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Life on the Edge Shortlisted for 2015 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

Many congratulations indeed to Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden for making the shortlist of the prestigious Royal Society Winton Prize for the best Scientific Book of the Year.

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Published to wonderful reviews in the UK by Doubleday, LIFE ON THE EDGE is the first book to take a lay audience into the startling quantum science that underlies our biological and physical world: an entirely new scientific field brought brilliantly to life by the eminent physicist, lecturer and academic, Professor Jim al-Khalili, writing with the equally eminent Professor of Molecular Genetics, Johnjoe McFadden, a scientist who also holds the distinction of having developed the first molecular test for meningitis.

It’s that combination of a biologist and a physicist working together, allied to the fact that both authors are unusually good writers, which has led the book to receive such responses as:

“LIFE ON THE EDGE gives the clearest account I’ve ever read of the possible ways in which the very small events of the quantum world can affect the world of middle-sized living creatures like us. With great vividness and clarity it shows how our world is tinged, even saturated, with the weirdness of the quantum”
-- Philip Pullman

“This illuminating account of an important new field is a wonderfully educative read”.
-- A.C. Grayling

“Hugely ambitious ... the skill of the writing provides the uplift to keep us aloft as we fly through the strange and spectacular terra incognita of genuinely new science.”
-- Tom Whipple, The Times

Along with the superb critical responses, the joy is that LIFE ON THE EDGE has gone on to sell to sixteen translation publishers, across a spectrum from Blucher in Brazil to Ullstein in Germany to Sun Color in Taiwan.

Also just published in America by the Crown imprint of Penguin Random House, LIFE ON THE EDGE received an immediate sales’ boost – at one point rising to no 28 in the Amazon.com Top 100 bestseller list – when the Wall Street Journal devoted their review front on Saturday 1st August to the book.

If you’d like to read the book, you can buy a copy online or in your local book shop.

In what can only be described as a rave response, John Gribbin wrote of LIFE ON THE EDGE that:

By John Gribbin/Wall Street Journal. Saturday. 1st August 2015

There is a sense in which all of biology is quantum biology. The entangled strands of DNA, the famous double helix of the molecule of life, are held together by a quantum phenomenon known as hydrogen bonding. The way in which those strands untwist and build new double helixes during the process of reproduction is at heart a quantum phenomenon, closely related to the way in which quantum entities such as electrons can be both wave and particle at the same time.

In their remarkable book, “Life on the Edge,” Johnjoe McFadden, an expert in molecular genetics, and Jim Al-Khalili, a quantum physicist, join forces to explain many everyday aspects of life in terms of what is often referred to as quantum weirdness. After teasing the reader with an introduction presenting the puzzle of how birds can detect the Earth’s magnetic field and use it for navigation, the authors lead us gently by the hand through discussions of the nature of life itself, right down to the molecular level and the mysteries of quantum physics. This is material that has been covered in many books but nowhere more succinctly and clearly than here. The authors have an easily accessible style, free from jargon, that can make complex issues clear even to the non-scientist.

Thus prepared, we are ready for an explanation of what they call “the quantum robin"-the workings of the magnetic sense organ in birds and other animals. It turns out that this ability is linked to the phenomenon known as “entanglement”: Entanglement involves two or more quantum entities, such as electrons, being in some sense in tune with each other, so that when one of them is prodded the other one twitches-even when they are separated by great distances. And in certain circumstances, as Messrs. McFadden and Al-Khalili explain, this makes molecules in the animal’s sense organ sensitive to the direction of a magnetic field.

This is a profound realization, because entanglement is such a bizarre concept, that for decades even many physicists doubted that it could be real. Albert Einstein famously referred to it as “spooky action at a distance.” The equations tell us that once two particles have interacted, then forever afterward, no matter how far apart they are, a measurement of one particle will instantaneously affect the properties of the other. As Einstein wrote to his friend Leon Rosenfeld: “Is it not paradoxical? How can the final state of the second particle be influenced by a measurement performed on the first, after all physical connection has ceased between them?” He believed that this paradox highlighted a flaw in quantum theory, and he went to his grave still looking for a better description of the universe. But he was wrong. In the 1980s (and repeatedly since), experiments involving photons, the particles of light, have proved that the spooky action at a distance is real.

In that case, it should be expected that natural processes make use of it. Why shouldn’t they? Life uses whatever is available, whether that thing is food, energy or quantumly entangled particles. So it should be no surprise when the authors explain that monarch butterflies and fruit flies are among other species that make use of quantum effects in navigation. Nor are quantum processes confined to the animal world. Photosynthesis is the mechanism in plants that provides the energy used to manufacture plant material, and ultimately the food we eat, out of basic chemicals such as water and carbon dioxide. This, too, depends on quantum processes that “push” the absorbed energy of sunlight in the right direction.

“Pre-quantum” physics-the laws discovered by Isaac Newton-is often referred to as classical physics. “Most biologists,” the authors point out, “still believe that the classical laws are sufficient” to explain photosynthesis, “with light acting like some kind of golf club able to whack the oxygen golf ball out of the carbon dioxide molecule.” But, like Einstein contemplating spooky action at a distance, they are wrong. The key step in the process involves electrons “hopping” from one molecule to another. Some extraordinary experiments described in this book have revealed that this energy is flowing through the plant by, in effect, following several routes simultaneously, thanks to a phenomenon known as coherence. This is a purely quantum effect.

This discovery is particularly exciting because quantum coherence is a concept that many of the physicists working on the development of “quantum computers” have incorporated into their designs. Not for the first time, nature got there before the scientists and so far does a better job of “computing” the most efficient way to get energy from A to B. Not that the quantum computer scientists were quick to embrace this idea: Messrs. McFadden and Al-Khalili quote one of them describing his colleagues’ immediate reaction when they saw a New York Times article suggesting that plants might operate as quantum computers: “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, that’s the most crackpot thing I’ve heard in my life.’ “ But they have since changed their tune.

All this is dramatic enough and well worth the price of admission. But the authors have saved the best-if admittedly the most speculative-idea for (nearly) last: that quantum procedures help explain consciousness and the mechanics of thought, as surely as they do photosynthesis. Tracing the process of painting a picture (the authors imagine an artist in Paleolithic times painting a picture of a bison on a cave wall) from the fingertips of the artist back through the muscles and neurons in the arm to the brain, they investigate the chemistry at every step. At one level, this is an entirely causal, mechanistic chain of processes, like that of a machine. But who, or what, is in charge of the machine? Who is pulling the levers? Is there really such thing as a self, or are we merely zombies?

It is an old question, going back to philosophers such as Descartes. How does mind make matter move? The new answer presented here draws from the physics behind those quantum computers. Where an “ordinary” computer can be thought of as operating through a series of switches that can be set to 0 or 1, the power of a quantum computer depends on the ability of quantum entities to be in two states at the same time, known as a superposition. So the switches in a quantum computer are both on and off (set at 0 and set at 1) at the same time. Building on ideas proposed by the Oxford physicist Roger Penrose, Messrs. McFadden and Al-Khalili look at the quantum chemistry that just might be involved in conscious thought. “The scheme,” they say, “is certainly speculative, but it does at least provide a plausible link between the quantum and classical realms in the brain.” After all, if a plant can operate like a quantum computer in carrying out the process of photosynthesis, why couldn’t a human brain act as a quantum computer in carrying out the processes of thought? Given nature’s ability to make use of whatever is available, it would be surprising if it did not. The authors’ Paleolithic artist is “not a zombie,” and neither are you, at least not if their theory is accurate.

After such a daring hypothesis, almost anything would be an anticlimax-even a chapter discussing the puzzle of how life first began. It would seem more natural to have this before the discussion of consciousness, since, after all, life began before it became conscious. Still, this is an important topic that could not be left out of a book such as this. For my (hopefully conscious) mind, though, this is the weakest section of “Life on the Edge,” the most speculative, and not entirely convincing. There are clearly more questions than answers, but at least this means that there is plenty of work for the next generation of quantum biologists to do.

It may not be necessary, though, to understand how life began to use an understanding of how life operates today at the quantum level to build completely artificial living organisms from the bottom up. Such a process would require what the authors call “living technology” to manufacture from scratch organisms such as microbes that could produce antibiotics tailored to human requirements. This would be quite different from recent experiments with “artificial” life, which involve tinkering with DNA molecules, introducing them into already living cells and persuading those cells to function in accordance with the instructions coded in the new DNA. This top-down approach is inefficient because even after being “adapted” in this way, such modified cells continue to make lots of stuff that is of no use to us. The bottom-up approach would result in what the authors describe as “a brave new world of quantum synthetic living organisms that could free their natural-born relatives from the drudgery of providing humanity with most of its needs.” A fine sentiment-unless, of course, those synthetic organisms turn out to be conscious.

“Life on the Edge” is a fascinating and thought-provoking book that combines solid science, reasonable extrapolation from the known into the unknown, and plausible speculation to give an accessible overview of a revolutionary transformation in our understanding of the living world. I will certainly look at robins with more respect in future.

05 Aug 2015