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

Writing inspirations – living the golden age Hollywood fantasy

Today’s writing inspiration is another of about a thousand photos I took during the 2014 Napier Art Deco weekend – a time to celebrate 1930s Hollywood fantasy against the wonderful backdrop of Napier’s art deco architecture. What lives would we have had in the 1930s if it had really been like Hollywood wanted it to be? I find the thought inspiring. Do you?

Yes, I'm sure it's 1940...

Yes, I’m sure it’s 1940…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: editing as writing and why it’s important

One of the key things an author needs to understand about their manuscript is the point that editing is integral to the writing process. It can take just as long to edit a first draft as it does to assemble those words in the first place. Maybe longer.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s a daunting prospect, but it’s do-able. The key to it is critical evaluation and breaking the task into manageable layers – starting with the big picture and moving down to the detail. Here’s how:

  1. Get the big picture. Take your manuscript out of the metaphorical drawer. If you can, print it out so you can strew the sheets of paper on the floor. Look at it from the big-picture overview. Is the structure right? Does everything mesh together? Make notes if it doesn’t. Avoid the temptation to re-write the specific words just now.
  2. If the structure’s wrong, figure out how to adjust it and nominate the sections that need re-writing.
  3. Go back to the computer, make a copy of the file labelled ‘Draft 2’, and work on that. Make the structural adjustments and re-writes. This may well be time-consuming. Don’t worry too much about the wording – this is still first draft territory. Print it out again and review. Rinse and repeat until you’re satisfied.
  4. Now it’s time to think about the wording. Start going through the wording in detail, initially from the viewpoint of the broader purpose of your argument or content. Does the wording work? Have you conveyed the intent? Are their ambiguities? This part of the process can be done with a printout and pen-and-ink, which often highlights things you don’t see on screen. Make sure your word-length stays tight to the intended quantity – as I’ve mentioned many times before, word-length is not an end-goal, it’s a tool. For authors, it enables authors to keep the structure of their work under control; and for publishers it’s a budgeting tool, because word-length quantifies production costs.
  5. Finally, it’s time to get down to the micro-detail of the wording – the fidelity of it. This demands another read through in which you go through the material with a close focus, looking for specific wording – making sure there are no extraneous or ambiguous phrases, keeping the styling tight to what you intend.
  6. Now stick the manuscript in a metaphorical drawer again. Leave it there for a few days before bringing it out, printing the material, and reading it carefully – word by word – on paper. Make notes or amendments in pen and ink. This change to a different medium is very important because it forces a different way of thinking and a different view on the material. You’ll be surprised what you find. Only then should you implement on the computer.
  7. If necessary, repeat the above steps until you’re satisfied.  Then – and only then – will the material be ready to submit for publication.

This process won’t necessarily work for every author – and you have to do what works for you – but the key principles are having time and space to let your thoughts breathe – to keep returning to the material with reasonably fresh eyes – and to change the medium from screen to paper as a device for improving that ‘freshness’. The steps I’ve noted here also break the task down from largest to smallest components. This is akin to hacking out the rough shape of a statue, then working on the details, and finishing off with a careful polish.

All of this is time-consuming, and all of it will involve more writing and composition. But that’s not the only part of the editorial process. Not by a long way. More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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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

Essential writing skills: fixing that first draft

There’s a lot of truth in the old adage that a bad first draft is better than no first draft. The annual National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest is, essentially, geared to produce them.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

I posted earlier on ways of preparing that bad first draft so it’s properly structured – so it has the right foundations. The words may not be right, but the basic form will be. First step after that, as I’ve mentioned, is to chuck the thing in a drawer for a month.

What then? The trick is to understand how editing words. There’s a notion – certainly among beginning authors – that ‘writing’ is the part where you’re assembling the words for the first time, and ‘editing’ is a quick polish afterwards, whereupon the work’s ready to publish. I’ve actually seen tweets from authors announcing they’ve ‘finished’ their book and after a quick edit, it’s going to be published in a week or so.

But that’s how it’s done…Right?

Actually, wrong. A first draft manuscript is way, way off being submitted to an agent or publisher, still less self-pubbed. Editing is as much work as the original composition, and it’s an essential part of the whole writing process. It’s also, separately, a part of the publishing process; and neither part is quick, easy or – unfortunately – cheap to accomplish.

First, there’s the editing needed to finish the manuscript – to get what you’re writing into its final form. This involves a good deal of re-wording and perhaps re-structuring, depending on how you set that first draft up in the first place. Trust me – this will take as long as writing that first draft did, maybe longer. And if it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself why.

Second, there’s the sort of editing done by publishers, which itself breaks down into several phases – proof-editing and various flavours of line editing. It’s also time-consuming, and there are no short cuts. If you are self-pubbing, you’ll have to do it (actually, for reasons I’ll explain, pay somebody else to). The phrase is ‘quality assurance’.

What does all this entail? Over the next few posts I’ll be outlining all of this in detail. Watch this space.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – the magnificent Buller Gorge, in mist

Today’s writing inspiration is a photo I took of the Buller Gorge, one damp day.

A monochrome Buller Gorge, one wet day early in 2013.

A monochrome Buller Gorge, one wet day.

The gorge and river are both named after Charles Buller, the first pakeha explorer to venture into the district in the early 1840s. The original name of the river, Kawatiri (meaning, among other things, ‘deep swift’), is seldom used these days. It is a magnificent place where the prevailing cloud and mists add drama to a spectacular landscape. An inspiration by any measure.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Orion’s first flight is good news – but can NASA sell the space dream?

I checked the latest space news on Saturday with bated breath. NASA had a lot riding on this week’s Orion flight. In a climate of limited budgets and little real public enthusiasm, failure wasn’t an option.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

The problem is where Orion goes next. By Cold War standards ambitions are vague; a couple more test flights, fly around the Moon or go to a captured asteroid by 2021-25, and then on to Mars some stage in the 2030s….eventually. Maybe. Both these aims and the time-frame stand at odds with Apollo-era determination when goals, budgets, public support and intent all meshed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orion flounders before it gets much further, purely because of that mushiness vs public apathy vs budgetary realities.

Which is a pity, because it’s a good spacecraft and the flight on Saturday demonstrated – after two tragic ‘private enterprise’ failures – that the Apollo-era NASA ‘business model’, which rested on private contractors and commercial suppliers – still works. Rocket science is just that – it’s risky, difficult, and stretches materials science. Cutting corners, private-enterprise style, may save money. But when it comes to spaceflight there’s no room for error.

EFT-1 Orion being prepared to flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy. NASA, public domain.

EFT-1 Orion being prepared to flight atop a Delta 4 Heavy. NASA, public domain.

The other point is that Orion is not – as some critics suggest – a retrograde step. Sure, Orion looks like a 1960s capsule. But it isn’t – it’s stuffed with twenty-first century tech. Don’t be fooled by its 2002-era PowerPC 750FX-based computers, either; space computer hardware has to be well proven and rugged. If it fails at the wrong moment, you die. Armstrong and Aldrin’s Raytheon AGC fly-by-wire computer partly crashed when they were descending to the Moon in 1969. But not totally – and it was safe to land.

What’s driving the illusion of Orion being ‘retrograde’, I think, is that we’re conditioned to imagine space ‘progress’ as ‘advance’ from one-shot cone-shaped ‘capsules’, to multi-use winged spaceplanes designed to fly, literally, into space. They were the future, way back when. Except they weren’t. The problem is that the laws of physics don’t co-operate. Mass is everything in spaceflight – dry mass to fuel mass ratio, in particular. The Shuttle orbiter had to lug a LOT of mass into orbit that was useless up there – wings, tail, landing gear, hydraulics, heat shield and so forth. Dead loss for your fuel budget. And that’s apart from the risks of strapping the spaceplane to the side of its booster.

Orion recovered off California after the flight, 4 December 2014. NASA, public domain.

Orion recovered off California after the flight, 4 December 2014. NASA, public domain.

For anything beyond low-earth orbit, you need a vehicle that lacks the encumbrance of aircraft-style flight hardware – but which can still make an aero-braked descent to Earth, because it’s not practical to carry the fuel you need to slow down by rocket. Ideally the spacecraft also has to generate a certain amount of aerodynamic lift, both to steer the descent and to reduce deceleration forces on the crew. The resulting shape is specific, and Apollo, Orion, the Boeing CST-100 and Chelomei’s 1970s-Soviet era VA re-entry capsule all use virtually the same truncated cone design. McDonnell Douglas’ Gemini, Space X’s Dragon, the Soyuz and Shenzhou offer only minor variations on the theme.

Apollo vs Orion. NASA, public domain.

Apollo vs Orion. NASA, public domain.

Orion, in short, is a recognition of the physics of rocket-propelled spaceflight. Budgets permitting, the 2020s should bring a flurry of similar spacecraft into low-earth orbit – Space X’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100, servicing the space station. The Russians (hopefully) will be in on the mix with their late-generation Soyuz. And there’s the Chinese manned programme.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain.

Beyond that, Orion will be on hand to fly to the Moon, a nearby asteroid, and eventually Mars. Orion will not, of course, fly by itself on long-duration missions. It’s good for 21 days in space – enough for an Apollo-type jaunt around the Moon – but for longer flights it’ll be docked to a habitat module. This mirrors the 1968 plan to send astronauts on a Venus flyby using Apollo hardware – the crew would have spent most of the 396 day flight inside a modified S-IVB stage, using the CSM only for the launch and re-entry phases.

Orion with propulsion and habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.

Artist’s impression of Orion with propulsion and small habitat module for an asteroid mission. NASA, public domain.

Orion, similarly, will be docked with various habitats and propulsion stages depending on mission. The whole stack will become the ‘interplanetary spacecraft’. But all this assumes budget and enthusiasm, among other things (‘other things’ includes finding ways of dealing with radiation, of which more some other time). Bottom line is that state-run space efforts can be killed with the stroke of a political pen.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, then, will be re-selling the excitement of the space dream to a wider public, both in the US and beyond. And this, I think, is where the focus needs to be for the foreseeable future. Space flight is, after all, one of the greatest ventures in the history of the world.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014