Tales from the Ice – WORD Christchurch

With the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival winding down, this was an event to cool our heels on.

Matt Vance, Alok Jha, Rebecca Priestley, Simon Wilson
Matt Vance, Alok Jha, Rebecca Priestley, Simon Wilson

Dispatches from Continent SevenTales From the Ice was brought to us by Dr Rebecca Priestley (VUW NZ) – Dispatches from Continent Seven; Matt Vance (NZ expedition leader) – Ocean Notorious; Alok Jha (ITV science corresponder) – The Water Book and chaired by Simon Wilson (Metro magazine). These books collect experiences of the fragile, beautiful, brutally unforgiving Antarctic Southern Ocean, and the element that makes it all possible; water.

From explorers Captain James Cook  and Robert Falcon Scott, early and modern scientists, to modern writers from the Artists to Antarctica Programme such as Bill Manhire and Gregory O’Brien, Dispatches from Continent Seven makes fascinating reading with a scientific flavour.

Ocean NotoriousIn Ocean Notorious Matt Vance shares his own experiences of lonely Southern Seas and the Islands and of taking refuge there. Along the way he gathers tales of heroic explorers, sailors, wartime coast-watchers, wildlife and conservationists.

Alok Jha shared the incredible fact that water on Planet Earth originated from meteorites crashing here. By default all life on Earth is Alien!

This panel conveyed a real sense of adventure from the sunny warmth of my festival seat.

Last words:

“Run the World like we run Antarctica – a co-op.” – Matt Vance.

“Stop (Antarctica) melting. There is still time…” – Rebecca Priestley.

“Help me get back there!” – Alok Jha.

WORD Christchurch

Five go mad on radium

I do love the science sessions at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and this was a winner. The title of this post is a tribute to Wallace Chapman who has been my favourite host of the Festival. There was absolutely no doubt he had read the book, and he managed to share his enthusiasm for it  – and also succeeded in involving the crowd in the presentation – revealing lots of interesting knowledge and experience out in the audience.

He was reading Paris by Edward Rutherfurd at the same time as Mad on radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age by Rebecca Priestley but soon was only reading Mad on radium because it “drove a bus through some of the received wisdom” about New Zealand in the atomic age.

Rebecca, Wallace – and sometimes the audience – discussed radioactive water in Rotorua that was once considered therapeutic. Wallace exclaimed:

This is our history, and yet I can hardly believe it.

Rebecca PriestleyApparently radium conveyed cleanness, and was touted as an ingredients in various products from cleansers to toothpaste.

Rebecca explored Kiwi connections to the Manhattan Project and other nuclear research. Ernest Rutherford and “Rutherford old boys” like Ernest Marsden were the reason New Zealand managed to be involved in these enterprises.

Uranium fever sounds unbelievable, but in the 1950s it was a big deal – a “potential new industry on the West Coast” – especially when a couple of old Coasters discovered deposits. It turned out to be uneconomic to extract.

X-rays in shoe stores – remember those? Quite a few audience members did. And others knew about New Zealand’s first nuclear reactor. This subcritical reactor lived at the University of Canterbury’s engineering department. It was popular at Uni open days. It was disassembled in 1981 when it was decided nuclear power wasn’t needed yet.

Nuclear power was being considered in the 1960s, but went off the agenda with Maui gas discoveries and Huntly’s coal deposits  proving to be larger than first thought.

How did the anti-nuclear movement in New Zealand take shape? The first protest march was in 1947 – down Manchester Street in Christchurch. French testing in the Pacific and new knowledge about caesium and strontium in fallout getting into people’s bones solidified public opinion.

Will we consider nuclear power again? Maybe, if it becomes more economic suggest Rebecca:

New Zealand is probably the best place in the world to go ahead with renewable energy resources.

I am mad keen on this book and the combination of science and social history.

Antarctica is all about the science

The Big Chill was a brilliant session about Antarctica. The able and amiable Chair was Ed Butler who knows a bit about this place as the manager of Antarctic Science, Antarctica New Zealand.

Prof Chris TurneyChris Turney is the Professor of Climate Change at the University of New South Wales, and has a particular interest in past and future climate.

Chris talked about his book 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica. In 1912 there were five polar expeditions – The Brits, Norwegians, Australians and Kiwis, Germans and Japanese all went there “to do science”.

Chris loves the ripping yarns associated with the expeditions. There was mapping and scientific measurements – and another layer of personalities and conflict. The German team imploded, there was even “Teutonic threats of duels” and it descended into “real Lord of the Flies stuff”. But the science was invaluable and revealed Antarctica’s involvement in intrinsic ocean circulation.

Veronika MedunaVeronika Meduna is a scientist and journalist and her latest work is Science on Ice: Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica. She spoke about Antarctica’s importance in big global systems and how its 4 km thick ice cap “hides an archive of information”. Drilling reveals information on a time beyond even the last days of the dinosaurs.

Rebecca PriestleyRebecca Priestley has a PhD in the history of science. She is working on an anthology of Antarctic science writing to be published next year. Her latest book is Mad on Radium – New Zealand in the Atomic Age and it features an Antarctic component. There was a nuclear reactor at McMurdo in the 1960s called “Nukeypoo”. Given that half of the stuff freighted into Antarctica is fuel, it is understandable that another energy source was trialled. The uranium 235 fuel sources for Nukeypoo were delivered via Lyttelton.

The panellists were asked about science writing. Chris noted that sometimes long accepted anecdotes could be revealed as untrue when you do research. Veronika enjoys uncovering individual bits of science, and then thinks about bringing it all together in one thing. Rebecca said you’ve got to be passionate, but you also have to know when to stop: “It’s as much about what you leave out as what you leave in”.

How do these writers make science accessible? Veronika thinks it becomes readable by including the characters as well as the science. Chris agreed “People are interested in people.” He finds Twitter and social media useful: “trying to encapsulate what you’re doing in 140 characters focuses the mind”. Rebecca likes to employ analogies: “metaphors are often a really great way of describing science”.

The panellists agreed on the concept that Antarctica is “the monitoring station for the health of the planet”.  It “still fuels the imagination” and is “the biggest place where science is the main currency”. They explored the current state of the ice caps.

I think anyone who went to this session will now have these books on their “Damn! I must absolutely read this” list. Bravo science whizzes.

Interview bonanza

As the Writers festival draws ever closer, we’ve added some new interviews to the website:

Joe & friend
Joe & friend