Yuriy Gagarin:The Importance Of Being First

May 2, 2011

 Modest; embarrasses when his humour gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.”Soviet Air Force doctor reporting on Yuriy Gagarin*

Ground control to Lieutenant Yuriy…

Fifty years ago 27 year old Soviet Union air force pilot Yuriy Gagarin became the first human being in space – making his own first giant orbit for mankind in a single circumference and spurring America to set itself the challenge of getting the first man on the moon by the end of the decade.

The popular and genial Gagarin was the ideal but apparently not the strongest cosmonaut candidate for the debut flight.  It seems that Gherman Titov was  ranked first but kept under wraps for the scheduled longer second space flight in the series. Gagarin was a much favoured candidate by his peers. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as first in the space hot seat, all but three chose Gagarin. 

Apart from all his other qualities Gagarin’s short stature at 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in) was an asset in the tiny capsule of his rocketVostok 1, which lifted off as scheduled on 12 April 1961, at 9:07am Moscow time (6:07 GMT).   

The entire mission was controlled by either automatic systems or by ground control. This was because medical staff did not know how a human might react to weightlessness, so it was decided to lock the pilot’s manual controls. A code to unlock the controls was placed in an onboard envelope, for Gagarin’s use in case of emergency. It remained unopened, though he had already been told the code by the head of cosmonaut training Nikolai Kamanin. There were a few tricky minutes at re-entry when the service module remained attached to the re-entry module by recalcitrant wires that had failed to separate but Gagarin’s admirably equable temperament during strong gyrations was equal to the situation while the module’s attitude and altitude realigned.

Later Gagarin said; “The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.”*

Ground Control was certainly in suspense until after about 106 minutes  the reentry capsule made a hard parachute landing in the Saratov region of the USSR. Gagarin made a softer one by personal parachute in the same place 10 minutes later, though at the time his detached reentry was kept secret because of what was held to constitute a full manned orbit of the earth. He had to be prepared to both die and lie for his country.

There was no slomo replay of his landing to contradict the official verdict.  A farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute. Gagarin later recalled, “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!  It was probably a collect call. 

Following Gagarin’s return to Earth he was bubble-wrapped by the Soviet authorities and incessantly paraded around for years as an example of Soviet communist success, helped by the fact that one of his most notable traits was his warm smile “that lit up the Cold War”.

When he visited Manchester in the United Kingdom some time later  it was pouring with rain; however, Gagarin insisted that the car hood remain back and refused an umbrella so that the cheering crowds could catch a glimpse of him, saying “If all these people have turned out to welcome me and can stand in the rain, so can I.”

He was finally allowed to return flying at a somewhat lower altitude but died when his plane crashed during a training flight in 1968 during bad weather, possibly after a manoeuvre to avoid a weather balloon. A legacy of early flight may have brought down the first spaceman.

Though his career as a cosmonaut was brief he left a lasting legacy. His legendary flight into space, four years after the unmanned Sputnik,  triggered John Kennedy’s prescient presidential speech at Rice University on September 12th, 1962 setting the goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade.

Before the shooting for the moon speech there was a period of American despondency, with worries that the spaceflight had won a propaganda victory on behalf of Communism. This was not the time for American boosterism. President Kennedy was quoted as saying that it would be “some time” before the US could match the Soviet booster technology and “the news will be worse before it’s better”. At the same time Kennedy also sent congratulations to the Soviet Union for their “outstanding technical achievement.”  Op-eds in many US newspapers urged renewed efforts to overtake the Soviet scientific accomplishments. 

The public challenge, in contrast to Soviet secrecy, galvanised American education, science and technology and military communities and led to the successful manned lunar shot in 1969. There was no seven year hitch, but a couple of major setbacks on the way including a fatal launchpad fire in the full glare of the media’s arc lights.

Decades later the earlier fierce space rivalry between the two titans was transmuted into an age of international space collaboration across national boundariesandacross disciplines on the international Space Station.** World views had changed, not the least because of the views from outer space first experienced by Gagarin.

His photo is the only astronaut portrait on the wall in the central section of the Space Station, said Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield: “Because we recognize that he is the one who opened the door for all of us.”* In the words of Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, commander of the current mission at the International Space Station, from orbit 12 April 2011, “He is a human who made the first-ever step into outer space, which became a milestone for humankind at large.”

A real time recreation of Yuriy Gagarin’s pioneering first orbit, shot entirely in space from on board the International Space Station, was made this year.  The film combines this new synchronised footage with Gagarin’s original mission audio and lets us see what he saw on his trail-blazing blast.*

Since Gagarin’s epic voyage, more than 500 astronauts from countries around the world have left the Earth. Some have walked on the moon. Many, including Hadfield, have lived and walked in space.

A projectile is a self-propelled missile capable of being impelled forward. In metaphorical terms what drives a project is the energy of its participants. At the national level in New Zealand, which projects are our equivalent lunar challenges?  The Rugby World Cup isn’t a big enough or inclusive enough challenge, nor is the America’s Cup, though both consume a lot of national resources for marginal returns.

We need more than spectator sports to engage and involve people. We need worthwhile projects of national significance and a new world view projecting ourselves forward as a nation, making a quantum leap into a new orbit and expanding our sphere of influence globally by transforming ourselves into the Innovation Nation. 

As Robert Grudin, author of Time and the Art of Living put it:  “….people with great projects afoot…look further and more clearly into the future than people who are mired in day to day concerns. These former control the future because by necessity they must project themselves into it…”

Into which  future will we project ourselves?

#Feel free to add a comment below and share this post. 

**Alert   Dr Jack Bacon, internationally-known motivational speaker, futurist and technology writer and author of The Parallel Bang is back in New Zealand on a speaking tour in October 2011. He was the United States’ lead systems integrator of the Zarya-the jointly-built spacecraft that forms the central bridge and adapter between all US and Russian technologies on the Space Station. Visit http://www.drjackbacon.com/    If you are interested in an in-house presentation contact lyall@smartnet.co.nz     


Yuri Gagarin- 50th anniversary of the first …  Vid Russia celebrates the anniversary of the first human spaceflight on 12 Apr 1961.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKs6ikmrLgg    Vid   First Orbit  Documentary film maker Christopher Riley partnered with European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli to record a stunning new film of what Gagarin would have seen of the Earth from his spaceship. This was released online in April 2011 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight.
We Choose to go to the Moon Vid  John Kennedy’s speech at Rice University on September 12th, 1962 setting the goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade.
http://video.ca.msn.com/watch/video/hadfield-honours-gagarin/16az87wg4   Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield reflects on Yuri Gagarin’s space trip 50 years ago.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFks9A9TCF0  Music vid David Bowie “Space Oddity”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Orbit  The making of First Orbit.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gagarin 

#Lyall Lukey 2 May 2011
http://www.lukey.co.nz/  http://www.smartnet.co.nz
https://bluggerme.wordpress.com  My other less serious blog

The $64 Billion Question: How to Turn Knowledge into Wealth?

February 9, 2011

“We work hard, we have a good quality education system, but we lack prosperity commensurate with our effort…Our way forward must be based on honest analysis, ditching self-serving myths, and embracing a long term vision with relentness commitment to make this a just, equitable and prosperous country, worthy of our children, and a place where talent wants to live.”.” Prof. Paul Callaghan*

2011 New Zealander of the Year Professor Sir Paul Callaghan is one of New Zealand’s best known living scientists. He is also a marvellous communicator, as the videos below demonstrate.

He was the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Distinguished Speaker in 2007 and he laid down a timely challenge  at the third annual Education Leaders Forum in 2009 with a stimulating and provocative presentation Education and culture change: New Zealand’s challenge for the 21st century.*His persuasive argument is laid out in his book From Wool to Weta*, which challenges us to look beyond the farm and the theme park in order to transform New Zealand’ s culture and economy.

 He argues that if New Zealand keeps relying on tourism and farming we will fall all the way to the bottom of OECD rankings pretty quickly. In a word, we are poorer because we choose to work in low-wage activities: “Tourism may provide valuable employment for underskilled New Zealanders, but it cannot provide a route to greater prosperity”.*

What’s the alternative? He argues that New Zealand’s future lies in emerging industries based on science, technology, and intellectual property exemplified by companies like WETA, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare , Gallagher, Tait Electronics and Rakon generating wealth through science and technology-based businesses and a whole host of small, smart companies we’ve never heard  doing stuff that’s incomprehensible to many of us, but the way forward for the country..

His education and science founded vision for New Zealand’s future emphasises that we should utilise science and technology to grow prosperity and a sustainable future. He argues that our landscape is magnificent and helps define who we are, but as a nation we have the potential to be a great deal more besides than a commodity farm and, in David Lange’s words, a theme park for tourists.

He advocates a shift in New Zealand from a reliance on natural resources to knowledge and innovation.  He believes there are unlimited opportunities, but one of  the challenges  is providing students with the skills required to both work in and  create innovative new businesses.

He avers that  “we fail our children through defeatist advice at school, encouraging kids to drop maths and physics because it might be ‘too hard.’ This not only ensures that those children will never be part of the emerging NZ technology sector; they will also never be an engineer, pilot, veterinarian, scientist, doctor or architect.

If we are to build the society we want our children to thrive in we must enhance our prosperity through sensible investment in education, science and technology, coupled with culture change. The first part is the easy bit. The second requires self-belief and a sense of purpose, especially when it comes to scientific research and innovation.

He quotes approvingly David S. Landes from his “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and Others So Poor? “*“Rich economies must defend themselves by remaining on the cutting edge of research, moving into new and growing branches, learning from others, finding the right niches, by cultivating and using ability and knowledge.”  David S. Landes

Paul Callaghan was born in Wanganui. He obtained his Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford University, working in low temperature nuclear physics. On his return to New Zealand he began researching the applications of magnetic resonance to the study of soft matter at Massey University, and in 2001 was appointed Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. He also heads the multi-university MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

 He has published around 220 articles in scientific journals, as well as Principles of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Microscopy (Oxford University Press, 1994). He is a founding director of Magritek, a small Wellington-based company that sells NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) instruments.

Professor Callaghan’s many awards include the Blake Medal for Leadership and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He is a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (PCNZM). His latest accolade comes at a time when he has been battling a serious illness for many months* while keeping up his manifold contributions to the world of science and the wider community.

As a nation can we lift our sights and shift up a gear in the way we cultivate and share knowledge and tap the talents of our people?

#Feel free to add a comment below and share this post.

http://edtalks.org/video/turning-knowledge-wealth   Professor Paul Callaghan speaking at Education Leaders Forum 2009 Vid
http://www.macdiarmid.ac.nz/news/video/callaghaninterviews.php  Vid
From Wool to Weta, Paul Callaghan – Shop Online for Books in NZ http://www.ecasttv.co.nz/program_detail.php?program_id=1608&channel_id=84&group_id=73    Slideshare
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/econ_articles/reviews/landes.html  Review of Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations…”

#Lyall Lukey 9 Feb 2011
http://www.lukey.co.nz/  http://www.smartnet.co.nz https://bluggerme.wordpress.com  My other less serious blog

Older Neurons: Hi-Ho Silver Lining

July 11, 2010

“Keeping active can increase your brain power.  Scientists have discovered that the human brain can improve with advancing years, dispelling the common belief that a person’s mental faculties peak in their twenties.”  Steven Swinford and Richard Kerbaj*

Even if some of us are  still not  sure what we’re going to do when we grow up, many of us more mature people are a bit apprehensive about the possible onset of the dreaded Mental Brewer’s Droop in its various manifestations, from minor short-term memory loss to the big A.  (Don’t forget that next week is Alzheimers Awareness and Appeal Week*).   

But it seems that while short-term memory may, in fact, decline with old age, long-term memory in most people remains unaffected and a person’s vocabulary, emotional intelligence and social skills may all get better.

In their recent article Brain Power Peaks In The Silver Set * Swinford and Kerbaj pulled together an interesting synthesis of recent studies which are part of a wider reappraisal of research into intelligence that began several years ago and which “has overturned the notion that intelligence peaks in the late twenties, prompting a long, slow and inevitable decline.”*

Older people are able to retain and hone an effective a range of skills. Until now some in the more mature ranks have been more concerned with dandruff than dentrites, but it appears that expert knowledge is stored in brain cells known as dendritic spines which  seem to be protected against ageing by a metaphorical silver lining.

When it comes to decision making, it also turns out that older people are more likely to be rational than young people because their brains are less susceptible to surges of dopamine, the feelgood hormone that can lead to impulsive reactions and dopey decisions. Despite slower brain speed, older people apparently solve problems more efficiently, drawing on “cognitive templates” of how they resolved similar problems in the past. The key is the process for problem solving not the content of the answer.

We know that top sports people are considered over the hill in their mid-30s but many of the most influential people in politics, business, law, literature and science are in their late fifties and sixties or older. Management gurus W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker were both still lecturing in their mid-90s.

Not only changing demographic patterns but also the loss of significant cognitive resources have led to demands for the retirement age to be lifted in some professions in the UK.

 New Zealand no longer has an obligatory retirement age, though age 65, when national superannuation kicks in, has become the target retirement age for many New Zealanders,  but an increasing number are staying on in the work force, not necessarily because they have to but because they want to. However, the older and more experienced often struggle to hold on to their present positions, let alone gain new ones.  

The ageist struggle starts more than two decades earlier for executive aspirants. Over the years there have been different  invisible barriers in respect to senior management jobs. First the class ceiling, which kept out those from the wrong side of the school tracks; then the glass ceiling, which kept out women. Now it’s the crass ceiling which favours the young and brash at the expense of the mature and experienced.  In the light of the findings above, this is waste management.

My view is that “retirement” should be spelt “retyrement” and it  should be about finding new ways of getting traction for one’s distilled experience and knowledge in a society which  is data and information rich but knowledge and wisdom poor.

We’ve heard a lot about Generations X and Y. Let’s now hear it for Generation S-the  65+years old silver set. Those of us in this age bracket are in our element: just as silver is precious, with the highest electrical conductivity of any metal,  the new research demonstrates that  silver-lined neurons are pretty good at conducting the impulses which are the functional units of the nervous system. With the right physical and mental exercise,  neurons can be kept in better nick at later life passages for more people than hitherto thought.

A sad minority have real problems. In 2008 about 40,000 Kiwis, or about 1% of the population, sufferered from dementia.  With demographic changes, this number is predicted to rise by 400% by mid century.

But pre-shroud every cloud  has a silver lining. Synonyms for silver include bright, lustrous, resplendent and sterling.  Most members of Generation S are capable of rendering sterling service if they keep their knowledge and skills polished.

Switched on Neuron

 Let’s go on the attack and claim back the feel good 60s song Hi-Ho Silver Lining back from English football clubs like Everton who, after England’s World Cup performance, deserve a song with a much whiter shade of pale and make it the anthem of a resplendent Silver Generation.

Hi-Ho Silver Lining*  (Scott English / Larry Weiss)
You're everywhere and nowhere, baby,
That's where you're at
Going down the bumpy hillside in your hippie hat
Flying across the country and getting fat
Saying everything is groovy
When your tires are flat     
And it's hi-ho silver lining
Anywhere you go now, baby
I see your sun is shining but I will make a fuss
Though it's obvious
Flies are in your pea soup, baby  
They're waving at me
Anything you want is yours now,
Only nothing's for free
Life's a-gonna get you someday,
Just wait and see
So put up your beach umbrella
While you're watching TV
And it's hi-ho silver lining
Anywhere you go, well, baby
I see your sun is shining but I will make a fuss
Though it's obvious

Brain power peaks in the silver set Steven Swinford and Richard Kerbaj  Sunday Times  27 June 2010 www.alzheimers.org.nz   For information and to donate
http://themindperspective.files.wordpress.com     Neuron visual etc
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DD7KkJopku8  Hi-Ho Silver Lining- first released as a single in March 1967 by The Attack and a few days later by Jeff Beck  Vid
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYPoRFRhVzE&feature=related  -Everton Fans at  Wembley Singing Hi-Ho Silver Lining  Vid
Send “Hi Ho Silver Lining” Ringtone to your Cell

 #Lyall Lukey11 July 2010
http://www.lukey.co.nz/  http://www.smartnet.co.nz
https://bluggerme.wordpress.com  My other blog

Space Technology- A Graphic Footnote

July 25, 2009

“…Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword
.”  Edward Bulwer-Lytton 1839

In 1870 literary critic Edward Sherman Gould wrote that Bulwer-Lytton “had the good fortune to do, what few men can hope to do: he wrote a line that is likely to live for ages.”

170 years later Bulwer-Lytton is remembered more as the author of the famous opening lines “It was a dark and stormy night.” via the eponymous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. (When Charles Schultz was working for Peanuts, this was Snoopy’s favorite opening gambit when he tried to get his creative canine writing juices flowing.).     

But if, metaphorically, the pen is mightier than the sword, what about the power of the humble and now almost forgotten pencil? It played a hitherto unsung role in the Russian side of the space race equation in the 1960s.

While the Chinese Communist takeover in 1949 was a technicolor complication ( a new Oriental Yellow Peril mixed with the Marxist Red Threat to produce a potentially ominous  new strain of political contagion,  the dreaded Orange Menace)  it was the Russians who remained the main Red Flag standard bearers and the main threat.

The Russians, of course, got away to a flying start with the first satellite, Sputnik I in October 1957, and a month later, with Laika, the first dog in space, (who didn’t get to live to write her autobiography because she only had a single ticket to ride).  Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space in April 1961. He had a return ticket. 

All this was was a seismic shock to the American military industrial complex and the country’s education system. It wasn’t even half-time and the score was Russian Communism 3, The Free World 0.

The John Kennedy-inspired Moon landing at the end of the 60s decisively altered the balance.

But American high tech did not have all the answers in what had been a space game of two halves. When NASA began the launch of astronauts into space, they found out that pens wouldn’t work at zero gravity because ink won’t flow down to the writing surface. To solve this problem, it took them one decade and $12 million.

They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, in practically any surface including crystal and in a temperature range from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.   

 And what did the Russians do?  They used a pencil.

History does not record whether it was a red one, but  the writing stick has a long and ueful history. According to Wikipaedia the archetypal pencil was probably the stylus, which was a thin metal stick, often made from lead and used for scratching in papyrus. The word pencil comes from the Latin word pencillus which means “little tail”.

In the 16th century an enormous deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, England. The locals found that it was very useful for marking sheep. This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and it could easily be sawn into sticks. This remains the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. Chemistry was in its infancy and the substance was thought, erroneously, to be a form of lead. There was, in fact, no lead in any pencils.

The modern digital age, with its hyperactive collective thumb, eschews the pencil, but my generation can still recall the look, feel (and taste) of a coveted HB (“H” for hard and “B” for black , our tool of choice for literacy development. The Deluxe model had a rubber attached as the delete option.

If pushed we can also almost remember the Latin for Bulwer-Lytton’s penmanship adage: Calamvs Gladio Fortior!


A fascinating history of the pencil and some notable pencil users:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pencil

More pencil jottings:  http://www.listfied.com/5-interesting-facts-about-pencils-did-you-know

Past non-parsed paragraphs from the Bulwer-Lytton Awards: http://blogofbad.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/bad-english-the-bulwer-lytton-award/

Digitised Graphics: Snoopy vs. The Red Baron (Snoopy’s Christmas) (CC)

Moon Talk-The 40th

July 20, 2009

Ok-what were the first words broadcast from the Moon’s surface after the first real moon walk 40 years ago today? 

No, not Neil Armstrong’s famous prefabricated and misquoted words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Only recently have sound engineers managed to pick up the missing indefinite article that retrospectively save the famous lines from being tautologous). 

No, not even Armstrong’s “Tranquility base here.  The Eagle has landed.”  No, that was the second communication. 

The first rather prosaic words, from lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, whose mother’s maiden name was prophetically Moon, were “Contact light.  Motor control to ‘ auto”.  Engine arm off.”   One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Remembered  By Piers Bizony.

Like all the  famous events we “remember”  a poteen of moonshine seems to overlay the pattern of history.  What we think we remember about the first moon landing  ain’t necessarily so, especially if we were living in New Zealand at the time and we think we recall the live video shots of Armstrong’s first foot on the moon, while Aldrin waited his turn to descend from the lunar module and Michael Collins was over the moon, like the rest of America, in the command module. The fact is that the video pictures weren’t live on this side of the Tasman. https://lukeytraining.wordpress.com/?s=Moonshine  

The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s, which he articulated to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

As has often been pointed out, the goal has a clear outcome and timeframe and caught America’s imagination in a time when the USA was on the back foot in the Cold War’s sublimated space race after Yuri Gagarin’s first manned orbit less than six weeks earlier stretched the space lead Sputnik had created  for Russia in 1957.

And this morning, on the 40th anniversary of the moonwalk,  there was the clear yellow tinged disc of the new moon just above the horizon!  It’s still hard to believe (and obviously impossible for the conspiracy nutters) that people have been to the moon and left footprints frozen in time in the airless and thus windless lunar surface to prove it.

 NASA’s  current Constellation Project encompasses a new project — the Moon base and the conquest of Mars. But it is not rocket science to realise that in straitened economic times  the astronomical cost involved (at least US$150 Billion) is as big an obstacle as the scientific and technological challenges of building and inhabiting a lunar platform as a staging post to Mars.

I had dinner in Christchurch last week with two NASA people.  Jonette is working on Lunar Surface Systems and her husband Mark on engineering support. In September, their friend and colleague Dr Jack Bacon, NASA engineer working on the International Space Platform and noted futurist and author will be back in New Zealand speaking at conferences and in house meetings. He will make two public presentations in Wellington and Christchurch on The Parallel Bang-The explosive growth of human understanding in the 21st century.  More at: http://www.lukey.co.nz/speakers.html


Apollo 11 – Video of Touchdown and Radio Transcript  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnWP1OsXhwg  

BBC Moon Week – Three Drunk Monkeys  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1c042L0CQwE 

Buzz- a bad rap?    Buzz Aldrin’s Rocket Experience with Snoop Dog and Talib Kweli

Lyall Lukey  20 July 09   http://www.lukey.co.nz/

DIY Science: Old and New Kiwi Stars

July 5, 2009

“The dinosaurs were alive when this star exploded and the light travelled here, and I was the first one to see it.”  Stuart Parker 


 Two recent Press items featured the work of New Zealand scientific amateurs who both got the jump on the professionals in their chosen fields of study although neither had specialist academic training or institutional support.

The first, by Press reporter Martin Van Beynen, recounted the story behind a recent entry in the scientific diary of a dairy farmer. The supernova prosaically named SN2009GJ exploded 60 million years. When the light finally reached Earth a fortnight ago, Stuart Parker, in a high tech bloke’s shed in Oxford, was the first to spot it, with a little help from a 14 inch telescope with a digital camera, coupled to computer scanners.  

That’s Oxford North Canterbury, New Zealand not Oxford, England and Stuart Parker is a dairy farmer and an amateur astronomer, not an academic astrophysicist. After 15 years hunting supernovas, the long hours invested paid off and he recorded the first trace of the defunct star.

SN2009GJ exploded around the time when dinosaurs, the dominant vertebrate animals of earth for about 100 million years, were about to become extinct, leaving their avian relations the birds to it. 

The second item was the news that New Zealand’s best known palaeontologist, self-taught Havelock North fossil hunter Joan Wiffen, the Dinosaur Lady, died in Hastings, NZ, last week.  http://www.stuff.co.nz/timaru-herald/news/national/2556923/Joan-Wiffen-dies-at-87

Joan Wiffen had only a brief secondary education – her father believed higher education was wasted on girls. and she was expected to get married and have a family. That she duly did, and she and her husband took up rock collecting as a hobby. “I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils.”  That she also did, with spectacular results. 

Her dig at Maungahouanga, the Valley of the Dragons, in Hawke’s Bay was the first known site where dinosaurs lived in New Zealand. After some smaller finds, she cracked the big one literally by using explosives on a bone-laden large boulder and a coil of No.8 fencing wire to fashion a flying fox to extract chunks of rock bearing the first major mosasaur specimen in 1974.  

She went on to find bones from half a dozen or so more different sea and land dwelling dinosaurs, including the tail bone of a theropod dinosaur in the Maungahouanga valley in northern Hawke’s Bay in 1975, an armoured ankylosaur, a hypsilophodont, as well as a pterosaur flying reptile, and marine reptiles, such as plesiosaurs.

Her scientific endeavours included arduous and patient fossicking for fossils out in the field, forensic-like fossil preparation from fragments, and writing up taxonomic descriptions and interpretations. She put New Zealand on the palaeontological map with its own Jurassic –or at least Cretaceous-Park.

She also conveyed her contagious love of her subject by telling the story of dinosaurs downunder in many popular articles, public lectures and school presentations.   Dinosaurs have become a celebrated part of popular culture world-wide and her work contributed to this.

 Putting it in the long hours, as both the amateurs did in a most professional way,  is the kind of thing that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his recent book Outliers http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/  to explain the reason why some people are so accomplished and so extraordinary.  He adduced his 10,000 Hours Rule: the key to achievement in any domain is not just- or not even- qualifications but time spent on task, whether practice or the “real thing”.

As Gladwell points out, when you were born is pretty important too, in terms of culture and community, and, we could add, the state of current knowledge and technology.

Galileo had to first improve the rudimentary telescope he used to track the four moons of Jupiter and then combat the hostile geocentric view of the universe still held by most scientists and clerics in the early part of the 17th century with his earth shaking heliocentric insights.

In the digital age the price of technology has reduced and its power increased so there is a  more democratic access to scientific tools which allowed Stuart Parker to be a do-it-yourself astronomer.

In the case of Joan Wiffen, whose discoveries preceded the digital revolution, it was her equally eagle-eyed scrutiny of paleontological detritus, in both found and dynamited postures, that yielded up the secrets of some of the dinosaurs that once inhabited  New Zealand and its surrounding waters to the surprise of all of us.

Her amateur work initially provoked the scepticism if not the scorn of professionals. For that reason, when her first “dinosaurs in New Zealand” discovery was released to the scientific community in 1980 she diplomatically and rather cleverly gave the honours of breaking the news to Dr Ralph Molnar, a noted vertebrate palaeontologist. She obviously thought that the bones might be more digestible  coming from a reputable scientist rather than an elderly housewife.

However, her work was eventually recognized in the annals of science and she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Massey University in 1994 and the following year a CBE.

The public recognition of Stuart Parker’s discovery, in competition with 9,000 observatories around the world, is just starting. Other forms of recognition no doubt lie in the future.

Apart from their dedication and bloody minded perseverance, what shines through is their enthusiasm for their chosen field of study. The late Joan Wiffen was a legend in her own lifetime and Stuart Parker is now a real star.

From heavens above to dinosaurs downunder, they are both a great inspiration to young and old to follow their inquisitive passions and undertake scientific enquiry and exploration no matter what their scientific background or training.

Galileo, held by many to be the father of modern science, would be pleased to welcome into his family these self-taught amateur scientists.


Lyall Lukey 5/7/09  http://www.lukey.co.nz/

Swiss Watch or Swiss Cheese? The Jobs Summit revisited.

July 2, 2009

“It is difficult to love a quartz controlled watch or clock. Very often, the cases do not even open to show the module (the term “movement” would not be proper, because, in the digital version, nothing moves). There is absolutely nothing to see. Whereas a movement, is another thing altogether! A fine movement, in particular if it is complicated, has the art and the grace of a living thing. The wheels whirl and engage…”                          D. S. Landes   L’heure qu’il est

Perhaps someone has been winding up Mark Weldon about the apparent lack of real progress in all but a few areas since the national Jobs Summit in March.

The CEO of NZX and Chair of the Jobs Summit says that the ideas generated at the Summit to pull the economy out of the recession were “like the cogs of a Swiss watch” individually insignificant but, when taken together, they should produce an appreciable effect, though it would up to two years, for their effectiveness to be gauged. “They’re not huge initiatives but, in aggregate, will start to retool the economy,”…   http://www.stuff.co.nz

But he may need to watch his watch similies and revert to the sports analogies he often uses as a former Olympic swimmer before he gets out of his depth. 

Swiss watch making is one of the rare sectors that continue to employ skills that have elsewhere vanished while still finding new chronometric horizons to explore. About a million highly priced Swiss mechanical watches are still produced each year, employing retro technology and old craftsmanship: they look better but are less accurate.

 But most Swiss watches today are electronic with quartz “movements”. What is crystal clear is that electronic “movements” have few or no moving parts, let alone cogs, as they use the electric effect in a tiny quartz crystal to provide a stable time base for a mostly electronic movement.

 One can understand the fascination with mechanical watches, the wheels whirling and engaging in exquisite but ananachronistic industrial age fashion. They are a Newtonian metaphor not relevant to a post-Einsteinian universe and a global economy. 

The big problem with the cogs analogy, set in the context of New Zealand’s imperative need for innovation and productivity, is that it reminds us that, having pioneered digital technology, Swiss watchmakers were notoriously slow to adopt it.

When the new quartz oscillator technology was first developed by Swiss firms and offered to the Swiss industry, most Swiss manufacturers refused to embrace the technology. Others elsewhere, especially the Japanese, saw the advantage and further developed the nascent technology. The 1970s and early 1980s was the low point of the Swiss watch industry which chose to remain focused on traditional mechanical watch technology, with a good line of cuckoo clocks on the side, rather than embrace the new quartz watch technology.

 By trying to protect the old technology they missed the opportunity to be leaders in the new innovation. Of course, eventually, the success of the Japanese and others in adopting digital watch technology was followed by the belated but successful Swatch countermove by the Swiss, but by that time they were playing black in the timekeeping game of chess.

 What has this got to do with the Job Summit?

 The Summit’s  focus was too shortsighted and the time span too constrainted to the election cycle. https://lukeytraining.wordpress.com/2009/04/26/the-jobs-summit-v-the-brain-plain/  

 The top Summit idea, a 9-day fortnight has only saved 345 jobs temporarily in 25 participating firms. The mute button was soon pushed to turn off the enthusiastic discussion about the opportunity to upskill people in the downturn. The initial idea, which attracted support from union representatives like Laila Harré, was probably consigned to the too hard basket because it was conceived in traditional training terms, involving outside providers in traditional training, at a time when the tertiary sector was under pressure from increasing rolls caused by the rise in unemployment.

The bigger message of challenging organisations to be more innovative in order to reposition their companies post-recession, and supporting them to do so, seems hardly to have been sent let alone acted upon. The pathway to the future is paved by “living organisations,” each  listening to the voices of customers  and adapting and evolving through new products and services and ways of working , rather than staying trapped in a time warp like 1980s Swiss watch manufacturers and running the risk of dying.

 In terms of the opportunities and threats confronting the New Zealand economy, perhaps the analogy should be with Swiss cheese, not Swiss watches

Originally propounded by British psychologist James T. Reason in 1990, the Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation is a model used in the risk analysis and risk management of human systems which has since gained widespread acceptance and use in  healthcare, aviation and emergency service organizations.

It is sometimes called the cumulative act effect- though it could be equally called the cumulative non-action effect.

The Swiss Cheese model includes, in the causal sequence of human failures that leads to an accident or an error, both active failures and latent failures. In the model, an organization’s defences against failure are modelled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of Swiss cheese. The holes in the cheese slices represent individual weaknesses in individual parts of the system, and are continually varying in size and position in all slices. The system as a whole produces failures when all of the holes in each of the slices momentarily align, like a conjunction of the planets, so that a hazard or a threat “passes through” all of the synchronised holes in all of the defences, leading to a failure.

There are certainly a lot of holes in the Government’s strategic approach to the recession and in the country’s much vaunted “innovation system”.

Mark Weldon is confident that New Zealand will come out of the downturn very well, with a better economy. It is true that to date, anyway, the effects of the financial and economic tsunami are attenuated by the time the ripples reach our southern shores.

But confidence is a necessary but not a sufficient factor in individual organisations repositioning themselves to be well-placed as the economy picks up.

Just as the previous Labour government has been accused of squandering its nine years of largely good economic times, perhaps other future commentators will look back and say that the reactive “rolling maul” adopted by the  new National Government, without articulating and communicating the bigger game plan, is squandering the opportunity to lift the level of the national economic game through inspiring  political and corporate leadership focussed at the level of individual organisations in key industries.

 A big factor in the Swiss watch crisis of the 70s and 80s was a lack of conviction on the part of the industry leadership for either the need for or the possibility of the coexistence of electronic and mechanical watches, by the same brands, in the same markets.

Nicolas Hayek, the saviour of the Swiss watch industry in the Crisis of the 80s, has warned that there could be another crisis in Swiss watch industry unless there is more innovation and investment. “…there was no innovation, no new development…. the Swiss watch industry will suffer exactly the same problems it had before and it will go down.”

Meanwhile, back in the Switzerland of the Pacific, whichever way you measure it, the countdown is on and time is running out in respect to innovation and new developments.   It is time for the Prime Minister to articulate a clear big game plan. The inspiring team talk can’t wait until half-time or we’ll be sucking on lemons. Watch this space.