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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Sean Carroll on the Higgs, and the future of the Royal Institution

Particle at the End of the UniverseThe other night the Royal Institution had one of the best speakers I have seen there for a long time – Sean Carroll on the LHC and his new book, The Particle at the End of the Universe: the hunt for the Higgs and the discovery of a New World. We had a potted history of particle physics from Democritus through Newton to Laplace and then up to the present day, where we were told that the universe is fields; this is why the Higgs boson is so important. Reality is made of fields, particles are what we see; the quantum mechanics of fields gives us particles.

After a short flirt with quantum field theory we got a short history of our understanding of the nature of the atom, and an explanation of why the weak and strong nuclear forces act over such short distances (and the different reasons in each case).

We learned that the Higgs Field is nonzero, even in empty space; that most of the mass of ordinary matter doesn’t have anything to do with the Higgs Field, but instead comes from the protons and neutrons, and therefore from strong interactions; and that there is still measurable sexual discrimination in physics.

Next came an overview of the Large Hadron Collider and the people involved in the project, including the first mention I’ve heard of the archaeology involved (one of the experiments is on the site of a Roman town). The search for the Higgs was like looking for a piece of hay in a haystack, in a timescale involving the word zeptosecond, but they have found something very like it, a particle with a mass of ~126GeV.

Now the LHC is closing down for two years, but when it comes back it will be looking for evidence of supersymmetry. That’s exciting.

This is the stuff the Royal Institution is so good at. I was at one of their Christmas Lectures, this year on chemistry, probably the last one I will go to as my youngest daughter will be too old next year. Peter Wothers had an experiment using a Tesla coil which they had to film out of sequence, at the end, as in rehearsals it knocked out a lot of RI evacuationtheir equipment.  In June 2010 we were repeatedly evacuated from the lecture theatre as a rather (chemically) violent demonstration was setting off the fire alarm – initially with amused, latterly rather more irritated firemen.

Over the years at the Ri I have seen (among many others) Roger Penrose, Jeff Forshaw, Brian Greene, John Barrow, Martin Rees, Michio Kaku, Simon Schaffer, Frank Close, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, Eric Laithwaite, Jim Al-Khalili, Manjit Kumar, Ben Miller, Terry Pratchett, Jon Butterworth and Steven Pinker, and in the coming months I’m looking forward to (among others) Jeff Forshaw again, Mark Miodownik, Neil Shubin, Jim Al-Khalili again, and Marcus Brigstocke. There are posts about some of them on this blog. Talks have ranged from asthma treatments to quantum mechanics, the science of music to the geopolitics of food, free will to the Antikythera mechanism, grimoires to infinity; I have extracted my own DNA at the Ri (in a non-sexual way); I have watched a play about Darwin, and one about lady researchers in genetics. They do rather a lot of work with schools. Although I wasn’t too sure about their having talks sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. I have been to quite a few talks which I haven’t written about, as for various reasons, including pococurantism and lassitude, this blog has been in desuetude.

The Ri has been in Albemarle Street since 1799, and the lectures were so popular that the road became London’s first one-way street due to the large number of carriages arriving. They have been having severe financial difficulties over the last few years, after some apparently rather ill-advised redevelopments were completed just before the economic downturn. There has, apparently, been some improvement, but it would be a great shame if they have to move out of the building in which Faraday demonstrated the electric motor and Curie radiation. I hope they can stay.

[18/1/13] But see this Guardian article. It would appear that the Ri have put their building up for sale.

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Originally posted on Jane Austen's House Museum Blog:

Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth in 1775 at Steventon in Hampshire. Visitors to the museum will be asked to join in our celebrations, as usual, by being offered a warming cup of coffee and a seasonal mince pie. And exactly one year ago we began this blog. So, to celebrate, we are going to offer a very easy competition with a rather special prize.

The rules are very easy. If you leave a comment to this post, then you will be automatically entered into a draw to win a copy the Chawton Edition of Sense and Sensibility  which has been especially commissioned by the Museum to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility in 2011.

2012-11-09 15.42.44

This edition includes a facsimile of the first edition of the book that was published by Thomas Egerton in 1811.  All three volumes are bound in one…

View original 191 more words

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The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books and Inept Guardian Competiton Question

The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books winner will be announced on the 26th November. The shortlist is:

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene; Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everythingby Joshua Foer; My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank; The Informationby James Gleick; The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker; The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe. The only one I’ve read of these is the Steven Pinker, and very good it was as well – as was the talk he gave at the Royal Institution.

I was interested to see that The Guardian is running a competition to win the whole shortlist. I was going to enter, but unfortunately one of the questions is


(Added 27 Nov): I contacted the Guardian this morning and was impressed by the speed of their reply (unless it’s because they were twiddling their thumbs in a state of ennui at the time). The reason for this question is: it’s a joke about bad science. So now the Guardian writer who replied to my email obviously thinks I have no sense of humour, and although I’ll admit I’m surprised it’s a joke, I would suggest that it’s not funny (at all, really, but definitely not in the context), in part because the answer which is supposed to be right isn’t actually correct either, as ‘food which contains no chemicals’ is no food at all.

I think the reason it’s not obviously a joke is also because scientific knowledge among journalists, both print and broadcast, is awfully lacking. The other day I heard the tail of a feature on a news programme on Radio 4 about lunar cycles, and the interviewer asked the interviewee (apparently in all seriousness), something like ‘so that stuff about werewolves, there’s nothing in it?’ She didn’t sound like she was joking, and the subject of the interview answered in all seriousness, but then again, maybe she was. And the majority of the presenters of news programmes on Radio 4 people seem to be mildly proud of their inability to understand pretty basic scientific principles.

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Gravity’s Engines: Caleb Scharf at the Royal Institution

Gravity's EnginesCaleb Scharf  is Director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, and his recent book is Gravity’s Engines: the Other Side of Black Holes; the American edition has the subtitle How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos which is more descriptive as well as more alliterative. Last night he gave a very entertaining talk at the Royal Institution based on his book, illustrated with some astonishing images and animations.

I have read quite widely about black holes, and although I am no physicist and have no understanding whatsoever of the mathematics underpinning the theories, I do consider I know a fair bit about them and understand the basic principles. Even so, Caleb Scharf’s inspiring talk caused me to buy a copy of the book at the end of the lecture.

The history of the study of black holes really began in 1767, with the Reverend John Michell postulating ‘dark stars’; his science was wrong, but his concept of a body from which light could not escape wasn’t. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that physics reached the point where it could not only show that black holes could exist, but explain how – the work of Einstein forming the basis from which Karl Schwarzchild fleshed out the mathematics.

The statistics of black holes are mind-boggling. The Earth would produce a black hole with an event horizon 9mm in diameter; a black hole of ten solar masses would roughly fit inside the M25; the black hole at the centre of our galaxy affects the orbits of proximate stars so that its mass can be estimated at 4.3 million solar masses (this is quite modest compared with some elsewhere in the universe which can be measured in billions of solar masses).

Nearly all galaxies have a supermassive black hole at the centre, which can be detected as the energy of motion of matter falling into them is converted into electromagnetic radiation as the accretion disc orbiting the black hole loses matter across the event horizon, and also because space around black holes is extremely, well, extreme. The enormous mass which is rotating drags spacetime round with it, and being electrically charged produces enormous voltages. This conversion of matter to energy is six times more efficient than nuclear fusion.

The conclusion of the lecture was to ask ‘what does this energy do to the rest of the galaxy’. Recent research has shown that black holes have a fundamental effect on the rest of the universe, and on star and galaxy formation in particular, with black holes belching out bubbles into the atmosphere of their galactic cluster and sending out ripples, sound waves at a frequency a million billion times below anything human hearing can detect, with energies of  1037  Watts. This slows down the growth of galaxies, so the cosmic environment is a product of the co-evolution of black holes and galaxies.

Perhaps most exciting is the discovery that the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way is probably not as inactive as previously thought; an object has been detected falling towards the event horizon, and it will probably reach it in about six months’ time. The black hole at the centre of our galaxy might be due to burp a big bubble quite soon.

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Time Team cancelled by Channel 4, but it may still have a future

Channel 4 announced the cancelling of Time Team this evening, as reported in The Guardian. There is more information on the official Time Team Facebook page, and a response from Tim Taylor.

The series has had its ups and downs lately, but I still think it’s a great shame. Viewing figures were down – could this have anything to do with the asinine scheduling, or rather lack of scheduling, of the last few years? There will be a last series (20) in the winter, and several Specials are lined up. There are also quite a few previous programmes available to watch on 4OD. And the excellent Time Team Digital site is well worth a look.

Added 20 October: I have just found that Wessex Archaeology has an excellent Time Team section on their website, with a large number of proper dig reports available to download.

And a bit later on 20 October: Francis Pryor has a response on his blog In the Long Run. And later still, here’s Channel 4’s Press Release. And on 21 October: Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology among many other things, has a blog post on the subject. I’m sure there will be something in the next issue of the magazine too.

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Jim Al-Khalili’s Paradox at the Royal Institution

ParadoxJim Al-Khalili’s latest book is Paradox: the nine greatest enigmas in science, and he gave a talk based upon it at the Royal Institution this evening.

Probably the most well-known scientific paradox is that of Schrodinger’s Cat, where those who adhere to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics would say that the hapless pussy is both dead and alive until the box in which it is enclosed is opened. This is the sort of perceived paradox which is only paradoxical until the underlying science is properly understood – in this case, the uncertainty seen in the quantum world decoheres when it is scaled up to the scale of the world we see (or alternatively, the ‘many worlds’ interpretation, as originated by Hugh Everett (father of Mark Oliver Everett, ‘E’ of Eels) would posit a branching into an alternate universe within the multiverse).

Al-Khalili dismissed rather rapidly the logical paradoxes such as ‘This statement is a lie’ as he finds them boring, and there’s not much you can say about them really, unless you’re a logician. I did do a course in mathematical logic many years ago and it was extremely boring – my best result was logically proving that all politicians are crocodiles, although I can’t now remember how I came to that conclusion.

The talk began properly, as does the book, with some apparent paradoxes from probability theory. Probability is often counter-intuitive, and difficult to grasp even when it’s explained well (several years ago there was an article in New Scientist which attempted to explain probability in some depth, but I was floundering by about half way through; there was a more understandable In Our Time on the subject in 2008). So we had a swift trip into the Monty Hall or Game Show Paradox; my favourite paradox of this type is the Birthday Paradox, which gets an explanation in the book.

We were shown how many of the historical so-called paradoxes were resolved as knowledge advanced (as an aside there’s an interesting article on the rate of change of knowledge in last week’s New Scientist): Zeno’s Achilles and the Tortoise, Olbers’ Paradox (first resolved by an unlikely person), and Maxwell and Laplace’s Demons.

The current major outstanding scientific puzzles such as whether we have free will, can a machine ever be conscious, why is there more matter than antimatter, what is dark matter made of, what is dark energy, and what was there before the Big Bang, tend to be just questions rather than paradoxes, although Laplace’s Demon has a direct bearing on the first of these.

The talk was rounded off with Fermi’s Paradox – where are all the aliens? This seemingly trivial question has deeper ramifications, not least regarding the anthropic principle, and subsequently the idea of a multiverse.

Jim Al-Khalili is always eminently listenable to, and although this sell-out lecture at the Royal Institution was quite light, and covered what, to me, were subjects I have previously heard or read in much greater depth, paradoxically I found the talk far too short.

I think the book’s an excellent introduction to the various subjects covered, although the chapters are a somewhat disparate bunch, the fact that they are (or were) paradoxes being the only common ground. A ‘further reading’ list wouldn’t have come amiss either.

His book Quantum: a guide for the perplexed is still, in my mind, his best book. Although the perplexity is deeper by the end of the book.

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