"Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
If you read the full poem, Dylan Thomas was meditating on the end of life that comes to us all eventually. I have stolen his words to use in a different way.
The night and the dying of the light I use to refer to the devaluation and misunderstanding to which logical thought and scientific method are subject in our post truth age.
Our fair city owes many thanks to Peter and Ella Grant who had the idea some years ago of setting up the Whanganui Science Forum. Through their efforts we have had the pleasure of highly informative and thought provoking talks on a regular monthly basis.
At the start they decided that only speakers with recognised experience and research in their areas would be considered. Most speakers have been university professors and lecturers.
We had to turn people away because of overcrowding of the hall when Professor Tim Stern spoke about earthquakes.
When he returned a year later, Rūaumoko showed his approval by putting on a good shaker near Taumarunui – the area where Professor Stern has done a lot of research and which was the focus of his talk.
We mere humans cannot predict earthquakes and even less can we control them. We have had several talks on topics that we can control but too often do not choose to. The state of waterways in New Zealand is not good at present.
Prof Russell Death was introduced to the audience as the hammer of water polluters and his talk was direct, to the point and did not pull punches. He told us in no uncertain terms that we do not care about our streams and rivers.
New Zealand streams lack the floating rubbish and dead fish associated with polluted rivers in third world countries, but a muddy waterway that should be running clear indicates an out of balance ecosystem.
Archaeologist Naomi Wood gave two talks about findings from the dig carried out on the site of the new Farmers building. She gave astonishing details of the life styles of two families who lived on the land not long out of living memory.
The Byrnes were an Irish family living on the corner of St Hill St and Maria Place. We find the regimental badges of the husband purposely broken and buried when he finished his military service at the Rutland Stockade.
He died not long after and his widow gradually sank into alcohol and opiate dependency. The second was the Chavannes who built a large villa on the same site in the late 19th century.
The family was successful and by 1904 was the largest importer and seller of cars in New Zealand. In contrast, Dr Hanson looked at possible future human civilisations on Mars.
It did not sound attractive to me and I would prefer fin de siècle Whanganui with its horse racing, bicycles, cars and philosophical societies.
Climate change and pollution are very much to the forefront and we have had a number of talks about different aspects of these issues.
Internationally respected Professor of climate studies James Renwick asked: "Are we facing the end of civilisation?" His answer was no, but unless we get our act together in the next few years it may seem that way.
The doom and gloom continued with social anthropologist Dr Trisia Farelly reporting on her investigations into endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which leach out of plastics. These are the same plastics that are now present as microscopic particles in pretty much everything you eat and drink.
These EDCs interfere with the hormone systems of the body controlling metabolism, nerve function, reproduction and sleep. On the other side of the materials coin, we heard from Dr Domigan who is using fish eyes, that normally go in the trawler waste bin, to produce a matrix for generating replacement human corneas that do not need human donors.
We have looked at ways of fighting climate change such as updating ancient methods of making charcoal to sequester carbon and using this biochar to improve the quality of soil without input of chemicals.
University of Otago Professor of public health Michael Baker gave us the low down on the Campylobacter epidemic in New Zealand.
By a show of hands he established two points. First that many people in the audience had had campylobacter and secondly that nobody wanted it again. Although serious long-term effects are rare, because of its wide spread, the dollar cost to the New Zealand economy is by far the largest of any disease.
Part of the problem with fighting any disease, be it human, animal or plant, is that testing is slow and expensive. Dr Richard Winkworth is working on the development of a device costing a few hundred dollars that can be used in the field and runs off a car battery or similar.
He showed us the prototype which was the size of a packet of biscuits and robustly made. In minutes it is able to test for the presence of pathogens before symptoms appear. In the case of plant diseases this permits greatly reduced use of sprays. In the case of animal and human diseases potentially infectious animals or people can be isolated before the disease spreads.
Dr Winkworth aims to make the testing yet cheaper and easier to the point of testing for Ebola using a test-tube kept at body temperature by being held in the armpit for several hours. We heard about Ebola and its horrific effects from Professor David Hayman. Being able to test for the presence of the virus before people get sick would save many lives.
An important point made by Dr Winkworth was the effect of having many educated eyes looking out for initial signs of plant and animal infections before they spread. He was emphasising the importance of a scientifically literate and active society. This is really the mission statement of the science forum.
Lecturer Allan Hardacre brought in samples of HMMA (High Moisture Meat Analogues) for the audience to try. This is "meat" produced directly from beans with no animals involved. This produced much discussion of possible changes in New Zealand agriculture from dairy and beef to production of protein in one step. This had obvious links to previous discussion of the effects of some agricultural practices on the state of our waterways.
A common question about science is how can we use it for our own good. Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman showed us some important home truths about the state of housing in New Zealand.
Bad housing leads to illness especially in children. The relationship between poor housing, poverty and crime is obvious. Improving housing improves health which reduces prison populations and releases more money for education.
In a later talk, Dr Verna Smith explained the mechanisms of government that aim to base public policy development on the best research available. She also explained how it is necessary to continually drive this pressure so that personal agendas and political pocket lining cannot be allowed to drive policy.
I do not have space to cover the full range of talks as diverse as mānuka honey, the amazing undersea life off Patea and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) but I will mention one or two trends that I have seen.
I have studied the links between fossil fuel use and climate change and I am convinced of the link. Audiences at the talks touching on climate change were usually concerned about what is happening but often did not really understand the mechanisms involved.
This was also true in areas such as changing agricultural methods and GMOs. It is in this sort of public information role that the work that the science forum does is important.
The science forum does not have a political agenda other than a search for truth. Science does not happen in isolation.
Sadly we are seeing worldwide the rise of pseudo YouTube science. Science based upon authoritarianism and a loud voice. Beliefs based upon the assumption that you yourself do not have the brain power to understand things and so must accept what you are told. This rabbit hole disappears into endless darkness.
I am a compulsive learner. When you learn you begin to ask questions. This is when more learning happens. Learning is not a passive thing. When people ask questions and debate using evidence more learning happens.
Questions and thinking and learning and education are like plants. They need a seed to get started. An organism that regenerates without input of new DNA becomes weaker.
Like any city, Whanganui has its problems but I feel as a community we are becoming woken to the need for objective thought and personal action. We build tourism by developing our image as a friendly and happy place.
We are being seen as valuing diversity. If we are seen as a scientifically literate and thinking community this will attract young entrepreneurs and thinking people to our world beating climate.