Antarctica: the last great prize on Earth. Photo by Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor.

From climate delusion to Taylor Swift to Rocket Lab: NZ scientists’ 2018 revelations

We asked a bunch of smart people in NZ science and technology to tell us their revelation of 2018. Whether in the field of science or something else altogether, what blew them away? 

See also, Nicola Gaston on science, optimism and cynicism

Richard Easther: The climate change brain-trap

The biggest revelation to me this year? Climate change.

Not the vagaries of the climate itself – after all, to people in my line of work, that’s a playground where we can run, stretch, and climb. How does the sun work? Physics. Why is carbon dioxide an issue for global warming but oxygen and nitrogen are not? That’s quantum mechanics. (Honest). Ever looked at the patterns on the weather map? That’s fluid mechanics. Heating and cooling? Thermodynamics. The shape of Earth’s orbit, the dance of the seasons? Physics again.

It’s not even the fact that the climate is changing that took me by surprise: I’ve read the papers, seen the numbers, and I know how hard people work to get to the bottom of it.

Here’s the revelation: that so many smart people still don’t get that it’s going to be their job – everyone’s job – to sort it out. This year, I often found myself talking to people who “do policy” in various ways. Good people. Smart, committed professionals. But almost none of them understood just how much we’re going to have to change to get this right. And neither did I, until these conversations began, and I started to connect what I knew intellectually with what we, as a species, have to do.

So what I learnt in 2018 is this: if you’re in charge of something in 2019, you’re in charge of the climate. If your job has anything to with transport, what’s your plan to “decarbonize”, starting right now? If you’re a farmer, what are you doing today to get ahead of the changes coming tomorrow?

A second revelation: during 2018, I heard the same penny drop for many other people: the conversation about climate is changing. We’re realising that this is something we can tackle, if we start right now.

Richard Easther is a theoretical cosmologist and Professor of Physics (Head of Department) at the University of Auckland

Juliet Gerrard: The great white ice

It’s been a year in which I finished my bucket list, seeing the Aurora Australis from aboard the NASA Sofia plane, visiting Doubtful and Dusky Sound and releasing a kākāpō, and meeting lots of amazing people all around the country – which makes it really hard to choose! But I think top of the pile has to be my trip to Antarctica as a guest of Antarctica NZ with Min James Shaw. I was there to see the science and the scientists – a very impressive collection of projects carried out in the most challenging of conditions, giving us critical insights into key questions that face the planet, especially around climate change.

But the beauty of the place spoke to my soul as well as my science … The Dry Valleys, the old historic huts restored in meticulous detail to the state in which the great explorers left them, and the accidental encounters with seals and penguins – all were incredible. But perhaps the most impressive sight of all was the magnificence if the ice itself. Enormous, beautiful structures with dazzling shades of blue accenting the brilliant whiteness. It was like being on another planet entirely – definitely top of the ‘blew me away’ list for 2018.

Juliet Gerrard is the prime minister’s chief science advisor

Shaun Hendy: The te reo watershed

Just two years ago I enrolled in a te reo Māori class only to for it to be cancelled because of a lack of interest. This year we’ve got the opposite problem: demand for learning te reo is so high that you can’t beg, borrow, or steal your way into a course. I am surprised, but very pleasantly so. Who would have guessed that Don Brash could unite Aotearoa in a common cause?

Last summer we had a hint that this enthusiasm was out there. We have some students at Te Pūnaha Matatini who are working with Te Hiku Media to help develop digital language processing tools for te reo Māori. Earlier in the year Te Hiku ran a campaign to encourage people to record short passages in te reo Māori, which can then be used to train the language processing algorithms. The response was overwhelming and Te Hiku are now well on the way to having a te reo Māori version of Siri.

Ākona te reo Māori, kia puawai ai tōu mātauranga o te ao!

Shaun Hendy is the director of Te Pūnaha Matatini

Justin Hodgkiss: Computers and carbom

A recent revelation for me was learning that the global carbon footprint of air travel has now been surpassed by that of computing and the internet. And worse, the computing carbon footprint is growing exponentially, likely exceeding 5% of global carbon emissions (and 20% of global electricity use) by 2025. We have sleepwalked our way into this situation with our growing dependency on data hungry devices, cloud computing and streaming, along with emerging big data and artificial intelligence technologies. Computing is intrinsically energy inefficient because when electrons carry information through silicon, they lose most of their energy as heat when they bounce around in the material. This makes your laptop get hot, and it means that data centres need lots of energy for information processing, and even more for cooling.

We should expect further exponential growth in the carbon footprint of computing for the foreseeable future; digital innovation spreads far more quickly than technologies relying on physically manufactured materials. Yet new materials and computing paradigms appear to be our most promising solution to this problem in the long term; materials in which information flows freely without heating up the surroundings, and paradigms that carry out tricky computations (like pattern recognition) in more elegant ways – a bit like the human brain does – rather than churning through a sea of zeros and ones.

Justin Hodgkiss is Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute

Mike Joy: Biophysical economics

What blew me away in 2018 was my discovery of a research area known as biophysical economics. I was blown away because allowed me to make sense of much of what I see happening in the world that had been incomprehensible. So, I want to take this opportunity to share my discovery.

Understanding biophysical economics is about realising the immense role of cheap fossil fuel energy in everything humans do now and have done on this planet politically, socially and environmentally.

I discovered how much the availability of cheap fossil fuel energy has had in almost everything we arrogantly see as human development, technology or human mastery of our world. What I found to be a useful way of understanding this is the analogy of slaves, in our case energy slaves. If you calculate your everyday energy-use and convert it to human equivalents, you will find you have a few hundred energy slaves constantly doing stuff for you. That number is more than the richest ancient Romans or Southern USA plantation owners, and you don’t have to feed, house or clothe them and they never need to sleep either.

A great visualisation of our energy slaves can be found on YouTube, a clip of a burly and very fit track cyclist who tries to toast one piece of bread in an electric toaster using a cycle connected to a generator. He almost kills himself with the effort of it and its barely toasted. Or think about the fact that one barrel of oil costing us around $100 has the energy equivalent to one human working hard for a decade, or a few cents an hour .

Look around you, all the built infrastructure, the buildings, roads and the cars on them were built with and are mostly powered by fossil fuels. But fossil fuels are hardly considered by most economists. Most of us have no idea just what a jackpot this fossil era is, and how lucky we are to have been born in this very temporary time of plenty. Although, of course, there was a downside – we compromised the liveability of the planet when by releasing all the CO2. Now we are close to the end of our amazing windfall of fossil wealth, the easy stuff is nearly all gone and because of climate change we must end the party.

I hope more people make the discovery I did and then we will then have the will to make the transition to a sustainable civilisation.

Mike Joy is IGPS Senior Researcher at Victoria University of Wellington

Cate Macinnis-Ng: Taylor Swift live

My big revelation of 2018 was how much I enjoyed the Taylor Swift concert. As a mother of young children (9 and 11), I’m always on the lookout for good role models for my kids. We bought two tickets to Taylor’s Reputation concert in Auckland almost a year in advance so I could take Ms 11. As the date approached, I tried to convince my husband to take her in my place but he wasn’t keen on the idea so I was left to brave the wilds of Mount Smart Stadium.

The show was spectacular – a visual feast with an amazing array of tricks and surprises. We were lucky to have seats near the front and as Taylor sailed above us in her bedazzled cage, my daughter termed to be and said, “This is the best!” At that moment, I stopped worrying about the carbon footprint of the show (transporting the huge stage all the way to NZ, fireworks, lights, more fireworks, more lights!) and enjoyed the opportunity to make some unforgettable memories with my child. Looking forward to capturing more special moments with my kids in 2019!

Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland

Parmjeet Parmar: the pace of gene technology

We often times can get caught up in local issues, local news and local development to the point that we forget the things that the rest of the world is doing. One news story that caught me by surprise was the news that a scientist in China reportedly created genetically engineered babies that were immune to HIV.

My initial reaction of surprise was quickly coupled with several questions. Real designer babies? Sounded like news from another planet as I quickly had a flashback to when we had a genetically modified pine trees field trial destroyed in Rotorua, just a few years ago. This demonstrated the possible pace of implementation of this technology in different parts of the world. Definitely the most surprising news I read in 2018!

Parmjeet Parmar is National spokesperson for research, science and innovation

James Renwick: School students on climate change

The publication in November of the “Emissions Gap Report” by the UN Environment Programme really floored me. It said that global emissions of greenhouse gases are not likely to peak before 2030, at the earliest. Based on the latest science, that means we’d be locking in at least 1.5C of warming, probably 2C, and possibly more. If the global community lets this happen, the future would be looking very ugly. It really felt like a punch in the gut.

So, #climateaction is not going to be easy – big surprise! What’s given me “a new hope” is the reaction of school students – such as the climate strike in Australia, and the wonderful activism of Greta Thunberg who stole the show at the COP24 meeting in Katowice, Poland. Go Greta, and go all the innovative, committed, motived youth around the world!

James Renwick is a climate scientist at Victoria University of Wellington

Vaughan Rowsell: New Zealand, space pioneers

We as a nation have always been isolated at the bottom of the world, often left off of maps. A land seemingly a million miles from anywhere. But still, for some reason our ancestors took a risk and braved massive ocean frontiers to come here. Now we are doing it again. We are exploring the new frontier of space! This makes me giddy and go “whooohooo” uncontrollably, loudly. And it’s not just because rockets are cool. Nor because Rocket Lab is a Kiwi entrepreneur delivering on a huge vision and dream or that it’s been designed and built by Kiwi engineers and scientists or that we launch rockets from our beautiful land. That’s all really cool but it’s a whole lot more than that.

Every time I pause and reflect on the significance of all this I get wicked goosebumps because I get excited for our kids who too will aspire to the same. Because they see us doing the impossible. They will dream and believe and then do and honestly, that’s game changing for them, us and the whole fucking world.

Vaughn Rowsell is the founder of Vend

Siouxsie Wiles: brilliant fiction and reckless real life

In the positively blew me away category, I’d have to say the Netflix sci-fi series Sense8 by the Wachowski’s (the sisters behind the Matrix movies) for its incredibly diverse cast and its treatment of identity, sexuality, and religion; Nanette (also on Netflix), a recording of Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s funny but gut-wrenching stand up show – she is the comedian the world needs right now, challenging us to think about what comedy is and its impact on people; and the movie Leave No Trace. In my family, I’m known as the one who rarely sheds a tear at the movies, but, Leave No Trace, in which a war veteran with PTSD is trying to secretly live off the grid in a forest with his 13-year old daughter (incredible Kiwi actor Thomasin McKenzie) reduced me to full on, hand-over-mouth, nose and eye-streaming sobs by the end. A must see!

As for blew me away, but not in a good way, the utterly astonishing arrogance of the scientist who claims to have made the first human CRISPR babies. How he could be so utterly reckless, and how no-one tried to stop him, is just outrageous. He’s likely set the whole field back decades.

Siouxsie Wiles is a microbiologist at the University of Auckland

Geoff Willmott: The rise of green commerce

The maturing of green commerce in NZ has been a revelation in 2018, as the MacDiarmid Institute’s start-ups and industry partners have gravitated towards sustainability. They are developing new materials for carbon-capture, and cleaning up water supplies; they are obtaining rare elements by sifting through slag heaps, or from circuit boards in landfill. There is a proliferation of companies built around niche, perhaps little-known, sustainable technologies. This entrepreneurship is entirely consistent with Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision of NZ achieving prosperity by using local expertise to address global market opportunities. These developments are inspiring our scientists. How can we make efficient batteries without relying on scarce lithium? What are the alternatives to oil-derived plastics? Like never before, these types of questions are attracting the attention of researchers and public alike.

There are signs of wider society embracing change: e-bikes and scooters, ditching plastic bags, hosting Formula E on the Auckland waterfront, and the latest IPCC bombshell receiving greater media coverage than ever. A change in the political wind has surely been a factor, but more and more sustainability is being driven by its commercial prospects. Green technologies are likely to pay off particularly well for the Māori economy, which invests with a long-term vision, and makes custodianship of the environment a priority. Tellingly, our notoriously conservative larger businesses are also starting to come around. The activities of groups like the Climate Leaders Coalition (launched in July) and the Sustainable Business Council signal that at least some companies are getting serious – even if they are sometimes more focussed on management practice and importing technologies, rather than driving true innovation in their various industries.

Also in 2018: Rocket Lab.

Geoff Willmott is principal investigator at The MacDiarmid Institute

Megan Woods: innovation and diversity

2018 has been a huge year for the research, science and innovation systems, and I’ve been blown away by the achievements of our scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs. The government has set ambitious goals and invested in critical research to tackle some of the huge issues we’re facing like climate change, reducing child poverty and transition to a low-emissions economy.

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It was a real highlight to welcome Zephyr Airworks to New Zealand to test its revolutionary electric-powered, autonomous flying taxi technology through the Innovative Partnerships programme. Our international reputation as an attractive destination to undertake research and development is growing and for a company which is pushing the boundaries of technology like Zephyr, establishing facilities in New Zealand is a huge vote of confidence.

I’m also really proud to have pushed for more diversity in our science system. Diversity of genders, ethnicities and career stages throughout the science community guarantees we capture the very best ideas and talent to support the highest quality research. At the moment Māori and Pacifica make up less than 2% of the scientific workforce, and women are 32% despite there being more female doctoral graduates than male. We can and must do better.

2018 has been a great year and I look forward to building on the momentum that we’ve created.

Megan Woods is the minister of research, science and innovation


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.


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