stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Quantum by Manjit Kumar

One of the best scientific histories I’ve read for a long time, this book matches insight into the characters and lives of all the great players in the quantum mechanics debate with the theory itself. Too many authors get this balance wrong, but Manjit Kumar gets it just right. He’s especially good at leading the reader from the character of somebody (Niels Bohr springs to mind here, but he’s also good with Schrödinger and Heisenberg) to their scientific insight. I really enjoyed this book: well written, detailed, insightful, interesting.
quant

Writer’s Lab Session Two

A second terrific evening of writerly chat! Many thanks again to Joe Shooman, and all the writers who turned up.


 

 

Writer’s Lab Session 2

Next Tuesday…

The Prehistory Of The Mind by Steven Mithen

When I first read this book I really enjoyed it, but perhaps didn’t quite ‘get’ it. A second reading has persuaded me that it is a very significant piece of work.

Mithen’s objective is to piece together a viable evolution of our mental abilities from the archaeological (and some other) evidence available to him. This is quite an ambition, given that often it’s quite difficult to piece together archaeology from archaeological evidence… But you have to admire the man’s insight and courage.

This is in fact a remarkable book, whose central hypothesis is that three or four naturally occuring kinds of intelligence – visible in chimps, our nearest living relatives – evolved over about six million years. Using a clever analogy, that of chambers a cathedral, he shows that these separate intelligences could have evolved in social circumstances into something far more complex, which then, perhaps only in the last 40,000 years, but certainly not before 100,000 years ago, came together in ‘cognitive fluidity.’ Mithen follows Nicholas Humphrey’s social intelligence theory, using it with verve and skill to show how consciousness evolved only for the social intelligence of primates, not the technical or natural history intelligences, but then overlapped with the other kinds of intelligences so that all our insight and understanding flowed out into the non-social world.

Quite an achievement then. Certainly a significant and enduring contributing to our understanding of how we evolved.
mithen

Istanbul by Bettany Hughes

This is a very good large-scale history of the great city Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul.

Although it suffers in a few places from Francopan-Montefiore Syndrome (chapters listing men killing each other in wars, which in times past used to be how history was taught) there is much more by way of social and cultural history here, which is all to the good. Add to that Hughes’ engaging style of writing and you have an absorbing book.
I enjoyed it.

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Writer’s Lab Session 1

We had a terrific hour at the opening session of the Writer’s Lab yesterday. A really great, positive, happy and generous group of about 20 writers, with whom Joe Shooman and I worked. Very good vibes for the remaining sessions!

 

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Writer’s Lab, Shrewsbury Library

Today is session one (of six) of the Writer’s Lab series being hosted at Shrewsbury Library by myself and non-fiction writer Joe Shooman, who works part time at the library. The event is aimed at all those looking to improve their writing skills, get inspiration, and generally pull all the threads together!

Event is 5.30pm – 6.30. Session two will be in a fortnight.

writers lab Shrewsbury

Dorothy Rowe RIP

I discovered Dorothy Rowe and her work by accident. Reading Erich Fromm and Nicholas Humphrey at the time, I was attracted by book cover quotes citing the humane quality of her work, her interest in meaning and uncertainty, and her capacity for compassion for those in psychological distress. As Fay Weldon put it: ‘She sets us on the road to personal and political utopia – if only we would take it.’

Born in Australia, ill during childhood, and suffering difficult family circumstances, she somehow had the inner strength not only to come through those times but to use her experiences in her work. A trailblazing explorer of depression, she came from an entirely different place than her overwhelmingly male counterparts, explaining that depression was a condition of meaning, not necessarily of biology.

As a feminist and an atheist she was fearless. I loved her quote that the Christian church “… gave her plenty of work as a psychologist.” She derided the way men run the world and did a huge amount for the feminist cause, for which we all, male or female, should be grateful.

Her books were amazing. Gifted with a clarity of prose that matched her insight, every book was full of gems. Beyond Fear was of particular importance to me, although the true significance of its message didn’t reveal itself to me until I was a bit older. Her work on money, meaning, success, and the nuclear bomb was all groundbreaking.

Alongside Fromm and Humphrey she was one of my great influences, which was why I dedicated the second volume of the Factory Girl trilogy, The Girl With One Friend, to her. Alas she was not as well known as she could have been. Her books were as complex and hard-hitting as real life, which meant she did not find the wide audience she deserved. She offered no easy answers because she grasped that life is difficult, requiring effort and persistence in order to find peace, love and happiness. Truth therefore was fundamental to her, and she realised that our best interests lie in facing up to it, not ignoring it or pretending some random spiritual belief system to be true. But even at the height of her writing success that was not an easy sell to those used to the platitudes of Californian self-help gurus.

We are fortunate to have so wonderful a legacy as the work of Dorothy Rowe. Perhaps in years to come her books will be reassessed and made more popular by those who, like me, consider the truth of our human lives to be the benchmark for a compassionate, peaceful, just and wise society.

dorothy

Language In Prehistory by Alan Barnard

Language In Prehistory is a tour through the academic world of proto-language and all things symbolic leading up to the acquisition by early human beings (quite which ones being a matter of guesswork) of full language. This is quite a scholarly book with not a huge amount for the general reader, but I did enjoy it, especially towards the end as the author got into matters mythical and storytelling. The conclusions are fascinating and the whole book thought-provoking. A bit advanced for me, but I’m glad I read it.

lang pre

The Trickster

The Trickster is a universal and ancient archetype. Why did such a character become so important in prehistoric, then in historic myth? Tricksters were everywhere: Loki in the Norse pantheon, Hermes in Ancient Greece, the Coyote or Raven spirit to certain Native American tribes, Anansi the Spider in West Africa, and so on.

Not all tricksters are the same. Some (Loki for instance) display gender fluidity – as a mare, Loki gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir – while some are variously heroes and/or villains, and some are more thief than anything else. But the prime focus of the trickster is deceit.

Deceit is a fascinating concept. Some scholars of language suggest that the human capacity for deceit is the basis of metaphor; in other words, a metaphor is a layer above reality that at the same time isn’t reality but also summarises, or describes it better. To make a metaphor about, for instance, shock as a ‘hammer blow’ you have to be deceptive regarding the lack of a hammer or a blow.

But deceit has one fundamental characteristic which marks it out as crucial in human evolution, and therefore in mythology. To deceive somebody you have to have what psychologists call theory of mind. Theory of mind is the understanding each of us has regarding other people, i.e. that they too have a mind which they use in an identical way to ours. Children acquire theory of mind when they are fairly young, depending on circumstances – it can be as early as six years, or as late as eight or nine. Before then, it is easy to show through experiment that young children are unable to grasp what other individuals may or may not believe. Chimpanzees and great apes have been shown to have a basic theory of mind, which means they are able to grasp what other members of their social group may or may not believe, or know. Some male chimps use this in mating strategies: many chimps use it to conceal food stash locations.

The human capacity for theory of mind however far exceeds what apes can manage. We are capable of extraordinarily complex feats of understanding, which we rather take for granted because it is such an integral part of life, but which in fact are remarkable, and a major clue to the nature of consciousness. As a result we are able to make sophisticated calculations about the knowledge or beliefs of others. In literature, this is called order of intentionality. For example: the author of a novel believes certain things about their readers; a character in the novel will have their own beliefs; that character may believe or know something about another character, who may in their mind know something about another, and so on… One of the reasons Shakespeare is so lauded is his amazing ability to manipulate for the benefit of his audience complex many-ordered intentionality amongst his characters.

Theory of mind, then, is the essence of the trickster. The trickster is universal because theory of mind is universal and fundamental to social life. The trickster is in fact the metaphor for theory of mind in mythology, folklore and fireside tale. Our very earliest myths (which, as Karen Armstrong so brilliantly pointed out, are at once real events, retold versions, and instructions for living summarised in those retold versions) contain this archetype precisely because it is fundamental to social life.

Ethnographic studies have shown that hunter-gatherer communities talk about many things during the day – the minutiae of life – but at night four fifths of talk is storytelling. In prehistoric times we needed examples of how theory of mind is used. We needed to know why the Norse trickster Loki changed his shape into a mare then gave birth to Odin’s steed Sleipnir. All this passed on in pre-literate cultures one of the essentials of social life: our capacity to deceive.

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