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Jellyfish and migratory birds may help physicists understand the mysterious shift from quantum to classical mechanics

Time as we experience it only ever appears to move forward, pointing one-way like an arrow.  But at the scale of quantum physics, time is reversible: simple quantum processes, such as a particle scattering through a potential, make just as much sense when viewed forward or backwards through time. We do know, however, that many complex processes are irreversible: they cannot simply be reversed by running the clock backwards. How such irreversible processes emerge from smaller reversible building blocks is not fully understood by scientists, but it may be a paradox that life itself has resolved. A new 3-year, $3 million project, led by physicists Jim Al-Khalili and Andrea Rocco of the University of Surrey, U.K., with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, will expand the theoretical and philosophical frameworks used to understand the “arrow of time” and reversibility, with special attention to what biology might be able to reveal to us about the nature of time — and vice versa.

HARNESSING THE QUANTUM GLOW

A growing body of research suggests that some of life’s most complex and marvelous achievements, from the efficiency of photosynthesis in plants to migratory birds’ ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field for precise navigation, may involve biological exploitation of quantum effects. In this project, the project leaders propose that a key to organisms harnessing quantum effects lies in their ability not only to harness processes that take place irreversibly, (as many have assumed all biological processes are), but also to manipulate and maintain conditions which enable some quantum processes to take place reversibly.

The project establishes a multi-themed approach to attack this question from several angles: three separate theoretical investigations, an experimental approach using live cells, and a philosophical exploration of the deeper meanings of time.

One of quantum biology’s greatest challenges is that the traditional tools for studying quantum phenomena (electron microscopes, extremely low temperatures or pressures) tend to be fatal to living cells. Enter green fluorescent protein (GFP), a biomolecule originally discovered in jellyfish, which is already a common tool in experimental biology. Because GFP itself functions at the quantum level, the project team aims to use it as a beacon for studying quantum and spin coherence to explore how living systems can exploit both quantum and classical phenomena. GFP-derived tools have the potential to help scientists develop new research and therapeutic tools for measuring, stimulating or suppressing cellular functions at the quantum level. 

A NEW LABORATORY FOR FUNDAMENTAL PHYSICS

If successful, the project leaders may greatly solidify the theoretical and experimental foundations of the nascent field of quantum biology and reveal new perspectives on the great mysteries of time. Perhaps most tantalizing, they may demonstrate how biological systems can become viable laboratories for studying fundamental physics. 

In addition to their academic work, the leaders will undertake a number of outreach efforts aimed at students and the general public. Al-Khalili, who is a BBC science presenter, TED Talk veteran and host of a popular series of YouTube discussions with scientists and other public thinkers, will lead several activities, including a series of filmed “blue sky” workshops bringing together experts for informal conversations on foundational questions in physics.

“This project has the potential to build out the theoretical and experimental tools to open up a new laboratory for fundamental physics,” says Aamir Ali, the John Templeton Foundation’s Program Officer for Math and Physical Sciences. “The hypothesis that biological systems may have evolved to harness quantum processes offers an exciting approach to big questions surrounding what life is and what makes it unique.”

STILL CURIOUS?

Read project leader Jim Al-Khalili and team member Johnjoe McFaddon’s 2014 book Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology

Explore Al-Khalili’s “Jim Meets” series of conversations with public figures including physicist Adam Rutherford, natural historian Sir David Attenborough to former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.