Collapsing The Wave: An Interview with J. Frederick Arment

Collapsing The Wave: An Interview with J. Fred

I really liked J. Frederick Arment's new book Backbeat - A Novel of Physics. This is a story that demonstrates real writing power; he makes the ideas behind quantum mechanics come alive in a fascinating tale about people you'll care about. How he does this, I have no idea. I highly recommend that you read this book for yourself and find out.

When physicist-entrepreneur Frank Whirlpool is murdered, his runaway adopted son, Romey Argasti, is named sole heir to the two-billion-dollar Whirlpool Estate--with one stipulation. The nineteen-year old must find a lost piece of music composed by his birth mother just before she and his birth father, Justin Bishop, died in a plane crash over the English Channel.

Fred Arment is not an easy man to pin down; at any given moment this fall, he's probably either on a book tour, giving lectures, working on his upcoming books, or wintering in Florida. I was able to "collapse the wave" of probability for this interview.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

A couple of years ago, I could have answered this quickly, but the writing of Backbeat: A Novel of Physics has given me a much larger perspective. Who I am at this moment is the superposition of every wave of experience, past, present and future: growing up in suburbia, blue collar father, fundamentalist Christian mother, undergraduate degree in History, masters in the French Enlightenment, post-graduate work in physics, teacher and lecturer, married with two children, divorced with a second chance at love, technical writer for corporations, advertising business owner, sailboater, peace advocate, infant of the sixties who bought the idea that anything is possible if we just use the energy in our minds. Like the characters in Backbeat, I'm the culmination of foreshadowing. A waveform, in effect!

Did you read science fiction as a child? If so, what did you read?

I must confess, it was Danny Dunn that floated my boat when I was in grade school. I went through a few of Asimov's work and on to the Dune series, but where abstract ideas and literature met was my real obsession. If I didn't learn something from fiction, it seemed pointless. Good and evil didn't do it for me. There is much more out there, I believe, and the type of science fiction that flourishes where the scientific method leaves off is really the edge that thrills me. Unfortunately, most science fiction is still dealing with the duality thing.

What made you decide to write novels in the sf genre?

Science fiction is one of the few genres with the flexibility and depth to deal with ideas beyond our tools of measure. Most would call it speculation, but it is more than baseless imagination. Science fiction allows us to take what we know and make suppositions about the next logical step in our understanding. Backbeat: A Novel of Physics does not stray from sound physics, but through the use of plot and character, fiction allowed me to experiment and test my theories. In some ways, science becomes a character in the book, and as with other characters it takes on a life of its own. It learns and grows and becomes an integral part of the plot. That, I believe, is the difference between an worthwhile book and one that simply replays books of the past (an example would be the Romance genre, which replays Jane Austin over and over). In Backbeat, physics is a mysterious character that grows in the reader's mind until the climax and resolution when the reader realizes how science is central to the plot. Whodunit? The quantum mind!

What gave you the idea for writing Backbeat - A Novel of Physics?

When I write, I start with the idea and then develop a plot to investigate its validity. With Backbeat, I began with the observation that we humans tend to separate ourselves from nature, which is absurd. This led to the hypothesis that if at our root we really do have a quantum nature, we must be a composite of quantum characteristics. At the macro scale, things are smoothed out and, with our inadequate senses, we take little notice of the quantum world. None-the-less we are quantum beings, made of energy, interfering as waves with frequencies and wavelengths. Since the scientific method requires me to create an experiment to test this hypothesis -- and since our current tools of measurement do not enable us to do that at the quantum scale -- I chose fiction as the apparatus. All indications from readers say the experiment worked well.

Where do you get your interest in quantum mechanics?

I've always been interested in fundamental questions, and quantum physics deals with the root of our being. You can't get much further down into our relationship with the universe or our own nature than the Planck scale. Because it is an evolving science, most of what we know of quantum physics is just analogy, much like our religions. Yet it allows us to contemplate our place in the universe with more precision than superstition and fear.

You obviously enjoy writing about southern Europe in the book; what personal experiences inform those pages?

I've taken several trips to Europe and find the history and culture of the individual countries fascinating. I find the people of Europe are very concerned with making this life mean something more than quantity. They suffer inconvenience to ensure that the means of production, how they make their living, does not control their lives. Perhaps it is because they live with thousands of year of history that quality of life is so strong in their minds. In the U.S., what is old is continually destroyed or remodeled into new and with the firm ground of antiquity goes much of our contemplative spirit.

In the novel, you write about people with very different life experience and social status. Can you name and describe most alien human culture you've ever encountered?

Einstein taught us that because the speed of light fixed, we only experience reality from our own inertial frames of reference. Alien human cultures are simply different frames of reference. The next evolution may be that we embrace a worldview that relishes the differences and faces the fact that we are all alien cultures to each other. How else could everyone be so wrong, and me so right?

What projects are you working on now?

During my book tour this fall, I had a chance to stop for five days at Pismo Beach in California and concept my next novel. It's a sequel to Backbeat: A Novel of Physics that follows one of the secondary characters on a waveform of his or her own (that would be telling). I'm intrigued with the thought that physics might help us understand and perhaps give new energy and depth to our religious traditions. If science can help us travel to distant moons and planets, why shouldn't it be used for traveling to the core of spirit?

(Read the full interview at - where science meets fiction.)

Bill Christensen catalogues the inventions, technology and ideas of science fiction writers at his website, Technovelgy. He is a contributor to Live Science.