Monday, October 7, 2013

We Need More Spooky

You know how physicists say ludicrous things? For example: An electron can be in two places at once. Or: With enough gravity, you can bend space. We fiction writers rely on this stuff. (Thanks guys.)

But, do you ever notice how biologists DON’T do this? In 2001, Nobel prize winner Paul Nurse predicted that biology was about to go through a revolution similar to the one experienced in physics a hundred years ago. 

And here we are in the much-vaunted century of biological revolution. So where are the kooks?

Biology has some deep, dark problems at its core: it still has to explain how the complexity of life arose from a chemical goulash. 

It also has to explain how the component parts of a single cell in the body manage to find one another. The currently accepted answer is that enzymes just go bumping into everything until they stumble into the right partner

Gosh, if these were physicists, they'd be talking about twelve dimensions and quantum tunneling. 

A group of enterprising scientists, led by one Dr. Steven Benner, have recently proposed that life may have formed on Mars. Not too shabby. And a team of British scientists seems to have found proof of DNA coming into our atmosphere from outer space. We're getting closer to an alien theory, but seriously, where is all the weirdness in the world of the small?

Will it matter?

One guy, Dr. Fritz Albert Popp, dared to propose that DNA produces photons and that this creates a "dynamic web of light" inside the body. This web of light may be responsible for orchestrating the behavior of cells, tissues, and organs. Essentially, this is saying that DNA is like CENTCOM, a command station that talks to -- and controls -- many far-flung parts.

Einstein was disturbed by quantum mechanics, in particular “the problem of the total renunciation of all minimal standards of realism." Your disturb-o-meter might hit the same mark with biophotons. They are light. And energy. Little packages of stuff. But they are not thinking beings. And they certainly do not have the complexity of mind to run CENTCOM. The idea that they’re not only talking to one another, but sending out precisely the right information to thousands of different receptors, hundreds of thousands time a day… It all starts to sound, well, spooky.

Dr. Popp, you rock! 

But where is he? Why isn't his science all over the news? Wikipedia politely describes his claim as “controversial.” People have speculated that understanding biophoton behavior could help us cure cancer. That biophotons are related to why acupuncture works. That they may even help explain the emergence of consciousness. Wikipedia filed this last one under the stunningly condescending title of “Esoteric Claims”.

What is “esoteric” but an insult? A mainstream way of saying that the poor schlump who proposed this idea is clearly on the fringes. And yet, isn’t that where scientists ought to be? Isn’t that where string theory – now decidedly in the realm of popular physics – dared to tread? And how is it that physicists can claim twelve dimensions, and while people may scoff, they ultimately accept that this is what science does. But when biologists claim that photons may play a role in understanding the emergence of consciousness, they get called “esoteric” by a mainstream website that supposedly has rules against slanted points of view

Schrodinger that!
Dr. Popp's science is fascinating (there's a great article here), but the Wiki page for Dr. Popp is currently under dispute for “neutrality” issues. The dispute seems to have arisen because of comments like this one from the Wiki moderators: “Popp is only known in esoteric circles and new-age.” 

This man has a Ph.D. and was a professor at a major German university. He was also head of numerous research groups, an invited member of the New York Academy of Sciences, as well as founder of an International Institute of Biophysics. He is credited with discovering the presence of photons in the body. It does not seem that this man is “only known in esoteric circles.” But shoot, how dare he prove his own theories, going so far as to create an institute with 19 research groups in 13 countries

Energetic Places

On the other side of the biology spectrum stands the field’s most public thinker: Richard Dawkins. The Wiki page for Dawkins is long, detailed and solidly invested in sharing his philosophies. And to read this quite carefully, it is apparent that all of this Wiki love points to a consistent theme in Dawkins' career: his skepticism. 


“has consistently been sceptical about non-adaptive processes in evolution”
“is particularly sceptical about the practical possibility or importance of group selection as a basis for understanding altruism
“has also been strongly critical of the Gaia hypothesis
“was highly critical of fellow biologist E.O. Wilson's 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth.”
“is a prominent critic of creationism
“has ardently opposed the inclusion of intelligent design in science education"
“became a prominent critic of religion
“has been a critic of pseudoscience and alternative medicine"
He’s even critical of debate:
“…[Dawkins] refused to participate in formal debates with creationists because "what they seek is the oxygen of respectability""
"Dawkins also regularly comments in newspapers and weblogs on contemporary political questions; his opinions include opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq... the British nuclear deterrent, and the actions of US President George W. Bush"

Is this a list of accomplishments? This looks more like a love poem to an idol of destructiveness, one that manages to tell us everything Dawkins doesn’t believe in. The most famous figure in biology today is someone who appears to have become famous for disputing everything. What’s odd is that when 95 percent of the world believes in some kind of god or another, viewpoints like Dawkins' are by definition “esoteric.” 

Sorry, somebody needs a little Fox. 

Einstein and Bohr: enemies chilling.
Dawkins's first, and arguably most famous work, The Selfish Gene, postulates that evolution occurs through the survival of competing genes. In other words, by applying the “macro” concepts of evolution to the “micro” world of the gene, he seems to have co-opted the entire realm of biology. But what if our cells are not Darwinian monsters? And what if they can do all the weird shit that quantum particles can do?  

Imagine if Einstein had gotten famous for telling priests that they were stupid for believing in God. Imagine the quantum geniuses of his day cast to the fringes of respectable academia, their theories being treated as if they were nonsense. Did this happen to Bohr? To Heisenberg? No. In fact the debates between Einstein and his peers are legendary examples of scientists attempting to solve their problems together, despite their radically different points of view, and their mysteriously contradictory evidence.  

Einstein spent his career searching for a unified theory of physics that would draw all of these contradictions into a sensible picture. He failed. But his openness of mind and his ambition helped set physics on the right path. Physicists have spent decades and billions of dollars attempting to comprehend the dark center of this mystery. And out of this drive comes some remarkable stuff: superstring theory, M-theory, causal sets, and the quest to understand dark matter and dark energy.

It seems that the most public, energetic places in biology today are those places where Dawkins is accusing his fellow scientists of being traitors and "compliant quislings" for agreeing to talk to religious folk. 

So off I go in quest of a little more spooky. First stop: Science Set Free by Rupert Sheldrake - another radical biologist who, in speaking about his book, was banned from TEDx when their "Science Board" deleted his talk from their site. Interestingly, Sheldrake seems also to have done some intellectual heavy lifting with a physicist, David Bohm. 

This quote from Sheldrake's first book, A New Science of Life, encapsulates the kind of Spooky I think more biologists should be exploring:

“Most biologists take it for granted that living organisms are nothing but complex machines, governed only by the known laws of physics and chemistry. I myself used to share this point of view. But over a period of several years I came to see that such an assumption is difficult to justify. For when so little is actually understood, there is an open possibility that at least some of the phenomena of life depend on laws or factors as yet unrecognized by the physical sciences.”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Song for Chance

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am celebrating a bunch of writer friends who are publishing debut novels this year.

The second of these is the remarkable Song for Chance by John Van Kirk, which garnered a New York Times review this week. It's the gritty tale of rock legend, Jack Voss, who shot to fame in the 70s for his rock opera, The Enchanted Pond. Inspired by a doomed love triangle, the rock opera ended with a triple suicide -- and even inspired fans to mimic the violence.

Decades later, Voss's mellow life is shattered by the news of his daughter's death, which appears to be another Enchanted Pond suicide. How does an aging, self-absorbed rock star face the effects of his own tragic mistakes? With music, naturally (including liner notes, bonus tracks and a discography.) With incredible skill, Van Kirk brings you right into the center of the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll culture, but Voss's story is the most melodic bit of all: unsentimental, thought-provoking and raw.

Van Kirk, an O. Henry Award and Iowa Review fiction prize winner, answers some questions about music, writing and being a navy man:

First of all, can you describe the moment of conception for this book? When did it first appear in your mind (or your ear)? And how?

Years ago I wrote a short short story about a pianist who is suddenly inspired with a new piece of music—the problem is that he is actually in the middle of a public performance of a concerto for piano and orchestra at the time of his inspiration.  Does he keep performing and let the inspiration go, knowing that in all likelihood it won’t come back?  Or does he risk professional disaster and abandon the sheet music before him, ruining the concert, baffling the other musicians and the conductor?  That character is the forerunner of Jack Voss.  (The story, called “Concert(o),” was published in 2011 by The Sonora Review and is available on their website.)

The second thing happened several years later when I was dipping into Ovid and challenged myself to come up with a myth of my own.  I was thinking about love charms, and how they always go wrong—there’s a great John Collier story about that.  Anyway I came up with a magical pond which would confer unending love on partners who bathed in it.  And I asked myself how that could go wrong.  That was the seed of Jack Voss’s rock opera “The Enchanted Pond.”  The rest was writing the novel to see how things turned out.

"Song For Chance" contains song titles and lyrics and even liner notes, and the book's attention to past and present music scenes creates such a vivid and authentic world. What real-life characters inspired the story and the creation of Jack Voss?

I always wondered why people who could make beautiful music together so frequently ended up in acrimonious feuds, mutual denunciations, ugly partings.  Think of Lennon and McCartney, Roger Waters and David Gilmore, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson.  Not that any of my characters were based on those specific people, but the novel is my way of exploring that dynamic.  As for the music itself, it’s the soundtrack of my generation.

Jack Voss is a rock god, and yet beneath all the sex, drugs and rock and roll, his story is about redemption and loss. I'm curious about how writers create their novels: did anything in particular draw you to these themes, or did you choose your setting and characters first, and let the themes emerge....?

I’m an ex-Catholic, educated by nuns and priests through the 12th grade.  That early training in the cycle of sin, atonement, and redemption sticks with you.  As for loss, isn’t that the theme of all writing in some way?  As Robert Haas puts it in his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas”: “All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.”

What music did you listen to while you were writing the book?

I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing—it interferes with the music of the prose.  That said, I listened to a lot of music when I wasn’t actually writing, especially pop music from the 70s and 80s, some for enjoyment, some to make sure I remembered it accurately.

Could you give us a playlist - something you think we should listen to while reading "Song for Chance"? 

The book is full of titles, as you know.  I’d probably start with something from Thelonious Monk—“Epistrophy” would be a good choice.  Jack hears Monk on the second page of the novel.  Next would be Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night,” which Jack is trying to record in the second scene.  After those two, I’d turn off the stereo and just read.

Do you compose or play music yourself?

I’d call myself an amateur musician.  Which is more than I could say when I started the novel.  At that time, I was just a listener.  But I had to become at least a bit of a musician to write the book.  I took piano and guitar lessons, and I started playing the harmonica again, which I had played a little in high school and college but hadn’t touched for more than 20 years.  I still take a guitar lesson once a week, and the poet Art Stringer and I have worked up a few tunes together.  I call it “home-made music,” and it’s a little rough around the edges, but we have a lot of fun.

You teach writing, and yet you started a career in the navy - how did you come to writing from that? Did the navy give you any good writing tools?

I was writing before I joined the navy, while I was in the navy, and after I left the navy.  In a sense the navy period of my life was the detour.  I imagined a career for myself as a writer/professor about halfway through college.  I spent a year and a half as a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis.  One of my teachers was William Gass, and when I could I sat in on classes taught by Stanley Elkin and Howard Nemerov.  It looked like a good life, teaching and writing.  But I didn’t yet have the maturity to teach, the experience to write, or the discipline to get through the graduate program.  The navy helped me in all those areas.

A huge congratulations to John! For more on the author or his writing, check him out on Goodreads and Amazon