Investigators' Blog

Big Astro

Big Astro

By Richard Easther

The advent of the web and social media have led to a huge outpouring of enthusiasm for science but almost all sciences have skeletons in their closet, some real and some imaginary. Physicists gave us the bomb, chemists cook up the chemicals they put in the food (yes, yes, and you cheerfully drink H-2-O and breathe O-2) and even if medical researchers have doubled our lifespan many will claim they are in thrall to Big Pharma and specialise in diseases of the rich, in addition to perpetrating more specific and chilling abuses. But astronomers often sail past earthly concerns. After all, what’s not to like? Astronomy generates an endless stream of stories about strange planets, unlikely stars, and the birth of the universe, but nothing anyone can easily get upset about.

Even journalists suspend their usual rules for astronomy and other good-news science stories. Copy approval, sending sources a draft of an article for commentary and correction, is anathema to journalists on a hard news story, but I am often sent drafts “to check the details” when I talk to the media about astronomy. So perhaps this is why astronomers have been caught flat-footed by the apparently sudden eruption of protest around the Thirty Metre Telescope, or TMT. The issue is not the $1.3 billion price tag but its location at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on Hawai`i’s Big Island. The problem is that while Mauna Kea is a fantastic place for astronomy (a huge mountain rising out of the Pacific Ocean; the skies above it are stable and clear) it is also sacred to many native Hawai`ians. The issues are far from straightforward, but Buzzfeed (in its new incarnation as a purveyor of long-form news) and the Huffington Post have summaries of recent events and TMT consortium has put its own response to the controversy online. However, for some astronomers it has led to the discovery that they may not always be the good guys.

While we might wish it were otherwise, astronomy is not apolitical. Science communicators (myself included) wax eloquent about space exploration, but the space race was launched by Cold War competition. Nor is the politicisation of astronomy new. The British navigator, James Cook, set sail in the Endeavour from Plymouth in 1768 to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, as part of a campaign to determine the overall scale of the solar system. Cook carried additional sealed orders to be opened after the transit observations were complete, which told him to continue from Tahiti on a voyage of discovery into the Pacific; part of the larger competition between European powers to explore trade-routes and acquire outposts around the world. (By many accounts, the contents of those orders were well-known around London before he sailed.) And like a modern-day space programme, Cook’s voyages were a simultaneous national investment in pure science, prestige and geopolitical leverage. [And Cook and Hawaii are tightly connected – he commanded the first European ships to make landfall in Hawai’i, and was killed in a skirmish there in 1778.]

New Zealand and Hawai`i are both parts of the Polynesian world. As a New Zealander, much of the language used by the Mauna Kea protestors is familiar…READ MORE

Building a Nest

Building a Nest

By Troy Baisden

It was great to be at Te Pūnaha Matatini’s kickoff. As we look forward to theme meetings next week, I thought it would be useful if I explain a little more about what I’m up to, and why I’ve linked GNS Science’s “Global Change Through Time” programme to your CoRE.

In my lightning talk, at the Te Pūnaha Matatini’s kickoff, I pointed out that I work on problems like climate change and water quality. I think everyone is on board with this: we all agree these problems are complex, yet inspiring and important. They’re perhaps not funded in your CoRE because they’re so big and largely funded elsewhere. As a result, it makes good sense for someone like me involved in big CRI-based programmes on these topics to affiliate with Te Pūnaha Matatini.

But I got a sense that perhaps even complexity geeks want to keep their distance when I say, “I’m here to work on problems so big, no single person can understand them.” But that’s exactly what the problems of climate change and water quality are, by the time we recognise that solutions have to involve not only the biogeophysical system, but also societal and economic transformation.


For example, the IPCC‘s summaries of what we know about the climate change problem run to three enormous volumes, which are further summarised and integrated in another tome called a synthesis report. My goal is to help people develop tools that sort through the information in these tomes and make it work for them. That’s why I’ve joined Te Pūnaha Matatini.

I’m looking for new, better and more effective ways to think about how we build the academic architecture that connects the dots within big issues. Our knowledge about climate change, which still seeks workable solutions, developed over time from relatively simple pieces. If we agree we’re not managing climate change as well as we should, it’s important to think about redesigning the way we’re addressing this big issue. It may be we can learn from other similar problems, using them as model systems.

I’m reminded of Gall’s Law:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

Complexity is about simple sensible things, that when connected together, are no longer simple. In this sense, building Te Pūnaha Matatini is, itself, an important complexity challenge.

I’ve come to the view that a structure like Te Pūnaha Matatini has been selected to provide some initial building blocks, each a relatively simple piece, or project. Our challenge in the early stages of development is to connect them together, keep the process exciting and simple, yet end up with something that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Within each theme, a limited number of projects will have to start simple and become working systems. One of the most interesting features of complex systems is that they often contain nested hierarchies of simpler systems. It interests me that global change, by being a series of connected problems, requires us to develop some frameworks for understanding the whole set of problems. By looking at how we can make connections and identify similar approaches during the building of Te Pūnaha Matatini, I’ll be looking for the links that help us see and manage complexity. And I’ll be looking at how these systems fit into the even bigger picture of global change. This matters for the science of science policy, which seems to be at the heart of Te Pūnaha Matatini.


When taking on a role building something, it’s important to have a goal, and mine is to improve strategy, policy and decisions across global change issues. When we begin discussing strategy, policy and decisions, complexity matters. There’s often a desire to focus on isolating problems and managing the simple systems, excluding surrounding complexity. Yet, the complex interactions in wider systems often generate unexpected instability. Bigger systems can have dynamics that are orthogonal to our expectations from simple systems. Ultimately, I see a need to improve how we generate expectations – a goal which has permeated complexity science from quantum mechanics, to social sciences, to earth system science, and beyond. Right now I’m interested how we can tackle this within dynamic research structures that obey Gall’s law, and deliver better expectations to strategy, policy and decision processes.

To conclude on a lighter note, I’ll point out that things within Te Pūnaha Matatini that catch my eye may surprise you, and have been useful insights to me. For instance, I include global trade within my definition of global change. This leads me to see big opportunities to ask whether better understanding of supply chains helps us identify how and when we can better transmit environmental value from consumers to producers, to help maintain our “clean, green” image. And I think that the success predator eradication is having in mobilising the community and voluntary sector could be a good model for wider environmental causes, and deserves attention.

I look forward to seeing our expectations evolve, and hopefully finding more insights and surprises along the way. In a sense, we’re building our nest, and it should be composed of well chosen pieces – some structural, some sticky and some shiny and interesting.

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Communities of Engagement – reflections from Dion O’Neale

Communities of Engagement – reflections from Dion O’Neale

By Dion O’Neale

Engaging with communities is a focus for Te Pūnaha Matatini so I very much appreciated the point of Rhian Salmon’s lightning talk at our initial research symposium. In her role as a climate scientist, Rhian has spent long periods of time in Antarctica, which makes for great science outreach material. But in her presentation to Te Pūnaha Matatini, Rhian questioned how scientific we are about the outcomes of the science outreach we do. Outreach activities require substantial amounts of time and effort from scientists, often for little professional recognition. Rhian advocated developing methods for reporting on and researching the impact of these outreach activities, then using the results to inform future communication practises.

Engaging with communities of a different kind is Jeanette McLeod, a graph theorist from the University of Canterbury. Jeanette spoke about one of the ecological complexity projects that will be running in Te Pūnaha Matatini — epidemic spread in possum networks. Coming from Australia where she fed tame possums in her backyard, Jeanette is now studying how the spread of tuberculosis through possum communities is influenced by the characteristics of individual possums.

As they collectively munch their way through 21000 tons of NZ native forest each night, possums interact with one another within their own social network. Jeanette, along with collaborators Mike Plank and Alex James, is using data about these interaction networks collected by scientists at Landcare Research who tracked the locations of a population of possums in the Orongorongo valley, near Wellington. Within the possum population, super-shedders (highly infectious individuals) and super-spreaders (individuals that encounter many others) seem to play an important role in affecting the spread of diseases like TB. Understanding the effect of the heterogeneity of of individuals in the interaction network could turn out to be important for identifying possible methods of using infectious disease to control possum numbers.

Networks of interactions were a theme in Dave Maré‘s presentation too. Dave spoke about what makes cities so cool from the point of view of an economist. No matter what you measure, cities are a particularly efficient way of making stuff. Whether you measure numbers of patents or firm revenues or scientific publications, cities produce more _per capita_ as their size increases. I was interested in how Dave is teasing out the different mechanisms that might be contributing to cities getting more efficient as they get bigger. Dave is looking at how higher frequency and diversity of interactions within cities might spur innovation as people are exposed to new combinations of ideas. These could be interactions within cities due to people changing jobs, or between cities with internationally connected workers spurring exporting of the firms they work for. I’m hoping I’ll be able to explore some of the ideas Dave spoke about by working with Dave’s colleague from Motu, Izi Sin. The idea is to build a network of employment relationships so we’ll be able to quantify some of those interactions within cities and look at how they might affect the outcomes of the firms or the individuals involved.

Very cool stuff: some thoughts from Marcus on our research symposium

Here’s Victoria University-based investigator Marcus Frean reflecting on last week’s symposium:

I want to talk to Alexei Drummond about influenza, and was disappointed that I didn’t get to do so at the meeting itself, due largely to being somewhat exhausted and in recovery from said virus!  I always wondered what the idea was with using local flow information to think about how the flu virus spreads, but his talk was really clear and got me excited about what was possible. I also just find the Bayesian inference over trees story fascinating in itself, flu or no flu. It got me thinking about how so many processes or diversification come down to branching over time, leaving more or less complex artefacts behind as they go. There is always this interesting issue of how to deal with the vast number of unknown tree structures that might have given rise to them. Very cool stuff. Quentin Atkinson gave a short talk about somewhat related stuff (as far as I understand it) that I would have loved to hear more about. Wow what interesting work he does though: wish I’d talked to him about that too.

I left wanting to know more about quite a few things that came up, for example Alex James’s “phylogenetics and mutualisms” connection, Jeanette McLeod’s “navigating among trees”, Peter Davis’s full-on predictive / counter-factual-capable models, Adam’s patents, Michael’s fish… !

I found Rhian’s comment about “yay” versus “reflective” aspects of the scientific enterprise salutary (if a little awkward: I might be a serial offender).

Then – and this is technically post-symposium but anyway – on the flight home I got to thinking about ideas for looking at how barter-exchange might emerge from a more primordial system in which “tit for tat” style reciprocity is first established. Talking about this with Uli en route was great – having to put the notions into words, with him saying “no that’s nuts” at suitable moments was quite a good thing! I wanted to start coding immediately, but was by then too sleepy to function: sign of a great symposium, I reckon.