Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"Quantum Night"

Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight writers in history — and the only Canadian — to win all three of the world's top Science Fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Quantum Night, and reported the following:
I define science fiction as the literature of intriguing juxtapositions, and in Quantum Night, I smack quantum physics up against experimental psychology to see what sparks fly. Page 69 of the book has two very bright people — University of Manitoba psychology professor Jim Marchuk and Dr. Kayla Huron, a quantum physicist — discussing Kayla’s work over dinner:
After we’d ordered, I said, “So, at lunch you were talking about the quantum physics of consciousness.”

She took a sip of wine. “That’s right. My research partner is a woman named Victoria Chen. As I said earlier, she’s developed a system that can detect quantum superposition in neural tissue.”

“I’m no physicist, but I thought you couldn’t have quantum effects like that in living things.”

“Oh, it definitely happens in some biological systems. We’ve known since 2007 that there’s superposition in chlorophyll, for instance. Photosynthesis has a ninety-five percent energy-transfer efficiency rate, which is better than anything we can engineer. Plants achieve that by using superposition to simultaneously try all the possible pathways between their light-collecting molecules and their reaction-center proteins so that energy is always sent down the most-efficient route; it’s a form of biological quantum computing. Vic was curious about how plants manage that at room temperature while we have to chill our quantum computers to a fraction above absolute zero to get superposition. And, well, as I mentioned at lunch, I’ve long been interested in the Penrose-Hameroff model that says quantum superposition in the microtubules of neuronal tissue is what gives rise to consciousness. So I convinced Vic to let me try her technique on people, to see if there really is superposition in human brains.”


“And, oh my God, yes, there is.”
As Kayla says, her research is based on the real-life work by Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose, and his collaborator Stuart Hameroff, the director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Consciousness Studies.

I’ve long been fascinated by that work (it also figured prominently in my John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning novel Mindscan), and I’ve grown to count Stuart — who read Quantum Night in manuscript for me — as a friend; he’s having me in to speak about my extrapolations of his work at the Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson this April.

Page 69 of Quantum Night gives us three things that are hallmarks of my work: intelligent people having intelligent conversation; a deep connection with real science; and extrapolating that science forward into new — but plausible and reasonable — discoveries.

Although there’s a punch or two thrown in Quantum Night, I don’t think fiction has to be about action; I don’t think talking heads are a bad thing (my favorite evening out is a night of clever conversation at a restaurant with friends); and I don’t think all fiction is about conflict. I believe ideas are intrinsically interesting, and science is as captivating as any sport. If you share my tastes, you might indeed enjoy Quantum Night.
Learn more about the book and author at Robert J. Sawyer's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue