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

3D printed steak chips? It’s enough to make me go all hippy and vegetarian…

Human inventiveness seems limitless these days, so I wasn’t surprised to discover the other week that food technologists have been experimenting with 3d printed meat – currently produced, at astronomical expense, in the shape of chips.

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

I’ll have my chicken free-range and wild, thanks…

Artificial food has been a long-standing SF staple – brilliantly played by Arthur C. Clarke in his hilarious 1961 satire ‘Food Of The Gods’. All food in this future was synthesised to the point where the very idea of eating something once alive had become offensive. Even the word ‘carnivore’ had to be spelt, lest it nauseate listeners, and synthetic meat had names unassociated with animals. In classic Clarke fashion, of course, there was a twist. Food synthesisers could produce anything. And there was this synth-meat called ‘Ambrosia Plus’, which sold like hotcakes until a rival company found out what the prototype was… (I won’t spoil the fun other than to point out that there’s a verb for a specific sort of meat-eating starting with ‘c’, and it isn’t ‘carnivore’.)

In the real world, 3D printed meat isn’t synthetic – it’s made of actual animal muscle cells which are artificially bred and then sprayed, in layers, to produce the product. Currently it’s a lab technique and the obvious challenge for its gainsayers is to find ways of industrialising it. Also of getting customers past the ‘ewwww’ factor of eating animal tissue bred in a petri dish and vomited into chip shape through a nozzle.

To my mind the key challenge is identifying the total energy requirement – printed meat may NOT be as efficient as current ‘natural’ methods of getting meat to your dinner table, where a large part of the energy comes from sunlight, via a grassy paddock and the digestive systems of ruminants.

Mercifully, we haven’t been told ‘This Is The Way ALL Meat Will Be Eaten In Future’, ‘The Future Is Now’ and other such dribble. Predictions of that sort pivot off the ‘recency effect’, by which whatever just happened is seen as far more important than it really is when set against the wider span of history. We fall into that trap quite often – often, these days, over products launched on the back of commercial ambition. What really happens is that the ‘way of the future’ idea joins a host of others. All of these then blend together and react with society in ways that eventually – and usually generationally – produces changes, but inevitably not the ones predicted by the ‘Future Is Here’ brigade.

In one of the ironies of the way we usually imagine our future, things that do dramatically change the way we live – such as the internet – are often not seen coming, or touted as game-changers. Certainly not in the way that food pills, flying cars and the cashless society have been.

As for artificial meat – well, I expect that if – IF – it can be industrialised, it’ll find a home in hamburger patties. But there seems little chance of it being mistaken for the real deal, still less supplanting a delicious slab of dead cow seared sirloin on the dinner table.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

My sneaky crusade to play “Louie Louie”, and why it failed

Jack Ely died last week. Jack who? The guy who sang “Louie Louie” for the Kingsmen, back in 1963. His rendition was so garbled the CIA investigated the song for seditious content. Which was a bit of a waste because actually, there’s nothing to the lyrics of ‘Louie Louie’. I mean – nothing. They’re moronic. So’s the music, which is a three-chord ostinato riff.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths. Hard to play ‘Louie Louie’ on as it’s monophonic.

It’s a few years now since I went on a crusade to sneakily play it on famous public instruments – you know, the glockenspiel in the clock tower at Brugges, (No!), the 200-year old piano in the commander’s house at Port Arthur, Tasmania (No!), and so on (No! No! No!).

And yet – and yet – Berry’s little ditty’s gone down as one of the enduring classics of the rock era. It’s been covered by just about everybody – Motorhead, Black Flag, The Troggs, Led Zepp, and somewhere in my dusty CD collection I’ve even got the funk version Stanley Clarke and George Duke released in 1986.

The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ is the exact same I-IV-iv chord progression. So is Frank Zappa’s ‘Plastic People’, but with one extra note. And so is Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Socks Spirit’. Played backwards, it turns into Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ or the opening riff to ‘Joy To The World’ (same chords in reverse order).

How come? Well, the clue’s in the fact that a 35,000 year old bone flute, dug up a little while ago in Europe, is quite capable of playing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. It didn’t have to be, but the cave-dwelling types who made it put the stop-holes in exactly the right places to play music built around today’s twelve-tone scale. And the theory is that this isn’t coincidence. Humans, arguably, are hard-wired to like music built around those pitches.

Richard Berry’s three-chord anthem, in short, hit the spot. The lyrics – which, truth be told, are a vapid story of some guy named Louie trying to get back to Jamaica to reunite with his girl – didn’t matter a jot.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Time’s no illusion – unlike gravity. Weird but true!

It seems axiomatic these days, especially among the quantum woo set, to call ‘time’ an illusion – a perception. Of course this is scientific rubbish. There’s no question that humans perceive time in many ways, but in terms of physics time IS real, independent of how we sense its passage.

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it wa captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it wa captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Unlike gravity. That’s the irony, you see. Gravity’s an illusion? Why? Short answer is that the universe is actually weirder than the woo brigade know. Let me explain. According to our friend Albert Einstein, gravity doesn’t exist as a force. Of course, you might have a bit of difficulty imagining gravity is an illusion if you’ve just gone for a gutser down the front steps. But trust me – it is.

Here’s how it works.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – coming up for its centenary and proven to be true, without exception, every time it’s tested – shows that space and time are one entity. A four-dimensional reality with up-down, left-right, forward-back and time.

This space-time fabric is distorted by mass/energy (the same thing in terms of how the universe works). The usual metaphor is to imagine a rubber sheet. Mass/energy can be envisaged as a bowling ball dropped into the sheet. It’ll sag, stretching and curving the rubber.

This rubber sheet, remember, reflects not just space but also time. Consequently, a large mass (or a lot of energy) alters the rate at which time passes. You experience that every day on your phone – its GPS relies on GPS satellites, which have to account for the difference in the rate of time between Earth’s surface and the altitude the satellite’s orbiting at. Time dilation is also caused by the velocity difference between the satellite and Earth’s surface – a function of Einstein’s earlier theory, Special Relativity – which adds to the mix.

GPS works by micro-precise time measurement. If the satellites didn’t take account of Einsteinian frame-dragging, they couldn’t pin the position of your phone to a few metres.

So. Time’s real. What about gravity? Well, that’s the kicker. All-round smart guy Sir Isaac Newton, co-inventor of calculus among other things, identified a relationship between mass and gravity. The larger the mass, the more gravity it has. Simple.

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.

Newton’s theory worked perfectly well, even allowing mathematicians of the early nineteenth century to predict the presence of a new planet – Neptune – from the way it affected Uranus’ orbit. But there were points where it didn’t work. Mercury had orbital characteristics that couldn’t be fully explained by the tugs of all the known planets.

For a while, astronomers theorised there was another world inside Mercury’s orbit – Vulcan. But it could never be found. And then Einstein’s theory came along, and the whole need for Vulcan went away.

Gravity, Einstein explained, wasn’t a force at all. It was a function of mass, sure – but not quite the way Newton thought.

Instead, Einstein calculated, gravity was an effect of the curvature of space-time. Particles would always try to take the shortest route between two places. However, if space-time was curved, they’d be forced to take a curved path. The difference was what we perceived as gravity, an effect intimately associated with mass or – and this is the kicker – energy.

Energy? Sure. Special Relativity showed that mass and energy were different aspects of the same thing (a little mass = a LOT of energy – and go on, you KNOW the equation).

Enough energy, in short, would also distort space-time and, in effect, create its own ‘gravity’. And this was where Mercury came in. The pertubations in its orbit, according to Einstein, weren’t caused by a hidden planet. They were caused by the energy of the Sun itself, acting as an additional distortion in space-time. In 1919 that prediction was borne out when some very precise measurements were taken of Mercury’s position during a transit of the Sun. It was exactly where General Relativity said it should be, if gravity was actually a product of the curvature of space-time.

This was the first proof of the theory – and, as we’ve seen, it’s been shown to be true every which way, ever since.

Gravity, in short, wasn’t a force of itself; it was a function of the way space-time was distorted by mass/energy. This also explained why you couldn’t have anti-gravity, because gravity wasn’t a real force with polarity. It was a structural product of the way the universe worked, but not something real of itself.

The biggest question that came out of this, of course, wasn’t whether gravity was real, which it obviously wasn’t – but why time seemed to move only in one direction. And that’s something that hasn’t been answered. Yet.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Do Nazi super soldiers have non-Nazi parts?

The other day somebody found my blog with a search string that I just had to commemorate in the title of this post.

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

Zombie Robo Hitler? Well, it could be. This is from Id’s 1992 shooter ‘Wolfenstein 3D’. Which wasnt actually 3D, but hey…

The present tense worried me. Does somebody out there, you know – know something? I’ve always suspected that the Nazi leadership might have escaped in April 1945, perhaps using one of their atomic Luftwaffe UFOs, and even now are lurking in a secret Antarctic base, plotting a hideous revenge on the world.

Before we know it, their deranged super-soldiers – led, naturally, by zombie robo-Hitler – will be surging northwards to unleash new horror on the world. My worry is that my country, New Zealand, is likely to be in their way. I mean, the Nazis have had it in for us ever since the battle at Minqar Qa’im.

As for how many parts of their super-soldiers are ‘non-Nazi‘? Well, that depends on whether they decided to sub-contract to the cheapest third-party manufacturer, maybe a factory somewhere that sweat-shops T-shirts, evil atomic-powered knee joints, domestic appliances, biscuits, evil nuclear death ray projectors and so on.

The fact that outsourcing to the lowest bidder increases the chance of robo-Stormtroopers shorting out 38 seconds after the inevitable “Hände hoch, Neuseeländer schweine!” doesn’t alleviate my unease. The Nazis re-defined evil. Yet nobody has bothered to go looking for that secret Antarctic base. In fact, people laugh uproariously or look at you funny if you suggest it. But suppose it’s true? I mean, nobody’d care if they occupied Dipton. But if they get further north? It’s a worry.

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