Gallipoli ghost mystery solved

A couple of days ago, New Zealand’s online news site Stuff published a photo by one of their photographers taken at dusk, in a cemetery on Gallipoli.

It’s a haunting image – apparently literally. Someone’s sitting on a seat in the distance, and beside them – in just one frame – is the apparent shadow, half-obscured by a flower which the shadow matches in dimension and shape, of a ghostly soldier. I can’t show you the photo, but I can refer you to it – here:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/last-post-first-light/9969629/Gallipoli-ghost-captured-at-soldiers-cemetery

My take? Well, the spectral image could be someone from New Zealand’s tight and viciously exclusive military-historical in-crowd, at Gallipoli on a junket that, like their salaries, I’m funding through my taxes. But realistically it’s more likely to be that with a 2.5 second exposure you’ll get visual artefacts around the flowers on a CCD sensor – and that’s pretty much what the photo shows. No mystery there.

My photo of soldiers' graves at Tyne Cot, Flanders.

My photo of sokdiers’ graves at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres.

To me, though, the image underscores the importance of remembrance. A century ago, young men from across the world died – they died in strange lands, they died often without being found. They were casualties of what happened when the dark side of human nature was given form by the power of industry – warfare on an unprecedented scale, warfare industrialised, warfare given hideous intensity by the ingenuity of nineteenth century invention.

The world we know and love today would not exist, as it does, without the sacrifices of these young men; and they exist today not because there are ghosts, but because we remember them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

 

The science behind this year’s blood moons

Well, the first ‘blood moon’ of 2014’s come and gone. I missed it – the night sky where I live was socked in with 10/10 overcast at an altitude of about 200 metres.

US Navy photo of a total lunar eclipse in 2004, by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Scott Taylor. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

US Navy photo of a total lunar eclipse in 2004, by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Scott Taylor. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, I’ll have another chance on 8 October. And another on 4 April 2015. And a fourth on 28 September that year.

Although unusual, it’s not a unique occurrence to have four eclipses in quick succession. Technically they’re known as a tetrad.

The reason why eclipses are a bit erratic is interesting. A lunar eclipse is simple enough – the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth. The reason lunar eclipses don’t happen every 27 days, as the Moon orbits the Earth, is because the Moon doesn’t always pass through the shadow when it’s ‘behind’ the Earth relative to the sun. It would if everything was lined up flat on the same plane – but it isn’t.

In fact, the Moon’s orbit is tilted relative to the ecliptic – the plane in which Earth and Sun orbit. The tilt varies between 4.99 and 5.30 degrees. The two points at which the orbit intersects the ecliptic are known as ‘nodes’, and they move around the Moon’s orbital path – technically, ‘precess’ – at a rate of  19.3549° annually.

For an eclipse to occur, the node (‘ascending’ or ‘descending’) has to coincide with the point where the Moon would pass through Earth’s shadow (which is on the ecliptic). That happens every 173.3 days. An eclipse is possible at that time, though again, the orbital mechanics don’t always mesh exactly.  There are more factors than just ecliptic and orbital angle. Earth’s shadow has a dense part (umbra) and a less dense part (penumbra). Sometimes there is only a partial eclipse. Sometimes it’s total.

Colour photo of the Moon taken by the Galileo probe in 1990 - a view we never see from Earth. The - uh - 'dark side' is to the left, fully illuminated. NASA, JPL, public domain.

Colour photo of the Moon taken by the Galileo probe in 1990 – a view we never see from Earth. The – uh – ‘dark side’ is to the left, fully illuminated. NASA, JPL, public domain.

The interlocking mechanisms of orbital mechanics – the way Earth, Sun and Moon all move in a complex dance of planes, angles and distances – means we end up with circumstance where strings of lunar eclipses – like the current tetrad – cluster. Between 1600 and 1900, for instance, there were no tetrads. But this coming century, there will be 8 of them.

So why red? The answer is one of the reasons why science is so cool. If you were standing on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, you’d see the Earth as a dark circle rimmed with fire – the light of every sunset and sunrise happening on Earth, all at once.

It’s red because of Rayleigh scattering – the way that the atmosphere scatters particular frequencies of light. I won’t repeat the explanation here – check out my earlier post.  Suffice to say, when sunlight passes through a horizontal thickness of atmosphere, the red wavelengths are what emerge – and those red light wavelengths refract into the shadow of Earth, lighting the Moon in blood-red hues.

So when you see a ‘blood moon’, what you’re actually seeing is the reflected light of every sunrise and sunset on Earth, all at once.

And that, my friends, is the really neat thing about those eclipses. Harbingers of doom? To me it’s cool science, on so many levels.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Science says we’re all doomed. Neatypoos.

We’re all doomed, apparently. A NASA-backed science study says so.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Apocalypse: if Earth’s hit by that white beam, we’re dead. D-E-A-D. Dead. Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

That’s more credible than stupid ideas about Mayan calendar dates (the world ended on 21 December 2012…didn’t it?) or the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (world’s end in 2010), or the deranged spoutings of former French pharmacist, Michel de Nostradame (1984 or 1997, depending on how you read it). I could go on…

We don’t have to look far to realise why this happens. Human fear of apocalypse seems universal – and as old as humanity. Stories flow through mythology. It’s cross-cultural; most societies seem to fear sudden destruction of all they know.

Certainly it’s rife today. We have the irrational doom-sayers – the ones who think it’ll happen tomorrow, without warning, let’s say courtesy of four ‘blood moons’ (that’s this year, apparently). Or we have the rational ones, who use mathematics to show that current civilisation is teetering on the edge.

That’s where the NASA-backed study comes in. Drawing on ancient Rome and the Mayan experience – when an apparently robust society suddenly collapsed – they’ve concluded that modern global civilisation is on the same course. The causes, apparently, are to do with iniquitous income distribution and climbing resource usage.

The idea’s not new; Jared Diamond pointed out, in Collapse, that humanity has a habit of exploiting environments to the ragged edge, then destroying them.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Couple that with meta-stable systems (systems that look stable, but actually sit in an easily disturbed equilibrium) and you have a recipe for trouble. A lot of the socially mediated systems we create do this, and that, in essence, is the current problem. Apparently. But I wonder.

It seems to me there are two sides to this. First, there’s our apparent common fear, as a species, that doom lies just around the corner. We all seem to think that way – the ‘apocalypse’ keys directly into our psyches in ways that other ideas don’t. Look at the popularity, today, of post-apocalyptic stories. It’s not just built into Western cultural philosophy. Indeed, it seems to be hard-wired into us.

That thinking gives credence to studies like the NASA one. It also cultivates idiot scare-mongering about mystery rogue planets. But where did this sort of thinking come from?

I have my suspicions.

The irony of all the scaremongering silliness is that from the science perspective we are staring down the barrel of a very real apocalypse in the form of another Carrington Event. But it never hits the popular doom radar.

The other issue is the credibility of the argument that we are, in fact, on course for doom by our own mis-doings or constructions. Longer term, I think we are. It’s obvious; humanity can’t keep on expanding without limit, exploiting resources and polluting the planet forever. We have to find another strategy. But I think we’ve already seen this one coming.

However, as for the idea of a catastrophic collapse – the abrupt demise of the social, political and economic systems on which western (and, of course ‘developing’) civilisation pivots? Somehow, I doubt it’s on the cards. Mostly.

Is belief in the apocalypse hard-wired into the human condition? How did that hard-wiring happen? And how can we think reasonably – dare I say ‘rationally’ – about it when we’re apparently hard-wired not to?

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

Coming up: Apocalypses galore, writing tips, and more…

The Big Bang theory wins again. So does Einstein.

It’s a great time to be a geek. We’re learning all sorts of extreme stuff. There’s a team led by John Kovac, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who’ve been beavering away on one of the fundamental questions of modern cosmology. The secret has demanded some extreme research in an extreme place. Antarctica. There’s a telescope there, BICEP2, that’s been collecting data on the cosmic background temperature. Last week, the team published their initial results.

Timeline of the universe - with the Wilkinson Microwave Antisotropy Probe at the end. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NASA.

Timeline of the universe – with the Wilkinson Microwave Antisotropy Probe at the end. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NASA.

The theory they were testing is as extreme as such things get and goes like this. Straight after the Big Bang, the universe was miniscule and very hot. Then it expanded – unbelievably fast in the first few trillionth trillionths of a second, but then much more slowly. After a while it was cool enough for the particles we know and love today to be formed. This ‘recombination’ epoch occurred perhaps 380,000 years after the Big Bang. One of the outcomes was that photons were released from the plasma fog – physicists call this ‘photon decoupling’.

What couldn’t quite be proven was that the early rate of expansion – ‘inflation’ – had been very high.

But now it has. And the method combines the very best of cool and of geek. This early universe can still be seen, out at the edge of visibility. That initial photon release is called the ‘cosmic microwave background’ (CMB), first predicted in 1948 by Ralph Alpher and others, and observed in 1965 by accident when it interfered with the reception of a radio being built in Bell Laboratories. That started a flurry of research. Its temperature is around 2.725 degrees kelvin, a shade above absolute zero. It’s that temperature because it’s been red-shifted (the wavelengths radiated from it have stretched, because the universe is expanding, and stuff further away gets stretched more). The equation works backwards from today’s CMB temperature, 2.725 degrees Kelvin, thus: Tr = 2.725(1 + z).

The COBE satellite map of the CMB. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

The COBE anisotropic satellite map of the CMB. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

The thing is that, way back – we’re talking 13.8 billion years – the universe was a tiny fraction of its current size, and the components were much closer together. Imagine a deflated balloon. Splat paint across the balloon. Now inflate the balloon. See how the paint splats move further apart from each other? But they’re still the original pattern of the splat. In the same sort of way, the CMB background pattern is a snapshot of the way the universe was when ‘photon decoupling’ occurred. It’s crucial to proving the Big Bang theory. It’s long been known that the background is largely homogenous (proving that it was once all in close proximity) but carries tiny irregularities in the pattern (anisotropy). What the BICEP2 team discovered is that the variations are polarised in a swirling pattern, a so-called B-mode.

The reason the radiation is polarised that way is because early inflation was faster than light-speed, and the gravity waves within it were stretched, rippling the fabric of space-time in a particular way and creating the swirls. Discovering the swirls, in short, identifies both the early rate of expansion (which took the universe from a nanometer to 250,000,0000 light years diameter in 0.00000000000000000000000000000001 of a second…I think I counted right…) and gives us an indirect view of gravitational waves for the first time. How cool is that?

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.

What’s a ‘gravitational wave’? They were first predicted nearly a century ago by Albert Einstein, whose General Theory of Relativity’of 1917 was actually a theory of gravity. According to Einstein, space and time are an entwined ‘fabric’. Energy and mass (which, themselves, are the same thing) distort that fabric. Think of a thin rubber sheet (space-time), then drop a marble (mass/energy) into it. The marble will sink, stretching the sheet. Gravitational waves? Einstein’s theory made clear that these waves had to exist. They’re ripples in the fabric.

One of the outcomes of last week’s discovery is the implication that ‘multiverses’ exist. Another is that there is not only a particle to transmit gravity, a ‘graviton’, but also an ‘inflaton’ which pushes the universe apart. Theorists suspect that ‘inflatons’ have a half-life and they were prevalent only in the very early universe.

There’s more to come from this, including new questions. But one thing is certain. Einstein’s been proven right. Again.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More geekery, fun writing tips, and more.

I miss my future. It’s been taken from me.

I miss my future. When I was a kid, 21st-century food was going to be pre-packaged space pap. We would all, inevitably, be eating  paste out of tubes. It was futuristic. It was progress.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

The future of 1970: a Mars mission, 1981 style.

Today? We’re in that future. And I still cook fresh veggies and steak. Some of it from the garden (the veggies, not the steak).

When I was a teenager, plastic cards were going to kill cash. In the 21st century we’d just have cards. It was inevitable. It was the future. Get with the program. Today? We use more cash than ever, but chequebooks died.

When I was in my twenties, video was going to kill the movies. It was inevitable. We just had to accept it. When I last looked, movies were bigger than ever – didn’t The Hobbit, Part 2,889,332 just rake in a billion at the box office?

And, of course, personal computers were going to give us the paperless office. Except that today every office is awash with …yup, paper, generated by what we produce on computer, churning out of giant multi-function copiers that run endlessly, every second the office is open.

Did we fail to adopt all these things hard or fast enough? Is it just that technology hasn’t quite delivered what was expected – but it will, it will? No. The problem is with the way we think – with the faulty way we imagine change occurs over time with technology and people. With the way we assume any novelty will dominate our whole future. With the way we inevitably home in on single-cause reasons for change, when in reality anything to do with human society is going to exist in many more than fifty shades of grey. The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding – driven by the simplistic ‘progressive’ mind-set that has so dominated popular thinking since the Age of Reason.

I know all that. But still…I miss my future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science, history and more. Watch this space.

Welcome to the weird, weird world of hyper-extreme Sheldon physics

It’s coming up for a century since Albert Einstein explained the entire ‘classical’ universe. Neatly, and in ways that have been tested every which way, without being disproven.

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.

He never did manage to reconcile quantum physics with his macro-level rules, but there’s no question that Einstein got it right about the big stuff. General Relativity, remember, is actually a theory of gravity. And everything about it has been checked out. Repeatedly.

Still, there are points where his rules break down. I mean, literally. Points. As in mathematical points. Places that have no diameter.

They’re called ‘singularities’, and they’re inside every black hole. We can’t see them, because the singularity is masked by the event horizon. This is the point where the escape velocity of the object exceeds lightspeed – meaning light doesn’t escape, hence the term ‘black hole’.

Einstein predicted that too. And the fact that the singularity was inside an event horizon was the proverbial Good Thing because, according to theory, all the physics we know and love break down at the singularity. There has been speculation they might act as a gate (‘Einstein-Rosen Bridges’). But to Einstein and most of those who came after, it was academic, because nothing could escape the event horizon.

Enter Stephen Hawking. In 1974 he argued that black holes MUST emit particles under quantum rules. Imagine a particle just inside the event horizon. Thanks to quantum uncertainty, it is both on one side and the other. When the wave function collapses, there is a chance that the black hole has radiated a particle.

Black holes, in short, evaporate thanks to quantum effects. It takes a while for stellar-mass holes (and they’d gain more mass than they lost, via matter spiralling into them). But the particle-size black holes possible in the CERN supercollider have a lifespan of a millionth of a second. Or less.

Hawking radiation, however, doesn’t resolve the other paradox of black holes – which is that they cause loss of ‘information’. It vanishes into an event horizon and is gone, violating energy conservation rules and the conservation of information in the physics sense – unitarianism. Various explanations have been offered, none of them entirely satisfactory because the black hole exists at the intersection between the two incompatible theories – General Relativity and quantum mechanics.

This week, Hawking suggested that the best answer to the paradox is to assume that an event horizon doesn’t exist. It merely appears to; in fact the information is re-radiated, chaotically.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artists impression of a GRB (which is extreme, but not weird extreme). Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

All this is weird. But wait, if you extend the theoretical thinking it can get way weirder.

According to Hawking’s early work, the universe – during the early milliseconds of the Big Bang – might have created a ‘naked’ singularity. Later he revised that idea and said it hadn’t.

But imagine if it had. Naked. A singularity unprotected by an event horizon. Anything could happen. In all probability it would emit particles. But it might emit a monkey with a typewriter, tapping out King Lear. Or Sauron. Or The Heart of Gold. Or something so wild and crazy we can’t comprehend it. The laws of physics – which include probability and the order of events – don’t exist in a singularity.

Feel like you’re trapped inside Dr Who?

Could it happen? In theory, the singularity would become a torus outside the event horizon on a black hole that spun fast enough. And there is a theory – ‘loop quantum gravity’ – which postulates that naked singularities could exist anyway. The theory’s unproven.

And as of this week there’s Hawking’s notion of no event horizon anyhow – turning ‘black holes’ into…well, probably rather more than fifty shades of grey.

Wild? Sure. Weird? Absolutely. But that’s extreme physics for you.

Pass me a bunch of fermions. I’m famished.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Including the awaited lightspeed-with-custard experiment. Watch this space.

Ever get that feeling of quake deja vu?

Monday was the provincial anniversary holiday in Wellington, New Zealand. Kind of cool – the provinces were abolished in 1876, but we still get the holiday.

Around 4 pm the house began shaking – slowly at first and then quite violently. We get a lot of small quakes. This wasn’t one of them. In fact, it seemed up there with last year’s big quakes.

The science behind it is fascinating. New Zealand has an automated seismic network that publishes estimated figures to the internet in near-real time. The first official figures – calculated by the duty seismologist – were available within fifteen minutes, with a final refined value just over an hour afterwards. This quake, at magnitude 6.2 and with an epicentre near Eketahuna in the Wairarapa, was classified ‘severe’. It was 33 km deep – felt widely, but not so destructive as the shallow quakes that hit Christchurch in 2010-11 and Wellington in 2013. It occurred in the Pacific plate subduction zone, where the plate is being driven down by the Indo-Australian plate riding up over it. It’s no coincidence that this is right under New Zealand – the islands are a product of that collision.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal - a marvellous example of the model-maker's art.

I don’t have a photo of the Wellington airport eagles, but this is Gollum – taken last year – near the model that fell into the foodcourt. Click to enlarge.

Where I live the ‘felt intensity’ was at the high end of V on the Modified Mercalli scale. Damage around Wellington included the Weta workshop model of a Hobbit eagle  in the airport terminal, which crashed into the food-court. It was worse across the lower North Island in centres like Palmerston North. Fortunately nobody was killed or hurt.

Quakes have been on the rise in New Zealand lately. Archaeological work reveals that quakes cluster in decades-long patterns. The late twentieth century was one of the calmer periods. And now it looks as if we’re back in the action again. Christchurch, alas, may have simply been the beginning. Are they linked? Possibly. Certainly a quake in one area can increase stresses in a fault nearby that’s already under tension. But there also seems to be a general process of rising and falling activity.

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, Christchurch – photo I took in early 2013. Click to enlarge.

Best case is it will settle down. Worst case – well, there is a disturbing precedent from the fifteenth century, where a succession of massive quakes estimated at magnitude 8+ tore along the length of the country over just a few decades. One of them, circa 1460, struck just south of Wellington and filled in one of the two harbour entrances, the Te Awa-a-tia channel. Motukairangi island – modern Miramar – became a peninsula and the water within its hills swampy terrain. Peter Jackson’s studio is built on the uplifted land.

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

Warehouses opposite Peter Jackson’s Park Road headquarters, Miramar – under water until 1460. Click to enlarge.

Maori named the quake Haowhenua (‘the land destroyer’). The evidence is still visible as the flat land of Miramar and the Wellington airport flats – and as beach lines at Turakirae Head. The name seemed a puzzle – a ‘land destroyer’ that produced uplift? Then archaeologists discovered evidence of 10-metre tsunamis at the same time.

The question is not ‘if’ this will happen again – but ‘when’. New Zealand has many fault lines – the largest is the Alpine Fault, which moves about every 300 years and generates quakes of magnitude 8+. We are due for one, statistically, within 50 years. Recent studies point to the existence of other large faults each side of the South Island. They are still being researched. Scary? No.  We have to accept the reality as it unfolds – and be prepared.

Do you live in an earthquake zone? If not, what natural disasters do you face?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and humor. But hopefully not more quakes. For a while, anyway.

Why I like ‘Dr Who’ when I usually diss stupid science in SF

I’ve been a huge Dr Who fan ever since I was a kid and had to hide behind the couch when the Yetis appeared.

It’s great. Scientifically hokum – but great. Which sounds odd given that I usually diss bad movie science. What gives?

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

It’s like this. A lot of Hollywood SF is set in the ‘real’ world – then ignores the basic observable realities. Space fighters, sound in space, fake visible lasers that go ‘pew pew’ – all of it is just irritatingly dumb. Destroys the suspension of disbelief.

But not Dr Who.

Dr Who is about concepts we cannot directly see or understand, and which might be true. Maybe. I mean, things bigger on the inside than they are on the outside? That can go anywhere in space and time?

That gets my vote. It’s totally counter-intuitive. Cool. And that sustains the suspension of disbelief. Then there’s the fact that he can go anywhere in space and time. Want to snog Jeanne Antoinette Poisson? No problem. Fly to the far side of the universe? Easy. Couple that with whimsy and tongue firmly in cheek where it needs to be – and you have a winner.

Entertainment, whimsy and maybe science. The BBC got it right. Hey – does anybody remember the BBC version of TrekBlake’s 7?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: a fun wrap-up for 2013. Regular writing tips, humour, science geekery and other posts start early January. Get ready for the big reveal; the way to measure the speed of light with custard. Seriously.

Into deepest time with the REAL big bang theory

My wife occasionally calls herself ‘Penny’, as in Penny off The Big Bang Theory. Especially when I get together with my mathematician friends and we talk geek.

I’m not sure which of us is meant to be Sheldon. Anyway, the ‘big bang’ theory itself was first proposed in 1927 by a Catholic priest, Monseigneur Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître (1894-1966). He was trying to explain Vesto Slipher’s discovery that distant galaxies were retreating. And he was ignored. Then, in 1929, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) suggested the same thing. Like most academic fields, physics is all to do with in-crowds; when Hubble spoke, other physicists pricked up their ears.

Timeline of the universe - with the Wilkinson Microwave Antisotropy Probe at the end. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NASA.

Timeline of the universe – with the Wilkinson Microwave Antisotropy Probe at the end. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NASA.

Their logic went like this. Distant galaxies appear redder than they should.  This is because the wavelengths of light and other electromagnetic emissions from them are being stretched from our perspective, meaning they must be moving away. This effect was first discovered by Ernst Doppler who realised this was why fast-moving vehicles go ‘neeeeoooww’. The sound waves are being stretched from the perspective of a stationary listener as the source moves away, so to them the pitch appears to drop. (You can buy a Sheldon costume so you can be the Doppler Effect, like he was in Series 1 Ep. 6…here.)

It works the same with electromagnetic emissions, and red has a longer wavelength than other visible light, so things moving away appear redder to us. Hence the term ‘red shift. It’s used to describe the phenomenon, even if the wavelength isn’t visible light. (No costumes for this one).

Hubble discovered not only that distant galaxies retreat from us, but that the further away they are, the faster they retreat. Hubble’s Law followed: v = H0D, where v is velocity of recession, Ho is Hubble’s constant, and D is the proper distance. The value for Hubble’s constant has never been agreed, but recent work suggests it might be 71 +/- 7 km/sec per megaparsec. Probably. A bit.

It also turned out that distant galaxies are moving away from us whichever way we look, showing that space-time itself is expanding. Imagine a rubber balloon with equidistant dots on it. Inflate the balloon. The dots move apart equally – and the distant ones are moving away faster. That holds true for space-time.

The conclusion was that the universe had been smaller – a mathematical point, in fact, from which everything exploded into the reality we know and love today. Pretty much like the opening credits on The Big Bang Theory, in fact.

Of course, it wasn’t expansion into a void. It was an expansion of space-time itself. The very fabric of physical reality.

It was a kind of cool idea, but nobody had any way of proving it. Physicists argued over whether there had been a ‘big bang’, or whether the universe operated by a modified ‘steady state’ of constant but expanding existence. Then, in 1948, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman predicted that we should be able to see cosmic background radiation from the ‘big bang’ – and it was found in 1965. The radiation has a black body (idealised) temperature of 2.72 degrees Kelvin, give or take a tad (I define +/- 0.00057 degrees as a ‘tad’).

Into deepest space: Hubble space telescope image of galaxies from the early universe. Public domain, NASA.

Into deepest space: Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxies from the early universe. Public domain, NASA.

And you know the coolest part? Albert Einstein figured it all out in 1917, before any of the evidence was available. His General Theory of Relativity made clear the universe couldn’t be static – it had to be expanding or contracting. Einstein thought that had to be wrong, so he added a ‘cosmic constant’ to eliminate the expansion. But expansion was true, and he later admitted the ‘constant’ fudge was a mistake. His original equations held good.

Einstein had, in short, figured out how the universe worked – so completely that his theory explained the bits that hadn’t been discovered yet.

How cool is that?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up soon: ‘Write it now’ and ‘Sixty Second Writing tips’, more humour, more science…and, more.

Secret beasts of New Zealand. Only one of them with big feet.

As a writer I find just about anything grist to the inspiration mill. One thing that’s intrigued me for years has been our fascination with mysterious animals that take Size 82 in shoes and turn up in shadowy videos by lone hunters in remote locations.

To me such obsessions reveal more about the human condition than they do about any scientific reality. Fact is that these ‘crypto-zoological’ creatures are never around when scientists turn up, they leave no signs that can be decisively attributed to them, and never seem to exist in numbers able to make up a breeding population. To me the answer lies within ourselves; they lurk on the edges of our imaginations. We want to believe such animals exist.

Needless to say, New Zealand has its own twists. Here are my top three local cryptids.

1. Dinornis (Moa)
Moa were huge flightless ratites that once existed in most parts of New Zealand.

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell - son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  From the collection of the New Zealand National Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22299292

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. From the collection of the New Zealand National Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22299292

They were hunted to destruction soon after Polynesians got to New Zealand in the late thirteenth century – the final collision between Pliestocene megafauna and humanity. British settlers in the nineteenth century found their bones, and couldn’t get enough stories about them, hoping some moa might have survived somewhere. Reconstructions in London represented them as Emu-like, with immensely long vertical necks. Today we know they looked more like kiwi or cassowary, with a hooked neck and horizontal poise.

The notion of moa survival has persisted, although the chance of a breeding population of these enormous birds surviving undetected is pretty much nil. New Zealand’s back-country swarms with people. Back in 1974, we found the takahe on a population of about two dozen, and that’s a parrot. So if moa were about, we’d know.

I once had the fortune to examine the naturally mummified remains of moa, held in the Otago Museum – hundreds of years old, very rare, and fascinating. Curiously, given the way they were driven to extinction, the word ‘moa’ means ‘chicken’.

2. Fairy folk
A few years ago Penguin published a compilation of my science-fiction history stories in which I extrapolated from legends of ‘fairy folk’ to suppose that H. erectus had reached New Zealand and survived. Stories of ‘fairy folk’ – pakepakeha – circulate in New Zealand, and for a while there was even talk of a ‘bigfoot’ living on the Coromandel peninsula. Personally I thought the only unwashed hairy hominids there were living in the hippy communes, but that’s another story.

The scientific reality is that no primate ever existed here, still less any hominids. New Zealand had a unique biota as a consequence of its isolation, including the weta – an insect that occupies the biological niche of a rat (and is about as large). It was the last large land mass on the planet to be reached by humans, and we know now that this happened around 1280. Possibly on the Wairau Bar.

3. New Zealand Panthers
Since 1992 stories have persisted of a ‘black panther’ roaming the South Island. The problem is that New Zealand is an island nation 1800 km from the nearest land mass – any exotic animal has to be brought in deliberately, they’re licensed under the Biosecurity Act 1993, and we know exactly how many there are.

That’s not to deny there’s something down south; ‘panthers’ have been encountered and photographed many times. But actually there’s no mystery. To me they look like slightly large domestic cats. Department of Conservation staff identify them as feral cats, and when one was caught earlier this year it turned out to be a feral cat.

You’d think that, logically, the explanation is that they’re feral cats. But nooooo…. The pro-panther crowd insist there’s something else. Well,  maybe the ‘panthers’ swam here from Africa, along with elephants, zebras and rhinos. Or not. What’s really funny is that there is no specific species of ‘panther’ – it’s the name given to black-toned jaguars or leopards.

Do you have secret animals – ‘cryptids’ – living in your area? What are those stories? Do they inspire you to write stories? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing hints and tips, more fun stuff, humour and more. Watch this space.