Oliver Thewalt

    Oliver Thewalt

    Theoretical Physics | Quantum Biology | Dark Matter Research Cluster

    Quantum life: The weirdness inside us


    Ideas from the stranger side of physics could explain some long-standing mysteries of biology

    EVER felt a little incoherent? Or maybe you’ve been in two minds about something, or even in a bit of delicate state. Well, here’s your excuse: perhaps you are in thrall to the strange rules of quantum mechanics.

    We tend to think that the interaction between quantum physics and biology stops with Schrödinger’s cat. Not that Erwin Schrödinger intended his unfortunate feline – suspended thanks to quantum rules in a simultaneous state of being both dead and alive – to be anything more than a metaphor. Indeed, when he wrote his 1944 book What is Life?, he speculated that living organisms would do everything they could to block out the fuzziness of quantum physics.

    But is that the case? Might particles that occupy two states at once, that interact seemingly inexplicably over distances and exhibit other quantum misbehaviours actually make many essential life processes tick? Accept this notion, say its proponents, and we could exploit it to design better drugs, high-efficiency solar cells and super-fast quantum computers. There’s something we need to understand before we do, though: how did the quantum get into biology in the first place?

    On one level, you might think, we shouldn’t be surprised that life has a quantum edge. After all, biology is based on chemistry, and chemistry is all about the doings of atomic electrons – and electrons are quantum-mechanical beasts at heart. That’s true, says Jennifer Brookes, who researches biological quantum effects at Harvard University. “Of course everything is ultimately quantum because electron interactions are quantised.”

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