Thursday, June 29, 2017

Book Review: 'Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology' by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

By Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

Review by David Wineberg

There is a lot of groundwork to get through before Life on the Edge gets really interesting. The authors sugarcoat it with vivid descriptions, but it’s all delayed gratification. They have to describe the bases of biology as well as quantum mechanics before they can begin to show how quantum mechanics operates biology for us. There are too many stories throughout: charming, but tangential. The authors tease the examples they’re going to give, but the first in-depth examination of quantum mechanics in biology begins on page 89.

There are two levels of operation in this universe. At the atomic level, rules apply that do not operate at the aggregate level, the level we observe. But there are not two kinds of things; there is one, but the rules change. This rule change is called decoherence. It means atomic particles lose their power to tunnel or be in two places at once, connect to a remote self, or act like both particles and waves. When atoms are isolated, they have quantum powers. When they are incorporated into a group, they lose those abilities. If this were not the case, you could drive your car to China, through the Earth.

Decoherence is a femtosecond transaction, going on everywhere, all the time. Plants take what they need, animals take what they need and the air is alive with transiting atomic particles with more or fewer components than they had a nanosecond ago. All of the processes we associate with life take place at this level, transferring photons and electrons to where they’re needed, and disposing of remnants where they are not. Breathe in, breathe out.

So it should be no surprise that quantum mechanics underlies all biology. But it is. This is an exciting new field, filling in blanks we have just taken for granted forever. How do we get energy in our bodies? How do plants adapt sunlight and air to feed themselves? How does smell work? How do birds, fish, insects and animals navigate? How did life begin?

It seems intuitively obvious (and odd thing to say in the context of quantum physics) that biology partakes of the effects of quantum mechanics. It must. Life, starting out at the atomic level as it did, is totally organized around it. But it’s so early, the authors conclude that a quantum explanation for the beginning of life is no better than the classical explanation at this point.

How do all these beings employ quantum effects? The authors suggest noise is the key. Noise means sympathetic vibrations, the same as the target photon or electron. It keeps them moving towards the goal and prevents them from decohering into classical objects. Harnessing that process will open gigantic vistas for making far better use of resources at less cost to the planet.

So while we’re fantastically busy inventing new technologies to extract more energy than we do, get more work from the same effort, or convert one type of thing to another, plants and animals (and our own bodies) have been employing quantum mechanics to do those things for billions of years. We’re still checking into it.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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