It’s called the quantum world and is so counter-intuitive that it upends many of the classical laws of nature that we have held so dear for so long. This nano-world has dumbfounded scientists for over a century but ironically without it we wouldn’t have much of a universe. Operating on a completely different set of ideas and principles, renowned physicist Niels Bohr once declared, “If you can fathom quantum mechanics without getting dizzy, you don’t get it.”
Communicating something so unfathomable to the public can be a tough task, however Jim Al-Khalili is more than well equipped: an OBE , theoretical physicist, star of the science world, and author of 11 books, his work varies from studying the heady world of nuclear physics to the renaissance years of Arabic maths and science. However, he is most well known for his specialty in investigating the infinitely fascinating field of quantum biology, a relatively new area of study positing that many aspects of biology are underpinned by quantum theory. This branching discipline of quantum mechanics might have some truly incredible implications that we’re only just beginning to grasp. Home computers a hundred million times faster than what we have now, the potential of eradicating genetic mutations like cancer, or imagining an artificial intelligence type future. Watch this space.
The area in which you’ve achieved the most recognition during the last few years has been quantum biology. For us it’s one of the most intriguing areas of science. Not only because of its “madness”, as you’ve called it, but also because of its thrilling potential. Do you feel that the public has perhaps not yet caught on to just how exciting this new frontier is?
Well, it’s had a reasonable amount of publicity in the past couple of years. I have now written a book, made a BBC documentary and given a TED talk all on the subject, so I figure I’m doing my PR bit for the field. But yes, it’s still a new area of science and it involves some obscure and hard to grasp concepts. Even many within the scientific community have not heard about it, or if they have then they haven’t quite grasped why it is so exciting and relevant.
You’ve said, “Quantum biology is not mature enough to be worried about in terms of ethical questioning.” We’re doing an event soon about the ethical questions of Artificial Intelligence. What would you envision as ‘questionable’ when discussing the future of quantum biology?
I don’t really think there are particular ethical problems pertaining to quantum biology itself, but I can imagine that in a decade or so, when it may well be integrated with other emerging fields such as synthetic biology, genetic engineering and nanotechnology, that we will then have to worry about ethical issues. However, I don’t think that quantum biology will offer up dilemmas that are any different from those we already know we must face up to in these other fields.
We love the idea of quantum tunneling, a process whereby particles can move through seemingly impenetrable barriers and appear on the other side in the nano-world. It sounds like something straight out of science fiction. With the advent of Google’s D-Wave computer, are we now witnessing the beginnings of companies taking advantage of this phenomena?
Quantum tunneling is actually a very well-known and well-studied phenomenon in physics and chemistry. It was first understood back in the 1920s in the context of radioactive decay of atomic nuclei. In fact quantum tunneling is so “normal” that it is the reason we are all here, because it explains how the sun shines. Inside the sun, and all stars, two hydrogen nuclei quantum tunneling together in order to fuse to make helium. This is the process that powers the sun and gives us its light and warmth. We have many devices that make use of quantum tunneling today as well.
Building a working quantum computer, on the other hand, requires some even weirder and less well-understood features of the quantum world, such as quantum entanglement, whereby quantum particles are interconnected instantaneously across space – an idea so strange that even Einstein hated it, calling it “spooky action-at-a-distance.” There is even a hint that quantum entanglement may be involved in another biological mechanism. The sense of magnetoreception in birds is thought by some to involved quantum-entangled electrons in a protein in the bird’s eyes.
"Physicists have struggled for 90 years now to try to make sense of the counter-intuitiveness of the quantum world, and we are still not comfortable with it."
As the president of the British Humanist Association, I know you have a strong stance on atheism. But some scientists seem to have have really upped the ante in terms of their war against belief. Bill Nye recently made a less than popular talk on philosophy and now Johnny Depp is joining Richard Dawkins at the Reason Rally this summer. Why such fervor and why now?
I wouldn’t call it fervor. I think it’s just that outspoken atheists are now more free to speak their views openly without stigma. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t such polite dinner table conversation and one had to say agnostic in order to not come across as so uncompromisingly certain. But times have changed. I always ask why the likes of Richard Dawkins are seen as extreme in their views when they are no more proselytizing than any pastor or priest at a Sunday church congregation? Not believing in a supernatural creator is not extreme – it’s just saying that, “in my worldview, I see no need for such an explanation to make sense of the world.” For me, it’s no stranger than not believing in Santa Claus.
It leads me to the question, if the quantum mechanics world can behave so counter-intuitively and strange, why can’t we entertain the possibility of such strangeness in our own physical realm?
To be honest, physicists have struggled for 90 years now to try to make sense of the counter-intuitiveness of the quantum world, and we are still not comfortable with it. I mean, it works, it’s mathematically beautiful, it’s a powerful theory that underpins almost every bit of modern technology we take for granted today, certainly everything that has a chip in it. Your iPhone for example is crammed full of components that only do what they do thanks to our understanding of quantum mechanics. But all that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. Of course, you may be right. It may be that we just don’t yet know enough about the quantum world and that is what makes it seem so strange, so we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to think we have all the answers.
What is the most beautiful fact you’ve learnt about this ‘spooky world’ of quantum mechanics?
For me personally, I have to say it’s linked to my research into the structure of exotic atomic nuclei – so called ‘halo’ nuclei, which I worked on in the 90s. I was studying the way atomic nuclei of certain isotopes of helium and lithium have neutrons that can quantum tunnel outside the nucleus, then float around forming what became known as a ‘neutron halo’, making these very light nuclei much bigger than anyone imagined possible. The day I saw how my models predicted the experimental data beautifully was one of those rare Eureka moments in scientific research.
Another lovely fact about quantum mechanics, one that I alluded to earlier, is actually not a fact at all but still a somewhat speculative theory. It is the idea that certain migratory birds, like the European robin, can sense the earth’s magnetic field for navigation via a process called the fast triplet reaction going on inside their eyes in which two separated quantum entangled electrons feel each other’s presence and the presence and orientation of the earth’s weak magnetic field. We don’t know if this theory is correct, but it would be lovely if it were confirmed experimentally.
In your book Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, you mention that there is a correlation between the temperature of the quantum transport system and photosynthesis. It hints at there being a true oneness, or an overall integrated ecosystem at play here. Would you agree?
It does look that way. Of course this is still a hotly debated issue, but in my view I see no reason why life couldn’t have evolved to make the most of the trickery of the quantum world. If something gave it an advantage, such as making one of the steps in photosynthesis more efficient, in a way that we don’t see happening in inanimate matter of similar complexity, then life would have done that, and it makes no difference if that trick utilizes quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics offers so many exciting possibilities. What are scientists talking about right now as possible integrations or discoveries in the next 30-50 years?
I think the number one possibility has to be quantum computing: the idea of a processor being able to carry out all possible calculations simultaneously, making it far more powerful for certain tasks than the biggest supercomputer we have available. Other fun ideas are things like quantum teleportation. But if you think it’s going to give us some sort of ‘beam me up Scotty’ transporter then forget it. But, hey, who knows?
One of the potentials you’ve discussed in quantum biology involves the tricks nature uses in order to develop new drugs by utilizing quantum weirdness. For the sake of speculating, can you give us some hypothetical examples of drugs that could be created in this area?
Okay, hypothetically right? Well, what if we learn more about how quantum tunneling plays an important role in certain genetic mutations within the DNA of cells and which cause a cell to turn cancerous? And what if we could then control the mutation rate by controlling the tunneling rate?
But please don’t quote on this. There’s a real tabloid headline for you: ‘Quantum Physics Cures Cancer’. But you did say “hypothetically.” On a more serious note, and broadening out from just applications in medicine, it may well be that understanding how nature uses quantum coherence to make photosynthesis so efficient will help us develop better and more efficient solar cells that can utilize the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity. We need to learn the tricks that Nature has evolved to use and copy them.
We’re all mystified by the strangeness of quantum mechanics. Like Niels Bohr once said, “If you can fathom quantum mechanics without getting dizzy, you don’t get it.” It seems we’ve only just uncovered the tip of the iceberg. Do scientists speculate how much further and deeper this nano world actually goes down?
So far it seems that its quantum mechanics all the way down. The tiniest length scales of matter are now being probed in accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which recently discovered the Higgs boson, and the behavior of the elementary particles at this scale all still beautifully obey the rules of the quantum world. One potential advance however would be if we develop a new theory of quantum gravity that would unify the four forces of nature. An example of such an idea is string theory, but we still don’t know if we’re on the right track. Once we have uncovered the correct theory of quantum gravity we may well find that quantum mechanics as we understand it today is indeed just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s become apparent that processes in living organisms can often be explained by quantum mechanics. As you’ve noted, this is an example of an emerging interdisciplinary field. Do you think other scientific disciplines still hesitant about coming together?
I think this idea of interdisciplinarity, the merging together of different fields, is becoming far more fashionable these days. Quantum biology is just one example, but there are others that are bringing together all sorts of different disciplines in science, computing and engineering, like AI and consciousness research, and nanotechnology.
Do you think perhaps a lot of the obstacles we encounter with regards to understanding quantum mechanics is really about changing the way we think about the nature of order itself?
Many quantum physicists would say this. They’d say it’s only counterintuitive if we demand that the quantum world behave like our macroscopic everyday world, and why should it? But I still stand by my view that while quantum mechanics may be mathematically logical and consistent, philosophically it requires some necessary contortions in logic. That’s why so many physicists adopt the stance that one should just ‘shut up and calculate.’ I find this view very unsatisfactory and even intellectually lazy. But I cannot offer anything more satisfactory!
It’s a little disappointing that scientists would take that stance. Perhaps more illogical and creative approaches might help bring us more understanding in this area?
The problem is that quantum mechanics has been astonishingly successful over the past 90 years in explaining so many phenomena in physics and chemistry, and indeed underpins our modern world. Much of the technology we take for granted today would not be here were it not for quantum mechanics. The ‘shut up and calculate’ interpretation therefore is the ultimate pragmatic approach. Many physicists would say that if one is worried about what it all means then one should be a philosopher and leave the physicists to get on with using quantum mechanics. But for me, physics is about understanding, not just using our successful theories.
You’ve talked a lot about the role quantum mechanics plays in shaping the biological world around us, for example the possibility that quantum tunneling causes DNA mutations, or birds such as robins using quantum entanglement. I know quantum biology is still in its infancy but what do all these remarkable implications mean for us as a society?
At the moment, the only implication it has for society is that it shows just how even more wonderful life is, that there are still mysteries to uncover and that we do not yet have all the answers. But unlike someone with a religious faith, I would say that we can one day find these answers and solve these mysteries. It’s a strange thing when you think about it. I want to find answers to the mysteries of the world through science, but what if I did have all the answers? I probably wouldn’t be completely happy. I think life would be quite boring without mystery.
Speaking of mystery, quantum theorist Adrian Kent wrote of theoretical physics progression, “Possibly none of us will get anywhere much until the next fortuitous break in the clouds.” Do you agree? And if so, what is needed for this to happen?
Yes, I think we are all waiting for the next Einstein to come along and point out what in hindsight might seem obvious. I believe there are still profound breakthroughs to be made in our understanding. But you see the words I used there? I said, “I believe.” That’s not science, that’s a hunch. And I may well be wrong. Maybe what we know now is pretty much there. Or maybe we will never know. Actually, scratch that last option – I won’t accept that we will never know.
You’re a great communicator of science, working to help place it side by side with popular culture and actually that’s one of the main reasons we set up this magazine. But sometimes when science or mathematics is mentioned in public, an atmosphere of dread seems to fill the air. Do you think more is needed to take the stuffiness out of the subject?
I think that “dread” you mention is not necessarily something that has to exist. We can tackle it and we are already seeing the battle being won in Britain. Science communication and the way science is being imbedded within popular culture here is, in my view, about a decade ahead of the rest of the world. People at dinner parties will talk about discoveries in astronomy or climate change or genetics in the same way they might discuss politics or music or sport. Even the tabloid press will cover science stories now and the big discoveries can make the headlines on the news. Science online and in magazines, such as what you are doing, in movies, in popularizing books, in public lectures and science and literary festivals are all bringing the excitement of science to a much wider audience. My weekly radio show on the BBC, the Life Scientific, in which I chat to other scientists about their life and work, attracts over two million listeners every week. We’re winning.
"I think we are all waiting for the next Einstein to come along and point out what in hindsight might seem obvious."
Jim Al-Khalili on the next big breakthrough
You’ve talked a lot about how the Arabic states are inherent disruptors and should try and search for their roots in science and technology. With Arab countries spending less than half a percent of their GDP on R&D, do you think there is an issue with stigmatization from the inside and outside the area with regards to innovation, empowerment and education and technology today? What is needed to happen?
I think that despite all the troubles in that part of the world, there are smart people who ‘get it’ and understand that spending of fundamental science is more than just a driver for technology and the economy. Even in traditionally conservative countries in the Gulf region, where one still regrettably finds anti-scientific sentiments, we are seeing encouraging signs. Of course it is more than simply a case of throwing billions of dollars of oil revenue at the problem. True advances in knowledge only come about when there is a free spirit of rational enquiry. But then, lest we forget, we are not free of such problems in the West either.