I have long had an amateur interest in physics, and in the past couple of years I have read several excellent books on recent developments in Modern Physics, including Relativistic Mechanics (the study of the very large) and Quantum Mechanics (the study of the very small).
A few weeks ago I was fortunate to come across a newly released book “Life on the Edge”, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim al-Khalili. Though the book is copyright 2014, it was just released on 28 July 2015 in both hardcopy and e-book formats.
Though it has been more than 30 years since I studied physics in university, I have periodically refreshed my basic physics knowledge by reading a variety of relevant books and articles on the subject. However, I have not been very diligent at refreshing my basic knowledge of biology. This book therefore represented a great opportunity for me to again visit Quantum Mechanics, and simultaneously reconnect with the science of Biology.
I believe that McFadden and Al-Khalili have jointly authored one of the most easily understood and engaging science books that I have come across. I was especially impressed by the innovative and patient way that they introduced and explained key concepts in Quantum Mechanics that quite frankly nearly defy explanation, easy or otherwise. Their explanation of Quantum Waves, in which a single quantum particle can exist at multiple locations simultaneously, and can exhibit wave characteristics, simultaneously passing through two slits (the classic two slit quantum experiment), and then interfere with itself to create an interference pattern, was simply fascinating. No less fascinating were the concepts of Quantum Tunneling, Quantum Spin including the ability of quantum particles to spin in two directions simultaneously, and “spooky” Quantum Entanglement.
McFadden and Al-Khalili were no less creative with their descriptions of the biological world. They open their book with an engaging story of the migration of a European Robin, using “magnetoreception” to detect the orientation of the earth’s magnetic field to navigate. They proceed to describe and explain key biological concepts such as DNA, RNA, proteins including collagen, enzymes (the engines of life), catalytic chemistry such as that performed by enzymes, cellular respiration and mitochondria, photosynthesis, etc. Each biological concept was patiently explained in precise but easy to digest (pun intended) language.
The authors then dig deeper into key biological activities such as photosynthesis, enzyme catalytic reactions, respiration, the biological process of smell, magnetoreception, genetic replication, and the operation of ion channels in neuron firing, and explained how each of these processes depends upon the unique features of quantum mechanics to function. Ample experimental evidence from this brand new area of Quantum Biological research is provided to support the assertions made by the authors. Footnotes, endnotes, and a comprehensive index are provided for the serious scientifically minded reader or researcher.
The authors also explain how biological systems have evolved to create cellular environments which are conducive to coherent quantum mechanics. Today’s physicists are only able to experimentally demonstrate coherent quantum mechanics under very special laboratory conditions including temperatures very close to absolute zero, to prevent environmental “noise” from disrupting very sensitive quantum behavior and causing quantum particles to de-cohere back to their classical mechanical behavior. The biological world uses both “white noise” and “colored noise” resonant molecular vibrations to enable coherent quantum behavior at biology friendly temperatures.
This is a great example of physicists learning secrets from biology, which one day soon may enable amazing quantum computers with almost unimaginable computing power.
As noted by the authors, “the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman is credited with insisting that ‘what we can’t make, we don’t understand.’ By this definition, we do not understand life because we have not yet managed to make it.” After reading this book, I firmly believe that, thanks to cross-disciplinary scientific cooperation, we are closer than ever to truly understanding what is life and how it works.
The author’s love of scientific discovery, and deep belief in cross-disciplinary cooperation and sharing, shines through in this book. At times the book almost achieved a “techno-thriller” type of page-turning suspense. At other times, beautifully crafted descriptions of nature created a deep appreciation for the amazing natural world around us.
If you have any interest in science, I highly recommend this book. Don’t be intimidated by the exotic and brain-bending nature of Quantum Mechanics, or the incredible complexity of biological processes. McFadden and Al-Khalili are excellent and patient guides to host this amazing journey of discovery and understanding.