Friday, January 23, 2009

Nina Goes to Victoria, British Columbia...And Signs a Book

A short while ago I had the fortune of finding myself in not only one of my favorite book stores (Chapters) but in the quaint and beautiful west coast capital of British Columbia, VICTORIA. What a cool town! Several years ago, I lived in Victoria and taught biology courses at the University of Victoria (UVic). I used to hang out at the bohemian bistros and “karma” caf├ęs on Government Street with students of mine and drank free espresso thanks to my betting prowess and an infinite collection of willing succ—eh—betting partners. We used to loiter beside Roger’s Chocolates, snag the freebie samples, and watch the tourists navigate their way through “souvenir-alley”. I used to take students on field trips past Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park to the breakwaters of the Pacific Ocean and watch them scramble the slippery rocks in search of the elusive Postelsia.

Victoria is Western Canada's oldest city. The City began in 1843 as a Hudson Bay Company trading post, named in honour of Queen Victoria. Then, with the Fraser Valley gold rush in 1858, Victoria grew rapidly as the main port of entry to the Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. When the colonies combined, the City became the colonial capital and was established as the provincial capital when British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871. Today, Victoria houses the provincial legislature and is a bustling tourist attraction for travelers from around the world.

This time Toulouse and I wandered the Old Town area and stopped in at Munro’s Books on Government Street, where Darwin’s Paradox is for sale. You can catch Jim Munro himself on the floor of this gorgeous bookstore, housed inside a 1909 neo-classical building that resembles a Florentine museum with vaulted ceilings, and ornate walls draped with stunning tapestries (created by Carole Sabiston) that depict the four seasons. After sliding down a quick lunch and awesome hazelnut latte at Blenz Coffee, I wandered over to Chapter’s on Douglas Street; it was time to do my signing—and meet Victoria face to face. Pete had set me at a wonderful antique table by the entrance with a Starbucks coffee and I began to meet some of Victoria’s most interesting people.

I met and had excellent discussions with UVic students, physicists, biochemists, business men, poets, and other writers (including Bev Cooke, local Victoria author). Among those I met was Kevan, who’d studied in the Yukon for his Masters Degree under Charlie Krebs, and was heading up to northern Ontario to do two months of research and report-writing. He packed a signed copy of my book on the plane and read it all the way there! Way to go, Kevan! Not only did he recognize the relevance of Pielou Mall (to the ecologist, E.C. Pielou), but he made some awesome commentary on the book’s science and speculations. Kevan is currently working with two colleagues on a wilderness survival manual for northern Ontario and enjoyed the section in Darwin’s Paradox on Julie’s survival in the wilderness heath of Ontario. In fact, he let me know that he’d wished that I’d put more of it in the book. I guess I did it right… Kevan posits some interesting and thought provoking notions on the topic of independent development/discovery brought up in my book. Here’s what he says: “Can RNA drift in the wind like a virus and write itself into the genome of other organisms assuming some skills are genetic in origin? More mystically is it possible to tap into a body of knowledge, or have some quantum fluctuation bring knowledge from the future/other places directly into others' heads?? Certainly fuel for the imagination, and your exploration of the intelligent (and symbiotic) virus meme is another one of the reasons I enjoyed your book.”

These are awesome thoughts and brings to mind some of the notions by Rupert Sheldrake on “morphic resonance” and “extended mind”. Sheldrake's 1981 controversial book A New Science of Life introduced the concept of morphogenetic fields. For Sheldrake, the laws of the universe appear not to be laws at all, but rather deeply ingrained habits of action, built up over the eons…like ancient riverbeds on the surface of Mars. Sheldrake calls the habitual tendency of nature “morphic resonance”, in which present forms are influenced by past forms. According to Sheldrake, morphic resonance is transmitted through “morphogenetic fields”, which are analogous to electromagnetic fields in that they transmit information, but differ in that they do so without using energy and are therefore not diminished by transmission through time or space.

Take our physical forms, for instance. Sheldrake proposes that the physical forms we take on are not necessarily contained inside our genes, which he suggests may in fact be more analogous to transistors tuned in to the proper frequencies for translating invisible information into visible form. In other words, any form always looks alike because it ‘remembers’ its form through repetition and that any new form having similar characteristics will use the pattern of already existing forms as a guide for its appearance. According to Sheldrake, morphogenetic fields are located invisibly in and around organisms and may account for the regeneration of severed limbs in worms and salamanders, the holographic properties of memory, telepathy, and the increasing ease with which new skills are learned as greater quantities of a population acquire them. In his subsequent books, The Presence of the Past (1988) and The Rebirth of Nature (1991), Sheldrake traced the birth, rise, and inevitable death of the materialistic world view currently under siege by revolutionary concepts and paradigms such as chaos theory, the Gaia hypothesis, cellular symbiosis, and morphic resonance. What are YOUR thoughts?

Near the end of the day, Karl and Stephanie Johanson, publisher and art director of Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine (eligible for an Aurora and Hugo this year), dropped by and took me out for supper. We feasted on wonderful food, drink and great conversation.
Neo-Opsis is eligible for Best work in English Other in the Auroras and Best Semi-prozine for the Hugos. Stephanie is eligible for Artistic Achievement for the Auroras and for Fan Artist for the Hugos. The Aurora needs specific works nominated. This includes cover and interior art for Neo-opsis 14 & 15. Karl’s story, Pioneers in Sci Phi Journal is also eligible for an Aurora award (English short form) as well. Both the Auroras and the Hugos are now open for nominations for 2008 works.

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 Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Lucky Victoria in getting you for a book-signing!

Nina Munteanu said...

Aw... thanks, Jean-Luc... :) I tend to think of it as the other way around... Lucky ME... :D

Nina Munteanu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Yes I remember student days at UVic. I remember winning our bets so it must have been some other poor student that lost your bets and plied you with free lattes at the coffee shops on Government Street! LOL!
Sounds like a very productive trip!

Baby Brie

Nina Munteanu said...

Me losing a bet?... hmmmm... I don't remember that... ;)

Anonymous said...

You seem to be carrying on in an alternate universe that is disconnected from real life.

Are you aware that people have stopped buying books and that most malls featuring bookstores will be gone by the end of 2009?

Why aren't you saying even a word about this? I believe that you should stop acting like an over fed little girl and begin acting like an aware adult.

The Wandering Oak said...

I don't think I've ever met an author at a book signing before. You signed a copy of Darwin's Paradox for my wife. I just wanted to thank you for telling me about your other book "The Fiction Writer". Writing is a hobby of mine at this stage, but I'd love to see if I can turn it into something more. Thanks for taking a few seconds to chat with me!

Nina Munteanu said...

You're very welcome, Quercus! Meeting and chatting with other writers and readers is one of the perks of being a published writer.

Oh... by the way, thanks too for proving billgbg wrong! LOL! Storytelling and books will always remain in our culture... Keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for signing my book. You do realize I expect you to sign the prequel when it comes out. :-)

Didn't they predict the demise of books and bookstores by 2000 in the late 1970s? And reinforced that prediction in the 80s, and again in the 90s? Afterall, there's nothing like relaxing in a chair by the lake on a beautiful day and squinting at an EMF producing e-book till your battery runs dead.

btw, is there a length limit to comments? I have one typed out but I think it is too long to post.


Nina Munteanu said...

My pleasure, Myrdinn. I'll be most happy to sign the prequel for you. Great point about the EMF e-book... HAR! Thank God books don't need batteries!

Oh, by the way, I don't think there's a limit on comment length... You've made me very curious...

Anonymous said...

Ok, consider this a test regarding overly long verbose posts. Probably best to read by copying and pasting into word...if you actually want to read it all. :-)

If RNA floated in the wind like a virus and wrote itself into the DNA when “caught” you should find evidence for this in the genomes of the same species that are separated by large distances. To capture this event taking place you would require the genome sequence of the geographically separated species before and after the event…and that is assuming the event in question would even be outwardly noticeable. Or you could sequence the genome of widely separated species on a regular basis (e.g. once per year) and if a change occurs in the DNA of one group you could map its course through the population like you would a virus.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the time, money or other resources to realistically attempt this. We’ve just begun mapping genomes, and a genome map has less detail than sequencing. But suppose we could sequence genomes cheaply and quickly? How many species would we have to test before we saw an effect, and for how long? Would the noise outweigh the signal?
One of the 7 warning signs for Bogus Science is, “The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection: All scientific measurements must contend with some level of background noise or statistical fluctuation. But if the signal-to-noise ratio cannot be improved, even in principle, the effect is probably not real and the work is not science.”
Probably 99.9% of the time that holds true. But are there some events that occur so infrequently that we can’t measure them in real time? What if the drifting RNA virus event happens too infrequently to measure? Or perhaps it only occurs under pressure from large-scale environmental pressure: That might lend a mechanism to Elderedge’s and Gould’s punctuated equilibrium hypothesis that attempts to explain why there is such organism stasis followed by sudden phenological changes in the fossil record (also see Quantum Evolution; And a Jan 28, 09 article in on very rapid biased gene conversion (BGC) which may also drive evolution along with natural selection).

SF Girl mentions Sheldrake and one part of his ideas (as I understand them) indicates knowledge may be transferred through resonance fields (an explanation for Jung’s “collective consciousness” perhaps?). The same idea may pop up around the globe all within a short period of time (e.g. calculus). Monkeys on an island may start using tools for the first time and within a year other monkeys on other islands are also using the same tools in the same manner despite being separated by ocean. If real (that is, not explainable coincidence or urban legends) these events occur so infrequently that it is unlikely we’ll ever be able to distinguish signal from noise in any reasonable time-frame.

Infrequent events can be detected though within the appropriate time-frame. In a recent quantum teleportation experiment they teleported information from one atom to another atom in unconnected enclosures. It took 100 million tries (laser zaps) before they were able to obtain one successful reading. Normally we’d never detect that level of occurrence but in this case a 100 million tries only took 10 minutes and over weeks of non-stop work they were able to obtain the evidence they needed.

Suppose, though, the laser could only be fired every second. That’s one successful reading every 3.2 years of non-stop trying. Your first positive result would probably be attributed to chance, calibration error, instrument not reading correctly etc. If someone made a claim that they’d teleported ‘information’ from one spot to another we’d call it bogus science even if they had 12 years of non-stop data.

So if Sheldrake’s resonance fields, drifting viral RNA, quantum teleportation of information from one mind to another are responsible for flashes of knowledge, psychic insights/paranormal events, or evolution itself would we even be able to detect these events in real time as they occur very rarely or at time scales too long for us to continuously measure? They’re certainly not likely to occur in any lab or test situation, and if they did, they’d be ignored as random chance events (justifiably so too).

Popperian scientific method hardliners like Dawkins would thus argue that if we can’t detect them then they don’t exist…or if they do exist there’s no point seriously studying them because we’ll not be able to detect them anyway.
On the other hand ignoring the scientific method can lead you into the realm of woo, or Quantum Quackery [Q: What has feathers, webbed feet, swims on the water and goes, “Quark quark quark!? A: The quantum duck :) ]. E.g. 1 What the Bleep Do We Know? where some physicists were dismayed to see their ideas applied haphazardly in a contradictory fashion.
E.g. 2 Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, an intriguing idea but hijacked into a semi-religion by others - - as a result many scientists misunderstood Lovelock’s use of the concept and didn’t bother exploring/debating it further. Or refused to study it because of the association it had with New Agers (you, the scientist, may understand Lovelock’s ideas but will your colleagues and the people holding the purse strings understand?).
Despite this hijack disadvantage many scientists do give their imagination free reign. In an informal setting where people are comfortable with each other (and with liberal applications of alcohol) scientists toss out some of the most outlandish ideas and play with “what if”. Sometimes this results in new avenues of research as cross-fertilization bears fruit. Many times it allows you to stand outside your own box and see things differently. Most of the time it is just plain fun. In the words of Robert N. Prescott, Stanford History of Science Professor, “If you don’t love and hate and play and joke with your objects of study, then you’re really not treating them properly.” So let’s treat them properly and let the imagination run.


Anonymous said...

Hmm...i see some of my paragraphs disappeared between Word and comments. Sorry.

Re: reading.

Is Technology Producing a Decline in Critical Thinking and Analysis? Short answer: Yes. They do say all media have their place is just a matter of balance. And we all know this quote to be true... :-)))

""Studies show that reading develops imagination, induction, reflection and critical thinking, as well as vocabulary," Greenfield said. "Reading for pleasure is the key to developing these skills.""


Anonymous said...

That comment by anonymous was absolutely brilliant and thought provoking! Talk about thinking outside the box!

Nina Munteanu said...

Yes, Myrdinn's comment is definitely worth thinking on... discussing, and worthy of a whole post! ... Forthcoming... :) As an environmental scientist, I am always contending with "effects" and what they really mean (in my case both spatial and temporal; you can read my thoughts and formulations in my paper on disturbance...[Munteanu, N. and G.P. Thomas. 2001. The Role of Disturbance in Lake Evolution and Implications to Restoration and Management. In CWRA BC Branch Conference Proceedings: Changing Water Environments -- Research and Practice, May 8-11, 2001, Whistler, B.C.] where I discuss how scale and scope must enter into the study of environmental effects like an impact from a point discharge within an area that is already confounded by other influences, both human-related and "natural" (sometimes hard to define). How to tease out the one and then, even if successful, how meaningful is it in a real situation and to us as practitioners )i.e., to our original question? What is your control? And what is its relevance? So much still remains arbitrary (and based again on our interpretation of scale). By studying an effect you can't help but include yourself as effector. It brings to mind the cartoon by Gary Larson on "life under a cover slip"...

Myrdinn brings up examples that demonstrate that we as scientists must rethink the tool and the paradigm of how we use science and rely on it for answers to questions that are in many cases far greater than "science" in its present state can provide. Science must change ... if it's going to keep up... or rather, we as scientists need to change our attitude toward what we understand science can and cannot provide and what that really means to us, our society and our planet.

Great stuff, Myrdinn.

Thanks for sharing it here!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Thanks a million for putting my quote on the back of 'The Fiction Writer'

Nina Munteanu said...

Your're very welcome! Thanks for giving it! :D

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