It is not easy writing science for non-scientists. There is always the difficult question of how much foundation must be laid, what metaphors and common sensical comparisons can be employed to introduce concepts that are unfamiliar. In Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, authors Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili have the doubly difficult challenge of introducing the basics of quantum physics, some of the mysteries of biology and then bringing those disciplines together to see if quantum physics has some possible answers for those mysteries.
Let’s be honest, quantum physics is more magical than magic. David Copperfield cannot spin a quarter clockwise and counter-clockwise at the same time, but inside our bodies there are molecules spinning away in all directions at this very moment, pulling off a trick that no magician can do. The quantum wave function allows an electron to be here, there and everywhere, kind of like some politician’s positions, but the instant it’s measured, it collapses into a singular particle. Also like some politician’s positions.
But this book only reviews the concepts of quantum physics in order to introduce to a whole new biology, quantum biology. And again, more magical than magic. We’re talking now about how enzymes work crazy fast, how our noses distinguish many more scents than we have receptors, how birds and butterflies find their way home, even if they’ve never been there, and that’s the easy stuff. These guys take a crack at the big ones, what is life, how did it begin, what it consciousness.
It took awhile for people to come around to quantum physics. Even Einstein said it was spooky. After all, it’ a bit of a leap to go from understanding that all these laws of classical physics that we grew up get tossed in the air when we leave the big stuff behind and shrink down to the molecular level. Or that some innocent little electron is running around everywhere being all quantum and all until we go measure it and make it be classical. Eek!
There is some resistance to quantum biology though that seems odd. To me, once you accept that things can spin in two directions at once, or measuring one of a pair of entangled particles will affect the other particle even far away, or that light is both wave and particle, once that makes sense, then I think we are at the “but of course it does” stage with quantum physics. If molecules do crazy things in experiments, they will do crazy things out in the wild and inside our bodies. To be clear, I do not question the validity of quantum physics, I just think that it tells us that what we don’t know is so much more than we thought.
I valued this introduction to the newest form of biology. I was pleased to see it was written by people who work and research in those fields. Quantum physics is complicated enough that it dazzled Einstein. It needs a comfort level with the concepts to be able to describe them. The same is true for biology, particularly for the mysteries of biology: what is life; how did life begin; and what is consciousness? Of course, there are many more mysteries than those big ones, and solutions may be a while in coming.
I thought it interesting that the authors always strove to explain mysterious processes like why we can identify more odors than we have receptors for with mechanical processes first. I guess maybe it is because I am not a scientist, it seems to me that once you accept that on the sub-atomic level, quantum physics is the umpire, anytime you’re looking at those molecular processes like scent and thought and so on, that it makes sense quantum craziness would get involved in it somehow. But because scientists are nothing if not methodical, they review possible mechanical explanations and explain why they don’t suffice. Then they review possible quantum explanations and assess how close/not close they are to proving that quantum processes like entanglement or tunneling are in play.
Quantum biology is a new field. The research is going on right now and the book was probably slightly out of date the day it was published all of four weeks ago. This meant a lot of explanation, some of it a bit repetitive, but it is possible that repetition is necessary for people who are new to quantum physics. I, however, found the repeated explanations of superposition and so on unnecessary. The earlier a concept is introduced, the more often it is explained, so I wish quantum heat engines were in the first chapter. I want to know more!!
In the end, this is an introduction to an entire new field of biology, one that is tricky to test, though scientists are clever at finding oblique ways of testing things they cannot see. It makes sense to me that this spookiest of sciences will be the one that leads us closer to understanding our deepest mysteries like what is consciousness.
What it consciousness? I don’t know and neither do you. I think my definition may be more expansive than theirs as I found myself worrying about the sea turtles who could not find their way home thanks to the magnets scientist has attached to them, disrupting their ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field. Did they know they were lost? If they did, they had consciousness. And they were lost and afraid, their quantum “magic” shut down.
The authors make an effort to enliven their book with personal details of many of the scientists whose work they survey. They also draw on art, music, dance as metaphors that can help make the science friendlier to lay readers. The book is engaging, fascinating and exciting. While reading it I was wondering what some of the long-term implications could be.
Like the quantum heat engine. We can’t make one now, but give us a hundred years, could we? Would it be the best thing ever? Or a quantum computer. People have made them, so small and they don’t last long (decoherence) but they work. What about in 50 years? The mind boggles. If you want your mind boggled, read this book.
I received a copy of Life on the Edge from Blogging for Books.