Pluto frenzy is upon us this month

The world’s in Pluto frenzy this month. NASA’s SOFIA observatory aircraft has been operating out of Christchurch, New Zealand, to capture data on Pluto’s atmosphere via star transit spectrometry – and on 14 July, some 3662 days after leaving Earth, the New Horizons probe will storm past Pluto and its family of moons.

Simulated view of Pluto and Charon - speculative only at this stage - which I made with my Celestia software.

Simulated view of Pluto and Charon – speculative only at this stage – which I made with Celestia.

It’s our first visit to that world – and last, for the foreseeable future. And what an achievement! That probe is the fastest object ever built by humanity, and it’s already returned new data about the Pluto system. In the weeks after the encounter, as it transmits its hoard of information back – New Horizons will revolutionise everything we know about that remote world and its moons. Always assuming it doesn’t bang into anything, of course. At 51,500 km/h, an encounter with a grain of sand would do serious mischief. The fact that Pluto has one giant moon – Charon – and four smaller ones suggests the system might have been formed by an ancient collision, and there could be debris along the encounter path.

Pluto and Charon on 25 and 27 June 2015. Public domain, NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Click to enlarge.

The real thing: Pluto and Charon on 25 and 27 June 2015. Public domain, NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Yup, Pluto’s a red planet. Click to enlarge.

On the other hand, JPL officials are fairly sure the risk is minimal. The NASA team under Alan Stern used New Horizons’ long-range imager (LORRI) to look ahead for debris on 22, 23 and 26 June, concluding that the intended path ahead was safe. The Pluto system is in a state of gravitational resonance, which means any debris is expected to be clustered in discrete positions. Mostly.

New Horions' track through the Pluto system. Public domain, NASA/JPL.

New Horizons’ track through the Pluto system. Public domain, NASA/JPL.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the word ‘dwarf planet’. That’s because I think it’s a stupid definition. It was voted in by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, on the last day of a conference when just over 400 delegates out of 10,000 in the Union remained to vote. Some 237 voted for a resolution defining ‘planet’ in terms that meant Pluto and a lot of other new Kuiper belt objects, and Ceres, were ‘dwarf planets’. The nays totalled 157, so the fact is that Pluto was demoted on a majority of 80, in a motion where 95 percent of members did not vote at all. To me, that’s not particularly valid – and I’m far from the only one to think that. However, despite a meme circulating Facebook to the contrary, it hasn’t been rescinded.

Part of the public howl of protest was driven by the fact that Pluto – from its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, right up until 2006 – was always the ninth planet. Walt Disney renamed Goofy’s dog Rover after it. Pluto became iconic – to the people of the mid-twentieth century, the last, lonely world out on the edge of our solar system (probably). It was a social definition. And then suddenly 237 scientists out of 10,000 killed a popular idea that been integral with society for 76 years.

But in any case, the definition of ‘planet’ on which the IAU voted is a rubbish one. Among other things, it requires the planet to have ‘cleared’ its vicinity of debris. Even Jupiter doesn’t match that, thanks to its Trojan asteroids. And to me, it has a philosophical problem: it’s trapped by the requirement in western thought to compartmentalise – to divide a complex and often smoothly gradiated universe into sharply defined categories.

Frequently it’s an ill-fit, and the IAU definition of ‘planet’ is no exception. The problem is that the reality of our solar system, particularly as it unfolded for us from 1992 (specifically), clearly defies such classification. Trying to jam its different contents into pre-defined ‘scientific’ categories misleads, because the bits of rock, dust, ice and gases that orbit the Sun in various ways are more complex than this.

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

This week’s mega short-story challenge

This week’s writing challenge revolves around a photo I took of this oyster-catcher looking for its lunch on a mussel-covered rock.

Use the photo to inspire a 150-200 word super-short story – a proper one, with beginning, middle, end and punchline (all super-short stories gotta have a punchline) – and post it on your blog, with the prompt photo and a link back to this blog for others to pick up and join in the fun. of course the story can be about anything, but please keep it seemly!

Ex-dinosaur out to lunch...

Ex-dinosaur out to lunch…

According to the current theory, all dinosaurs didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago. The surviving branch of their family are still with us today, and we usually serve the domesticated variety deep fried with secret spices. Inspiring? Possibly. But also a little scary.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Is the APA’s ‘internet gaming disorder’ really a fair label for ordinary gamers?

The American Psychiatric Association recently called for study into a condition they call ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’. My gripe? However much it’s been intellectualised, ‘psychiatry’ is not a science because its diagnoses depend on personal opinion, not on testable (technically, ‘falsifiable’) empirical criteria. Where somebody is obviously in trouble, that’s not a problem. But for normal people who end up labelled ‘faulty’ because their behaviour appears to match whatever society’s latest transient panic happens to be, it is.

Screen shot from Id's classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey...

Trust me, I’m a psychologist…

That’s the issue. There are often genuine reasons to be concerned. But social panics are also triggered by nothing more than reaction to change. And all I can see is that the ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ scale will be turned into yet another intellectualised device for social control by which ‘psychiatrists’ validate their own sense of self-worth at the expense of normal people, this time targeting the behaviour of a generation who spend their time interacting with each other on screen instead of face to face.

Don’t forget, it’s only forty years since the APA tried to classify ‘introversion’ as a disorder.

You can imagine what would have happened if they’d succeeded. Suddenly, introverts – who we know today are a normal part of the human spectrum – would have been told their basic nature was a clinical abnormality. Then they’d be ‘cured’ by relentless assaults on their self-worth and by being forced to spend as much time as possible trying to engage with large groups of people and then told how faulty they were for not coping. After all, it’s ‘normal’ to get energy from socialising in large groups, so just go out and do it, and learn how to make yourself a ‘normal’ person, and it’s your fault if you fail, because it proves you didn’t try hard enough and are personally worthless.

Obviously there are genuine psychiatric illnesses – which are diagnosable and treatable – but I can’t help thinking that others are defined by pop-social criteria, given gloss by the unerring ability humanity has to intellectualise itself into fantasy. This was certainly true in the early-mid twentieth century, when ‘psychology’ emerged from a specific German intellectual sub-culture, as a reaction to the pop-social sexual mores of the day. This emerging pseudo-science, styling itself a true science (but not, because of the failure to meet falsifiability criteria), keyed into a period mind-set that sought to reduce a multi-shaded universe – including the human condition – to arbitrary and polarised categories.

The key false-premise that gave ‘psychology’ its power was the supposition that everybody – with the exception of the ‘psychologist’ – was ‘psychologically defective’. Neurotic. This was never questioned. When fed into period conformity to social imperatives, it meant that ‘psychology’ was less a tool for discoveries about the human condition as a means for bullying normal people who didn’t exactly meet narrow and often artificially (socially transiently) defined behaviours. That spoke more about the nature of period society and the personal insecurities of the ‘psychologists’ than about human reality.1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_med

The concept of ‘psychiatry’ emerged, in part, from the union of this pseudo-scientific illusion with medicine; and I am not sure things have changed today – for instance, one available diagnosis today is “ODD” (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), which is an obvious label with which a ‘psychologist’ can invalidate the last-ditch defence of someone who’s come to them for help and doesn’t submit to their ego and power.

What of the idea that ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ is worth investigating? In a social sense internet gaming is a specialised framework for interaction – a way in which people, often on different sides of the world, associate with each other. The framework is very specific, and mediated by computer.

To me this is a key issue, because I suspect a lot of gamers are also introverts; and the computer enables them to interact with others without losing energy. Gaming also frames a specific sub-culture. Those in it respect the status of achievement within those terms. The computer enables them to interact, and to validate that particular interaction with people they respect. Of course this doesn’t describe the whole life, personalities or social interactions of people who happen to spend time gaming; but validation in various ways is one of the drivers of the human condition; and another is the desire of strangers to validate themselves by taking that away – bullying, which (alas) I think is probably also innate.

That’s why I have alarm bells going when I find the APA trying to call computer gaming a disorder.

Obviously gamers cover a wide spectrum, and no doubt a proportion who focus on it will do it excessively, for various reasons – perhaps including trying to get away from being bullied. But in the main, I suspect life is well in hand and gaming is simply a way of socialising via an abstract medium. The problem I have is that the APA’s question risks all gamers being swept up in a catch-all label of ‘disorder’, just like ‘introverts’ nearly were forty years ago, along with left-handers and anybody else who didn’t conform to ‘psychologically’ normal.

I should add – I don’t game. I would, if I had the time, the co-ordination skills – and an internet service that had a competitive ping-time. I don’t. But in any event, that’s not the issue I’m concerned with today.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Peter Jackson’s re-definition of awesome – the Gallipoli diorama, close up

Last weekend I visited Sir Peter Jackson’s giant diorama of New Zealand’s attack on Chunuk Bair at the height of the Gallipoli campaign in August 1915. Giant? You betcha. With 5000 custom-posed 54-mm figures, individually painted by volunteer wargamers from around New Zealand, the only word is wow! Here are my photos.

The only word is wow... Close-up I took hand-held with my SLR...

The only word is wow… Close-up I took hand-held with my SLR…

Tail of the diorama - which filled an immense room.

Tail of the diorama.

The whole thing was assembled by Weta Workshop. The project was overseen by a former head of the Defence Force  Lt-Gen Rhys Jones. The models, made for the project by Perry Miniatures, include special custom figures – William Malone, commanding the New Zealand forces atop the hill, is recognisable. So too are some of the artists who contributed. Blogging friend Roly Hermans – ‘Arteis’ – is one of them.

So for me there was a good deal of anticipation – but my wife and I missed the opening by a day when we first visited Jackson’s First World War exhibition, and it was only last weekend we finally got to see it.

To say I was blown away is an understatement. The hills of Chunuk Bair – an exact replica of the real terrain – stretched out before me in 1/32 scale, studded with foliage and people.  The model was enormous. I scrabbled to re-set my camera. What particularly blew me away was the attention to detail – including no-holds-barred representations of casualties. Woah!

This is just a PART of the whole thing. Wow!

This is just a PART of the whole thing. Wow!

Another section of this immense diorama.

Another section of this immense diorama – all behind glass, of course.

The battle for Chunuk Bair has long been considered New Zealand’s defining moment – when we ‘came of age’ as a nation. As a historian I dispute that those of the day saw it that way immediately – it emerged afterwards. But that’s not to dispute its validity. The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, in part on the back of Maurice Shadbolt’s play ‘Once On Chunuk Bair’, which rehabilitated the image of Malone; but also buoyed by New Zealand’s re-invention of itself as a proper nation on the world stage – rather than a dependent appendage of Britain.

Here's Colonel William Malone - custom-modelled - just behind the ridge at Chunuk Bair. Another hand-held closeup I took with my zoom...

Here’s Colonel William Malone – custom-modelled – just behind the ridge at Chunuk Bair. Another hand-held closeup I took with my zoom, provoking various depth-of-field issues…

Chunuk Bair was the main effort to break out of the lodgement above Anzac Cove and reach the forts on the far side of the Gallipoli peninsula – the original first-day objective of the landings back in April 1915. It failed, though only just. At the time, Malone became scapegoat – and the near-miss aspects of the battle fed into the deep national inferiority complex of the day (‘most dutiful of Britain’s children’ rather than ‘confident emerging nation’), creating a mythology of New Zealand – especially militarily – as a nation of also-rans.

Another hand-held close-up of the diorama...

Detail from another hand-held close-up I took of the diorama…

A friend of mine, Chris Pugsley, subsequently dislodged that idea altogether in his book Gallipoli (Reed 1985) – which remains in print today and where he defined not just a new view of New Zealand’s Gallipoli campaign, but a new way of approaching military history.

Some of the nearly 5000 miniatures - all individually painted and many custom-posed - that feature in the diorama.

Some of the nearly 5000 miniatures – all individually painted and many custom-posed – that feature in the diorama.

I covered Gallipoli myself, later, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010), which looked at the way the war experience destroyed innocence. And one of the vehicles for that, on Gallipoli, was Chunuk Bair. So it was doubly amazing for me to be able to look at this amazing diorama, and think back to the accounts I’d read of the time – the desperation, the heroism, the arguments, and the dangers of a battlefield that could be swept from end to end by machine gun fire.

Quite apart from the fact that we’ve now got this totally awesome model of it – right here in New Zealand.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Another super-short mega story writing challenge

Here’s another super-short story writing challenge.

Use the photo to inspire a 150-200 word story – a proper one, with beginning, middle, end and punchline (all super-short stories gotta have a punchline) – and post it on your blog, with the prompt photo and a link back to this blog for others to pick up and join in the fun.

Sunset over Wellington district after a storm.

Sunset over Wellington district after a storm.

As for the picture itself – well, it’s a photo I took of the sunset sky after an storm swept the Wellington district. The turbulent conditions generated an unprecedented display of colour and cloud. Are you ready? Set… Go!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Is Russia stirring up the moon landing loon conspiracies?

It seems this week that Russia’s ‘Investigating Committee’ wants an investigation into the US moon landings of 1969-72 – not so much to reveal them as fake, but to find out where missing moon rocks have gone.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment - a device to measure the wind from the sun. Public domain, NASA.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment – a device to measure the wind from the sun. Public domain, NASA.

I know where one is – a scrap weighing less than 1 gm, which is in the Carter Observatory in Wellington, New Zealand. (‘We don’ want your moonrock, silly English k’nigget. We already got one. It’s ver’ nice.’) However, apparently other small fragments – such as the one in the Netherlands Rijksmuseum – have been tested and found to be fake. NASA, it seems, lost track of some of its gifts.

I expect this will fire up the conspiracy camp. You know, the loons who pore over pictures of the lunar expeditions looking to ‘prove’ that NASA and the 400,000 expert professional engineers, scientists, and everybody else in the US who were directly involved in the Apollo project spent billions faking the landings, yet were so incompetent they made kiddie-grade mistakes. For instance, getting the studio lighting wrong or forgetting to put jet-blast spall under the landing motor, none of which were noticed noticed at the time – including by the Soviets – but which are somehow blatantly obvious to the conspiracy theorists.

I mention the Soviets because they lost the moon landing race, big time. And the Cold War was in full swing – prestige was at stake and the whole reason for the race in the first place was to fight that war by abstraction and proxy. If there had been the slightest hint that the Americans had faked anything – well, the ‘gotcha’ from Moscow would have been audible around the world.

Apollo 12 lifting off. The SIV stage is the one just clear of the tower. Moments after this photo was taken, spacecraft and tower were hit by lightning. Photo: NASA http://www.hq.nasa.gov/ alsj/a12/ ap12-KSC-69PC-672.jpg

Apollo 12 lifting off. The Saturn SIV stage is the one just clear of the tower. Moments after this photo was taken, spacecraft and tower were hit by lightning. Photo: NASA http://www.hq.nasa.gov/ alsj/a12/ ap12-KSC-69PC-672.jpg

As I’ve mentioned before, there WAS a lunar landing conspiracy at the time – but it wasn’t American. It was Soviet. The problem was that, although John F Kennedy threw down the gauntlet in 1961, there was no commitment to respond, at first, in the Soviet hierarchy. When the Politburo did allow work towards a moon mission, it was late, underfunded, and the effort was split between rival design bureaux, all of whom had their own ideas. Still, it’s possible they might still have done it – perhaps, at least, been first to orbit the Moon, in 1968 – had Sergei Korolev not died in 1966.

To call Korolev a genius is an understatement. He was a brilliant, brilliant designer and a hands-on engineer, directly responsible for orbiting Sputnik in 1957 and then Vostok – with Yuri Gagarin aboard – in 1961, giving the Soviets an dramatic early lead in the ‘space race’ as a direct result of his personal attention to every bolt, wire, system and joint in the rockets and spacecraft developed by his bureau. Stuff worked because Korolev was tweaking it. And his fundamentals were sound: his Soyuz rocket (nee R7/A1) and Soyuz spacecraft remain in use today – updated, modified and developed, but still his basic design.

Without him, his bureau lost direction. They never did solve problems with their giant N-1 booster. But the pressure was on, and with the Apollo programme back on track by early 1968, the Soviets floated plans to put a manned mission into lunar orbit late that year. The CIA was aware of the plan, tipping off NASA – which prompted the daring Apollo 8 mission, only the second flight of Apollo, that put Americans into lunar orbit in December. The Soviet effort failed when the N-1 exploded on test launch.

F-1 motor firing on test. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Saturn first-stage F-1 motor firing on test. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

In July 1969 the Soviets tried a last-ditch ploy, despatching a robot probe to return lunar soil to Earth before Apollo 11. It also failed – and once Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin were back on Earth, the Soviets denied they had ever been in the moon race at all. Never. Nix. Not ever.

In fact, they had all the hardware – including a huge lunar roving vehicle, Lunokhod, that they later sent for an unmanned mission. Today their lunar lander – which reached unmanned test-flight stage – is on display in Moscow.  The spacesuits used on the ISS today are descendants of the Kretchet design intended for lunar EVA.

And some of the motors built for the ill-fated N-1 programme have been used in (wait for it) American launch vehicles – stored for 30 years and then used. Some of them blew up, but that didn’t reduce the fact that they’d originally been built to take Soviets to the Moon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

A dieselpunk short story writing challenge

Here’s another super-short writing challenge.

Use the photo to inspire a 150-200 word super-short story – a proper one, with beginning, middle, end and punchline (all super-short stories gotta have a punchline) – and post it on your blog, with the prompt photo and a link back to this blog for others to pick up and join in the fun.

Coffee cart in an Airstream caravan, Napier, New Zealand - open for business...

Coffee cart in an Airstream caravan, Napier, New Zealand – open for business… http://www.mjwrightnz.wordpress.com

This is an Airstream caravan, made into a coffee cart, in Napier, New Zealand. Usually I don’t suggest topics, but this time – well, this cart is SO Flash Gordon dieselpunk SF era it’s not funny. And so that’s today’s theme. Yup – Flash opens a coffee bar on Mongo… (well, not really…)

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015