Category Archives: Science & Engineering

I’ve been working on a  magazine article on marine farming, which has brought me into contact with some old friends and raised some old memories.  Coincidently a new aquaculture law was passed last week which many hope will bring an end to the fighting between marine farmers and commercial fisherman over water space.

My mind went back to a hearing of the Environment Court in May 2000 in Nelson, where the same, bitter battle was being fought. In particular, to the death of one of the witnesses. Here’s how it was reported  at the time:

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Astrologer Ken Ring claims to be able to do something that scientists cannot do: predict earthquakes. Can he really? No. Do many people believe him? Unfortunately, yes.

There’s a very thoughtful analysis of Ken Ring’s predictions by Ph.D. student David Winter on SciBlogs, here.  Winter takes a careful look at the evidence, failing to find any correlation between the phase of the moon or its distance from the Earth and the intensity of the earthquake sequence since the September earthquake in Christchurch. He did find that Ring predicts very many earthquakes indeed, with lots of false positives and false negatives. (Many others have had a crack at Ring, just Google “Ken Ring earthquakes”.)

Scientific historian Michael Shermer, in his book “Why People Believe Weird Things“, helps us to understand why people like Ken Ring can generate such a following. Here’s a summary of part of his argument.

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Still on the theme of earthquakes and their effects: I learned some fascinating stuff while researching my article for Wild Tomato. A conversation with Prof. James Goff, director of the Australian Tsunami Research Centre at UNSW in Sydney was a highlight.

Professor Goff and his students have been looking for traces of ancient tsunamis in the Nelson region, including the Abel Tasman National Park.  They look for areas where marine deposits washed up by a tsunami would not have been obliterated, e.g. by a meandering river. Once found, these deposits can be dated by studying their contents. For example, a list of the remains of various marine organisms found in a sample can help to provide a ‘date stamp’.

Moawhitu, Greville Harbour

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A new building in Nelson gives us a glimpse of what many buildings in Christchurch might look like in a decade or two, when reconstruction has brought the CBD back from the dead. It’s a new, super-strong, sustainable, multi-story building made from wood.

NMIT Arts & Media building  

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On Thursday I had a meeting with a magazine editor looking for a story about earthquakes and Nelson. The very next day we were confronted with the horrifying but gripping images from the Sendai earthquake. I’ve been to Sendai a few times, enjoyed the nearby beautiful Matsushima archipelago.  I have many Japanese friends to worry about.  But the tragic earthquake and tsunami are actually not my real topic. I found myself bursting into print in the weekly newsletter for my Rotary Club (editor’s privilege). Here’s what I wrote last Sunday 13 March:

“When the first news came out concerning the Fukushima nuclear reactors, especially reports that backup diesel generators had failed, I became very worried indeed. It was as if all the process engineering stuff in my head, almost an obsession for the first 20 years of my working life, popped up to the surface again. I brushed up on BWR type nuclear reactors and tried to make sense of the often completely garbled news accounts.

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The big pulp and paper mills worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day. At Kinleith, on 361 days of the year there was a production meeting (the exceptions were Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and the next day). It started at 0930 and was always finished by 1000, usually 0940. It was super efficient, to find exactly what had happened in the previous 24 hours and ensure that events in the next 24 hours would be well coordinated.

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One of my New Year’s resolutions was to write down some of the many stories my time working in heavy industry. So here’s a start. 

When I travelled north in October/November last year, I managed to catch up with half a dozen of my former colleagues from the pulp and paper industry. I really enjoyed the chance to talk about some of the highs (and lows) of the more than 20 years I spent in the forest products sector.  Looking back, we were really fortunate to start work in that industry at a time it was on a real high.  New Zealand had a huge competitive advantage compared with the rest of the world.  New Zealand’s large, very well managed and sustainable plantation forests of pinus Radiata could produce high-quality cellulose fibre at a very low cost.  What’s more, due to a quirk of that species growing in NZ, we could get a wide range of products once we understood  how to segregate and use the various parts of the tree (but that’s another story).

(If you mainly visit this blog for the pictures, you may be disappointed in this post. But if you’re still interested, read on …..)

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The next stop on my geothermal tour last month was the geothermal area known as Waiotapu, just south of Rotorua (and next door to the wonderful mud pool, the subject of an earlier post).

geothermal

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I spent a few days staying at Kuratau on my recent road trip, on the southern shores of Lake Taupo. Here’s an early morning shot of the lake looking north, with Mt Tauhara in the far distance.

Lake Taupo
I wonder, when people gaze at this beautiful lake, how many realise they’re looking at one of the world’s true supervolcanoes? For example, an eruption around 26,000 years ago at a place called Oruanui is said to be the world’s largest known eruption in the past 70,000 years.

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A piece in the local paper a few days ago described the presentation of a prestigious award to a Nelson scientist. Dr Henry Kaspar received a special President’s Award for research-based innovation for industry at the Royal Society of New Zealand. The award was specifically for his work on starting the world’s only selective breeding programme for mussels. It is well-deserved. Henry has made a huge contribution to the Cawthron Institute over the last few decades. It was Henry who identified the perfect location for an aquaculture research centre, at the Glen just north of Nelson. Henry was the one who backed a young PhD student, Sam Buchanan, who solved the problem that had baffled government scientists for many years: how to grow the unique New Zealand green shell mussel in a hatchery. It was Henry who insisted that Cawthron embark on an ambitious selective breeding programme, rather than spend…

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