Friday, March 28, 2008

Climate Change--Part 1: Human Health—Friday Feature


This is the first in a new series I’ll be posting that deals directly with climate change, a topic of great controversy among scientists still and one meriting discussion among us here. Okay, I lie: I posted several articles already that touch on this subject. I touched upon the chaotic nature and interrelatedness of climate and weather in my post on chaos theory. In two blog posts, “Climate Change & the Nobel Peace Prize” and “Blog Action Day—Truth”, I devote lengthy discussion to the dedicated work of Al Gore, his film, “the Inconvenient Truth” and generate lively discussion on the topic (check out the comments pages!). In “Tornadoes Connected to Global Waming?” I described my own personal experience with the historic unseasonal tornadoes in the US earlier this year and how some believe this is related to climate change and is a sign of more to come. In “Polar Cities” I describe Dan Bloom’s concept for surviving the aftermath of global warming and explore the need for paradigm changes. Then in “The Complexity of Nature” I discuss how perspective plays a role in our perception of both our future and that of our planet.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Nina’s Booktour Continues


Almost two weeks ago, and with great coverage by the local press (the Surrey Leader), I fulfilled a fantasy by appearing at the Strawberry Hill Chapters store in Surrey, British Columbia, to sign my book, Darwin’s Paradox. Once or twice a month I used to meet three other friends who’d formed a writer’s group we’d called Critical Ms. Starbucks coffee in hand, I met them in the small alcove with comfortable chairs to trade industry stories, critique each other’s work, and dream of having my book on the shelf behind us (it was the science fiction section of the store). Last week I realized that dream and more! What’s really cool is that one of the other Critical Ms writers, Lois J. Peterson, is also launching her book this fall. It’s a YA novel called, Meeting Miss 405 by Orca Press. I even had a surprise visit from Brian Hades of Edge Publishing, the parent company of Dragon Moon Press—he was just passing through town… Sure! Brian had found these cool see-into-the-future glasses at a strange Vancouver antique shop and thought of me… funny that…But don’t I look intelligent in them?...

My signing at the Granville & Broadway Chapters store in Vancouver the following week was yet another adventure. As always, I met very interesting patrons, including two Romanian ladies (Silvia Boiceanu and Maria Moise) who, after introducing themselves, decided to linger and watch me “in action” and occasionally waved at me, smiling. I also met Twyla Anderson, a budding novelist and practiced my French with Agnes Lacombe, an elegant lady from France. Hildegard Zander engaged me in a long philosophical conversation that ranged from the transcending songs of French singer Gilbert Becaud to the environmental basis of cultures.

Then Stephen Saint Laurent, Prince George videographer, stopped by and gave me an impromptu interview. I also had the unexpected pleasure of meeting a long-time friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. She’d spotted Chapter’s billboard advertisement outside the store and had noted the time. Barb Meier is a talented artist and craftsman who makes books from scratch (paper, cover and binding!). That’s Barb pointing at my display. My sister, Doina Maria (and my partner in imagination from when we were kids) is standing beside her. She’d come to lure me away with promises of calamari and red wine.

My book signing at the Granville store experienced some added excitement as a student rally of over 500 protesters passed the store in a flourish of banner waving and boisterous shouting. The patrons of the store, myself included, emerged to watch as police-escorted demonstrators waving “Free Tibet from China” signs and shouting slogans, marched past us. Tibetan supporters from Vernon to Victoria were rallying against the violence in the tumultuous Chinese-controlled region; they marched from the art gallery to the Chinese consulate, where they chanted, burned Chinese flags and acted out scenes of violence.

I will finalize my local book tour with a signing at Blackbond Books in Richmond and a Chapters store in Burnaby (Metrotown). Then I’ll be flying to Paris, France where… I think Darwin will take a holiday with me. Truthfully, I am travelling there (and possibly to Berlin) to research my next book, a historical fantasy about a young girl in medieval Prussia who discovers that she can alter history. More on that in another post…





Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke—Homage to a Visionary



The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond
them into the impossible
—Arthur C. Clarke

When I was in my early twenties (some time ago) I read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. He’d written it a year before I was born. I remember being moved by the story’s grandness and scope about the transformation of humanity. On the slightly garish cover of the Ballantine science fiction classic book jacket Gilbert Highet’s endorsement said, “…a real staggerer by a man who is both a poetic dreamer and a competent scientist.” This remains an apt assessment of this self-professed "mildly cheerful" British science fiction author, inventor, and futurist, perhaps best known for the novel 2001: a Space Odyssey (also about the transformation of humankind).

On March 19 of this year, Arthur C. Clarke died at age ninety in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he’d made his home since 1956. He left behind a legacy of incredibly imaginative works, valuable scientific inventions and concepts and profoundly thoughtful discussions of the future.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Victor Frankl and the Holocaust


What is to give light must endure burning—Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to write those words (whose meaning resonates more profoundly, given his experience).
So, on this day, when Christians all over the world (myself included) are observing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for us, I dedicate this Good Friday Feature to the men, women and children who gave their lives in Nazi World War II concentration camps. Let us not forget their sacrifice and the lessons we can learn from the Holocaust.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Promise of Spring--Let There Be Light


Tomorrow is the first day of Spring (at least officially) and I decide to go for a walk in my neighbourhood, in search of Gaia’s promises of rebirth. In my own garden, the crocuses are blooming already and the tulips are not far behind. But I’m in search of what Nature is doing.
I set out at around six in the evening, stepping out of my house into the brisk air whose breath of winter still lingers like mist on a mountain. It’s a short walk to the Ladner Marsh and I am soon inhaling the organic aroma of mud, edged with the sharpness of salt water as I pull my jacket closed. I take a well worn path along the saltwater marsh, thick with boats of all kinds along the maze of wharves that extend from the road across.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Highlander: The Source—A Review


I was born four hundred years ago in the Highlands of Scotland. I am immortal and I am not alone. Now is the time of the Gathering, when the stroke of a sword will release the power of the Quickening. In the end, there can be only one—Duncan MacLeod

Highlander: The Source is the fifth installment of the Highlander film series, and the first film of a trilogy on the SCI FI Channel, with Adrian Paul returning as Duncan MacLeod from the television series and the fourth film, Highlander: Endgame. Highlander: The Source is the first Highlander film in the franchise not to be released in American theatres; instead, it was shown on the SCI FI Channel on September 15, 2007 (Wikipedia). The tag line for the DVD movie reads: The Quest for Mortality Begins.

When M80 and Fox Home Entertainment asked me to review the latest Highlander movie by Brett Leonard, now on DVD, I said sure! I’d watched the original 1986 movie with Christopher Lambert as the long-haired (and extremely sexy) Conner MacLeod, who is an immortal, one of a race of many who can only die when the head is cut from the body. When one immortal takes the head of another, the loser's power is absorbed into the winner. There were enough fantastical elements in the dark and contemplative motion picture to interest me and the swordplay action was compelling. Thinking I would be treated to something at least similar to the original, I was disappointed. However, while I found this latest installation in the movie series (and TV show) disappointing, there are likely some worthy elements to be found for die-hard fans of the series, if not the general action-film crowd. In fact, one of the film’s redeeming features is that it makes an attempt—albeit feeble—at putting some thoughtful meaning into an otherwise empty, shallow-plotted story.

The DVD blurb reads: Immortals—they have secretly dwelt among us for thousands of years but their origins have been shrouded in mystery. The answers, prophets say, are to be found in the Source. The last band of eternal warriors, led by Duncan MacLeod, the Highlander, have set out on a treacherous quest to find the origin of their immortality. But to learn the truth, they must first defeat the Guardian of the Source, a powerful killer who will destroy all who seek its secrets.

For those of you not familiar with the Highlander trope, the Highlander Series is an English language fantasy/sci-fi television series featuring Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), of the Scottish Clan MacLeod, as the Highlander of the title. An offshoot of the Highlander movies, Highlander: The Series centered on the life of Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), who is a clansman to the main character from the movies, Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert). Christopher Lambert made a single appearance in the first episode to aid continuity, and his character is mentioned in several episodes throughout the six seasons. The series was a Canada/France co-production that was filmed in both countries. The primary Canadian location was Vancouver, British Columbia. So long as Duncan remains immortal, he cannot bear children. A small price for living forever. Perhaps and perhaps not.

The film begins with Duncan brooding over a chaotic world of ruin, bathed in garish shades of fire and death. Men and women run in fear along the cobbles and garbage, attacked by cruel mobsters at every corner in an amoral lawless world. Duncan listlessly prevents a rape then returns to his brooding. Perhaps he is reflecting how ironic and ultimately cruel it is, that he will forever and helplessly witness the slow decline of his world. We find that his wife, Anna (Thekla Eeuten), has left him because she wants to have his child and can’t. Duncan is hopeless and a rather pathetic character. It didn’t help that the acting was substandard. I must confess that I found Adrian Paul’s rendition rather one-note and lackluster. He more resembled a lost dog on the street than a great though troubled warrior.

Duncan encounters the Guardian (Christian Solimeno) of the Source, a slightly laughable shallow character meant to incite fear, who suggests that Duncan’s estranged wife is connected to the Source and in danger. Fearful for her, the Highlander joins a rather motley group of other immortals to find the Source, and hopefully his ex-wife. There’s the cynical and self-serving Methos (Peter Wingfield), the cavalier and amoral Reggie (Stephen Wight) and the righteous priest, Giovanni (Thom Fell). These immortals are not loyal to one another at the best of times. In fact, they wouldn’t blink an eye at betraying another to save himself. This is linked somewhat to the prophesy of the immortals, which decrees that “there can only be one”. Not a very nice bunch. And I am given the impression that Duncan is not much different. Even the righteous catholic priest, Giovani, finally succumbs to greed. This, soon after delivering his motivational speech to the others about pursuing their quest for the Source: “We were given the ultimate responsibility: free will. And what have we done with it; we watch generation after generation make the same mistakes. The Source is His gift to us. Through it one of us may be born into something more…” But he falls victim to his own words and makes the same mistake he, and those before him, has always made. Ironically, it is Methos who supports Duncan in the end, believing that the destiny to reach the Source belongs to Duncan.

Despite its many failings, the film presents some interesting paradoxes worth considering. The most obvious paradox lies in the actual search of these immortals for the Source, which “as you get closer to [it the immortal] will grow weaker and lose [his] immortality.” Immortals in search of mortality. Eternal life in search of death. Or is it peace?

“It’s not about death,” Anna, Duncan’s wife, said. “It’s about life.” Again, another paradox. Duncan must achieve mortality (the ability to die) to be re-united with his wife; to create new life and have a son or daughter. As an ecologist, I understand the paradox of “dying to live”. The paradox resolves itself, of course, in the act of reproduction. Salmon spawning, spiders and praying mantis mating. These are all examples of organisms that literally die in the act of reproducing to create new life. Daring to assess the characters metaphorically, Giovanni’s fall to greed after clinging so long to his righteous beliefs aptly mocks the crumbling and shallow values of our traditional ways. Reggie’s fall to the Guardian represents the death of hedonistic amorality when confronted with the truth of being. It is left to the cynical Methos, our cold but pure-minded “scientist” to recognize that Duncan, whose humility and selfless giving-spirit, must take the mantle of “giving his eternal life” to become mortal and create new life. In an uncharacteristic act of reciprocal support, Methos saves Duncan after Duncan has saved him from an attack. And, so, like the perpetual ourorobos, in a cycle of “creative destruction”, Duncan MacLeod becomes mortal after passing the final test: of showing mercy in an unmerciful world.

Friday, March 14, 2008

David Walker is a Scientist Who Does Art or an Artist Who Does Science?--Friday Feature


When I met up with UBC grad student, Krista Fogel, at Starbucks a couple of months ago, one of her other “subjects” joined us. David Walker is a biochemist who is also a sculptor. What I found marvelous was how we just gravitated toward one another in an effusion of dialogue that was exhilarating and thoughtful. So thoughtful was it, in fact that it sparked that climate change nightmare I had the next day. We talked about “the speed of life” and the suntelia aeon, the role of art in science, of holistic thought, autopoiesis and fractals. We were of like-minds; we were scientists who were artists or artists who were scientists. It didn’t matter. The two were inseparable.

I asked David if he’d like to see the view of Earth from Vinnie in orbit and he didn’t blink an eye before giving me an unequivocal yes.

~~~~~~~

Despite the rather rough ride for him, David braved the trip up to Vinnie and, after giving him a tour of the sentient ship, we settled in the aft lounge and Harry, my pesky bot, handed us two coffees. Mind burning with questions I set out straight away with my first:

SF Girl: “Do you use your art in your science and/or do you use your science in your art? And, if so, how do they help each other? How do they hinder each other?"

David: His eyes crinkle with a gentle smile and he replies in a soft spoken voice, “The short answer to both questions is an emphatic yes. As a morphologist I have struggled with defining the relationship between structure and function in marine algae and mammals. The artistic “eye” and involvement with visual arts has helped me in the recognition of the significance of morphological observations and in generating morphological hypotheses if you will. In other words formulating a visual hypothesis as to what the cells in question might look like if what I had conceptually hypothesized was in any way near correct. I have done all of the illustrations that I have used in my papers myself. This has been invaluable first in that I have to understand what I am illustrating clearly and then I can judge the accuracy of my illustration.”

SF Girl: “How would you describe the role of science in society?”

David: “From the basic science perspective, science is one of many ways to experience what it means to be. It is a way to “see” ourselves and the world we live in a way that is supposed to be an objective manner. Science in a way is supposed to tell us what it is like to exist and how things do exist in our world in a way that is supposedly objective. This is often construded to mean through various kinds of measurements often numerical. These stories or observations are believed to be objective. In a more practical sense or applied it is a tool for problem solving such as in agriculture and biomedical research. In short it is a tool we use to improve our manipulation of and understanding of us and our world.”

SF Girl: “How would you describe the role of art in society?”

SF Girl: “Art, or doing art, is another way of experiencing the world and sharing that with others. It is on the surface perhaps more subjective as it can be based on how a specific individual esperiences what it means to be. However, I believe the closer the subjective experience is to something that all humans have in common the more its potential is to become objective or common to all. A simplistic example might be my painting a portrait of my mother. It is on the surface very subjective in that she is only my mother. However, if in my painting I succeed in capturing something that is fundamental to the mother child relationship then it can become meaningful to others who have mothers and can speak to others about that relationship and in this sense begin at least to represent a more objective or ubiquitous aspect of maternity. In a sense when art attains the level of being more objective it can actually “speak the truth” about what it means to be just as much as science can. There are things for instance that Shakespeare has said about humanity and human behaviour that I expect most would agree is accurate. I don’t know if that qualifies as true.”

SF Girl: “How do you reconcile these two?”

David: His brows furrow in thought. “I do not know that the arts and sciences need to be reconciled actually. I would speculate that Leonardo de Vinci didn’t worry about the fact he was painting and designing flying machines or exploring the human anatomy. Perhaps the need to reconcile them is born of our suffering from the reductionist paradigm and our current compulsion to compartmentalize knowledge and activities so that many know much about very little.”

SF Girl: “Can you speak to the similarity or difference in finding ‘truth’ through science vs. art?”

David: “I believe that science like art is one way in which we can see what it means to be but then the understanding we gain is often used naturally by humans to manipulate our environment. For instance, the use of electric lighting drives the effects of diurnal rhythms into the background. Heaters and air conditioners eliminate the thermal evidence of seasonal cycles. Traveling in automobiles and trains and planes turns the outside world to images in a window. Urban living separates us even from what it takes to provide the food we eat. All that the cosmetic industry does to hide age fosters the denial of aging and death so that when the end does come it is a rude shock and not a natural punctuation at the end of a life but some kind of tragedy.”

SF Girl: “What advice do you have regarding the pursuit of art for young scientists just starting their career (e.g., your students)?”

David: “In hind sight I would encourage them to hang on to and if nothing else continue to “practice” their preferred form of artistic expression throughout their careers. They of course must be the judges as to how much is right for them. I believe that art provides a fine balance to all that is science and in addition can enrich the life and even the science that the scientist does. Balance in a busy career will always be an issue. I know that the halls of academia are littered with the wreckage of destroyed marriages and probably neglected children left acting out.”

SF Girl: “We are showcasing two pieces of your art. Can you talk a little bit about each of them?”

David: Now beaming with excitement, “the bust of Nefertiti is carved in alabaster. She is about 9" high. The inspiration was a bust of Nefertiti that is in the Egypt Museum in Berlin that I have seen there and in photographs. Sculpting a portrait is a very intimate process in which you become extremely familiar with another's face. In a sense it was hoped that in doing this portrait I might come even a tiny bit closer to comprehending who Nefertiti might have been. It certainly left me all the more impressed with her but wondering all the more about such a woman who could be so famous for so many thousands of years. The other work is my Golgi Apparatus carved from Yule marble from Colorado. The golgi apparatus is found in virtually every mammalian cell. It is sort of a round house of protein sulfation and glycosylation or the addition of sugars to the protein backbone of the molecule.It is made of a stack of membranous cisternae (pillow cases with no opennings). Synthetic product and membranes flow through the golgi apparatus.”

SF Girl: “Thanks, David! So, tell us a little bit about where has David Walker come from?”

David: “I have done two and three dimensional arts all my life. I began drawing for my father at 3yrs and playing with clay at 4yrs of age. My brothers and I played with clay all the time I was growing up. I played at drawing and painting all along as well. Early in my teens I became interested in biology but from a structure/function perspective. I followed this path as a profession through two bachelors degrees and a masters degree from the University of California in Zoology, Botany and Botany/Cell Biology. We came to Canada so that I could do a PhD in Marine Botany/Cell Biology. At the end of the PhD I moved to Pulmonary Research and then into the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at University of British Columbia where I am an Associate Professor. Although becoming a biologist may seem a diversion from art it actually has been a parallel realm in which I have explored the architecture of life and living organisms down to the supra-molecular level. For more than 30 years I have been exploring the cellular and subcellular realms of structure and trying to relate it to function. It has been a profound privilege and more and more it invades my art. (see my golgi apparatus, the most beautiful organelle in the cell). All along the way I have done drawing, water colour and oil painting. I took six years of instruction in Chinese brush painting here in Vancouver BC. Almost 10 years ago I took a one week stone carving course at the Vancouver Academy of Art and fell in love with it. I studied with Alberto Replanski all of this time until his untimely death the end of January 2008. Over the last four years I have gone to two marble carving workshops in Marble/marble Colorado and brought marble home with me. One piece is completed and two are under way. Stone carving is what I do mostly and it is what I love the most. Inspiration for subjects to sculpt range from figurative to biological topics all being related to my search for beauty in this word fraught with so much ugliness. Both visual arts and biological sciences explore what it means to be and to be alive. Both disciplines assist us in learning to see what we look at, something few really do. Both endeavors have enriched my life and also each other. I am profoundly grateful.”




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Scientists Who Do Art


The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed—Albert Einstein


Last November, I was introduced to Krista Fogel, a University of British Columbia masters student, who was investigating the use of creative art in high-ability scientists. Her thesis was entitled: The Self-Perceived Experience of Investigating Science with an Artistic Spirit: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study of High Ability Scientists Who Also Engage in the Arts. Hermeneutic, by the way, is the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts (I had to look it up) and phenomenology is an approach to philosophy through the study of phenomena. Krista wanted to interview me as part of her project. I was flattered, of course. Me, a High Ability Scientist? Who told her that?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cassini Flies over Enceladus


Today “Cassini is set to begin a series of scraping Enceladus flybys that will take place in 2008 and will take us flying within a mere 50 km (~ 30 miles) over the equatorial region of the moon, approaching from the north and then departing towards the south, with passage through the edges of the moon's famous south polar plume” said Catheryn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader. At closest approach, the spacecraft will pass the moon at a speed of about 14 kilometers (9 miles) per second. “We will make several daring plunges over the surface of Enceladus and through its plume of vapor and icy particles,” said Porco. “These maneuvers will take us deep into the plume and allow many of Cassini's instrument teams to improve their measurements of the region's properties. The heat-sensing instrument will map the terrain's thermal emission over a wider area than before in search of additional hot spots, and the instrument capable of sniffing out the plume's composition will improve tenfold its measurements of the plume's molecular concentrations. All of us are eager to learn if we are correct in suspecting that organic-rich, liquid water reservoirs are truly the sources of the moon's dramatic geologic activity…We should come away, in particular, with a better measure than we've had up until now of the abundances of ammonia and some simple organic compounds, both of which are important to ascertaining the astrobiological potential of the source environment of the jets.”

The Voyagers showed that Enceladus is only 500 km in diameter and reflects almost 100% of the sunlight that strikes it. Voyager 1 found that Enceladus orbited in the densest part of Saturn's diffuse E ring, indicating a possible association between the two, while Voyager 2 revealed that despite the moon's small size, it had a wide range of terrains ranging from old, heavily cratered surfaces to young, tectonically deformed terrain, with some regions with surface ages as young as 100 million years old.

The Cassini spacecraft of the mid- to late 2000s acquired additional data on Enceladus, answering a number of the mysteries opened by the Voyager spacecraft and starting a few new ones. As a result of several close flybys of Enceladus in 2005, the probe discovered a water-rich plume venting from the moon's south polar region. This discovery, along with the presence of escaping internal heat and very few (if any) impact craters in the south polar region, shows that Enceladus is geologically active today. Moons in the extensive satellite systems of gas giants often become trapped in orbital resonances that lead to forced libration or orbital eccentricity; proximity to the planet can then lead to tidal heating of the satellite's interior, offering a possible explanation for the activity.

Enceladus is one of only three outer solar system bodies (along with Jupiter's moon Io and Neptune's moon Triton) where active eruptions have been observed. Analysis of the outgassing suggests that it originates from a body of sub-surface liquid water, which along with the unique chemistry found in the plume, has fueled speculations that Enceladus may be important in the study of astrobiology.The discovery of the plume has added further weight to the argument that material released from Enceladus is the source of the E-ring (Wikipedia).

Enceladus was named after the Titan Enceladus of Greek mythology. The name was chosen because Saturn, known in Greek mythology as Cronus, was the leader of the Titans.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The imaging team consists of scientists from the US, England, France, and Germany. The imaging operations center and team lead (Dr. C. Porco) are based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and the Cassini imaging team home page, http://ciclops.org.




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.