BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Introducing "Quantum Biology" ...

Here's another of those books that have come my way via the “Early Reviewer” program … and it's another good science book, of which there have, fortunately, been quite a few of over the past couple of years. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili is a fascinating look at an evolving field.

Now, I have to admit, this is one of those books that I have had a certain amount of “oh, really?” response to, as, frankly, the consistent uncovering of quantum operations involved in “everyday” events seems a bit … well, like when fundamentalists attribute everything to God … and I'd feel better if I'd seen more on this topic in my other reading, rather than having it all show up in one book like this (hey, I've read lots of books that were based on just the author's lunatic take on the universe!). This is not to say that the concept of quantum activity being key to various biological processes is totally new to me … I recall having read some things about how photosynthesis is achieved, at its most microscopic levels, by an energy transfer described as a “quantum walk”, where an exciton (according to Wikipedia: “a bound state of an electron and an electron hole which are attracted to each other by the electrostatic Coulomb force”, or, elsewhere: “an excited electronic state delocalized over several spatially separated molecules “) is mobilized, via quantum coherence, across the pigment-protein elements to where its energy potential is eventually utilized. This is covered in Life On The Edge, but in a particularly idiosyncratic way (the section of photosynthesis is framed in a Fantastic Voyage scenario of shrinking the observer down, through various dimensional frames in the plant, until they're looking at molecular/atomic levels).

Like this, it appears that there are MANY biological functions that we've known about for ages, but have had substantial lacunae in the how these worked … and these go to as basic things as how we smell scents, or how we move our muscles (really, it would appear that we just either didn't ask how these things happened, or simply skipped over the details) … and this book picks apart these at the finest levels and looks at how quantum mechanical events play a key role in the “how”.

I'm somewhat irritated with myself that I didn't put in my usual couple of handfulls of little bookmarks in this (I found one), as it makes it a lot harder to condense the sense of the book for you here … but the Fantastic Voyage factor is at play all through the text … lots of “story telling” flowing in and out of specifically scientific bits (which very quickly get quite complicated), and not a lot of “Topic One … Topic Two … Topic Three”, etc. … which I, oddly, found bothersome. The book starts, in the introduction, with a rambling piece about a robin, “getting ready” to migrate from Sweden to North Africa … which at times brings to mind the cocoanut-carrying swallows of Monty Python fame. One thing that I sort of took offense to in here is how the authors disparage the work of Rupert Sheldrake … dissing him on several occasions … which (obviously) comes up when looking at how birds get around (something that Sheldrake has published work on). I think there's an old adage about living in glass houses that the authors might have kept in mind when presenting material as “out of the mainstream” (or at least “established”) as this is.

Anyway, as to that European robin wanting to get out of the cold … how does she navigate as accurately as she does, going from Scandinavia to the other side of the Mediterranean (and back again) on her migration? Well, nothing is straight forward here (I think I'm getting to the “why” of there not being my usual mass of bookmarks in this), and something will start off with a colorful story about a robins migration, then veer off into historic theories, alternate modern research, the work of various scientists that have worked on parts of what comes together in the bird's navigation, assorted similar elements, the underlying physics (both classical and quantum), vectors off into biological topics, and sometimes dropping threads, only to pick them up several chapters later. It turns out that the bird has a magnetic “sense” built into its eye that uses a particular quantum process within a chemical reaction dealing with a pigment, which allows it to “see” the angle of the lines of magnetism around the planet … and by reading that angle, the bird can tell where it is. No, really, it's a LOT more complicated than that, and the details are half the book apart.

I wish I'd be able to easily walk you though this, but it's a jungle in there. To give you a taste of how this plays out, here's a bit from another “Fantastic Voyage” look into something – in this case, how a tadpole changes into a frog:
... These nanomachines of nature are performing, at a molecular level, a carefully choreographed dance whose actions have been precision engineered by millions of years of natural selection to manipulate the fundamental particles of matter.
      To get a closer look at the cutting action, we descend into the enzyme's jaw-like cleft that holds the substrates in place: the collagen protein chain and a single water molecule. This is the active site of the enzyme – its business end that is speeding up the breaking of peptide bonds by bending the neck of the energy hourglass*. …
      … the enzyme is restraining the peptide bond in an unstable transition state that has to be reached before the bond can be broken. The substrates are tethered by weak chemical bonds, … which are essentially electrons that are shared between the substrate and the enzyme. This tethering holds the substrates in a precise configuration ready for the chopping action of the enzyme's molecular jaws.
      As the jaws of the enzyme close, they do something far subtler than simply “biting down” on the bond: they provide the means through which catalysis can take place. We notice a big positively charged atom hanging directly beneath the target peptide bond being swung into position. This is a positively charged zinc atom. If we consider the active state of the enzyme to be its jaws, then the zinc atom is one of its two incisors. The positively charged atom plucks an electron out of the oxygen atom from the substrates to stabilize the transition state and thereby deform the energy landscape …
      The rest of the job is carried out by the enzyme's second molecular incisor. This is one of the enzyme's own amino acids called glutamate, which has swung into position to hang its negatively charged oxygen atom over the target peptide bond. Its role is first to pluck a positively charged proton out of the tethered water molecule. It then spits this proton into the nitrogen atom at one end of the peptide bone, giving it a positive charge which draws electrons out of the peptide bonds. … drawing the electron out is like pulling the glue out of a bonded joint, causing it to weaken and break
* this is a conceptualization of how “quantum tunneling” is enabled.

And, that (obviously) doesn't even get into the quantum elements involved in the process … these stories swirl in and out of the description and through the background science … citing all the big names, and lots more whose research is either more obscure or sufficiently recent to not be as recognizable. I must admit, there was material in here by the likes of Shröedinger, Planck, Feynman, and others that I'd not encountered previously … but that's probably due to this “quantum biology” stuff running off into less-explored corners of the physics involved.

I'm hoping that this book isn't finding its way into the textbook channel, as it is so convoluted that it confuses as much as it explains … I almost never re-read books, but this one tempts me to triage the time just to make sure I got everything straight. Needless to say, it's chock-full of fascinating material, but much of it is fairly challenging, requiring at least a familiarity with several disciplines to really understand what's happening there (and a lot of this really pushes the envelope vs. “standard knowledge” or general experience).

As one would expect for an “early reviewer” book, Life On The Edge is brand new (only officially coming out just this past week!), so is likely being featured in the brick-and-mortar stores delving in to physics. The on-line big boys have it at about 1/3rd off of cover, which is probably your best bet at the present for picking up a copy.

While I had a number of “gripes” with the book, both in how it was presented and in some of the details, it was more of a “wow, that's amazing” reaction most of the time. While I would have preferred something more linear (although, with all the material coming in from various disciplines, that might not have been practical), and less “cutesy” (really, I didn't need the “now you're shrinking down” stuff), it's quite an eye-opening look into a brand new area of science.

Oh, and you can thank me for not titling this review "... and a few swabs from Bono too".

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