Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
Al-Khalili (Jim) & McFadden (Johnjoe)
Source: Al-Khalili (Jim) & McFadden (Johnjoe) - Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
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Notes

  1. I’ve taken 2 years to read this book in odd moments and – as is so often the case – have lost track of the detailed argument.
  2. For now, I’ve just extracted three reviews, as below.
  3. All agree that – as popular science books go – this is rather tough going without a decent background in physics and chemistry (which I have, after a fashion).
  4. They also agree that what is proposed is controversial. The book’s authors agree with this, and seem to have produced the book partly to make the educated public aware, but also to raise the profile of their new discipline.
  5. The main issue, of course, as both the authors and reviewers acknowledge, is that quantum effects – which require “coherence” – don’t tend to arise in warm environments where thermodynamic buffeting would be thought to destroy it. The book’s authors have a story to tell about how some form of thermodynamic coherence can help quantum coherence, a story told by reference to a sailing ship in a storm. I’m not sure I was convinced, or fully understood it.
  6. The FT reviewer says on a couple of occasions that certain effects “can’t be” explained without invoking QM. This is too strong even for the book’s authors. Really, it’s just “haven’t been”. The authors Epilogue is a sort of thought experiment – the creation of artificial life – that, if turned into a real experiment – might settle the matter.
  7. The Telegraph reviewer seems to have completely missed the point of the book. He seems to have got the idea that QM “explains” life. I think all the authors claim is that QM effects are necessary for certain processes essential to life (and some less essential) as it has evolved.
  8. The FT reviewer gives the impression that the book’s authors and Roger Penrose are on the same lines with respect to the involvement of QM in consciousness. They aren’t; they give Penrose’s “microtubules” account short shrift.

Reviews
  1. The Guardian: 14 Dec 2014 (Guardian: Review of 'Life on the Edge')
    • Life on the Edge, review – the weird world of quantum biology explained
      Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden’s insights into fundamental tenets of science are fascinating – but not always easy to fathom for the beginner
      → Nicola Davis, Sun 14 Dec 2014 12.00 GMT; Last modified on Thu 22 Mar 2018 00.19 GMT
    • An adult robin perched on snow-covered holly. The female uses magnetoreception to detect its direction of travel.
    • The scent of an orange, a robin on the wing – nothing could be more festive. But if you think such simple delights are born of simple processes, think again. For as Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden reveal in Life on the Edge, they are rooted in mind-bending physics that made even Einstein think twice: quantum mechanics.
    • While everything is made up of electrons, protons and other particles that obey the bizarre rules of quantum mechanics (among them, the possibility of particles existing in two places simultaneously), collisions, vibrations and so on within a material generally prevent such “trickery” affecting an object as a whole. As the authors point out: “The weird quantum stuff that happens at the level of the very small doesn’t usually make a difference to the big stuff like cars or toasters that we see and use every day.”
    • But life, it seems, is different. Indeed the internal compass that enables female robins to migrate in the winter relies on a curious capability that wouldn’t sound out of place in an X-Men line-up: magnetoreception. The theory goes that the eye of a robin contains a chemical that, when it absorbs light of the right energy, can shuffle its electrons around. This shuffling creates a system that exists, thanks to some quantum jiggery-pokery, in two forms at once – each of which leads to a different outcome in the reaction that follows. Which form predominates, and hence which outcome is more likely, is influenced by the angle of the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing the robin to detect if it is heading towards the equator or away from it.
    • And it turns out we, too, harness quantum effects. Indeed such phenomena account, among other things, for the ability of our enzymes to speed up chemical reactions that could otherwise take millennia, and might even be behind our olfactory prowess, allowing us to recognise the waft of limonene molecules as the scent of an orange.
    • Dig into the science and this book offers fascinating insights – not least that the mirror image of a limonene molecule smells not of oranges, but turpentine. Throwaway asides prove equally intriguing: “A sheep with extremely short legs was born on a New England farm in the late 18th century and was bred to produce a short-legged variety called Ancon sheep that are easier to manage because they cannot jump fences,” the authors note in one of their lighter moments. But whether the meatier revelations will elicit the resounding gasp that the authors clearly expect is another matter. For while they explain, with breathless enthusiasm, that a plant’s leaf behaves like a quantum computer, it takes a further 30 pages of intense explanation before it’s possible to get a grip on what that entails.
    • Which isn’t to say that Al-Khalili and McFadden’s metaphors aren’t excellent: many of them are ingenious vignettes that tackle fundamental tenets of chemistry. But that doesn’t make this a triumph of popular science. For while each chapter kicks off with an endearing tale featuring an ill-fated dinosaur or enigmatic bird, readers are expected to be familiar with a chemist’s shorthand and the dictionary definitions of a physicist. Equally frustrating is their tendency to conjure up an analogy, only to say “hold that thought!” before offering another and another, until they have built a tottering house of cards that rests upon recalling complex terminology – and scenarios – introduced chapters earlier. But tenacity pays off: the later section exploring how life emerged from the primordial soup will have you gazing at the world in awe.
    • “What is life?”, the authors ask. After reading this, the answer seems obvious – weirder than your wildest dreams.
  2. The Telegraph: 21 Nov 2014 (Telegraph: Review of 'Life on the Edge')
    • Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, review: 'brilliantly well-explained'
      Nicholas Blincoe applauds a groundbreaking study that challenges our understanding of what it means to be alive
      4 out of 5 stars
      Miracles happen: the transformation of tadpole into frog demonstrates the dramatic effects that simple quantum events can have on entire organisms
      → Nicholas Blincoe; 8:00PM GMT 21 Nov 2014
    • The glassy eyes of the dead are so unsettling, we weigh them down with coins and, if that does not work, we glue the edges shut. It may seem mystical to talk about the spark of life, but we know when the spark has gone. In the hard sciences, however, it has never made much sense to distinguish between the living and the dead; wherever you look, electrons are spinning and catalysts are reacting, and there is no extra element to account for life. Until now. This thrilling book represents an overview of a field that barely exists. Its argument is that there really is life, at a subatomic level, where indescribably small events have powerful effects on human and animal behaviour.
    • Life on the Edge is controversial, make no mistake. Jim Al-Khalili, a physicist, and Johnjoe McFadden, a geneticist, describe their work as popular science, but it has an edge these books usually lack. The authors are more like lawyers who face a tough fight inside the courtroom, so decide to take the battle outside, to the television cameras, and build public awareness for concepts that might otherwise be ignored.
    • The field of quantum biology is so new the papers discussed are just a few years old, while the historical names they have drawn into their field are either unfashionable or downright disreputable. There is Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed that evolutionary mutations are not random, as Darwin’s later theory states, but responses to an environment that can be usefully passed on to an offspring. Or Erwin Schrödinger, the eminent quantum physicist, whose late controversial work "Schrodinger (Erwin) - What is Life?" (1944) drew unashamedly on Hindu mysticism to argue that life is the unifying aspect of the universe. Or Luca Turin, co-author of Perfume: the A-Z Guide (2009), whose theory of smell overturned the accepted notion that we “taste” olfactory atoms as they bond with our smell receptors, in a kind of lock-and-key fashion, and instead argued that our brains recognise smells by “hearing” their subatomic frequencies.
    • By far the most controversial forefather of quantum biology is Pascual Jordan, whose papers in the Thirties often descended into Nazi rhetoric as he argued that quantum-level events control entire organisms via a kind of Fuhrer principle, meaning they have a resonance far beyond their size. Despite the queasy language, Jordan’s argument underpins the whole of quantum biology. The key point is not that subatomic effects happen in the body; this would be trivial because, after all, we are nothing but atoms and their parts. The argument is that they are decisive.
    • But if tiny quantum events passed so easily into our macro-sized reality, one would expect our world to explode with all the bizarre anomalies we associate with quantum mechanics – for objects to exist in two places simultaneously, for instance, or to pass easily through walls, or to maintain spooky links with twinned objects, even after separation. Our Newtonian surface reality is governed by massive aggregates of atoms in constant collision: the seemingly stranger effects of the quantum reality occur only when particles can play undisturbed. For this reason, the Newtonian and quantum worlds are held to be irreducibly separate. The challenge offered by Al-Khalili and McFadden is to imagine that life unites the two worlds. Life hovers at the edge between the two realities.
    • Alongside Turin’s investigation into smell, the authors look at a study of migratory birds and another on the role of enzymes in changing tadpoles into frogs. In order to understand why these experiments are so revolutionary, the reader has to be taken through quantum theory and biochemistry. This is tough, yet the authors are patient and Al-Khalili, especially, has a genius for illustrating complex ideas via imaginative sidetracks, which makes him such a compelling television performer.
    • In the study they cite on migrating birds, the scientists were certain that robins were guided by the Earth’s magnetic field, though the field was too weak for any creature to feel it. The research came in response to a paradox, which is the path Schrödinger took in "Schrodinger (Erwin) - What is Life?". He noted that, according to the maths, mutations in cells should happen far more frequently than they do, which led him to look for a substructure of order that is statistically impossible in a Newtonian world. By progressing via paradoxes, Schrödinger and the later quantum biologists resemble Zeno, the Greek philosopher who upset the ancient world by picking holes in their concept of reality. A reader may wonder if the holes are merely mathematical paradoxes, or something more profound: real fissures between the Newtonian and quantum world where life fizzes up.
    • The idea of a crack between two worlds provides Life on the Edge with its title, and the thrilling thought that life sparks between the gap. When the spark is gone, life is snuffed out.
  3. Financial Times: 7 November 2014 (FT: Review of 'Life on the Edge')
    • Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden
      A groundbreaking book applies a ‘weird’ complex science to the messy world of biology – with fascinating results
      → Review by Clive Cookson, 7 November 2014
    • Researchers investigating the weird and wonderful world of quantum physics – in which particles can be in several places at once, tunnel through energy barriers and interact instantaneously over huge distances – take great care to isolate their experiments from outside influences. They typically work in a vacuum at ultra-low temperatures and always on the nanoscale.
    • So the idea that delicate quantum phenomena play a vital role in the warm, wet and messy macro-world of biology is hard for most scientists to accept. Biologists generally ignore possible quantum effects and rely on conventional chemistry and physics. Yet, as Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden show in their groundbreaking book, evidence is accumulating that life uses quantum effects for processes ranging from bird navigation and plant photosynthesis to the way enzymes carry out biochemical reactions.
    • Al-Khalili, a theoretical physicist best known as a TV and radio presenter, and McFadden, a molecular biologist, have been working together for a decade at the University of Surrey (where both are professors) to lay the foundations of quantum biology as a scientific discipline. Life on the Edge attempts to demonstrate their ideas to a wider public.
    • No one should expect an easy read. Quantum science is not only weird and counterintuitive but also very hard to explain at anything beyond a Mickey Mouse level. The authors try valiantly through judicious use of analogies and diagrams – and they avoid excessive simplification – but readers who do not have a good grounding in physics and chemistry will struggle at times.
    • The example that opens the book is bird navigation and, in particular, the migratory robin that senses tiny variations in the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Although some birds such as homing pigeons may have something like a conventional compass based on magnetic particles in their head, the robin “sees” terrestrial magnetism in a quite different way.
    • When an incoming photon (light particle) hits a specialised photoreceptor in the robin’s eye, it creates two electrons that are “entangled” in a quantum sense. Entanglement is one of the most mysterious quantum properties, allowing particles to remain instantaneously connected however far apart they are – which Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”. Experiments show that entangled electron pairs can be extraordinarily sensitive to the orientation of magnetic fields, and the behaviour of the spinning electrons as they move apart in the robin’s eye gives the bird a quantum compass.
    • Enzymes, the “engines of life” as Al-Khalili and McFadden call them, are another example of quantum biology. They speed up biochemical reactions inside living cells by factors of more than a trillion, an acceleration that cannot be explained through conventional chemical theories such as the formation of “transition states”, which force a reaction over an energy barrier. The authors say the only viable explanation is “quantum tunnelling” in which electrons and protons – components of atoms – slip through the barrier in a form of teleportation.
    • Other processes for which Al-Khalili and McFadden propose a role for quantum mechanics include the mammalian sense of smell, photosynthesis in plants and the copying and occasional mutation of DNA that drives evolution. In each case the process occurs with a precision that can be explained by invoking quantum ideas but not by orthodox biochemistry.
    • All that is controversial science – but not nearly as controversial as the proposal that quantum theory can account for human consciousness, put forward by the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose in 1989 and adopted by a few others. Their idea is that quantum effects modulate the fluctuating electromagnetic fields in the brain that some scientists associate with consciousness, though there is no convincing evidence for this.
    • Here the authors take a sensibly cautious line, warning against the argument that, just because consciousness is a mystery, something as mysterious as quantum theory will help to explain it. But they cannot resist asking: “Is it likely that the strange features of quantum mechanics we discovered to be involved in so many crucial phenomena of life are excluded from its most mysterious product, consciousness? We will leave the reader to decide.”
    • This reader decided that there is nothing to quantum consciousness but I accepted the authors’ advocacy of a quantum role in many other processes of life. For anyone looking for a really original science book about a new field of research, Life on the Edge is worth the challenge.

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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