Don’t forget that tonight our ScienceTeller Festival starts, beginning with “Literature and Lager” at the Bog on George Street 7pm
Then, tomorrow night it’s the premiere of our student films at the Regent Theatre
See you there everyone!
by Bill Morris
The recent Saatchi – commissioned advertisements for Sealord may have you wondering how much truth there is to their message – are the ads a clear reflection of what Sealord is really about, or simply another example of expensive greenwash, designed to win over increasingly eco-conscious consumers?
Sealord’s main catches are hoki, orange roughy and tuna. Much of the tuna is caught in the Western Pacific using controversial fish aggregating devices, which attract other species including turtles and sharks. There are also major concerns about the bottom trawling techniques used by Sealord and other companies to catch species like Orange roughy and hoki.
Orange Roughy stocks have crashed as a direct result of overfishing. Hoki stocks have also crashed in New Zealand over the past decade. Despite MSC re-certification to the fishery there are still serious concerns about hoki numbers. A recent increase in stock estimates has seen the Total Allowable Catch cautiously lifted, which the industry trumpets as evidence of the Quota Management system working. However the current TACC is still almost half what it was a decade ago. American retailers raised their concerns about the state of the stock in 2009 and at least one major chain refused to stock it.
Sealord’s website states:
Sealord’s fishing techniques are not destructive and do not cause any significant adverse impacts. Our goal is to minimise our impact as much as possible and to constantly monitor and do research into this.
However bottom trawling has been proven to be incredibly destructive to deep sea habitat, especially on fragile sea mounts where slow-growing corals attract schools of long-lived fish like orange roughy. Also there is no question that deep sea fishing has had a huge impact on deep sea fish species like Orange Roughy and hoki.
There is no question that New Zealand’s deep sea fishing industry is economically very important. This graph, taken from the Ministry of Fisheries website, shows that despite a dramatic decrease in amount of hoki being caught, the value of the export has actually risen steadily. This is perhaps party due to value-adding work by the industry, but its also an indication of the vast, rising demand that exists for fish products in America and elsewhere.
As the Sealord TV ad says ” People around the world can’t get enough of our fish.”
Recent increases in hoki numbers may well be a sign of the quota management system working – but only time will tell. Sensible management of our deep sea fisheries is crucial to ensuring we still have access to this resource for the future. The truth of what’s really going on the deep sea is something science is scrambling ahead of fishing industry to understand, which is why the utmost caution is needed in management of these fisheries. Will there still be stocks of hoki and orange roughy to catch in twenty years time, or will we have scooped them up (destroying much of their habitat in the process) in order to satisfy a bloated American market looking for cheap fish flavour?
What are your thoughts about the Sealord ads?
One of our students, Kimberley Collins, is Ambassador for the Campbell Island Teal as part of Forest and Bird’s Bird of the Year competition. I was thrilled she used my picture of the beautiful duck as her profile shot for the bird.
Here’s her blog about this amazing little duck.
VOTE CAMPBELL ISLAND TEAL!
by Bill Morris
Next week, Dr Mike Joy will be speaking s part of SciTell and also presenting a lecture on the state of New Zealand’s environment.
Dr Joy has been an outspoken critic of New Zealand’s environmental practices in relation to our terrestrial waterways so it’ll be interesting to hear him speak next week. It’s not easy to speak out on issues like these –to stick your head out is to risk getting it chopped off. It’s important we listen to knowledgable commentators like Dr Joy, who aren’t afraid to speak plainly on issues like this.
New Zealand is, I believe, stuck in an old fashioned mentality of seeking short-term economic gain rather than looking towards a future that sustains our most important asset, our oft-flaunted “clean green” reputation.
We’re stuck in a pioneering mentality of subduing nature and milking it (no pun intended) for all its worth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to making a living from the land and sea. I grew up on a sheep farm, on which I was taught to be a steward of the land – to live with the environment to and pass it on in better condition than I received it. I have worked for commercial fishing operators, and I actually believe farmers and fishermen are the people best suited to care for the land and sea – they are bound to protect it as it is the source of their livelihood and the future for their families.
However in New Zealand we have seen a fundamental shift in ownership surrounding these resources. Fishing and farming have increasingly been taken out of the hands of independent, family-owned operations and consolidated in the hands of large companies who are only out to make a profit in the short term. And that profit is coming at the expense of the health of our natural environment.
At the same time, I believe there is a somewhat counter-productive and unrealistic tendency among conservation groups in New Zealand to think we can isolate ourselves from nature. The fact is that we cannot live on this planet without having an environmental impact. Farming and fishing are a necessary and defining part of human existence. However in New Zealand we have the opportunity to develop towards a way of working that minimizes their impact; making a living from the land and sea while still retaining our greatest wealth; our clean water, relatively pristine lakes and forests and healthy(ish) oceans.
It’s an opportunity that has been lost in many other places around the world. In India, for example, I’ve seen tourists flocking to visit the final remaining small enclaves of natural habitat left on the sub-continent, passing through landscapes of litter and across waterways of black sludge to get there. In a land of over a billion people, there is little clean drinking water left that doesn’t come from a bottle.
In Australia, unsound farming practices have left much of the country’s good growing land unproductive. Their economy now relies largely on large-scale mining in the desert and even that may be on the wane.
Across the globe, fishing resources have been seriously depleted and there are major concerns about how we are going to feed the world’s population in the future.
With our small population and relatively large remaining areas of natural beauty, we have the opportunity to position ourselves as global leaders in a new way of thinking, a new economy that doesn’t rely on “ever-increasing volumes of milk and muck” as one commentator recently put it. Innovative manufacturing and thinking, combined with sustainable food production are the future for New Zealand, not dividing up our natural resources as fast as we can and selling them off for short-term profit that mostly benefits only the wealthy.
What is at stake is the image of New Zealand as a source of clean, eco-friendly innovation and products. Once that is gone, we can never get it back. And with that lost, we are ultimately left with nothing but crumbs. So I’ll be interested to hear what Dr Joy has to say on these issues. I hope you are too.
Dr Mike Joy is speaking as part of SCITELL, Castle St Lecture theatre at 7pm
He is also presenting a lecture, also at Castle St on Wednesday 12th September at 6pm
by Bill Morris
Since the first moon landing, watched on television by millions around the world, NASA has understood the importance of science communication. The recent landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars has highlighted this.
NASA has an incredible website crammed with information about every aspect of their work and cool stuff like this interactive animation. It has a huge library of stunning images. They even have their own online television channel, upon which you could watch the Curiosity landing live.
Ironically, I had to do this because the television media didn’t make much the event. Admittedly half an hour after the rover’s wheels had hit the Martian dirt it was the second story in TV3 news on Monday, but it has since quickly disappeared into the long media shadow of the Olympic Games.
It’s a far cry from “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” When Neil Armstrong uttered those words from the Moon, the world stood spellbound.
Therein lies the reason NASA today recognizes the need for strong science communication. They know that if they don’t make a big deal out of stories like this; if they don’t make themselves a quality resource for space-related news and images and if they don’t actively engage with the public, the funding will quickly dry up. And missions to Mars don’t come cheap.
The Curiosity landing cost US taxpayers $US2.5 billion. This might sound enormous, but to put it in perspective, that was just $7 per taxpayer. The entire mission cost about the same as 3 days of the Iraq War. And yet space exploration must still compete for every dollar, and is constantly facing further cuts.
And so when Curiosity landed on Mars, NASA went to town on it. This was a big chance for them to remind Americans and the world about what it is they do. Curiosity even has its own Twitter account.
NASA’s example is a good one for scientific organizations everywhere. Sure, most scientific research programmes would struggle to present a story for public consumption as dramatic as a Martian landing. But then the news media didn’t exactly fall over themselves about the Curiosity mission either. NASA countered this by taking things into their own hands – laying on their own TV channel and engaging the public on their own terms with every tool they had.
Many scientists and research organizations could do well to follow suit
by Bill Morris
It’s going to be a big weekend. Between the Olympics, Super Rugby Final and International Film Festival, it’s going to hard to do much but be glued to a screen. And then to top it all off, on Monday we land on Mars.
At around 5:30pm New Zealand time, NASA’s Curiosity rover will attempt a highly risky landing on the surface of Mars. The size of a small car, Curiosity is by far the largest rover NASA has attempted to land on the Red Planet. Its size means it will have to be landed in an entirely different way than has been attempted before, using an almost unbelieveble technique involving parachutes, rockets and a “skycrane.” Because of the 14 minutes it takes for radio signals to return to Earth, scientists watching Curiosity’s approach to Mars will not be able to control its entry to Martian atmosphere. They will simply have to hope that 8 years of planning and US$2.5 billion worth of technology can do the job to get it down safely. By the time the team at the Mars Science Laboratory have notification the lander has entered Mars’ atmosphere, the machine will already be standing on the surface of the planet ready for action, or will instead be lying in a twisted, smoking heap, having just become the most expensive piece of space junk in history.
The rover is headed for a place called the Gale Crater. This 154 km wide depression in Mars’ surface is believed to have been created by asteroid impact 3.5 – 3.8 billion years ago, at a time when both Earth and Mars were in their infancy. In the centre of the crater stands a mountain called Aeolis Mons. Gradually rising to 5.5 kilometres above the crater floor, Aeolis Mons, or Mount Sharp as it has been known, is higher than New Zealand’s Mount Cook by another third again. Scientists believe it has been created by sedimentation and subsequent erosion. This hypothesis suggest that at one time, vast amounts of water filled the Gale crater. And that could mean that at one time, life flourished on the planet. The Curiosity rover, which is equipped with the best cameras ever landed on Mars, will spend the next two years or more exploring the mountain, perhaps even scaling its summit, in an effort to unravel something of the story of Mars. That is, of course, provided everything goes to plan on Monday. (It’s worth remembering that only 40% of attempted Martian landings have been successful.)
Aeolis Mons has been selected as one of the best places yet discovered on Mars to find evidence for carbon-based life on the planet. It is hoped that just like Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the sediment layers of Aeolian Mons will provide scientists with a rich and detailed record of past geological processes on the planet. And, if evidence for carbon-based organics can be located we will at last know if, somewhere during its humid past, Mars hosted life. Or maybe, whether it still does …
I must admit I’m far from a television news junkie, so maybe I‘ve missed something, but I do find it surprising more has not been made in the media about this incredible event. After all this is one of the most audacious space exploration events in human history. If Curiosity lands safely its cameras will provide us with images of an incredible Martian terrain unlike any witnessed before. And if its onboard instruments locate evidence for past or present life on Mars, our fundamental understanding of our place in the Universe will be forever altered.
So if you can drag yourself away from the Games coverage on Monday afternoon, I strongly suggest you visit NASA’s live stream here to witness human history unfolding. Because when Curiosity’s cameras start rolling, life on Earth may never be quite the same again.
Keywords: Mars, Science Communication, Curiosity, New Zealand, Centre for Science Communciation
by Bill Morris
The other day I caught a broadcast of Sir Peter Gluckman’s speech at the recent Transit of Venus forum in Gisborne. Sir Peter is the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor and was a friend of the recently deceased SIr Paul Callaghan, who was instrumental in setting up the forum. In his speech, Sir Peter talked about the challenges society faces and the crucial role science plays in meeting these challenges.
A few interesting points regarding the role of science communication caught my ear so I thought I’d discuss them here….
“It’s important that we do not put science on a lofty pedestal that it does not deserve to be on. Paul (Callaghan) clearly saw that science is part of, not distinct from, society.”
As science communicators, we often encounter frictions with scientists who (perhaps not without reason) distrust the media and are therefore reluctant to involve themselves with the communication of science through public means. On occasion, scientists feel their science is lost in translation; that the concepts are too complex for the media to properly process and therefore the essence of their work will be lost.
However as Sir Peter made clear in his speech, science cannot and must not exist in isolation from the public. If it does, it has no purpose. Science exists to serve society and to help meet the challenges society faces.
“Science provides some forms of knowledge, but societal decisions are properly made on many other grounds with strong values domains. Community values, public opinion, fiscal and diplomatic considerations are critical to policy making.”
If science exists in isolation from cultural and societal values, or from economic and business interests, then it can play no role in policy making. As science communicators, our role is to ensure that unbiased, evidence-based science finds its way into any discourse over the future of humanity on this planet. It is unrealistic of science to expect absolute hegemony in this discourse, and yet a strong science voice must make itself heard. That’s where science communication comes in – by making the public aware of what science is telling us and allowing that to influence the way governments are directed to act by the public.
“It’s wrong to assume that science is about certainty, for in most of science certainty is not possible. It’s mostly about reducing uncertainty.”
“The one dimension of science we must protect at all costs is for the collection and interpretation of data to be value free”
“It’s where the boundary between what is observed and what is believed become blurred that confusion can occur.”
Debate over many issues has been heavily coloured by agendas, politics and business interests. As Sir Peter said in his speech, scientists have to be very careful not to be drawn into values debates that use science as a proxy to further agendas. Sir Peter believes the debate over climate change has been such a discussion -
“While there are really knowledge gaps, most of that debate is not really about the presence or not of climate change, rather it’s being used as a proxy for a values debate about economics and inter-generational equity.”
The media’s role is to sift through all of this static and find out what science is really telling us; then make sure as many of the public as possible are aware of it. Not an easy job, and in this respect scientists have a duty to assist genuine science communicators by being open, available and co-operative with their information. In the modern world, science, politics, economics, community values and many other factors are intertwined in policy-making, and there is no escaping this by keeping science in cloistered isolation.
“Everything we do involves trade-offs. Sustaining 40% more people on the planet, many of whom will have the right to demand higher standards of living, will inevitably require more energy consumption, more food, more water, more resource use. There’s just no way around that.”
“Science has a critical role to play in a public dialogue as we develop a national consensus on how best to manage these trade-offs.”
“All of this requires a much more scientifically aware, literate and engaged population.”
A recording of Sir Peter’s speech can be found here
by Bill Morris
This week we found out that another Centre for Science Communication film, “Gone Curling” by Roland Kahurangi and Rachael Patching has been nominated for the Best Newcomer award at Wildscreen. It is the fourth of our films to appear at the festival, which is the world’s most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival. Wildscreen is held in conjunction with the BBC’s Bristol Natural History Unit, the legendary organization responsible for the famous natural history programming many of us grew up with – Life on Earth and more. Those gloriously-filmed wildlife shows, made in exotic locations and drawn together by the dry-gin-and-pickled-onions, sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire intonations of Sir David Attenborough are still wildly popular – witness the success of the recent Frozen Planet, which drew millions of viewers across the world (albeit narrated by Alec Baldwin in America.)
However, just as the sun has set on the British empire, it is also setting on the golden era of wildlife filmmaking that inspired many of our students to follow their passions into the filmmaking and science communication field in the first place.
Television production companies today compete globally for an ever-diminishing slice of the money pie and there are intense commercial pressures to produce television that is instantly gratifying, fast-paced and tailored to appeal to as large a section of the potential audience as possible. This is referred to by some as “dumbing down,“ however the reality of the situation is that in order to survive, production companies need to make commercially successful television on very small budgets. Natural history as the BBC makes it is expensive and time-consuming. It requires film crews to spend months and even years in remote locations waiting on Nature to perform, which she does on her own time. But every day a crew is out in the field waiting on a polar bear to emerge from hibernation or a swallow’s eggs to hatch eats hungrily into the budget. These days it is really only the British taxpayer-funded BBC and Japan’s enormous NHK corporation that can afford this type of filmmaking, and that may be coming to an end too – budget cuts at the BBC may hamstring the Bristol Natural history unit in the future.
At the same time, “our world” is changing. Finding unspoiled locations in which to film wildlife is getting harder and harder. What we think we see on the screen is not necessarily the real deal – natural history documentaries are often very effective at concealing the fact that much of the world has become an over-crowded and polluted place. Artful framing, careful editing and shooting in dressed up locations, even zoos, can create a somewhat fabricated illusion of the world we like to think is out there. In a effort to address this, the final episode of the Frozen Planet series did look at the impact of global warming on the polar regions, although several major American broadcasters refused to screen this episode. However the companies making these shows can’t escape the reality that what they are creating is first and foremost entertainment; and as with all entertainment, smoke and mirrors may be required to immerse the viewer in a reality outside of their own. And sometimes, uncomfortable, unpleasant truths need to be avoided, concealed or simply ignored in order to maintain the illusion. Television is all about escapism, after all.
One of the best things about seeing films from the Centre for Science Communication is that although they are made on very small budgets, they do not have commercial imperatives hovering over them. In other words, students can tell the story they want to without accountants, programmers and executives demanding ratings success down the line. The best student films are entertaining yet informative and tell stories in a way we rarely see on mainstream television.
“Gone Curling” is an example - expertly shot and crafted, it captures a unique rural sub-culture in Central Otago at risk from global climate change. The climate message is subtle yet effective – the film lovingly explores the culture of outdoor curling in Naseby as they wait for a freeze that threatens not to arrive.
At first glance, it seems incongruous that a people-focussed film like Gone Curling would find favour at Wildscreen, but when you think about it, it’s a perfect fit. It documents the reality of what’s happening in the world today and how global climate change is impacting on human lives. It’s real and honest, in a time when big-budget natural history films are beginning to feel a little bit like a manufactured reality.
Some other Centre for Science Communication films that have been to Wildscreen:
By Bill Morris
A few weeks ago I started writing about warfare and the evolution of primates. In this blog I’d like to continue my musings, this time looking at two of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos.
We’re all familiar with chimps – lovable, tea-drinking, human-like monkey-looking things; intelligent enough to be taught to ride bikes and smoke cigarettes, yet dumb enough to laugh at on TV? Right? But what the heck is a bonobo?
OK let’s just take a step back… Contrary to the image fostered by advertisements for tea bags and Hollywood movies, chimpanzees are actually highly-evolved, intelligent animals that exist in the wilds of Africa within complex social structures. They hunt and kill other animals for meat, engage in inter-troop fighting and often solve disputes with ferocious, sometimes lethal violence. They are one of the most closely-related animals to humans on the planet. We find them fascinating because they are so like us, yet amusing because they are different. It’s somewhat ironic that the word “ape,” when applied to a human being is derogatory and implies stupidity, when in fact apes are only deemed un-intelligent (by un-intelligent humans) because of their similarities to us.
The bonobo is very closely related to the chimpanzee, and perhaps even more closely related to humans than chimps are. Whereas chimps inhabit forests north of the Congo River, bonobos range to the south – it is believed the two species diverged from a common ancestor 2 million years ago after the river split them into two groups. The most striking difference between the species is their wildly variant social lives.
Whereas chimp societies are male-dominated and fraught with violence, bonobo troops exist in apparent peace, using sex rather than aggression to resolve conflicts. In bonobo troops it is the females that exert dominance over males.
Scientists have just recently unlocked the genome for the bonobo, which may reveal more detail about our close relationship with these animals. Interestingly, it has shown that the divergence from chimpanzees has been almost total, which is extremely unusual for neighbouring species. As I reported in a previous blog, even humans and Neanderthals, who shared territory in Europe around 30-60,000 years ago, exchanged genetic material and the signature of that interbreeding can still be found on our genome today. The fact that neither bonobos or chimps can swim meant the Congo river has provided an impenetrable barrier between the two species for over two million years. As one scientist put it – they may as well have been on different planets.
It has been theorized that bonobos exist in a region that is richer in resources than the chimps’ domain. Also, there are no gorillas there, unlike to the north. With less competition for resources in the bonobo territory, there was less need for violence and so peaceful societies evolved. A recent study has even suggested that bonobos “domesticated” themselves, with females preferring less aggressive males to mate with. Just as the violent behaviours associated with the ancestral wolf have been largely bred out of our domesticated dogs, so bonobos have evolved in favour of a peaceful life.
However, while bonobos have often been held up as ambassadors of peace and love; a closer study of the so-called “hippie ape” reveals flaws in this idealistic argument. Just like chimpanzees, bonobos are frequently in conflict, they’ve just evolved different methods of dealing with it. A 2008 study observed bonobos hunting and killing monkeys for food, an activity previously associated with chimps, but not bonobos.
It has been argued that we humans have inherited the “dark” side of the chimp (its violent tendencies) and should rather aspire to the bonobo’s way of life. But let’s analyse that. It is true that violence occurs in our societies and that we fight wars to gain control of resources. And yet most of us rarely encounter violence in our day to day lives. When we do, it is often no more than pushing and shoving, which even bonobos are prone to doing, especially over food. Extreme violence is something we might witness only a few times in our life, if ever. For the most part, we solve our conflicts through peaceful resolution. Given the huge numbers of human beings on the planet, the level of co-operation and peaceful co-existence is nothing short of astonishing.
For most of us, wars happen beyond our immediate experience, conducted by powerful interests operating in a shadowy world we only partially understand.
It could be said that many of the young men and women who fight these wars have little vested emotional interest in the reasons they are fighting, but are simply following orders. Stories of Turkish and Allied soldiers at Gallipoli fraternizing during a ceasefire, before being dragged back to the trenches to continue killing each other, or of German and British troops playing football on Christmas Day during the slaughter on the Western Front, give a much truer insight into our deeper nature than a simple history of warfare would suggest.
In the depths of our beings, perhaps we are far closer to bonobos than chimps in regard to violence than we realize. Like both bonobos and chimps, we are social animals – creatures that feel more comfortable surrounded by others. This is an evolved tendency that has kept our ancestors alive, from the forest to the savannah to the steppe. When resources are short, we draw together and, if necessary, fight for survival.
Of course, this innate tendency is prone to manipulation by the leaders of society, who wage wars for resources in distant lands. So if we need to question why wars are fought, perhaps it’s there we need to look, rather than to our “inner ape,” for answers.
by Bill Morris
Like many people in Otago I went out stargazing on Wednesday to observe the passing of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun. It was a momentous occasion, a chance to peer across the space that separates us from our mother star and get a real perspective on where things sit in relation to one another.
What is Venus? A planet similar in size to Earth but, being closer to the Sun, one that has been cooked at a much higher temperature than we have. There is a theory that when the Sun was in its earlier state it was much smaller and at that time, Venus may have been inhabitable for life as we know it. However as the sun expanded and heated up, it triggered a “runaway greenhouse” effect on Venus that turned it into a Hadean inferno with a crushing and toxic atmosphere.
Venus has no apparent plate tectonics, perhaps due to the fact that water, which is important in plate tectonics on Earth, has been almost totally evaporated from its surface. It is studded with hundreds of thousands of volcanoes belching carbon dioxide into the dense atmosphere.
Exploration of Venus goes back to the days of the Space Race, when America and the USSR competed with one another to push out the frontiers of the known Universe. The Americans got to Venus first – the Mariner 2 becoming the first successful interplanetary mission when it flew by Venus in 1962.
The Russian Venera missions repeatedly penetrated the atmosphere of Venus for two decades between 1963 and 1983, with later missions surviving the crushing atmosphere to land on the surface. The Venera 10 sent back the first images of the surface of the planet. Venera 13 and 14 returned the first colour images. They revealed a place of strange inhospitable beauty, strangely serene yet utterly parched.
All these landers lasted less than an hour on the surface, succumbing to intense temperatures of up to 450 degrees Celsius and the dense atmosphere, which at the surface has the equivalent pressure of that one kilometer below the surface of Earth’s ocean. The Vega missions in the early 1980’s were the last landings on the surface of Venus.
It has been proposed that humans could colonize Venus in the future and survive by living in enclosed floating cities about 50 km above the surface. In this portion of Venus’ atmosphere, temperature and pressure are similar to that on Earth.
For now, however, it appears our colder neighbor Mars is of more interest to NASA and space exploration in general and it may be a long time before a manned mission to Venus is seriously contemplated. And so at 4:43 pm on Wednesday afternoon, it slipped off the edge of the Sun’s disc and into the blackness of the space, once more to travel on without us.