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

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 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 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

How much is that book in the window?

Last week The Little Bookshop in Napier, New Zealand, devoted an entire window display to my books – 14 titles, out of the 52 I’ve written and published over the past 30 years or so.

My books in the window...

My books in the window…

Outside the Little Bookshop...

Outside the Little Bookshop…

The display included books of mine that are long out of print and unavailable anywhere else. It doesn’t happen for authors very often. The shop is anything but little, incidentally – it has one of the best antiquarian selections I’ve seen anywhere in New Zealand. Good stuff. I liked it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

What would YOU say to aliens before the apocalypse hits us?

Efforts are under way to crowd-source a message for putative future aliens, to be uploaded to the New Horizons probe after it completes its historic mission to Pluto and (possibly) another object in the Kuiper belt.

New Horizons is the fifth object we’ve sent on a one-way journey out of the solar system, and the only one not to have a message aboard.

Artists' concept of New Horizons' encounter with Pluto, mid-2015. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artists’ concept of New Horizons’ encounter with Pluto, mid-2015. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Its predecessors, Pioneers 10 and 11, had a plaque; and Voyagers 1 and 2 were equipped with analogue record – with stylus.

The chance of any of this actually being found by aliens is, of course, vanishingly small. None of the probes are headed to any specific star – their departure from the Sun’s neighbourhood is a by-product of the fact that they were accelerated beyond solar escape speed as a way of keeping transit times down to their targets in the outer solar system.

Still, it’s an intriguing thought to suppose that, millions of years hence, Thog the Blob from Ursa Major might happen across one of these probes and – if the messages haven’t been eroded over thousands of millennia by interstellar radiation and dust, or the soft-copy on New Horizons lost to quantum tunnelling, maybe they’ll get a bit of an insight into a long-lost species on a far distant world.

Long lost? Sure. And that brings me to the message that might be uploaded to New Horizons. You know:

Message to aliens, affixed to Pioneer 10. It included images of humans, a route map of the probe's journey out of the Solar System, and information on the spin state of hydrogen.  Public domain, NASA, from

Message to aliens, affixed to Pioneer 10. It included images of humans, a route map of the probe’s journey out of the Solar System, and information on the spin state of hydrogen. Public domain, NASA, from

Dear Alien. Greetings from Planet Earth. We call ourselves human, but you probably knew that already because, by the time you’ve seen this, we’ll have conquered the visible universe and made it a better place for all. Whatever problem we face – global warming, warfare, whatever – we’ll get together and work co-operatively to fix it, in a spirit of happiness and generosity, and get on with making the universe a better place for everybody who shares it. Love from Humanity.

Or, more realistically:

Dear Alien. Greetings from Planet Earth. By the time you read this, we’ll be so long gone even our cities will be mere smears of residue in the dirt. We have this delusion that we’re special, but we never stop being stupid, stupid apes. We fight each other all the time over territories – intellectual, ideological or physical – for reasons that often don’t make sense outside a narrow imperative of personal validation or other equally selfish motive. We get hung up on status, defined often by wasteful practises that produce nothing or lead to us fighting each other. We exploit and pollute every environment we go near, until it’s destroyed – and often then go and fight each other.

“We’re good at it. Our history is littered with broken environments, lost kingdoms, wars, disputes, and a litany of inhumanity to ourselves. No matter how much we call on ourselves to care, to be thoughtful, to be tolerant, we always seem to lose track of the point. And our problem now is that we’ve run out of planet to exploit, pollute and fight over, and none of us can agree on ways to fix the problem. We haven’t got long. We hope your species, whatever it is, has a better way. Love from Humanity.

Which one do you think is more likely? And what’s your thought on the way we should advertise ourselves to aliens?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

And now Kiwis are facing a potential mega-quake and tsunami. But of course…

This week’s news that a previously unsuspected magnitude 8+ mega-quake could hit central New Zealand and then douse the place with tsunami isn’t too surprising to me. I wrote the most recent pop-sci book on our earthquakes. It was published by Penguin Random House last year.

Living On Shaky Ground 200 pxWhile I was writing the book I had a chat with a seismologist at the University of Canterbury, who pointed out that New Zealand is staring down the barrel of some fairly large tectonic guns. The big one on land is the Alpine Fault, which ruptures with 8+ intensity every few hundred years. The last big rupture was in the 1770s, meaning another is due about now – the probability of it happening before 2100 is around 92 percent.

Another risk factor is the Taupo volcano – another product of tectonic plate collision. This is one of the biggest volcanoes on the planet, and evidence is that a monster eruption about 27,000 years ago threw the world into an ice age. It’s got every potential to wreak similar havoc again – check out Piper Bayard’s awesome novel Firelands for her take on what might happen in the US when Taupo next ‘blows’ the world climate. We won’t mention New Zealand’s likely fate in that scenario…

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

Me in ‘science writing’ mode. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

But New Zealand also faces another major tectonic challenge, the Hikurangi Trench, a subduction zone where the Pacific plate plunges under the Australian, off the coast of the North Island. My contact at Canterbury pointed out that this is the other big gun – a potential 8+ quake followed by tsunami that could wipe out the east coast of the North Island.

That’s where the new study comes in. It’s already known that the Southern Hikurangi Margin – the plate collision between Cook Strait and Cape Turnagain – is locked, meaning strains are building up. When they break, it’s going to be devastating – a quake of magnitude 8.4 – 8.7, triggering massive onshore destruction from Napier to Blenheim, followed by tsunami. Now, it seems, this region generates such quakes a couple of times a millennium. Two have been identified; one 880-800 years ago, a second 520-470 years ago.

This picture of post-quake Napier isn't well known; it is from my collection and was published for the first time in the 2006 edition of my book Quake- Hawke's Bay 1931.

This picture of post-quake Napier isn’t well known; it is from my collection and was published for the first time in the 2006 edition of my book ‘Quake- Hawke’s Bay 1931′.

Uh – yay. On the other hand, it doesn’t really change the risk factors. New Zealand shakes. The end. The issue isn’t worrying – it’s quantifying the risk, which is why work to explore past quakes is so important.

The report also highlights something for me. The discovery that a mega-thrust quake hit central New Zealand somewhere between 1495 and 1545 – seems to unravel one mystery that has long puzzled me. At a date usually put down to roughly around 1460, plus or minus, New Zealand was riven by a rapid-fire succession of great earthquakes, all thought to be over magnitude 7.5 and most over magnitude 8. They included movement on the Alpine fault, another movement in Wellington that turned Miramar into a peninsula, and another in Hawke’s Bay where a dramatic down-thrust created the Ahuriri lagoon.

Things get a bit vague when sorting out timing because the traces of past quakes are difficult to date beyond a broad range of possible dates.

The Wellington event was so huge it went down in Maori oral tradition – Haowhenua, the Land Swallower. Why swallower? That was odd, given the quake was an upthrust – but actually, it DID eat land that counted to Maori. Massive tsunami flooded the southern North Island coasts, inundating important gardens near Lake Onoke on the south of the Wairarapa. In short, swallowing the land. I was, I believe, the first one to publish that explanation, not that anybody noticed. But I digress.

The point is that the date-range for the “1460” series overlaps the date range for the newly discovered mega-thrust quake – which included tsunami. And it explains why New Zealand was, apparently, hit by so many large quakes in quick succession. Even if they were not the same event – and, seismologically, they probably weren’t – the way strains and stresses redistribute after a major quake is well known to be liable to trigger another. Is that what actually happened? Research is ongoing. We’ll see.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Chickenosaurus lives! But should we really play God with genes?

In what has to be one of the biggest ‘ewwww-factor’ experiments in a while, paleontologists at Yale recently tweaked chicken DNA to give the birds toothed jaws, a bit like Velociraptor. Although there was a lot of work involved in finding out which two DNA strands to tamper with, the process apparently didn’t add anything to the chicken genome – it merely switched off protein-inhibitors that stopped existing genes from working.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

“I used to be a chicken. Now I’m a fake GMO Velociraptor. And I’m MAD!”

The result was dino-jaws instead of a beak. The fact that this could be done has been known since 2011. It’s just – well, the actual doing of it is a bit mad. We don’t know what gene-tampering will produce, and the team who did it were surprised by the extent of the changes they produced – the birds also developed dino-palates.

Still, this is just a lab test. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Uh…yah…

It’s like this folks. Sure, science is cool. We wouldn’t have all the things we enjoy today without it. But sometimes, it goes overboard. And to me, this is one of those moments. OK, we can do it – but should we play God? We don’t actually know the consequences, and it worries me that we might find out the hard way.

I’m not talking horror movies – I doubt we’ll end up with Chickenosaurs lurking in dark corners, waiting to leap out on hapless humans, Jurassic Franchise style. But genetics can so often throw curve balls. What else does that genetic alteration do? We don’t know – and when we push the edges, when we industrialise science we don’t fully understand, bad shit happens, usually out of left field. The words ‘thalidomide’ (‘stops morning sickness’), radium (‘go on, lick the brush before you hand-paint the watch dial’) and one or two other tragic miscalculations spring to mind.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Plus side (a very, very small plus side) is that it looks like some science has come out of the experiment – specifically, how birds developed beaks rather than the toothed jaws of other dinosaurs. But that particular discovery, surely, didn’t need us to make a mutant Dinochicken to nail it home. We already know that birds didn’t ‘evolve from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs; a specialist flying variety, but dinosaurs through and through. Just this year, paleontologists pushed back the likely origin of birds, meaning they lived alongside their cousins for much of the Jurassic and Cretaceous epochs – underscoring the fact that they were simply another variety, rather than descendants, of the dinosaur family.

The compelling picture has long since emerged showing how this all worked. Dinosaurs first emerged during the Triassic epoch. They differed from mammals and lizards, and though initially they were lizard-like (as were mammals – think ‘Synapsids’), dinosaurs developed their own unique form over time. They had pneumatised bones; many appear to have had feathers for insulation and display; they seem to have been warm-blooded; they laid eggs in nests and they slept with their head tucked under one arm. Many were bipedal, their mostly horizontal bodies balanced by long tails; and we know their arms were feathered – becoming wings in the flying variety.

Guanlong Wucaii - an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Guanlong Wucaii – an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Many dinosaur families, we now think, became progressively more like modern birds in appearance as time went on. By the Cretaceous period, many dinosaur types – certainly to judge by their fossils – couldn’t fly, but they were bipedal, glossy feathered and brightly coloured. Troodonts, for instance. We also think some had wattles, like turkeys. The feathered varieties confirmed so far include many members of the Tyrannosaur family, not all of which were the size of the one we know and love. Fact is that few dinosaurs were huge, and many species underwent a dramatic shrinking during the Cretaceous period.

Were we suddenly cast into a late Cretaceous forest, we’d find ourselves surrounded by dinosaurs – which to our eyes would look like funny (and quite small) ground-living ‘pseudo-birds’ with toothed ‘beak-like’ snouts. Other dinosaurs – recognisable to us as true birds – might also be in evidence. Birds, themselves, are thought to have lost their teeth and developed beaks around 116 million years ago, though some, such as Hesperornis, still had teeth more recently. Early birds, we think, were a bit rubbish at flying.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!

I’m on the right taking an SLR selfie while being mobbed by dinosaurs, thanks to the wonders of green screen.

When the K-T extinction event hit the planet 65 million years ago, it seems, flying dinosaurs (as in, birds) managed to survive it. They were then able to radiate out into new environmental niches, left empty by the extinction. On some of the continents, mammals also filled the niches left empty by dinosaurs. But not all.

Offshore islands – such as the New Zealand archipelago – retained their surviving dinosaur biota. And it’s intriguing that the larger New Zealand varieties – such as the moa (Dinornis)– have skeletal features and feather structure usually associated with ‘archaic’ bird fossils. They survived right up into the last millennium – succumbing, finally, when New Zealand became the last large habitable land mass on the planet to be settled by humans. And why did they die out? Alas, to judge by the industrial-scale oven complexes the Polynesian settlers built at river mouths, moa were delicious.

All of this was known well before we tried playing God with chicken genes. OK – the experiment can’t be undone. But do we need to do it again? I think not.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why does everything taste of chicken, except chicken?

I’ve always had an interest in discovering the secrets of the universe – you know, does dark matter exist, why we can’t have antigravity – and why every weird steak from crocodile to ocelot always has to taste of chicken.

Gallus gallus domesticus on Rarotonga, looking very much like the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).

Gallus gallus domesticus on Rarotonga, looking very much like the original Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).

This last has been puzzling me a lot. Not least because even chicken doesn’t taste of chicken. I found that out in 2012 when I spent a few days in Rarotonga. Over there, chickens run wild – as in, not just free range. Wild. We had one perching on our breakfast table several days in a row, hoping to be fed. They don’t get soaked in antibiotics. They don’t get imprisoned in horrible conditions before being lightly killed, dropped through a macerator, and re-constituted into Chicken Niblets. They are entirely natural. And when anybody wants chicken – let’s say to add to the khorma I bought in an Indian restaurant in Awarua – they go out and catch one.

That natural living means that Rarotongan chickens don’t taste like battery chickens. Actually, they don’t even look like battery chickens. They look more like what they actually were before humans got at them, Red Jungle Fowls, which – like every other bird – are actually a variety of flying dinosaur. Recently a geneticist even found out how to switch on the gene that makes chickens grow dino-jaws instead of a beak, a discovery welcomed by other geneticists with loud cries of ‘nooooooo!’ and similar endorsements.

Here's the diorama - Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right - yup, their close relative, Gallus Gallus. A chicken.

Think birds aren’t dinosaurs? Here’s Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right – yup, their close relative, our friend Gallus Gallus domesticus.

I conclude from all of this that (a) what we call ‘chicken’ doesn’t actually taste of chicken; and (b) if I’m to define ‘tastes of chicken’, I should be thinking of Rarotongan chickens. And I have to say that of all the unusual stuff I’ve eaten over the years, few of them taste of it. For instance:

1. Snail (restaurant in Paris, Rue de Lafayette). These don’t taste of chicken. They taste of garlic flavoured rubber bands.
2. Ostrich (dinner to mark release of one of my books). Definitely not chicken, but could have been confused for filet steak.
3. Something unidentifiable in rice (riverside in Kanchanburi) I know it was meat. It didn’t taste of chicken or, in fact, anything else. I ate it anyway.
4. Goat (my house). Absolutely not chicken. More like a sort of super-strong mutton.
5. Venison (my house). Reminiscent of liver.
6. Duck (my house). Bingo! Yes, this actually did taste of Rarotongan chicken. And duck.

I can only conclude, on this highly – er – scientific analysis, that very little actually tastes of chicken, including chicken. But I may be wrong. Have you ever eaten anything that was meant to taste of chicken – but didn’t?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015