This week’s TED talk by nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili introduces the field of quantum biologyWhile it is not surprising that biology, which depends upon chemistry, which depends upon physics relies on quantum physics, Jim calls this “trivial.” Instead… “Quantum biology is about looking for the non-trivial — the counterintuitive ideas in quantum mechanics — and to see if they do, indeed, play an important role in describing the processes of life.”

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During his talk Jim provides several examples of biological phenomena that can only be explained or best explained using quantum mechanics. His examples include enzymes using quantum tunneling to transfer protons and electrons within substrates, the potential for DNA mutation due to protons involved in hydrogen bonds moving between opposing DNA strands via quantum tunneling, quantum coherence in bacterial photosynthetic enzymes, and quantum entanglement between electrons in the crytochrome protein inside the robin’s retina enabling it to sense the earth’s magnetic field (this one is speculative). 

While the title is a bit grandiose, the talk is still awe-inspiring. It might be time for biologists to actually consider quantum physics instead of assuming it’s effects are “washed out” due to the immense numbers of molecules and vast complexity of them in cells. His book looks like it has additional examples too and should be well worth the read.

What do you think about his talk? Convinced? Need more data? Too early in the game?

As the instances of quantum biology accumulate it may make for a highly fruitful dialogue partner with theology, especially in the area of divine action. From  John Polkinghorne’s suggestion that perhaps mutations are not completely random (this can actually be tested now due to NGS) to Robert Russell’s argument that God acts in nature without intervention via quantum mechanics, the possibilities for discussion are numerous.