What on earth is ‘Quantum Biology’?

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It was the second night of ATOM! Abingdon’s new science and technology festival last night, and off to Abingdon School for a lecture by renowned scientist Jim Al Khalili, who will be familiar to many for his programmes on BBC2/4 and his Radio 4 series The Life Scientific.

Jim’s day job is as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Surrey university, where one of the areas he is investigating is the new field of ‘Quantum Biology’.

To explain where QB comes from, he gave us a potted history of its development. It could have taken off in the 1930s but the leading chap was a Nazi, so it got subverted to the third Reich, and was ultimately buried as a subject for several decades.

What exactly is it though?  Because, as Jim said, ‘Down at the quantum level, things are very fuzzy.  ‘Quantumy.’ ‘ he said, waving his hands in the air and getting a laugh.  How did chemistry become biology? That’s the abiogenesis question (a new word for me that!).  Can quantum mechanics help to explain life?

He went on explain some of the key mechanisms that may be involved – quantum tunnelling (equivalent of going through walls), and quantum entanglement (where particles apart from each other have are linked somehow). He then went through some of the key areas in QB:

    • Enzyme action – confirmed in the 1980s
    • Photosynthesis – now established
    • Magnetoreception in birds – lots of work here
    • How we smell
    • DNA mutations (his particular area of interest).

Euro robinHe elaborated on magnetoreception in birds a bit because it’s a great story involving the European Robin which migrates from Sweden to Spain or northern Africa and really does fly south for winter, but is sensitive to the angle of inclination of the Earth’s magnetic field rather than the field polarity. This is all due to a particular frequency of blue light and signalling protein in their retinas.  The experimenters found this out by catching migrating robins and confounding them with different light frequencies and magnetic fields!

It was all fascinating, and given that the audience was from teenagers through to nuclear scientists, his explanations were both clear and interesting to everyone.  A lively Q&A session followed, led by Valerie Jamieson, features editor of New Scientist magazine, and Jim graciously signed books for all afterwards, (do excuse my slightly ‘fuzzy’ photo above!).

* * * * *

Today I’m taking my daughter to the family science show ‘Visualise’, the closing event of the festival. It’s been a great success, and I sincerely hope it becomes an annual event. The organisers are hoping to set up an ATOM society – I’ve signed up!

Don’t expect many book review posts from me for a week or two. This week was Science Week. Next week sees my binge at the Oxford Literary Festival. I’m booked for events with Ian McEwan, Natalies Haynes and a quartet for women authors of historical novels for YA readers, led by Celia Rees for starters.  More reports to follow!

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7 thoughts on “What on earth is ‘Quantum Biology’?

  1. I’d second that – fascinating stuff. Here’s to women in science – maybe your daughter will take after you!

  2. We’ve just had an Arts and Science festival at the University and it’s been really interesting to engage with subject areas miles away from my normal comfort zone, including one by Alice Roberts (Coast and the like) on the way in which anatomical drawing has changed over the centuries. I love ‘The Life Scientific’ and I’m sure I would have enjoyed this lecture too.

    • He’s an excellent communicator – that makes such a difference. I’m lucky I did study a little quantum physics at university in my course, but I felt like I understood a lot more listening to him.

  3. Pingback: How do you define an expert scientist? | Annabel's House of Books

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