The Physics of Biology

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili, (Crown), 368 pages, release date 28 July, 2015

Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili’s Life on the Edge is a fascinating, if challenging, read. Their goal is to demonstrate the effect quantum physics has on biology. We may think of life as being driven by (relatively) larger things—our brains, hormones, genetics. What we don’t realize is that quantum physics—which operates on the atomic and subatomic level—plays a key role in all of these.

McFadden and Al-Khalili open each chapter with a narrative: a bird preparing to migrate, a scientists looking for monarch butterflies, a clownfish feeding. Then, they gradually pull readers deeper, into increasing levels of complexity as they tie these activities back to quantum physics. The bird is able to perceive changes in the inclination of the arcs flowing between the earth’s magnetic poles using magnetreceptors. While we may think of migrating birds flying either north or south, the birds are actually flying first toward magnetic rays more parallel to the earth’s surface (which happen to be at the equator) and then continuing on past those parallel rays to rays that increasingly curve away from the earth (which occurs at the poles).

The lesson: “much of what is or was wonderful and unique about robins, clownfish, bacteria that survive beneath the Arctic ice, dinosaurs that roamed the Jurassic forests, monarch butterflies, fruit flies, plants and microbes derives from the fact that, like us, they are rooted in the quantum world.” This is a new scientific endeavor (if we can call anything in science, which naturally builds on previous discoveries “new”) that has the potential to help us answer a great many of the complex questions we ask ourselves about the biological world around us.

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