Category Archives: New Zealand

The Strangest Coincidence EVER

Daffodils blooming on the Amstel River in Amsterdam- taken Jan 21, 2012

Now imagine the following for a second.  It’s Saturday night in Amsterdam, and due to my birthday party the night before I’m too tired to do anything crazy but a low-key drink sounds like a good idea sort of thing.  No worries, there are a bunch of little cafes around here that I haven’t checked out yet and one is hosting a CouchSurfing get-together, so I head to said cafe to see what I see.

The place is busy, but there’s a spot next to a cute fellow with a German accent who is asking intelligent questions about my research, and it turns out he’s a Physics PhD student in a town in Lower Saxony six hours away from Amsterdam, in town for the first time this weekend to help a friend move.  A geek running into another geek unexpectedly is always a relatively rare occurrence so we spend ten minutes discussing our respective areas of study, and then he mentions offhand that he used to study in Auckland.

“Wait, New Zealand?”  I am momentarily confused, then have a flash of recognition.  “Johannes!  Professor LW’s E&M class, the first half of 2007!!!”  He in turn recognizes me and much hugging and squealing ensues, not all of it coming from me, and we chat nonstop into the wee hours to catch up. (So much for a low-key night!) Because you see it wasn’t just that we were in the same class, we actually did problem sets together- which Johannes recalled in much greater detail and fondness than me, he’s the theorist after all- but I never grabbed his contact information before leaving, so I hadn’t heard a thing about or from him in five years.

Let me repeat this again so we are clear on this: I went into a random bar and sat next to a random guy who was randomly in town… and it was one I last met five years ago, half a world away!  I believe we have now passed from “it’s a small world” to The Twilight Zone– or as another friend put it, I have now officially traveled enough that the entire world is my neighborhood.

What’s the strangest coincidence that ever happened to you?  I’m sure I’m not the only one with such a strange story!

The University of Auckland- taken February 15, 2007

Photo: Fairy Falls, New Zealand

I wrote a little sketch once about Fairy Falls that ended up getting published in my Case Western Reserve University’s literary journal (whose name eludes me now), the very top of it is pictured above.  This was the first nonfiction piece they ever published actually as they never liked my poetry or fiction because, egad!, I tend to talk about science a lot.  (Cause that’s what I do all day and all.  Crazy!) Anyway, here’s that little essay because it saves me the trouble of repeating myself…


I remember the day last March when I went on my first trip on the Fairy Falls Track in the Waitakere Ranges of New Zealand. It was a trip organized by the University of Auckland Tramping Club, and because the Falls were a mere hour outside Auckland we just made a day trip of it.

Have you ever been to New Zealand? If you have, you probably know a bit about tramping already. You know that tramping is their word for what Americans call hiking, the Australians call bushwhacking, and what the British call rambling. Furthermore, you probably know that New Zealand is synonymous with Aotearoa, Maori for The Land of the Long White Cloud, and that when it comes to kiwis a kiwi is a bird, a Kiwi (with a capital “K”) is a person, and a kiwifruit is the vegetarian alternative of the three eaten with a spoon. Words can often change meanings from one end of a city to another, after all, so when there’s a whole trans-Pacific crossing involved I want to make sure we all know what’s going on.

But anyway, the Falls. We tramped in on a loop track that took just a few hours to complete, which is why we’d only made a day trip of it. The jungle was lush and vibrant in a primeval sort of way: giant ferns taller than a person were scattered in the underbrush, and the towering trees were covered with vines and other creepers. New Zealand broke off the mainland over 80 million years ago during the time when dinosaurs still ruled the Earth, so you feel like a tyrannosaurus is about to crash through the bushes for the simple reason that the bushes are just like the ones he did crash through eons ago. It is a truly wonderful sight to see, even if you can’t quite believe you were the one wielding the camera when you develop the pictures.

There is one downside to the prehistoric wilderness in Aotearoa though: it’s deathly quiet. There are no mammals in New Zealand save two species of bat because they hadn’t existed 80 million years ago, so most of the native wildlife consists of reptiles and birds. Most of those native animals have gone extinct since the arrival of humans and the few that are around are mainly nocturnal, so you are often walking through brush with nothing scurrying through it. And honestly, can you imagine walking through the woods in Ohio never coming across a squirrel hopping from tree to tree, or scaring a white-tailed deer from the undergrowth? It’s unnerving.

All silence aside, though, the New Zealand wilderness is beautiful and pretty much everything they crack it up to be. As we progressed on the track we came across the Fairy Falls, a series of cascading pools that end in a fifty-foot drop off a cliff-face, and there were lots of ooohs and ahhhs from those of us visiting it for the first time.

“This is incredible,” I sighed to a Kiwi student after we paused briefly to examine a tree taller than a California redwood.

“Really?” She paused to look for a second at her surroundings. She had grown up in the closest town to the Fairy Falls Track and had hiked it every weekend when she was younger.

“I’ll be honest with you,” she told me frankly, “I don’t notice. This is all pretty normal for us.”

Photo: Franz Joseph Glacier, New Zealand

Taken May 25, 2007

Pop quiz hot shots: if you ever find yourself on a glacier hike in New Zealand (and you should, it’s great fun!) what makes the ice blue instead of the white we’re used to?

Answer: it depends on the light that’s reflected.  Atoms interact with wavelengths of light differently causing some to be reflected and some to be absorbed, so for example something is black when it absorbs all the light hitting it (and why black objects get hot!).  Everyone’s favorite life-sustaining molecule, H2O, vibrates in a way that absorbs light towards the red side of the spectrum, leaving the blue color you see above.

So why is ice and snow usually white then?  For the simple reason that virtually all the light you see hitting a snowy surface is scattered a few times and eventually reflects back, giving white, and this overwhelms the faint blue color water normally has.  It’s only when the light is absorbed by the water (you usually need around a meter of it) that the blue makes it through, similar to how coffee looks light when poured but much darker in a cup.

And that is why glaciers look so damn cool.  The more you know…