Unfortunately, geologists do not deal in certainty and precision. They talk of tendencies and countervailing tendencies, of possibilities and probabilities. Their sort of discourse is unfashionable, in an era accustomed to the trivial certainties of opinion polls and the sprurious pecision of google search results.
This blog tends to deal with subjects that emerge from that nebuolous area known as the humanities, rather than with the natural sciences, but I think that the historians, sociologists, archaeologists, poets and other non-scientists who hang out here will be able to empathise with the difficulties of New Zealand geologists. Haven't we all suffered, in our different ways, from the same unreasonable demands that the geologists face? I know of archaeologists who have been asked to 'prove' that the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori were the first people to reach Aotearoa by unearthing Tainui, or Aotea, or one of the other waka of migration legends; I know of English teachers who have been asked to grade their high school pupils' poems on a scale of one to ten, as though the texts were entries in some pie fair.
Exasperated by the Latinate technical terms and the thoughtful qualifications that characterise the discourse of trained geologists, thousands of Kiwis have lately put their faith in Ken 'moon man' Ring, an old-fashioned pseudo-scientist with a studied resemblance to Indiana Jones' father. Ring believes that earthquakes are caused by the movement of celestial bodies, especially his beloved moon, rather than by the action of tectonic plates. Until recently he preferred to predict events which had already occurred; now, though, he has been foolish enough to forecast that Christchurch will suffer a third major quake this coming weekend. Large numbers of Christchurchers are reportedly fleeing their city, oblivious to assurances from geologists that the chance of another big quake is minimal.
The geologists and their allies in the Skeptics Society have attempted to strike back at Ring by scheduling a lunch in one of Christchurch's oldest and tallest buildings this Saturday, in defiance of the moon man's prediction. This gesture is unlikely, though, to restore the public reputation of geology; rather than be impressed by the spectacular falsification of Ring's ideas, many laypeople are likely to ask why scientists can predict a non-event but not the real thing. The popular desire for precision and certainty will not be easily sated.
The currently awkward position of Kiwi geologists, and by extension, perhaps, of 'experts' in many other disciplines, has become associated in my mind with a letter which I recently found wedged deep in an old copy of John Fowles' massive and - these days, at least - rather unfashionable novel The Magus at Onehunga's Hard to Find Bookshop.
Like my mate Jack Ross
, I'm helplessly attracted to the odds and ends which sometimes attach themselves to books: to dusty ornamental bookmarks, and scribbled marginal notes, and black and white postcards showing ugly monarchs on their front and unfinished messages on their back, and tickets for disestablished tramlines or derelict ferries, and, of course, the sort of lengthy, thoughtful letters which people exchanged in the gracious era before the invention of e mail and facebook and twitter.
I'll quote the letter I found recently, and follow my quote with some comments:
Mt John University
Observatory Lake Tekapo
11 p.m., 10th July 1979
It looks as though this is going to be one of those nights. I had to give up observing an hour ago when in ten minutes flat a thin veil of haze spread across the entire sky. Most frustrating, as I had just been watching HD 118238 (one of my pet stars) undergoing a rapid rise in brightness over the previous three hours. Obviously, thought I, it's coming out of eclipse! Whoopee!...I trotted off to my trusty calculator to examine it a little more closely, and have just reached two world-shattering conclusions:
a) I was looking at the wrong star, and
b) the reason for the apparent brightening of this fiendish impostor was that the neighbouring star which I was using as a brightness comparison was dropping in brightness; the wretched comparison is also a variable and hence utterly useless. Bang go all my early results on HD 118238 - about six hours' worth. Grr. Still, nice to have discovered a 'new' variable star, even if it wasn't the one I was after. Dammit.
Things are otherwise going very well. I arrived on Saturday afternoon...I'm quite happily established in the flat now...If I gave the impression that I was a superlatively efficient packer (please say yes) on Saturday, then it wasn't a very accurate one. The packing efficiency factor is inversely proportional to the number of vital items ommitted. This time the ommissions were:
Soap. Shampoo. Toothpaste.
Toothbrush (yea! Even the old proverbial.)
Razor. Woolly hat.
Brilliant, on my return to Christchurch I should by rights have degenerated into a smelly tramp with rotting teeth and frostbitten ears, liberally sprinkled with a suitably disreputable layer of ten-day-long bristles. Yummy. However I have allowed myself the wanton extravagance of replacing the first four items at the store, and have taken to wrapping my scarf around my ears, turban-style. It inevitably falls over my right eye as I try to look into the telescope earpiece, but it serves its purpose as an insulator - as do the whiskers as the nights go by!
Skylab fever is mounting!! At least once a day I get rung up by Radio Caroline - as if I knew what is going on - to see whether I have any Expert Advice to offer the idiot public...they don't seem to realise that this is an observatory, not a satellite tracking station. I even got a UFO report on Sunday evening., courtesy of Radio Caroline once again. Had we observed a strange orange light in the sky about 10 p.m. on Friday?
Ah, thought I. Closing time. Ashburton? Twizel? "Well, I wasn't actually here then, but have you a more detailed description of this fearsome Thing?" I asked, doing my best to sound knowledgeable, just in case it was something dreadful, like a talkback show.
"The guy who saw it said it was about six times the size of a star", (cor, struth), "crossed the sky in about three seconds, then exploded".
Whew. Only a fireball, but a spectacular one nonetheless. Probably a rock about the size of a grape. I told him so.
A few seconds disappointed silence. No little green men. Then...
"So what's the latest on Skylab? Been tracking it?" Groan.
"No, our telescopes can't move that fast. I was hoping you could tell me, the last I heard it was going to land on Timaru."
End of conversation.
I wonder if they'll evacuate the place?
5 p.m., 11 June
Must finish off, or I might get the dreaded obsolete letter disease.
I spent the rest of last night finishing The Magus - finally got to bed at 7 a.m. with that feeling of devastation which usually accompanies finishing something like that. What a book - I didn't know which way to turn. I'd better not spoil it for you in case you've not yet finished. I'd be interested to compare my revised version with your original one...I wonder if this will reach you before I get back, with all these strikes. They seem so remote here. I hope life isn't getting too fraught in Chch: I'm almost tempted to to stay here!
Andrew - I would not quote his surname, even if he gave it - wrote his letter in the winter of 1979 from the Mount John observatory, which stands near Lake Tekapo in the Southern Alps. The observatory was established as a joint venture between Canterbury University and the University of Philadelphia in 1965, and Andrew may well have been a staff member or postgraduate student from Canterbury who had been given some research time at the facility.
Andrew's time at Mount John coincided with the final days of Skylab 1, the first American satellite station. After orbitting the earth for six years and being visited by three crews, the facility began to disintegrate and re-enter the earth's atmosphere in July 1979. Some experts believed the craft would land in New Zealand, and that prospect caused both anxiety and excitement around the country. Astronomers like Andrew faced impossible demands for precise predictions of Skylab's trajectory and target.
The alarm about Skylab had a certain political context. In 1979 the Cold War was entering a new and chillier phase, as America announced plans to deploy a new generation of missiles in Europe and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to fears of nuclear war. New Zealand's burgeoning anti-nuclear movement was suspicious of America's space programme, believing that it might be linked in various ways to the nation's massive military machine. Andrew might have had some sympathy for such a view, and a little more understanding of why he took so many calls about Skylab, if he knew that the United States Air Force had been operating a satellite tracking facility adjacent to the Mount John observatory since 1969.
Skylab eventually descended on Outback of Western Australia, rather than in New Zealand, in the middle of July.
It was not only Skylab which piqued Kiwi interest in the heavens in the late '70s. At the end of 1978 and beginning of 1979 a series of unidentified flying objects were seen near Kaikoura, on the northeast coast of the South Island. Perhaps because they were spotted by commercial air pilots, and not by stoned hippies or young men in anoraks, the 'Kaikoura Lights', as the UFOs came to be known, were reported around the world. Film footage of the phenomenon still provokes discussion today.
Whether they were interested in Skylab or in UFOs, or in both, the callers to Mount John observatory appeared to have little interest in or understanding of the work Andrew was trying to perform during his sojourn there. The discovery and classification of distant stars was somehow not as exciting as the observation of unclassified flying objects near to home.
Andrew's letter is full of wit and detailed description, and yet it is also in many ways an ambiguous, unsettled text. Some of the ambiguity probably derives from the mysterious - mysterious to us, anyway - nature of Andrew's relationship with his correspondent. Andrew addresses Linda in a tone that is neither formal nor intimate. He labours to entertain her, and he labours to build up a detailed portrayal of himself, in a way that a long-term boyfriend or husband or a brother might not see fit to do.
Andrew wants to impress Linda, but he seems unsure about the best way of presenting himself, and of defending the usefulness of his sojourn at Mount John. At different stages of his letter he adopts quite different poses, and draws on different sorts of rhetoric.
Andrew celebrates his isolation high in the Southern Alps, but regrets leaving shampoo and other creature comforts in Christchurch, and worries about returning to the city as a 'smelly tramp'. When he writes about 'rotting teeth' and 'frostbitten ears' he conjures images not of tramps but of mountain and polar explorers - of heroic, suffering figures like Scott and Malory and Hillary - but he is quick to mock his own lack of appetite for cold and adventure. He talks self-depreactingly about his efforts to track a minor star with the rather prosaic name HD118238, yet works hard to distinguish himself, as an expert on the heavens and their vicissitudes, from the 'idiot public'. He despises the ignorance and alarmism of the media but attempts - half-seriously? - to use a radio station to perpetrate a hoax that will, if successful, create a bout of hysteria in the little city of Timaru.
Near the end of his epistle Andrew alludes to the strike wave which was shutting public sector outfits like New Zealand Post during the winter of 1979. The late '70s and early '80s were a period of intense industrial conflictin New Zealand, as a large and well-organised trade union movement took on a Muldoon government determined to hold down wage increases. Sitting on his mountaintop, Andrew feels 'remote' from the strikers in cities like Christchurch; perhaps he seems them, like radio talkback hosts and UFOlogists, as a part of the 'idiot public' which is making his work difficult.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Andrew's letter is his discussion of The Magus, the novel which John Fowles published to commercial success and critical controversy in 1966, and then rewrote and republished in the 1970s. Fowles' book tells the story of a young English scholar named Nicholas Urfe who makes a journey to a remote Greek island, where he spends much of his time in listless solitude. Urfe eventually meets a wealthy, worldly local who seems to possess magical powers; he becomes a sort of disciple of this man, participating in bizarre and erotic games, and eventually loses the ability to distiguish between reality and dream, reason and unreason.
Fowles' novel was dismissed as pretentious middlebrow mysticism by many critics, but it was very popular in the 1960s and '70s, when its themes seemed to resonate with the hippy counterculture. What did Andrew, who labours through most of his letter to present himself as an austere man of science, a locus of rationality amidst an 'idiot public', find to enjoy in The Magus? Did he feel that, by recommending it to the mysterious Linda, he was revealingto her another, perhaps more attractive side of his personality? And how did Andrew's letter wind up in the Onehunga Hard to Find Bookshop, tucked snugly inside Fowles' tome, almost thirty-one years later? Questions like these are unlikely, of course, to receive precise answers...