Issue 517, 12 Apr 2019


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New from the SMC

Expert Reaction:  Canterbury earthquakes and mental health 

Expert Reaction: Drug-resistant Candida auris

Expert Reaction: West Coast landfill erosion

Expert Reaction: First image of a black hole

Expert Reaction: Census delays and missing data

In the News: Cutting out flying to reduce aviation emissions

New from the SMC global network

First image of a black hole

An international team of scientists have created the first image of a black hole, or at least - the shadow of a black hole.

Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

News had been buzzing for a week prior to the National Science Foundation press conference on Thursday morning New Zealand time where the results from the Event Horizon Telescope were released.

Six papers published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters detail the image from Messier 87, a galaxy 55 million light years from Earth with a black hole at the centre 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun.

University of Auckland Professor Richard Easther explained on The Spinoff: "It is paradoxical to speak of 'seeing' a black hole. What we actually see is a disk of matter outside the event horizon, rotating at close to light speed caught in the grip of an intense gravitational field."

"A spinning vortex around a cosmic plughole."

University of Canterbury's Professor David Wiltshire said this discovery, "like that of gravitational waves a few years ago, marks another important milestone in understanding the strong gravity of black holes".

"It is also a red letter day for Canterbury Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr, whose solution of Einstein’s equations describes these objects."

Professor Kerr told TVNZ that while "we were never really in doubt what these objects were", there was always a fear "that when you actually get a look at them they're something else".

"We're seeing a picture of it, and boy that means a lot more to a human being than just a few wiggles on a graph."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the image and announcement.

Quoted: NZ Herald

"We used to think it was just us - modern humans - and Neanderthals.

"We now know that there was a huge diversity of human-like groups found all over the planet. Our ancestors came into contact with them all the time."

Census delayed, missing data

One in seven New Zealanders did not fully complete the 2018 Census, according to information from Statistics New Zealand.

Statistics New Zealand chief executive Liz MacPherson provided information to Government On Wednesday indicating 700,000 Kiwis either didn’t partake in the survey at all, or did not fully complete the survey.

The release of the 2018 data has already been delayed several times.

Motu Economic & Public Policy Research executive director John McDermott said of the 15 staff at Motu, "six will use Census or Census-related data nearly every day".

"This research feeds into policy decisions that make a difference to the future wellbeing of New Zealanders. Without official Census data, anecdote and intuition would reign without evidence to support or debunk partisan vagaries."

"Nobody can deny that the 2018 Census was problematic," McDermott said, and researchers were concerned that the less relevant data wouldn't be taken as seriously, "because in 2019 what politician cares what was happening six years ago?"

University of Otago Professor of Public Health Peter Crampton agreed on the importance of Census data for good policymaking.

"For example, in the health sector, the major funding formula for all DHBs is entirely dependent upon accurate population counts and other demographic data."

He said it was possible to predict which groups would most likely be undercounted by the Census. 

"Typically these groups include a preponderance of marginalised, disenfranchised, high-needs people, whānau and communities — those for whom good social policy is of the highest priority."

The SMC gathered expert reaction about the 2018 Census.

Policy news & developments

Gun changes become law: A ban on all semi-automatic and military-style weapons, such as those used in the Christchurch mosque shootings, has been signed into law by the Governor General, after passing its third reading in Parliament on Wednesday night.

Fruit fly stopped at border: There is a temporary hold on citrus imports from the USA after Biosecurity New Zealand officers spied a spotted wing drosophila larvae in imported oranges.

Mega mast confirmed: Monitoring by DOC has confirmed the predicted heavy seeding in New Zealand's beech forests this autumn. 

Sign language extension: The service that allows people using New Zealand Sign Language to phone others using an interpreter is being extended to include weekends.

West Coast walk delay: The opening of the newest Great Walk - The Paparoa Track on the West Coast - has been delayed until December.

ACC amendments: The Accident Compensation Amendment Bill was passed in Parliament on Tuesday.

Royal Commission: Supreme Court Justice Sir William Young will chair the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attack.

Emissions rising: The latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows New Zealand's emissions rose 2.2% from 2016 to 2017.

Climate risk: An expert panel has been appointed to create the framework for the first National Climate Change Risk Assessment, chaired by Dr Anne Bardsley.

West Coast landfill erosion

Rubbish from an eroded dump on the West Coast may wind up in the deep ocean.

Following heavy rainfall and flooding on the West Coast, the Fox Glacier landfill became exposed through erosion, with rubbish spilling out into the environment.

NIWA programme leader marine geological processes Dr Joshu Mountjoy said the eroded rubbish "has become part of the sediment load of the river and transported to the coast".

"Directly offshore of the Fox River, the Cook Canyon comes to within at least 4 km of the shoreline and is a major pathway for transporting sediment from rivers to the deep ocean.

"We know from recent studies that sediment from rivers is actively being moved into canyons on the West Coast and it is likely that a component of the Fox River landfill waste will end up in the deep ocean by the same processes."

AUT senior lecturer Dr Jeff Seadon said once waste gets into the environment "it is very hard to clean it up and its effects can last for generations".

Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage told RNZ she would investigate what could be done about a number of old landfills around the country that were not properly sealed and are now vulnerable.

Dr Seadon said modern landfills in New Zealand were "world class" but, in the past, "landfills could best be described as dumps".

"There was no liner, no methane collection and no proper cover, which allowed water to pass through creating more leachate that spilled into the environment. In addition, they were often located by the seaside or near waterways.

"While some dumps have been remediated, it comes at a high financial cost. When you multiply that price across New Zealand, the cheap solutions of decades ago have come back to cost us greatly to fix the problem."

The SMC gathered expert comments on the Fox Glacier issue and landfills in general.

This week on the NZ Conversation.

Squid team finds high species diversity off Kermadec Islands, part of stalled marine reserve proposal
Kat Bolstad and Heather Braid, Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand gun owners invoke NRA-style tropes in response to fast-tracked law change
Marie Russell and Hera Cook, University of Otago

What the data say about discrimination and tolerance in New Zealand
Simon Chapple, Victoria University of Wellington

Explainer: trial of alleged perpetrator of Christchurch mosque shootings
Kris Gledhill, Auckland University of Technology

See more NZ-authored content on the new New Zealand page.

What we've been reading

With an abundance of news stories to possibly read, watch and listen to, it can be hard to find the gems. Here we highlight some of the stories that caught our attention this week.

Seeing the forest
All pathways to net zero carbon by 2050 depend on planting more trees, Maureen Howard reports for the Otago Daily Times, but does the type of tree matter?

Big Decision
The latest documentary from the Stuff Circuit team delves into the abortion debate - should our laws be changed?

'The world's least unsustainable airline': Air New Zealand's climate dilemma
Several journalists had their eye on air travel this week: in this piece, Stuff's Charlie Mitchell looked at Air New Zealand, while the Dominion Post's Nikki Macdonald tackled international air travel. Writing in the Otago Daily Times, Maureen Howard spoke to academics wrestling with the dilemma of air travel.

Candida Auris: The Fungus Nobody Wants to Talk About
Occasionally the New York Times runs a special 'Times Insider' with the story behind the story: in this case, it's about the frustrating effort to try to get people to talk on the record about a drug-resistant fungus.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Dissecting the Insect Apocalypse

Stories about the 'insect apocalypse' paint a grim picture, but how accurate are they?
Guest Work
A long read, and a tricky jigsaw puzzle

What is sequencing, how does it work, and why does it take so long?
Genomics Aotearoa
Science to resolve environmental conflicts

How can science empower and unite us towards mutually agreed solutions to environmental conflicts?
Essential oils in the classroom: a rose (or other flowers) would smell as sweet

A story about essential oils being used in classrooms hit the headlines this week.

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Commercialisation of space: 14 April, Christchurch. Sciblogger Duncan Steel from CSST will talk about how satellites are revolutionising our world.
  • Physics for a changing world: 15-17 April, Christchurch.  The New Zealand Institute of Physics and the New Zealand Physics Teachers' conference heads to Christchurch. 
  • Future of work: 15 April, Hamilton. This one-day conference will discuss future visions for the world of work.
  • Microplastics and reef fish: 15 April, Auckland. Bridie Allan will discuss research examining the impact of microplastic pollution on coral reef fish.
  • Understanding the high energy universe: 15 April, Christchurch. Jenni Adams is part of a large-scale scientific mission using an intriguing elementary particle, the neutrino, to understand the highest energy processes in the Universe.
  • Jurists vs Physicians: 15 April, Wellington. Céline Mavrot will discuss a recent study on the enforcement of medicinal cannabis legislation in Switzerland.
  • Diet mythbusting: 15 April, Hamilton. Meg Gordan and Gerald Lewis will bust the myths around high-fat, low-carb and keto diets.
  • Still silent objects? 16 April, Wellington. A one-day symposium presenting the findings from Jan Jordan's Marsden funded-project documenting barriers to rape reform.
  • From populations to peoples: 16 April, Hamilton. Tahu Kukutai will talk about blending her passion for demography and Indigenous data sovereignty to craft a new approach to Indigenous population research.
  • The Health of the People: 17 April, Wellington. At his book launch, David Skegg will argue that health crises such as the 2016 Havelock North campylobacteriosis outbreak highlight weaknesses in our country’s health infrastructure.
  • Sea level rise: 18 April, Wellington. Thomas Simonson, co-author on a recent Local Government NZ report on sea level rise, will talk about how much land we will lose to rising ocean, and what it will cost us.
  • Ko Matariki e ārau ana: 18 April, Dunedin. Rangi Matamua will give a talk on Matariki and highlighting connections between Matauranga Māori and science.

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