Just How Strange is Quantum Life?
The answers to the biggest questions, quite ironically, lie in the science of the fundamentally little; Quantum Physics explains the behavior of sub-atomic particles and their correlation with energy. Classical physics sets the laws of our macroscopic universe and how it works, however, the microscopic world does not work by the same rules. In fact, strangely enough, our microscopic world renders classical physics useless.
It is with quantum mechanics that we can truly start to understand the intricate details of our universe and thus begin to grasp what small bits of what was once considered the unexplainable. It explains some of the phenomena that regular physics cannot even begin to grasp. The following being just a few of such phenomenon:
- Quantum Entanglement
- Quantum Tunneling
- The Uncertainty Principle and
Max Planck, a German physicist wanted to explain how hot objects emit different colors of light. In pursuit of deriving the blackbody spectrum mathematically, in a way that counts all infinite energy states. He quantized the energy states by assuming to limit particles to vibrate with energies that were a multiple of some minimum energy. This became the frequency of a particle’s vibration times an extremely small number that later became the Planck constant. This, in turn, ended up explaining the shape of the blackbody spectrum across all frequencies of light accurately and ended up becoming the Planck’s Law. Now even though Planck filled up the missing blocks to fit his calculations, this later helped Einstein realize that it is actually light that is being quantized. These little vibrating particles do have quantized energies because they can only lose or gain energy by absorbing or emitting one particle of light at one time. And that light comes in discrete packets called quanta and the discovery of photons. Now, this discovery helped explain how electrons in orbital absorb and radiate light as they go up and down an energy state.
Quantum Entanglement is one of the strangest quirks of quantum mechanics, dubbed by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”. This is because it is just as it sounds, “spooky”. Simply put, quantum entanglement shows that particles that are paired to one another are connected to an extent that if one particle is affected, the other pair will instantaneously change even if it is on the other end of the universe. And this is exactly what spooked Einstein; how the effect on one particle simultaneously changed the other, without having a visible connection. Einstein’s confusion stems from the fact that the particles were travelling faster than the speed of light – which as we know should not be possible.
Quantum Tunneling is another quantum occurrence that happens when particles cross an energy barrier that should physically be impossible for them to cross. They can “quantum tunnel” their way to the other side if a condition is applied; a particle on one side has a certain amount of energy and it can only tunnel to the other side if there is an empty space of the same amount of energy. If there is less energy on the other side, then the electrons cannot tunnel because there is no space for the excess energy to go. It is the equivalent of a human running into a brick wall and crossing it.
The Uncertainty Principle
The Uncertainty Principle is a fascinating quantum property that states that one can never know both, the exact position and the exact speed of an object at one time, so if we measure the exact speed of a particle, we will never know its exact position and if we measure the exact position of the particle, we will never know its exact speed. This is because everything in our universe works as both particle and a wave.
Superposition is a quantum mechanical phenomenon. A particle can be in two states at a time; until it is observed. The double-slit experiment describes this hypothesis as a beam of photons being shot to the two slits. Most people expect there to be two lines on the screen but there was something even more intriguing at work. A diffraction pattern occurs as if the photons are travelling in waves. So when the scientist put up the detector to see just how this happens, the diffraction pattern disappears and it is as it shows; two lines. The scientists funnily closed the detector and kept it there, to show the illusion of being observed when in reality they were not.
Incredibly enough, the diffraction pattern appeared again. They then thought of shooting one photon at a time, which in turn was landing in different places but when the photons gathered up, they ended up showing the diffraction pattern again. It was as if they were weirdly correlating with one and another.
The Creation of Quantum Biology
Now, these properties of Quantum Physics are indeed very hard to wrap our heads around as it is, but now to think that these properties could take place inside us, biological beings seems unreal. Yet, a lot of brilliant minds can’t help but ponder the possibility. Erwin Schrodinger, an Austrian physicist who had a hand in making the quantum mechanics real, also dwell on the thought biological processes could be influenced by such quantum incredibility. On February 1943, at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Schrodinger astounded the world with this very awe-inspiring idea, leading to the investigation of this very possibility. This led to the opening of a very new field, Quantum Biology.
Various Instances of Quantum Biology
In the 1970s and the 1980s discoveries were made that quantum tunneling occurs in living cells. Enzymes are catalysts of the reaction taken place in our body but they worked, no one exactly knew. Finding made discovered that they transfer protons and electrons from one part of the molecule to another through quantum tunneling.
Quantum tunneling is also used in describing the vibration theory of olfaction. It can find the certain vibrating frequencies of molecules. Possibly our smell receptors await an odor molecule to come in so that an electron could pass through a receptor and activate the nerve. This means that the way a thing smells is affected by the way its molecules vibrated, so scientists tested this by taking a molecule and replacing its hydrogen atoms with deuterium, a heavier isotope of hydrogen. It has all the same properties of hydrogen except that it’s heavy because it has one neutron. The scientist got these two molecules and got the subjects such as humans, fruit flies, and white fish to smell them to see if they detect a difference in smell. Strong evidence was found that actually smell different.
An example of quantum mechanics in biology is also that of the European robin. It travels from Scandinavia to Mediterranean using Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. The only theory that fits this is that of quantum entanglement. A light-sensitive protein call cryptochrome is found inside the robin’s retina, in which quantum entanglement takes place. Now if the state of one is affected by the Earth’s magnetic field, the other one change simultaneously which in turn help the bird navigate.
Another quantum process that takes place inside a biological mechanism is quantum coherence or superposition. Plants and bacteria take light energy from the sun and create biomass. A few years ago, an experimental paper provided evidence that bacteria carrying out photosynthesis use quantum coherence. A chlorophyll molecule captures photons and then delivers it to the reaction center where it is converted to chemical energy. It doesn’t take one route while getting to the reaction center; instead, it takes multiple routes to maximize the chances of reaching the reaction center quickly without dispelling heat as waste.
In the early 1960s, scientist fondled with the idea of quantum tunneling taking place inside the DNA, or more precisely, how they influence mutations in DNA. In the double helix structure, the two strands are held together by steps that are like a twisted staircase and those steps are the hydrogen bonds. Proton acts as the binding agent between them and holds the big molecules of nucleotide together. If we focus further within, we can see double hydrogen bonds. But both bonds are faced opposite to each other but sometimes they switch sides and when they break and get replicated, that is how mutations occur.
We are already applying quantum physics to technologies such as the quantum computer, and a handful of photons were teleported to spaces from Earth by Chinese scientists. We also know that quantum processes take place inside our very bodies. Quantum mechanics playing a role in mutation means that there is a possibility that genetic diseases can be cured or mutations that take place in a cancerous cell can be reversed.
But, with new technologies that are clearing the path for fields such as Quantum Biology on the horizon, it does not seem incorrect to state that we are at the precipice of a major and fundamentally astronomical breakthrough that may very well change the course of our lives forever.