Dr Michelle Dickinson wants everyone, everywhere to enjoy a meaningful relationship with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics).
She introduced her book and her mission to a sold-out crowd of kids and whānau. If you missed her on Sunday, get ready for Nanogirl Live! “Out of this World!” – a Live Science Spectacular on at the Isaac Theatre Royal on Saturday 17 November 2018. Her bus is Paul McCartney’s old tour bus rigged out in a science-focused fashion, and it will be coming to Christchurch in a Hercules plane. There’s also a TV show Nanogirl and the Imaginauts coming soon to the TVNZ app HeiHei.
Michelle explained her mission – “teaching kids to have fun experiences with different technology”. Her nanotechnology career has involved cool jobs such as designing concept cars that will tap you on the shoulder if there is a cyclist behind you, and know if you are feeling a bit bleak and make your commute home go past the beach. She also helped devise a 6 nanometre wide coating for iPhones to protect the screen.
Home is where the learning is probably more powerful.
The book took three years of experimenting, and a determination that the recipes be achievable for all families, using what is in the kitchen. After shopping it to publishers who wanted to skimp on production values (she wanted the ribbon/bookmark in her book), she made the decision to self publish. Michelle used Facebook to solicit recipe testers. People were keen as. A Kickstarter campaign raised the necessary money ($85,462). Her father in law took the photos.
10,000 books have been sold already, and for each one sold, one goes to a needy family or school and there is a connection to organisations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Pillars (for families with parents in prison).
Next up, it was kitchen science ahoy – and kids got to head up on stage to be part of the experiments. Can crushers, unicorn noodles, edible earthworms, chicken in a cup, centrifugal force – it was brilliant to watch, and kids had their hands in the air, desperate to get up on stage and do some kitchen science.
The conversation quickly turned to fatbergs, stinking accretions of fat and other unsavoury substances that so many of us misguidedly pour down our drains, which clog up the sewers of cities around the world. Reference was repeatedly made to the mythical place called “away” that we refer to when we “throw things away”. There is no away; these things have to end up somewhere. So-called “flushable wipes” may be flushable in the sense that they will go round the U-bend and disappear from view, but that doesn’t mean they are biodegradable and will breakdown somewhere in the waste disposal system; it just means they are someone else’s problem now, although they are still all our problem in the end as we have to pay for the resulting mess to be cleared up.
The tone of the conversation lifted only slightly when the topic turned to the concept of “toilet to tap” drinking water. This is the reverse of the usual situation. Laurie was incredulous that we currently flush our toilets with water that is clean enough to drink. How ridiculously inefficient is that?, she asked. With the right kind of processing however, toilet water can be turned into potable drinking water. The processing of course is crucial (“you really don’t want to have contact with faeces”, she said), and expensive, so this is only really a solution for drought-prone cities. Remarkably, blind taste tests have revealed that people actually prefer the taste of recycled water over tap water.
Even when the topic turned to transport we were straight back to hearing about human waste. We were shown a picture of a poo-powered bus. Hilariously, this was the number 2. Apparently, the taxis in Stockholm are partly fueled in this way. It’s genius really when you think about it, turning one problem (waste disposal) into the solution for another (fuel consumption). Brilliant!
Another huge source of waste is the way we treat our electronic devices as disposal ephemera, but this is changing. Landfill mining is now a major source of recycled materials for the industry. Experiments are currently underway to turn single-use plastic waste into building materials. There is even a trial of an asphalt mix that incorporates waste plastic currently underway at Christchurch Airport.
While Laurie had managed to restrain herself until now, she went into full on rant mode when it came to cars, roads, and traffic (although she confessed to being a motorsports fan). New Zealand, she told us, has the highest car ownership in the OECD. While there are understandable reasons for this that she recognizes (small pockets of people separated from each other by large distances) this threatens to impact on the clean green image that we trade on. Don’t think “Oh no, I’m stuck in gridlock” she said, “you are the gridlock!”. Fewer cars on our cities’ roads would have measurable economic and health benefits, but this would require alternative means of public transport, which would necessitate something of a culture-shift.
Michelle raised the interesting question of what cities might look like if they were designed by women. Laurie wouldn’t be drawn into making any firm conclusions, but she did make the point that “to build better cities we need to listen the voices of the people living in them, half of whom are women”. She seemed more concerned about listening to older people and those with access issues. “Cities built with older people in mind”, she said, “will be better for everyone”. “Modern cities are built to be easy to get to, but not worth arriving at”, she quipped.
This led on to a nuanced discussion of green spaces. Laurie is a big fan and cited many benefits of urban trees, not least their effect on cooling cities down. “We need to prioritise green over grey” she said. But she’s not such a fan of more gimmicky solutions, like living walls and vertical gardens, which she sees as largely hype and greenwashing, and she was ambivalent about urban farming. She would like to see a more evidence-based, problem-focused approach. Ask first what we are trying to achieve and then pick the best tools to do that job.
The conversation then moved on to smart cities. Smart cities rely on sensors she said, but these are difficult to incorporate into concrete buildings. There is a trend among urban planners and designers to add more and more sensors to every new structure that we build, but how we will use the enormous amounts of data that they collect is less clear. Laurie seemed to be calling for a more mindful approach, in which sensors are deployed to achieve particular aims, rather than incorporated willy-nilly into all our new buildings by default.
Before questions, the main part of the session concluded with a brief, but fascinating, discussion of driverless cars. They are not coming to all of us anytime soon, Laurie said, but we don’t have to wait for everyone to have one to reap the benefits. To illustrate this, we were shown a compelling video, which demonstrates that just one driverless car can improve traffic flow on a busy road.
Questions were taken at the end, most of which focused on local issues. Laurie clearly felt that New Zealand is doing some amazing things in this space, but not taking the credit it should for that. “New Zealand’s energy mix is the envy of the world”, she said. Let’s hope that local and central government start taking more notice of people like Laurie who have looked at cities around the world and understand the evidence the underpins the ways that science and technology can be used to improve our cities to all our benefits.
I love the Sea and books about the Sea. Thrillingly rough and washing up over carparks or velvet-smooth, there is something at once wild and calming about its compelling expanse.
Although I swim until March, Philip Hoare is a man who swims in the ocean every day (at 4.30am), no matter where in the world he may be, or whatever the season. He was not to be deterred by Canterbury’s spring temperatures, which swung from ‘damp and drizzly’ (Melville) to very welcome sparkly sunshine within a day.
Hosting a workshop and documentary on the classic Moby-Dick and speaking at WORD Christchurch Festival about the inspiration for his books, Philip shared his wonder of the ocean with the redoubtable Kim Hill for a large audience.
Risingtidefallingstar is Hoare’s latest book. Following a common thread this WORD Festival, in Risingtide Philip also blurs the lines between fact and fiction in an alliterative tidal flow that combines the mystical with tales of experience; taking the reader on a journey to discover how the ocean has influenced human life, literature, art, and essentially, ourselves.
To signpost this journey back to our primal selves, Hoare refers to many wonderful works of art and literature inspired by the Ocean itself. Shakespeare’s Tempest, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, the works of Shelley and of course the master of high sea adventure, Herman Melville; absorbed all and more of these, including the Bible.
At times in human story the Ocean is appears to be a metaphor for Nature’s evil. But in doing so it raises the question of, “Can Nature be evil?” turning the spotlight on perhaps the true villain, man:
“Humans have become disconnected from the natural world”
“Our vocabulary, speech, has distanced us.”
Here Hoare apologises for not speaking Whale. (We later discover that Waitaha can speak whale. That’s another story.)
What struck me was how similar to humans whales can be, not just physically (our bone structures are very similar). But maybe more evolved as they stuck to their path, and weren’t distracted by dreams of land (like the little Mermaid, to her doom). Whales define themselves by each other, says Hoare; like family, and are never alone.
Humans are defined by our larger culture, Philip himself relating poignantly to the death of iconic David Bowie, whose loss was felt worldwide, while he was writing this book. Bowie is, of course, the Falling Star.
We return to the subject of swimming. Whilst in Canterbury, Philip has taken a dip at Sumner Beach, and in Akaroa. He’s heading north to sunny Nelson next. The ritual of swimming is for Hoare a meditation, made more sensual by being done in darkness. In times gone by, Monks meditated in the sea, immersed in its timelessness.
“Why do you do it?” Asks a relentlessly funny Kim Hill.
“To leave it all behind,” replies Philip, “the Earth, earthly problems, gravity itself.”
Jonathan Drori loves trees. So much so that he has spent a career working with them as a documentary film maker at the BBC, and on the boards of Kew Gardens in London, and the Eden Project in Cornwall. On a very wet afternoon yesterday in a full auditorium at The Piano for WORD Christchurch Festival an audience of enthralled drendrophiles (tree lovers) and nemophilists (woodland enthusiasts) got to hear Drori tell us about his passion for trees, and recount some enlightening stories from his recent book Around the World in 80 Trees.
Jonathan was first introduced to the wonderful world of plants by his father, a Russian emigre to the UK, who would take him to botanic gardens where he took a very unorthodox approach to botanical education. His father would feed him small pieces of the plants on show, some of which were psychoactive (like the opium poppy his dad suggested he lick), or even poisonous, like the unfortunate plant known as the dumb cane. The story behind this particular plant is deeply unpleasant as the name comes from that fact that slave owners fed it to their slaves as a punishment as it was extremely distasteful and could cause the mouth and tongue to swell up until the slave could no longer speak.
There is much talk these days, Drori said, about what people need, but he is more interested in what trees need, and this provided the structure for much of his talk. Firstly, trees need water, and it seems that this sets a fundamental limit on how tall they can grow of about 120 meters, above which they are physically unable to bring water up from the ground to the leaves, flowers, and fruits in their uppermost reaches. For this reason, none of the tallest tree species ever exceed this height, and they never will, despite any evolutionary pressure that might otherwise drive them to do so.
The second thing that trees need is food, which they get not from the soil, or even sunlight (although that does drive the process), but in fact the mass of a fully-grown tree has almost entirely come from carbon dioxide in the air, a fact that is of obvious significance in the context of climate change.
A perhaps less known requirement of trees is for particular species of fungi, called mycorrhizae, that live in the soil and form close associations with tree roots. In many cases, the trees can’t survive without them. These associations are often very specific, for example the fungi that birch trees need form the familiar red mushrooms with white spots known as fly agaric, which are very poisonous. (Drori had some entertaining stories about these mushrooms, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself in his book, see p.21). The mushrooms themselves are only a temporary, and very small part of the fungus as a whole, necessary only for its reproduction, but the vast bulk of the fungus is in the form of thin threads, hidden from view in the soil, which wrap around and interact with the roots of trees and other plants. Drori painted a picture of a vast information super-highway of fungal threads that allow trees to communicate. For example, when one tree is attacked by insects it can use these fungal threads to warn others around it, so that they can activate their defenses.
Defense was the next need that Drori told us about, and he spent quite a long time on it, telling us several amazing stories. He told us how caffeine is used by plants to defend themselves from attack by plant-eating insects. We learned that the alder tree, which lives in boggy ground and is highly resistant to rot, was used extensively for building in water-logged renaissance Venice, and apparently its charcoal makes the best gunpowder, still favoured by the military.
We heard about the whistling thorn, which whistles in the wind because of small holes made by ants that live inside the tree and protect it from other insects. A particularly gruesome story in this section was about how certain Buddhist monks used a tea made from the sap of the lacquer tree to mummify themselves while still alive, becoming ‘whole-body relics’, a truly horrific form of suicide by dehydration that is now thankfully no longer practiced.
Drori then moved on to talk about sex and seed dispersal, as trees need to make more trees. We heard that the laxative properties of many fruits are an evolutionary adaptation to make them pass through the gut quickly before the seeds are digested so that they can be deposited elsewhere in their own little pile of fertilizing dung. We heard about the extraordinary, and provocatively-shaped coco da mer, the heaviest seed in the world, once highly revered, which exchanged hands for extraordinary sums of money. We also heard about the traveller’s tree of Madagascar, the blue seeds of which can only be dispersed by lemurs as they are the only animals strong enough to break open their seed pods. This means that the fate of the tree is tied to that of these endangered lemurs, emphasizing the connectedness of trees with the other organisms in their environments, and the extent to which species rely on each other in fragile ecosystems.
This brought Drori to his final, and perhaps most important point; trees need love. To make this point he talked briefly about his involvement with the Eden Project, “the largest rainforest in captivity”, and mentioned the possibility of an Eden Project coming to Christchurch’s red zone, although in a rather different form much more suited to the needs of the local community, and in keeping with our own native flora. What we need, he said, is “a mycorrhizal network of people” dedicated to caring for, and looking after, the interests of trees. Inspirational stuff!
Drori finished his talk by pre-empting a question he had been asked before; if you could be any tree, which one would you be? The Quiver tree, the national tree of Namibia, he said. Why? Because whenever anyone sees one they smile, and then they want to stroke it – a lovely end to a delightfully entertaining and informative tour of the fascinating world of trees.
Drori’s talk was accompanied throughout by beautiful illustrations from his book drawn by Lucille Clerc. They are truly stunning, and this is one of the most beautiful books I have seen this year. It is full of many more amazing stories about trees like those we heard in this wonderful talk and I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Laurie Winkless is a physicist-turned-science-writer. After a research career in materials science at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, her first book, Science and the City, was published worldwide by Bloomsbury. Laurie’s second book, Sticky, is in the works.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
I’m looking forward to exploring Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens, and finding some of the famous street art dotted around the city
What do you think about libraries?
My local library changed my life! As soon as I started to show an interest in books – before I could read – my parents brought me to the library. There, I found my happy place. Without that access, I doubt I’d have written my own book. Even today, I’m at my most comfortable when surrounded by books. Libraries have just as important today as they always have been. As our cities grow, and populations spread, libraries act as the heart of the community, opening the world to readers, young and old. Librarians, too, offer an incredible, vital service
What would be your desert island book?
I can’t possibly pick just one!
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
Here are a few:
I come from a stage-school family, so I can sing and dance
I used to collect stamps
I’ve done a parachute jump
I am obsessed with trains
Laurie’s sessions at WORD Christchurch Festival 2018
The WORD Festival is arriving in Christchurch (29 August to 2 September) in a celebration of all things literary. There will be something for everyone with events ranging from the silly to the profound with over 120 authors, and close to 100 events across 30 venues. Below is just a tantalising taste of what this wonderful event has to offer, so feel free to explore the WORD Christchurch Festival programme in full.
So pull up a chair, get yourself a drink, and get ready to explore the wonderful world of the WORD.
There will be certain pieces of fiction that hold special places in the hearts of literature fans, and one of the reasons could be for political reasons. Join Ockham award winning author Pip Adam, with fellow authors Rajorshi Chakraborti, and Brannavan Gnanalingam in conversation with Julie Hill as they discuss the very topic of the politics of fiction looking at the way fiction can be more than mere entertainment, but can serve a role in helping create empathy and change perspectives.
Magical Realism is a beautiful genre of literature with narratives that can displace time and space or use magic as a metaphorical device through which to tell fantastic story rich in cultural relevance. A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars author Yaba Badoe is a great international author of the genre of magical realism in addition to being an accomplished filmmaker and will be in discussion with University of Canterbury PhD candidate Sionainn Byrnes. This talk promises to explore issues surrounding women in Africa in addition to magical realist fiction itself.
A topic that should be at the heart of all Christchurch locals. Following the tragedy that was the Christchurch Earthquakes, everyone – bar none – has had an opinion on how the rebuild has progressed and what should have been done. Laurie Winkless, author of Science and the City, will provide specialised knowledge on the subject that is well informed through studies of cities from all over the world and explore the scientific considerations of cities.
A glorious event for young and old. The New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival is my favourite event from Word Festival’s prior, and it’s free! This event will bring world class talent to New Regent Street in multiple pop-up events as the street is turned into a festival celebrating the literary form. The New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival will make you wish New Regent street was like this everyday.
American journalist David Neiwert will be talking about his book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Time of Trump, in an attempt to explain what is actually happening in the American political landscape at present. What promises to be a great and informative event, David Neiwert will historicise the rise of this seemingly overnight political phenomena to the 1990s as he discusses his work in tracking and following the far-right in American politics for multiple decades.
Ted Chiang: Arrival (Sunday 2 September 2.45-3.45pm. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū)
The Science Fiction Author of Story of Your Life, which was adapted into the film Arrival, Ted Chiang will be in conversation with science fiction and fantasy author Karen Healey. Expect and interesting and philosophical conversation from this thought provoking and awarding winning author.
What’s lava got to do with it? Quite a bit if you’re talking about volcanoes.
As a kid I had recurring nightmares about both volcanoes and earthquakes. I blame the abundance of seventies-era disaster movies that seemed to often make it onto the television during that period. I took games of “the floor is made of lava” Very Seriously.
My antipathy towards earthquakes has become less nightmare-based and more practical since 2010, but my morbid fascination with volcanoes is still one that I enjoy (not sure that’s the right word, exactly) though thankfully from something of a distance.
Certainly, Hawaii’s Big Island is plenty close enough for me. Mt Kīlauea started erupting in early May and is still doing a very convincing “Mount Doom”, destroying around 600 homes in the process (so far), and with no signs of stopping.
Volcanic eruptions can and do happen in New Zealand, sometimes with devastating effect (looking at you, Mount Tarawera), so it’s probably just as well that we know something about what they are and how they behave (and preferably from a better source than an old Paul Newman movie).
If you’re keen on finding out more about lava, fissure vents, and pyroclastic flow, you could do worse than consult some of the resources below:
GeoNet Volcano Watch – It’s good to know that someone is keeping an eye on our local volcanoes, isn’t it?
The Life and Times of Supervolcanoes – Book your seat for this free lecture by Professor Colin Wilson at St Margaret’s College Charles Luney Auditorium, 6.30-7.30pm Wed 1 August, 2018. Presented by The Royal Society – Te Apārangi in partnership with GNS Science, EQC and Victoria University of Wellington.
And if that’s not enough to quench your thirst for everything volcano, there are also lots of books on volcanoes, for kids and adults alike.
Did you know that 30 June is International Asteroid Day? I didn’t until recently, but when I found out, it prompted me to take a closer look at what asteroids are, and why they’re important, and what I found out was fascinating, but also a bit scary.
Asteroids are essentially lumps of rock that orbit the sun but are too small to be considered planets, or even dwarf planets. They usually have roughly circular orbits and are mostly found in a dense belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Occasionally however, gravitational forces kick asteroids out of their usual positions and send them hurtling towards the inner solar system.
On the morning of 30 June 1908, a much smaller asteroid (perhaps around 100 metres across) exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere above a thankfully sparsely populated area of eastern Russia called Tunguska, which is why International Asteroid Day takes place on that day. Despite the fact that there was no actual impact, it completely flattened a 2,000 square kilometre area of forest. Understandably, there is now a global effort to track near-Earth asteroids that are a potential threat to our survival, and International Asteroid Day aims to raise awareness of the need to protect Earth from asteroid impacts.
Thankfully though, it’s not all bad news. Although we tend to think of asteroids as a threat, they also represent a huge opportunity as they are often rich in valuable mineral resources that are rare here on Earth. Asteroid mining is a staple of golden-age hard science-fiction, as well as a priority for current spacefaring nations and private companies. The European Space Agency’s recent Rosetta mission showed that it is technically possible to travel to, and land probes on, such objects, although after close fly-bys of two asteroids, it actually landed on an icy comet rather than a rocky asteroid. Excitingly, the Japanese spacecraft Hyabusa2 is currently on its final approach to the asteroid Ryugu, and with other similar expeditions planned, like NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, exploitation of asteroids looks set to be an increasingly important feature of space exploration in the near future. Once perceived only as a threat to humanity, asteroids may eventually become a source of materials that could help us explore the furthest reaches of our solar system, and beyond.
Since the discovery of the first asteroid in 1801, these lumps of rock have captured our imaginations. The dual nature of asteroids as both friends and foe has given rise to a rich literature of both fiction and non-fiction. This International Asteroid Day, why not check out some of the books about asteroids that we have here at Christchurch City Libraries? To help you, I have a compiled a short list of places you might want to start…
There are birds in my garden. Lots of them. I’m not an overly keen gardener, so birds, bees and insects love our place. Wax-eyes love the flowers and silver beet that have gone to seed. Other birds like scratching up the mossy lawn looking for worms. I love the sound of birdsong. Especially the bird that flies to the top of my neighbour’s garden and sings. I didn’t know that birds are an important indicator of the health of our environment.
You may be wondering why we count garden birds, especially introduced species. We learn about the health of our towns and cities. Scientists can’t do this on their own. They need you. We need a good picture of the birds in our country. The more people counting birds, the more we learn about our bird population. Doing the survey is fairly easy. Print out the tally sheet and choose a day that suits you. Find a comfortable spot to sit (either inside or outside). Look and listen for one hour. For each type of bird, record the highest number seen at one time. Use Landcare’s online form to enter your count.
Fantastic! You have just helped scientists understand our bird population.
To help you with identifying birds and encouraging birds to visit your garden, here is my list of recommended books.
Tomorrow, 21 June, is the winter solstice. The shortest day. The point at which the southern hemisphere of our little blue planet, with its jaunty, tilted axis, reaches “peak gloom”. The weather will continue to grow colder from this point*, hardening into winter, but the days themselves and potential daylight hours will increase. And not a moment too soon.
Short of leaving town, or literally heading for the hills what can we all do to feel better? Our friends at All Right? have a lot of great suggestions but here are some of my own:
Make the most of what we’ve got – I just ran outside and stood in the sunshine for about 20 seconds before the sun went away again. Make hay (and Vitamin D) while the sun shines, and all. If you’re in the position to be able to go for a walk or be outside for a bit during the all too brief appearances the sun is making then do. But take a brolly because it will probably start raining again…
Get out and socialise – It can be tempting to stay indoors and hibernate but sometimes forcing yourself to be social is worth the effort. At the library there are options for crafting with company or book groups, or our Matariki Whānau Fun Day on Saturday at Ōrauwhata: Bishopdale Library and Community Centre might be the ticket. Or make the most of the darkness by lighting it up on the winter solstice night light bike ride through Hagley Park. Alternatively, you could organise your own Matariki shared dinner with friends and whānau – whip up a batch of soup and hang out together moaning about how rubbish the weather is!
Now that I mention it… SOUP – I firmly believe a hearty soup can have healing and mood-altering properties. When combined with a comfy pair of slippers and a good book, soup is a veritable panacea for whatever ails you. Also, leeks and potatoes are inexpensive at the moment and if you make them into a soup you can say you’ve made vichyssoise which sounds really fancy.
Wear bright clothing or something that makes you feel happy – It’s tempting to match the sombre grey of the sky with your outfits but don’t! Go the other way instead with vibrant warm colours or really anything that makes you feel great: jewellery, a flower in your hair, an eye-catching pair of socks, anything that brings a smile.
Be nice to people – Acts of kindness or generosity are actually mood-lifters for both the recipient and the giver. I’m trying to dish out more compliments (rather than just think them in my head). The All Right crew have some cute compliment gifs that might come in handy for this.
*If you’ve ever wondered why the weather doesn’t start to warm up after winter solstice it’s because of the time it takes to change the temperature of the large bodies of water that make up most of the surface of our planet. Seas and oceans warm throughout summer and are slow to cool – like giant hot water bottles keeping us warm through the night/autumn. It’s only when they’ve lost their heat that we’ll start to really feel winter’s bite.