the extent that, if we lack any concept of the principle behind something, it may as well be magic. The notion of TV, for instance, was absolutely magical before the discovery of electromagnetic transmission; and even a top scientist from (let’s say) the late seventeenth century would have little chance of comprehending one, if they saw it. But I bet that if the principle was explained, they’d soon realise it wasn’t magic at all – just following a principle not yet known.

The same’s true, I think, of the way Europe’s technology was received across the world as it spread during their age of expansion. I think that sometimes the words of magic were used by indigenous peoples seeing the British demonstrate – usually – firearms. But that didn’t betray lack of understanding of the foreign technical concepts. The actual problem was they didn’t initially have the wording. The best evidence I have for this is in the collision between industrialising Britain and Maori in New Zealand, during the early nineteenth century.

Maori picked up British industrial products very quickly from the 1810s, including armaments. These were acculturated – drawn into Maori systems of tikanga (culture), in part by co-opting words already in use. The musket became the ‘pu’, for instance – a word for a blowpipe. But Maori very well understood the principles – certainly going out of their way to learn about armaments and warfare. Some rangatira (chiefs) even made the journey to London to learn more, among them Hongi Hika, who visited the arsenal at Woolwich in 1821 and learned of musket-age warfare and defences; and Te Rauparaha, who was taught about trench warfare in Sydney in 1830.

For ‘contact-age’ Maori, British industrial technology was not ‘magic’ at all – it was something to be investigated, understood and co-opted for use in New Zealand. And I suspect that’s how the same technology was also received by indigenous peoples elsewhere.

I don’t know whether Clarke thought of it that way; I suspect his targets, more particularly, were fuddy-duddies in his own establishment who wouldn’t accept that there might be new scientific principles.

Is there a technology you regard as potentially ‘magical’ to others?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

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