The genius that was Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

Stephen William Hawking, comsologist, theoretical physicist and author, died last week. He was 76.

Mr Hawking began life in a family that lived frugally. He married twice and had three children, Lucy, Robert and Timothy. Due to his deteriorating condition he required increasing home care. Hawking was well regarded by some colleagues but others felt alienated by his perceived brashness.

In 1963, he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given two years to live. However the doctors charged with looking after him, found that it was progressing significantly more slowly than expected. Mr Hawking first started to become more clumsy in his physical activities, which lead to him seeking medical advice. Then as it progressed he was slowly confined to a wheel chair despite his fiercely independent nature. His body continue shutting down as his muscles were slowly overtaken by the disease. That was not enough to stop him, as he continued to travel, continued to research whilst effectively confined to a specialised wheelchair that could be driven by a cheek muscle.

His discoveries in physics and cosmology are considerable. A short bullet point summation of the major ones are below:

  • Mr Hawking and another physicist, Jakob Bekenstein discovered that black holes can emit radiation
  • The second law of black holes is that they have entropy, with Mr Hawking reasoning that entropy does not exist then mass can be thrown into a black hole
  • The idea that no boundary or physical limit to the universe exists

Mr Hawking was an atheist, whereas his first wife Jane is a Christian and this sparked tension, but also made Mr Hawking review whether a possible Creator exists. Much of Mr Hawking’s cosmological research, as well as his philosophical views are built around this.

Even as Mr Hawking’s body slowly succumbed to the ravages of his condition, his mind continued to work full bore. He had argued that the Higgs Boson does not exist, which when found in 2012, Mr Hawking immediately conceded to Peter Higgs, who theorized in 1964 that it did and insist on him winning the Nobel Prize for Physics, which Mr Higgs did in 2013.

So it is with sadness I note Mr Hawking’s departure. Cosmology is much the poorer for his passing, but so is physics as a scientific field. Whilst they not human, I cannot help but wonder if the black holes of the Universe feel sad for the demise of one man who perhaps more than anyone else in recent times, tried to understand them.

Why maintaining Scott Base is worth it

When I was at University, one of my fellow Geography students went down to Antarctica for a few weeks to do research. She showed me on her return, a photo of her and another researcher down there standing outside in broad daylight a few minutes after 2004 started. As the years have passed and knowledge has improved about this most amazing part of the world, and New Zealand’s slice of it, I have wondered how the infrastructure gets upgraded at Scott Base.

Scott Base was named after Robert Falcon Scott, a British explorer who raced Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. Mr Scott arrived a few weeks late to find that Mr Amundsen had already visited and left. Tragically Mr Scott and his team never made it back to base. His ill fated expedition sailed from Lyttelton several weeks earlier.

There is significant economic return for Canterbury from the Antarctic operation. N.Z.$125 million a year in activity is generated. Nation wide the Antarctic operation generates about N.Z.$178 million in economic activity. Aside from logistical support for the operation at Christchurch International Airport, there is the well known Antarctic Centre across Orchard Road where people get to learn about the history of New Zealand’s operation, the natural environment and experience a storm. There is also the Antarctic Studies Centre at the University of Canterbury in the Geography Department, which have students – mainly from Geography, but also Geology and Environmental Science – doing qualifications regarding Antarctica.

I support the $150 million upgrade that is being proposed. As mentioned in The Press on Saturday, I am sure that the original buildings were designed with conditions as they were known then in mind and . But “adequate” is not adequate any longer and these buildings are past their use by date. Simply updating them ad hoc for as long as is practicable is not feasible because the problems with maintenance will become more frequent until the base is either not usable or there is a significant overhaul.

New Zealand is responsible for the Ross Dependency, which includes Ross Island, where Scott Base is stationed. Due to the effects that climate change in Antarctica could have on New Zealand weather, environment, economy and so forth, it is important that a base is maintained down there to enable the research programmes down there to continue. It is important that those programmes are based in appropriate buildings, which are designed to minimize the potential for adverse environmental effects in a delicate and for the most part still pristine ecosystem.

The nations that have claims to Antarctica agree that the continent should not be militarized, populated for settlement purposes and that the primary activity down there should be research. A small amount of tourism is allowed, as is fishing. Mining is strictly prohibited, though it is known that there is potentially massive mineral wealth to be tapped into. Uncertainty exists as to whether the United States would continue to comply with this and what any changes in the Antarctic Treaty System – which is currently a set of treaties and protocols governing what happens on the southern continent – would have on the nations who have territorial claims.

If New Zealand were to leave Antarctica I sincerely doubt we would have access to it in the way that we do now. I sincerely doubt that whoever follows would have the same empathy for the environment that New Zealand does.

For these reasons, New Zealand needs to stay on Antarctica and Scott Base needs to have that $150 million overhaul.


Of trade deals and revived Cold War geopolitics

When New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters commented about trade with Russia earlier this week, there was mixed reaction. Our allies were surprised. Russia, probably grinning and the ordinary Jim and Jane wondering what just happened.

I wonder how many people born post-1989 would recognize that today we are in the midst of the very sort of Cold War geopolitical environment that our parents and grandparents found themselves living through. I wonder how many of the would realize how little it would take to cause an international incident that the whole world regrets. But above all, I wonder how much those in New Zealand who were spared the tensions of the Cold War, realize that just because they are nations that we have traditionally been good friends with does not automatically make Britain or the U.S. automatically right when they make a foreign policy decision.

Mr Peters highlighted the stark differences between New Zealands priorities and those of Britain. The New Zealand priorities which seem to be about securing trade agreements with European nation’s post-Brexit, include a potential deal with Russia, and another with the European Union.

Perhaps New Zealand is being a bit naive. The Russian Government is renown for it’s bullying tactics. It’s attempt at annexing Ukraine was a flagrant attempt at rebuilding the Russian empire of old, whilst also improving access to the Black Sea. Doing a free trade agreement with it sort of seeks to legitimise the activities of a country that violates international law as much as America does.

Whilst needing to be able to conduct trade with nation’s whose agendas and views are not compatible with New Zealand, it needs to be said that our values are too important to compromise for dollars. We were shocked when Russia carried out acts such as the attack on Alexander Litvinenko, and rightly so because the nature of the assassination was one that could only becarried out by someone in a very high position. We were shocked when Russia vetoed moves in the United Nations¬† to condemn the use of gas on civilians in Aleppo. We have been surprised by the apparent use of a military grade agent last week against a spy and his daughter.

At some point no one should be surprised if there is push back against Russia for this conduct. Russia’s conduct in many respectsrhas been similar to that of the United States. The latter can be accused of invading nation’s and has times propped up dictators such as General Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, and turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabias war in Yemen.

New Zealand needs to ask itself this:

  1. Does it want to remain blindly supportive of America and Britain even when they are not always right?
  2. Does it want to be seen supporting a nation (Russia) that carries out horrifying assassinations, annexations and most probably supplied the missile system used to down Malaysian Airlines flight MH7?
  3. Pursue an independent foreign policy including trade agreements with whomever we see fit? And at the possible expense or delay of deals with traditional partners?

Whilst wanting Russia to understand it is not helping its own reputation to be carrying out such poison attacks, history is littered with evidence of the other side committing atrocities  as well. When a weakened Prime Minister of Britain goes up against the nuclear power that is Russia and its leader says in a threatening voice not to threaten a nuclear power, who is prepared to continue with such a black and white threat?

Mr Peters and New Zealand First should learn from this.

Time for N.Z.D.F. to come clean about Afghanistan raid

In 2010, New Zealand Defence Force soldiers participated in an attack on an Afghanistan town called Tirgiran. During the exchange there were civilian casualties.

For months, those casualties were denied strenuously by the Chief of the Defence Force Major General Tim Keating, who said there were huge inaccuracies in Nicky Hager’s book Hit and Run, which alleges war crimes were committed by the N.Z.D.F. Now, in a u-turn yesterday, Major General Keating admitted that civilian deaths might have happened. Yet he continued to insist that the book is wrong.

I have in the past given the New Zealand Defence Force the benefit of the doubt, and considered the onus to be on Mr Hager to demonstrate otherwise. Whilst I still wonder if Mr Hager has a vendetta against the Defence Force, his claims have now received a major credibility boost.

It is time for Major General Keating to come clean as the person in charge on a day-to-day basis on what really happened in that raid in Afghanistan. To fail to do so is to undermine the credibility of his office, as well as every man and woman who serves in the Defence Force.

When New Zealand fights overseas, we might be under the command of a foreign power. In the case of Afghanistan the American command had jurisdiction over our forces. In East Timor, it was the Australians. It matters not who has control of the overall operation, but that New Zealand Defence Force ultimately answers to the New Zealand Government, who in turn must answer to the New Zealand people.

The New Zealand Defence Force needs to be aware that it should under NO circumstances EVER conduct practices of a tortuous nature, or operations of a nature that may break the international conventions this country is a signatory to. In the event that our personnel find themselves being asked to participate in such operations, the command making the request should be informed forthwith that New Zealand will only participate if it is fully compliant with the Geneva Conventions.

For a country that prides itself on respecting international law, this is hugely embarrassing. It potentially damages our reputation as being clean and responsible overseas. But this potential damage goes further than that. This potential damage potentially threatens New Zealand forces who go there in the future. It sends damaging and confusing signals to Afghanistan and Afghanis about what New Zealand wants to achieve there.

Major General Tim Keating did not achieve his current rank by bluffing his way through the ranks. It is not possible. One will be found out long before you get that far. Someone that far up the military hierarchy should be expected to know that New Zealand and New Zealanders have standards. He should be expected to know there are good historical reasons why we abhor torture and why we prefer a clean fair fight to one with dirty underhand tactics. In getting to this position, Major General Keating indicates that he is aware of these expectations and intends to uphold them.

So why did New Zealand not do this? Why are one of the finest small defence forces in the world starring down a major credibility crisis because of an operation in Afghanistan of a questionable nature in 2010. The Defence Force and in particular Major General Keating need to come totally clean about this now, or resign.

Is the tide turning on plastics?

One use plastic items: A lot of New Zealanders – myself included have them and/or use them. They might be micro beads or Pump water bottles or Coke bottles. They might be single use plastic bags.

Is it it just a beat up when media intone that war has been declared on single use plastics? Or is there a degree of realism in that idea? In the last year moves to phase out micro beads have been announced by the Government. Supermarket company Countdown has to their credit announced an intention to stop using plastic bags by the end of 2018. Various petitions and other social activism measures are rumbling on the internet, trying to drum up support for a complete change in how we view plastics.

The major targets appear to be straws, bags, micro beads, but could be potentially expanded to include single use bottles, containers.

Some time ago Pak N Save introduced a 5c charge for a bag. It was a modest step forward even at the time and would seem like a baby’s effort at making their company more sustainable if it had happened today.

Secondary uses will continue to exist. When one takes the dog for a walk, if the dog chooses to poo somehow you have to scoop up and store its droppings until you can dispose of them. I second hand use plastic bags by putting sandwiches I eat for lunch at work in them.

The National Party is not so sure. Their spokesperson for the environment, Scott Simpson, suggested that the moves against plastic are meaningless since apparently we do not know where it came from. Having said that, National to their credit did initiate the moves to institute a ban on micro beads, which will come into force later this year.

The use of social media to generate concern has been widespread. Video’s taken by tourists in Bali and other popular locations show surfers at sea riding waves that have appalling amounts of man made rubbish in them – plastics, paper, aluminium cans and so forth.

However, New Zealand will have to unveil comprehensive reforms against all types of waste at some point in the near future, or it will run the risk of losing the remainder of its reputation as a clean, green nation. China announced a ban on importing waste in July 2017, which took effect on 1 January 2018. This resulted in $21 million in waste from New Zealand being refused per annum. Other nations such as Vanuatu are instituting full bans on single use plastic bags.

National might not be sure about a campaign beginning against single use plastics. However there are plenty of other organizations and individuals who believe that waste plastic has reached critical levels with lasting consequences if nothing happens to mitigate the problem soon. The tide might not have yet turned against single use plastics, but it is coming. And soon.