Science is culture: Professor Lawrence Krauss

In 3rd form Science I got into an argument with my teacher. He said a vacuum contained nothing. “But” I said “even if it just contains blackness, isn’t that something?”  Dr Grant Christie introduced a large crowd to “the rock star of cosmology” Professor Lawrence Krauss who would totally have been on my side in that 3rd form argument.

What is ‘nothing’? Scientists have been working on this, as have theologians and philosophers (who Krauss dubbed “experts on nothing”).

Nothing is exciting – it is still a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles.

Here are some more of  his mind blowing, universe expanding observations:
Professor Lawrence Krauss

  • Space responds to the presence of matter and energy.
  • Universes can pop in and out of existence.
  • We are linked to the cosmos in many different ways.
  • When you spawn universes, it is the result of a phase transition.
  • After the Big Bang, the universe expanded many times faster than the speed of light.
  • Nothing can travel through space faster than light – but Space can do whatever the hell it wants.
  • If we wait long enough, everything we see will disappear.
  • 1% of static like we see on tv is radiation left over from the Big Bang.
  • The idea of dark energy is still weird and extreme and upsets people. 99% of the universe is dark matter and dark energy.
  • The language of the universe is mathematics. Language doesn’t capture those things. Maths can even describe universes we don’t live in.

Professor Krauss made a great case for scientists should be speaking at writers’ festivals:

Science is culture. Scientists change the way we think about ourselves.

Dr Christie and Professor Krauss got into an exploration of the birth of universes. If a new universe popped into existence beside us, would we be aware of it? No, as it makes its own space and time. From the outside, it would look like it is collapsing, but would be expanding on the inside.

The three initial elements of our universe were hydrogen, helium and lithium. Carbon, nitrogen and oxygen were only produced by stars. So we are all made of stars, at least in part:

You are stardust, you are star children.

Krauss makes the case for “How” questions – they are the interesting ones.  It’s even possible that the laws of physics are an accident, a kind of “cosmic natural selection”:

It’d be very unusual to live in a universe where we couldn’t live.

Cosmology has become a precision science. The next big scientific push in the field is “gravitational waves”. Krauss is right there at the scientic forefront, where things don’t fit – now, and back at the beginning of the universe.

An hour with Sebastian Barry

This afternoon’s foray to the ASB theatre to see prize-winning novelist Sebastian Barry gave me another chance to marvel anew at the challenging stage adornments.  A metalled and mottled green geometric sculpture, staunch silver gnomes and sinisterly backlit potted palms. All strangely redolent of a 1970s Doctor Who set and leaving me waiting for Tom Baker to stroll in with studied nonchalance and offer us all a jelly baby. Sadly no Tom but instead the rather wonderful Sebastion Barry.

Barry is known both for his lyrical prose and his focus on the marginalised people of Ireland’s past, particularly his own imagined ancestors. On Canaan’s Side is Barry’s fifth novel and folows the story of Lilly Bere, a member of the Dunne family previously met in his novels  Annie Dunne and A Long, Long Way. We were treated to a spirited reading from his novel and the unexpected bonus of some accomplished singing too.

His “real” family Barry characterised as dour, and his sister and himself as veterans or survivors of their family life.  As a mechanism to learn how to live and more importantly to learn how to parent his own children Barry turned to the ‘ancestors sheltering in his DNA’ and gave creative life to his forebears, writing himself a non-toxic family.

The creative process itself Barry finds mysterious. He tries to keep a “weather-eye” on the plot and hopes his maps are up-to-date and that he won’t get snarled up on the rocks. The “tangled wool basket” of his novels, plays and poetry often surprises him but loves that readers take the time to untangle the threads of the inter-woven tapestries of his work and elevate these fictional characters to an almost life.

Asked about the impact of reviews and critiques of his work, Barry compared the book world to a circus where the bearded lady once so popular is now out of fashion and the tigers once revered are now thought to look mangy and under-fed. Barry avoids reviews of his most recent work for several months, they interfere with his digestion, and then if the reviews aren’t too harsh congratulates himself on “getting away with it” like an outlaw from the wild-west having avoided the Sheriff’s bullets and the hangman’s noose.

After a slow start, Sebastian Barry delivered a witty, charming and personable performance and by gads he looked the part of playwright/novelist: unruly hair, beetled brow and tweedy slept-in suit.  Delighfully easy to imagine him striding across a tempestuous moor declaiming poetry in the company of his ghostly kin-folk.

Kathy Lette: the teflon talker!

I knew I’d love meeting up with Kathy Lette, that it would be just like talking to all my wonderful, witty, intelligent girlfriends –  and it was. We laughed over our cappuccinos  and we empathised with one another just like old chums. So although this blog is written in interview style, it was really more like a good old chat. Kick back and enjoy!

Kathy, you bring a great deal of empathy and humour to your writing. When did you first realise that you could make people laugh and that you liked that feeling?

I think it started when I was a short, red-headed teenager on the beaches at Cronulla. Surrounded by Ken and Barbie’s progeny, I knew I had to have some other trick up my trackies or I’d never get noticed.

Your books are really popular in Christchurch libraries and the question most readers wanted me to ask you is: Are you like this at home?

Yes I am! I like to keep myself entertained. It’s not that I don’t have down times, but yes I’m quipping away on the homefront as well. Remember that I spend a lot of my time working on my own, so I suppose that is when I am at my most subdued. Then I just have to get out, meet a girlfriend and have a laugh.

You’ve been billed as “a witty author who writes for women”. Do you think this pigeonholes you and that you are much more than that.

I don’t mind that description, but I do believe that in my latest book The Boy who Fell to Earth, I have tackled a far more serious topic – my son’s diagnosis with Aspergers. I did a lot of research for that book and relived a lot of the anxiety of raising an Aspergers child. OK, so I do it with humour, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it was really really tough and heartbreaking and fascinating and draining and stimulating all rolled into one. Now I can honestly say that having a child on the autistic spectrum has taught me so much that I would otherwise not have known.

Kathy Lette and blogger Roberta SmithDo you think you could be “a witty author who writes about blokes?”

I’m sure I could do it, but I wouldn’t want to. I’m rampantly feminist. Men have plenty going for them – better salaries, the old boys club, freedom from childbirth and the menopause. I don’t see why they should get me as well.

What does your son think of The Boy who Fell to Earth?

He loves it! I would never have published it without having run it past him. But he is in his twenties now (and hoping to become the world’s quirkiest sports commentator!) and he is very supportive of what this book is trying to do.

What sort of reaction have you had to The Boy who Fell to Earth from the Autistic community?

Fantastic. I have been inundated with e-mails and stories from parents (women in particular) who thank me for telling their story for them.

Your writing depends a lot on wordplay and the subtle nuances of the English language. Has your work successfully survived translation into other languages?

My books are published in 15 other languages, but the translation is very difficult. I have reams of howlers that are a direct result of mistranslation. I usually ask them to employ a comedienne to help them and to contextualise the examples to appropriate examples from their country.

Libraries – what do you feel about them?

I am passionate about libraries and reading. I can’t imagine what a world without libraries would be like. I am worried about reading though, so many young people just don’t read at all. I’m involved in World Book and have recently handed out hundreds of copies of Pride and Prejudice on the London Underground. People are so suspicious of anything free, but I just say to them: Slip between the covers of this darling!

From the lady who gave us gems such as:

“Breasts so large they have their own postcode”
“the pubic pelmet” as a description of miniskirts and titles like Foetal Attraction

I was chuffed when she wrote in the copy of my book:

Dearest Roberta

You are a literary goddess. Thank you for such a scintillating interview,

Love Kathy.

An hour with Witi Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera

I was the one standing on the side of the road when Lady Muse drove by.

It turns out Leonard Cohen is not the only person on this planet who was born with the gift of a golden voice. Witi Ihimaera is right there with him. The first Maori author to publish a novel and a volume of short stories is erudite, charismatic, amusing and entertaining. He read to us from Pounamu Pounamu and The Parihaka Woman, shared some of his life story and broke into song several times. I could have listened to him all day.

Witi Ihimaera was in conversation with Dame Fiona Kidman today. Before the authors became household names they used to sit in Courtenay Place and discuss writing with their ‘feet in the gutter and heads in the stars’. They remain close friends and the mood between them was relaxed and intimate.

Witi Ihimaera was born into a large extended family with many grandmothers. The importance of home and whanau is fundamental to his nature. As a young man, he ran away to find the world but he’s never left his home in spirit. He says, “I didn’t just love the valley and the people in my life. I was in love with them”. Despite travelling widely, he wakes every day to that valley in his mind and goes to sleep with it every night.

Gala nightFiona Kidman raised the issue of The Trowenna Sea, the 2009 novel that contains passages re-printed without acknowledgement from four sources.

Witi – ‘Who told you to bring that elephant in here?’

Fiona – ‘You did!’

Witi Ihimaera apologised unreservedly for his mistakes and was pleased to announce that his publishers are reprinting the novel with all correct attributions. Although errors were made, the author’s desire to inform readers about the injustices Maori experienced in Tasmania in the 1840s was sincere and it’s a story that needs to be told. Witi raised the point that there are only nine Maori authors in New Zealand. The meteoric success of works such as Boy, Once were warriors and The Whale Rider has put pressure on these authors to achieve highly and I can imagine this must be a heavy mantle at times.

The Parihaka WomanThe session ended with a reading from The Parihaka Woman at the heart of which is the story of his mother’s unwavering love for his father. Conceived as a libretto adapting Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, to Aotearoa, the author pushes the limits of the novel to explore new ground. It’s fascinating reading.

Love for people, love for whanau, love for home and the determination to hold on tight to what you believe in – this is heart of Witi Ihimaera’s writing. I queued at the book signing to get his autograph and when I read what he had written, I wasn’t at all surprised.

Arohanui. I hope the people keep strong in Christchurch.

The absence of hope or the habit of heroism?

Anthony McCarten signs books at the Schools ProgrammeAnthony McCarten’s Schools Programme session from Festival Thursday: I’m sitting looking at my notes, and trying to figure out where to start. Turns out my notes resemble real life in the digital world: fast, furious, and full of brightly intense images and words that flash by even before I can process them properly. So I’m going to take the easy option and do the ‘stream of consciousness’ thing at you.

If you were there, this will hopefully help you remember, and if not, come and find me and I’ll show you my scrawlings! (In conversation afterwards with Mr McCarten’s publicist, she says she might be able to get the full session notes from the man himself, so hopefully we will be able to give you a better report soon – watch this space!).

After a brief introduction from the MC (with the best instruction EVER to an audience, who have gotten into a terrible muddle with no information from the venue about how and when to move between sessions : What are you all DOING? Sit down and be quiet, or I’ll come down there and beat you …), we are off with the opening lines from Anthony, who freely acknowledges that as a 51 year old he knows far less about the internet than they do, but that they need to think of him as a huge fan who is offering constructive feedback about a loved one.  And now the thoughts come thick and fast:

One piece of advice – be nice to nerds. We old folk are now living in the equivalent of Vichy France, occupied in our own country by supposedly benign dictators.  We are saturated with newness, looking at the Kindle-ing of literature (how’s the book? Great – I’m 32% of the way through it). Told to want things we don’t need, and that New is always better than Old, no matter what. Imagine Gutenberg had invented the iPad in the 1400s and that Apple was publicising its brand new invention the Book today.

We are nearing 1 billion Facebook users – the industrialisation of friendship. Alice is in Cyberland. An online life is better, faster, with instant feedback and greater rewards – why wouldn’t you want to live there all the time? The internet today is like drugs and alcohol was to previous generations. BUT when international studies show that teenagers are even losing interest in sex, then clearly we have a problem.

References to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Norway lead to studies on video games and violence, BUT with studies finding no direct causal link between virtual violence and real-world should we worry about games like Doom, Counterstrike, BlackOps or Modern Warfare 3?

Is what we are seeing the Absence of Hope?

The internet allows us to lie, escape reality, hide behind a mask, never grow up, explore every kind of degeneracy, be less innovative, more docile, blind to new ideas, predisposed to be followers and copiers – Log in, imitate, and cop out.

BUT it’s not all bad – technology allows us to do the things we always wanted to do but couldn’t – the internet allows us to travel the world, talk to people everywhere, improve our lives, save the planet: witness the Arab Spring and revolution via cellphone. Computer games teach us co-operation, problem-solving, and the habit of heroism.

It’s too late to turn back the clock, put the genie back in the bottle – like the Industrial Revolution, we can only go forward from here.

We are all nerds now.

Gala Darling

Christchurch bloggers meet writers festival peopleIt’s traditional to kick off the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival with a bit of a literary shindig. This was a goodie.

We met the wonderful Morrin Rout of the The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival outside the Aotea Centre – nice to have a bit of an Otautahi chat.

Entering the venue, we were literary star spotting: Witi Ihimaera warmly greeting Dame Fiona Kidman, Peter Wells and Stephanie Johnson, Rachael King, Sebastian Barry …

Sarah Sandley, chair of the Charitable Trust Board of the Festival, started things off. There was spontaneous applause when it was announced Maurice Gee is the inaugural Honoured New Zealand writer.

She mentioned this year’s Festival has broken all box office records and thanked the Festival team  and the 90 volunteers.

MC Carol Hirschfeld took the stage (elegant in dark blue lace). She explained the premise of the evening “What the Dickens?” – true unscripted tales, like True stories told and The Moth – in seven minutes.

Oliver Jeffers – decked out in a nifty checked shirt, waistcoat and tie – told a story of his strait laced Dad’s marijuana scoring  to help with his Mum’s MS.

An unassuming Jesmyn Ward was a mere 2 pounds 4 ounces at birth, and fought off a pitbull when she was 6. She told the tale of Hurricane Katrina – how “the Bibles floated across the room” as her grandmother’s house flooded.  As the situation gets worse and worse, she still doesn’t realised how big this thing is.

The raffish Irishman Eoin Colfer had some corker anecdotes. A kiss at a christening goes a bit awry and his teenage son goes “Father, what the Dickens!”

He is curious about how his wife manages to take her bra off under her nightie so tries to replicate the process himself – the only fly in the ointment is that he lives with his mother in law.

He also scores an upgrade in a hotel after complaining about a buzzing noise and then discovers it’s his electric toothbrush.

Kiwi Anne Kennedy now resident in Hawaii was a standout. She tells the story of the time her parents went on holiday to Honolulu and her older brothers looked after her. She visits the neighbour Mrs Wilson after school – and has a play with her glass menagerie – until Woo Hoo! time to go home. It is 1970 – each day she goes home, her lounge “looks like the cover of a Mothers of Invention record” as it is host to a growing and increasingly irritating throng of hairy teenage boys. The place looks like something out of Withnail and I. Her parents come back, her Mum puts a roach off the carpet in a bin and says “You didn’t come home to an empty house did you?”

Gala nightRoddy Doyle talked about a Dickensian night in A&E when he saw all the “purple-eyed alcoholics”, junkies, demented old people and horror. He sees a young woman die, and is guilty because he knows as a writer he will use that event in his work.

There was a cleverness and honesty in Kate de Goldi. She talked about kids, and how they pick things up. When news of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is filling the news, her daughter wants to know what they did. Kate is fired up with liberal purpose, and tells her daughter about the facts of life. Her son is looking on, and says:

Well, when I’m older I’m just going to put that sperm somewhere else.

In another anecdote, her son says “They are going to execute the Oklahoma bomber”. Kate says “He’s got a name – it’s Timothy McVeigh”. A suitably chastened son replies “He sounds like a really nice guy”.

Lemon Anderson wears a hat, and has an air of effortless Brooklyn cool. He is stoked to be in New Zealand, as he has done time in prison. He tells the story of his time working in a community centre theatre group, and how they rallied round when he was picked up by a bounty hunter. They support him so powerfully that the District Attorney lets him go.

Geoff Dyer is resplendent in a grey suit and purple shirt. He gives us a lecture on Jackson Pollock – not the happiest of bunnies apparently. He delivers a talk full of rudeness and grossness and yet … his wit is drier than the Sahara and has the crowd crowing with laughter. It is all drip painting, binge drinking, sticking it in and wiggling it about. Brilliant.

CoverMC Carol comes back, sums the night up to perfection, the writers take a well-deserved curtain call and we are the Festival is up and running.

Friday at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

Witi Ihimaera at Gala nightWhat’s the agenda on Friday?

Rachel is listening to the wonderful Witi Ihimaera – this photo shows him chatting to Dame Fiona Kidman at last night’s Gala night.

Roberta is at the Caroline Moorehead session: her bookA train in winteris a moving story of solidarity and survival in WWII concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Moorehead is an accomplished journalist and biographer.

Other names we will be exploring: Stella Rimington, Emily Perkins, and Charlotte Wood.

And we are interviewing up a storm – with bloggers meeting Greg McGee, Kathy Lette and Emily Rodda.

Gird your literary loins, it is getting wordy in Auckland!

Jack Hooker by the Pier: Picturing Canterbury

Jack Hooker

Jack Hooker performs at New Brighton Library for NZ Music Month 2011.