March 29, 2014

Quantum Life disentangled

"In this talk titled; how physics can revolutionize biology, Professor Jim Al-Khalili explores how the mysteries of quantum theory might be observable at the biological level.

"Although many examples can be found in the scientific literature dating back half a century, there is still no widespread acceptance that quantum mechanics -- that baffling yet powerful theory of the subatomic world -- might play an important role in biological processes. Biology is, at its most basic, chemistry, and chemistry is built on the rules of quantum mechanics in the way atoms and molecules behave and fit together.

As Jim explains, biologists have until recently been dismissive of counter-intuitive aspects of the theory and feel it to be unnecessary, preferring their traditional ball-and-stick models of the molecular structures of life. Likewise, physicists have been reluctant to venture into the messy and complex world of the living cell - why should they when they can test their theories far more cleanly in the controlled environment of the physics lab?

But now, experimental techniques in biology have become so sophisticated that the time is ripe for testing ideas familiar to quantum physicists. Can quantum phenomena in the subatomic world impact the biological level and be present in living cells or processes - from the way proteins fold or genes mutate and the way plants harness light in photosynthesis to the way some birds navigate using the Earth's magnetic field? All appear to utilize what Jim terms "the weirdness of the quantum world".

The discourse explores multiple theories of quantum mechanics, from superposition to quantum tunneling, and reveals why "the most powerful theory in the whole of science" remains incredibly mysterious."

Al-Khalili begins his talk with a quote from the famous physicist Niels Bohr; "If you are not astonished by quantum mechanics then you have not understood it." In this clip, a small part from the full lecture, he does his best to make clear just why quantum mechanics is so astonishing by digging into the famous double slit experiment. No matter how many times you've come across it, this experiment, the most stunning experiment in all of science, never loses the power to stop you in your tracks by flooding your brain with a torrent of question marks.

Did this talk fire up your appetite for anything and everything that meets at the intersection between quantum physics and biology? Here are some good places to start if you want to go a bit deeper;
  • The Dawn of Quantum Biology
  • In this paper, the authors take a look at a variety of organisms which may be harnessing some of the unique features of quantum mechanics to gain a biological advantage. Including the aviation system used by Robins which is something Al-Khalili also touched upon in his talk.
  • With his 1944 book; What is Life? Erwin Schrödinger was one of the founding fathers of this emerging science. You can read it in full here.

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