Jim Al-Khalili, Quantum Life (how physics can revolutionise biology); and neeps

I’d thawed out the vegetarian haggis, made sure we had a neep and some tatties, and so was all ready for a Burns Night supper. Neep, incidentally, is the Scots for turnip or swede, and like many Scots words looks a bit like a slang word or contraction; this is, as it often is with Scots, wrong, næp being a fine Old English word deriving from the classical Latin napus, the first OED citation of turnip being 1539.

No haggis for me this evening, though, I had overlooked the coincidence of Burns Night and this month’s Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution. Jim Al-Khalili’s talk on Quantum Life also coincides with quite a storm about the future of the Royal Institution.

Quantum biology is still quite a controversial subject – or to put it another way, a small and speculative field. But it does seem inconceivable to me that there can’t be some role for quantum mechanics in biology at the molecular level.

Jim Al-Khalili is always interesting and entertaining, I’ve seen him speak at the Ri before, and at the British Science Festival; much of my understanding (and perplexity) of quantum mechanics comes from his book Quantum: a Guide for the Perplexed, so I’ve been looking forward to his lecture for some time.

The talk started by discussing the migration of birds and how the European robin senses the angle of inclination of the Earth’s magnetic field, this may be due to a quantum mechanism in pairs of electrons in cryptochrome protein in the photoreceptor neurons in the back of the birds’ retina.

Moving on to the fact that living organisms are the only macroscopic objects whose dynamics are controlled by a single molecule, he suggested the possibility of DNA mutation being caused by proton tunnelling in the hydrogen bonds between base pairs.

We were also treated to a very clear explanation of the double-slit experiment (‘the central mystery of physics’), and were told that superposition + entanglement > Schrödinger’s cat.

There is a possibility that quantum mechanics may be involved in abiogenesis – how inorganic chemistry became biology. Jim is interested in the possibility that quantum tunnelling may be implicated (describing quantum tunnelling as being midway between mundane and outlandish in the quantum world).

Several years ago I read What is Life by Erwin Schrödinger, and I attended a talk at the Ri given by Roger Penrose in which he discussed the possibility of consciousness being due to a quantum process (Jim Al-Khalili doesn’t seem to rate this idea very highly). The idea of quantum biology has been around for fifty years, so it’s good to think it might be about to come of age.

There was a too short but interesting Q&A session, and then before the final round of applause Jim said that he had last given a Friday Evening Discourse in the Faraday Theatre nine years previously, and he was very much hoping that in another nine years he would be able to give another talk, in the very same place. #Savethe Ri.

The talk was filmed and will be available on the Ri Channel shortly, so if you weren’t at the Ri (the talk was a sell-out), you can still watch it.

P.S. I forgot to mention that, apart from being a sell-out, the audience for this talk was pleasingly varied, the youngest member was (I believe) nine years old, and there was a large number of younger adults present. A good gender mix, too, just a slight preponderance of males, but I would think only about 60:40 after a rough head-count. This is another good reason to save the Ri in its present building, it’s good at getting science to many different people in iconic surroundings.

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