LIFE ON THE EDGE by Johnjoe McFadden


The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
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Notes toward an understanding of quantum mechanics’ part in biological processes.

For readers who are not quantum physicists, let us take solace from Niels Bohr (“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it”) and Richard Feynman (“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”). McFadden (Molecular Genetics/Univ. of Surrey; Quantum Evolution: How Physics' Weirdest Theory Explains Life's Biggest Mystery, 2002, etc.) and Al-Khalili (Theoretical Physics/Univ. of Surrey; Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics, 2012, etc.) deliver a book that can be approached with healthy openness to entertain the mind-bending applications of quantum theory to biology suggested here. Borderlands are always mysterious places, and none more so than that between the classical and quantum worlds, though the authors note that there has been enough experimentation for us to entertain the role of quantum properties in the kindling of life and subsequent behavioral components. They begin with how the act of measurement erases so many of the spooky quantum states: particles being two things at once, being in more than one place at a time, and entangled with subatomic partners so that even at great distances they influence one another, tunneling through the impermeable. In each chapter, the authors tackle a particular issue, but they also range freely to introduce topics—waves and lumps, decoherence, the kinetic isotope effect, enzyme reactions—that exhibit quantum behavior, while not suggesting that quantum theory explains everything. The elemental provocation of the book lies in the authors’ ability to make the complex conceivable. When they write, “photosynthetic systems were indeed implementing a quantum search strategy,” and thus “the origin of life could similarly involve some kind of search scenario,” readers can question it intelligently.

McFadden and Al-Khalili give sure footing to the anything-goes bafflement of quantum theory, making it approachable even for neophytes.

Pub Date: July 28th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-307-98681-8
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2015


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