Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

by Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili

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New York Times bestseller • Life on the Edge alters our understanding of our world's fundamental dynamics through the use of quantum mechanics.

Life is the most extraordinary phenomenon in the known universe; but how did it come to be? Even in an age of cloning and artificial biology, the remarkable truth remains: nobody has ever made anything living entirely out of dead material. Life remains the only way to make life. Are we still missing a vital ingredient in its creation?

Using first-hand experience at the cutting edge of science, Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe Macfadden reveal that missing ingredient to be quantum mechanics. Drawing on recent ground-breaking experiments around the world, each chapter in Life on the Edge illustrates one of life's puzzles: How do migrating birds know where to go? How do we really smell the scent of a rose? How do our genes copy themselves with such precision? Life on the Edge accessibly reveals how quantum mechanics can answer these probing questions of the universe.

Guiding the reader through the rapidly unfolding discoveries of the last few years, Al-Khalili and McFadden describe the explosive new field of quantum biology and its potentially revolutionary applications, while offering insights into the biggest puzzle of all: what is life? As they brilliantly demonstrate in these groundbreaking pages, life exists on the quantum edge.

Winner, Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307986832
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 07/28/2015
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 74,562
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Johnjoe McFadden is Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey and is the editor of several leading text books. For over a decade, he has specialized in examining tuberculosis and meningitis, inventing the first successful molecular test for the latter. He is the author of Quantum Evolution and co-editor of Human Nature: Fact and Fiction.

Jim Al-Khalili OBE is an academic, author, and broadcaster. He is a leading theoretical physicist based at the University of Surrey, where he teaches and carries out research in quantum mechanics. He has written a number of popular science books, including Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science. He has presented several television and radio documentaries, including the BAFTA-nominated Chemistry: A Volatile History and The Secret Life of Chaos.

Read an Excerpt



The winter frost has arrived early this year in Europe and there is a penetrating chill in the evening air. Buried deep within a young robin's mind, a once vague sense of purpose and resolve grows stronger.

The bird has spent the past few weeks devouring far more than her normal intake of insects, spiders, worms and berries and is now almost double the weight that she was when her brood flew the nest back in August. This extra bulk is mostly fat reserves, which she will require as fuel for the arduous journey upon which she is about to embark.

This will be her first migration away from the spruce forest in central Sweden where she has lived for the duration of her short life and where she reared her young chicks just a few months ago. Luckily for her, the previous winter was not too harsh, for a year ago she was not yet fully grown and therefore not strong enough to undertake such a long journey. But now, with her parental responsibilities discharged until next spring, she has only herself to think about, and she is ready to escape the coming winter by heading south to seek a warmer climate.

It is a couple of hours after sunset. Rather than settle for the night, she hops in the gathering gloom to the tip of a branch near the base of the huge tree that she has made her home since the spring. She gives herself a quick shake, much like a marathon runner loosening up her muscles before a race. Her orange breast glistens in the moonlight. The painstaking effort and care she invested in building her nest--just a few feet away, partially hidden against the moss-covered bark of the tree trunk--is now a dim memory.

She is not the only bird preparing to depart, for other robins--both male and female--have also decided that this is the right night to begin their long migration south. In the trees all around her she hears loud, shrill singing that drowns out the usual sounds of other nocturnal woodland creatures. It is as though the birds feel compelled to announce their departure, sending out a message to the other forest inhabitants that they should think twice before contemplating invading the birds' territory and empty nests while they are gone. For these robins most certainly plan to be back in the spring.

With a quick tilt of her head this way and that to make sure the coast is clear, she takes off into the evening sky. The nights have been lengthening with winter's advance and she will have a good ten hours or so of flying ahead of her before she can rest again.

She sets off on a course bearing of 195° (15° to the west of due south). Over the coming days she will carry on flying in, more or less, this same direction, covering two hundred miles on a good day. She has no idea what to expect along the journey, nor any sense of how long it will take. The terrain around her spruce wood is a familiar one, but after a few miles she is flying over an alien moonlit landscape of lakes, valleys and towns.

Somewhere near the Mediterranean she will arrive at her destination; although she is not heading for any specific location, when she does arrive at a favorable spot she will stop, memorizing the local landmarks so that she can return there in the coming years. If she has the strength, she may even fly all the way across to the North African coast. But this is her first migration, and her only priority now is to escape the biting cold of the approaching Nordic winter.

She seems oblivious to the surrounding robins that are all flying in roughly the same direction, some of which will have made the journey many times before. Her night vision is superb, but she is not looking for any landmarks--as we might were we making such a journey--nor is she tracking the pattern of the stars in the clear night sky by consulting her internal celestial map, as many other nocturnal migrating birds do. Instead, she has a rather remarkable skill and several million years of evolution to thank for her capacity to make what will become an annual autumn migration, a trip of some two thousand miles.

Migration is, of course, commonplace in the animal kingdom. Every winter, for instance, salmon spawn in the rivers and lakes of northern Europe, leaving young fry that, after hatching, follow the course of their river out to sea and into the North Atlantic, where they grow and mature; three years later, these young salmon return to breed in the same rivers and lakes where they spawned. New World monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles southward across the entire United States in the autumn. They, or their descendants (as they will breed en route), then return north to the same trees in which they pupated in the spring. Green turtles that hatch on the shores of Ascension Island in the South Atlantic swim across thousands of miles of ocean before returning, every three years, to breed on the exact same eggshell-littered beach from which they emerged. The list goes on: many species of birds, whales, caribou, spiny lobsters, frogs, salamanders and even bees are all capable of undertaking journeys that would challenge the greatest human explorers.

How animals manage to find their way around the globe has been a mystery for centuries. We now know that they employ a variety of methods: some use solar navigation during the day and celestial navigation at night; some memorize landmarks; others can even smell their way around the planet. But the most mysterious navigational sense of all is the one possessed by the European robin: the ability to detect the direction and strength of the earth's magnetic field, known as magnetoreception. And while we now know of a number of other creatures that possess this ability, it is the way the European robin (Erithacus rubecula) finds her way across the globe that is of greatest interest to our story.

The mechanism that enables our robin to know how far to fly, and in which direction, is encoded in the DNA she inherited from her parents. This ability is a sophisticated and unusual one--a sixth sense that she uses to plot her course. For, like many other birds, and indeed insects and marine creatures, she has the ability to sense the earth's weak magnetic field and to draw directional information from it by way of an inbuilt navigational sense, which in her case requires a novel type of chemical compass.

Magnetoreception is an enigma. The problem is that the earth's magnetic field is very weak--between 30 and 70 microtesla at the surface: sufficient to deflect a finely balanced and almost frictionless compass needle, but only about a hundredth the force of a typical fridge magnet. This presents a puzzle: for the earth's magnetic field to be detected by an animal it must somehow influence a chemical reaction somewhere in the animal's body--this is, after all, how all living creatures, ourselves included, sense any external signal. But the amount of energy supplied by the interaction of the earth's magnetic field with the molecules within living cells is less than a billionth of the energy needed to break or make a chemical bond. How, then, can that magnetic field be perceptible to the robin?

Mysteries, however small, are fascinating because there's always the possibility that their solution may lead to a fundamental shift in our understanding of the world. Copernicus's ponderings in the sixteenth century on a relatively minor problem concerning the geometry of the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system, for instance, led him to shift the center of gravity of the entire universe away from humankind. Darwin's obsession with the geographical distribution of animal species and the mystery of why isolated island species of finches and mockingbirds tend to be so specialized led him to propose his theory of evolution. And German physicist Max Planck's solution to the mystery of blackbody radiation, concerning the way warm objects emit heat, led him to suggest that energy came in discrete lumps called "quanta," leading to the birth of quantum theory in the year 1900. So, could the solution to the mystery of how birds find their way around the globe lead to a revolution in biology? The answer, bizarre as it may seem, is: yes.

But mysteries such as this are also a haunt of pseudoscientists and mystics; as the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins stated in 1976, "the study of magnetic field effects on chemical reactions has long been a romping ground for charlatans."1 Indeed, all manner of exotic explanations, from telepathy and ancient ley lines (invisible pathways connecting various archaeological or geographical sites that are supposedly endowed with spiritual energy) to the concept of "morphic resonance" invented by the controversial parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake, have at some point been proposed as mechanisms used by migratory birds to guide them along their routes. Atkins's reservations in the 1970s were thus understandable, reflecting a skepticism prevalent among most scientists working at that time toward any suggestion that animals might be able to sense the earth's magnetic field. There just did not seem to be any molecular mechanism that would allow an animal to do so--at least, none within the realms of conventional biochemistry.

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Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Casey07 More than 1 year ago
Although the subject is very interesting, the attempts by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili to make it readable for those without a scientific background makes it hard to follow at times. McFadden and Al-Khalili appeared worried that they would not attract or lose readers if the focus was too detailed quantum biology. What I did find enjoyable about the book was that they devoted each chapter to a particular topic rather than mixing them as I have run across in other similar types of science related books. While making it an easier read, it lacked the punch of other books. I recommend this book for those who have an interest in the subject matter, but have had limited exposure to the subject. I received this book through the Blogging for Books website courtesy of Broadway books, the publisher. It was with the understanding that I would post a review on Blogging for Books, my book review site, Goodreads, Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I also posted it to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages. I requested this book as I found the subject matter to be of interest. It is the first book by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili that I have read.
CynthiaSueLarson More than 1 year ago
The brilliant debut of quantum biology "Life on the Edge" provides an excellent overview of exciting discoveries and breakthroughs in the brand new field of quantum biology. Molecular biologist JohnJoe McFadden teams up with physicist Jim Al-Khalili to provide just the right amount of scientific background in order that non-scientifically educated readers can understand what kinds of quantum phenomena are being observed in biological systems, how scientists recognize this to be true, and why it matters. A quiet revolution has begun in the way we understand biology that has the power to completely transform our worldview and lives. This revolution is happening slowly, as a body of evidence begins to build. This evidence comes from a wide variety of biological systems indicating that quantum processes previously assumed to be relegated exclusively to the microscopic realm of quantum physics can explain some of biology's biggest mysteries. And as one might expect in a brand new field such as quantum biology, evidence is still coming in, so only a few examples--such as photosynthesizing plants definitely demonstrating quantum coherence and the ability to transport energy according to a quantum random walk--can be presented with complete confidence at this time. Other biological examples, such as our sense of smell involving quantum teleportation, and the European robin's ability to navigate thanks to a quantum-entangled radical pair mechanism appear to be fairly solid. In 1943, physicist Erwin Schrodinger presented the idea that biological life is dependent upon quantum processes at a very fundamental level. At a time when most scientists chose to focus primarily on classical physics when considering biological life forms, Schrodinger proposed the novel idea that biological heredity is based upon the principle of "order from order," rather than "order from disorder" classical laws. McFadden and Al-Khalili state, "Just as Erwin Schrodinger predicted, quantum genes encode the classical structure and function of every microbe, plant and animal that has ever lived. This is not an accident, nor is it irrelevant, because high-fidelity copying of genes simply would not work if they were classical structures: they are too small not to be influenced by quantum rules." (p. 229) One of the things I most appreciate about "Life on the Edge" is the painstaking attention to detail when providing scientific and historic background information pertaining to each quantum biological example. "Life on the Edge" hits just the right mark in terms of drawing the reader in with tantalizing aspects regarding some of the challenges facing various scientists, and describing how scientific theories are in the process of being revised. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in seeing where biology is headed next--or simply curious to learn about some of the deepest mysteries of life. I was provided a complementary review copy in exchange for an honest review.
robtennant More than 1 year ago
The subtitle of this book is ‘The Coming Age of Quantum Biology.’ It is a book about science and I am particularly weak in my understanding of science. Beyond that general disclaimer about me as a reader of science books, “Life on the Edge” is about the quantum realm and how it relates to biology. The quantum realm is not fully understood, but where it is fully integrated in the conversation is physics, not biology. I told a friend, a retire professor of biology at a major university, that I was reading a book on quantum biology. A skeptical expression came over his face. “Quantum biology?” He asked. My feeble efforts to summarize the book were unconvincing to him. So, that’s a couple of disclaimers. I don’t understand science. And I really don’t understand quantum science. A third disclaimer is that I am a Christian pastor – a theist. The authors make passing allusions to scripture. There book is a science book, not a theology book. But they cannot resist making theological assertions. The first example comes on page 27. They identify that prior to advancements in scientific knowledge, ancient people held that some kind of “vital force” or “spirit” animated nonliving things to make them alive. “Vital forces” are terms the authors use. Why they don’t just say “God,” I don’t know. But that’s fine. Here is what caught my eye on page 27. They say, “We will [not] be claiming any kind of force, spirit, or magic ingredient animates life. Our story is much more interesting than that.” What? I have heard scientists say that the only knowledge that is real knowledge is scientifically acquired knowledge. This is the first time that beyond knowledge, I hear scientists claim expertise in the area of what is interesting. So, just to summarize. The authors assert that what they will discuss in their book, quantum theory as it relates to biology, is “much more interesting” than any type of theological contemplation. And then they go on for over 300 pages of failure. Because at the end, all they offer is a series of speculations that have not been proven nor gained widespread acceptance. They say at the beginning, “It is worth remembering that even in this age of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, nothing living has ever been made by humans entirely from nonliving materials” (27). The authors name as the biggest question in science as the question of how inert atoms and molecules found in rocks are transformed every day into running, jumping … living stuff. That is the big question. They also say, it has not happened, not by human efforts. It has happened either by natural selection, a random process with no intentionality. Or, it has happened by God’s intervention. But real scientists aren’t allowed to point to God. By the way, I agree with that. Once God is named as a cause, then something is happening and describing this happening is beyond what science is equipped to do. Once God is an effective participant in the story, the story is beyond science. Why that leads scientists to disregard God as if God doesn’t exist, I don’t know. When they do that, they put all their trust, their faith if you will, in the scientific process of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Natural Selection is the biologist’s god, not to be questioned, doubted, or challenged. There is no question that cannot be answered by appealing to the evolutionary process that stands on the random process of natural selection.
Teresa_Konopka More than 1 year ago
I am fascinated with quantum mechanics, so this book immediately stood out to me. How does quantum mechanics relate to biology? Obviously, there are quantum particles such as electrons in living matter. However, these authors really take it a step further to explain and postulate how quantum mechanics aids in common biological processes. From photosynthesis to enzyme action to the concept to the soul, and more, this book dives deep. Of particular interest was the idea that quantum mechanics is responsible for the compass in creatures such as birds and butterflies that allows them to migrate on precise magnetic headings to their migratory destinations. Also fascinating was the concept of how quantum mechanics works with the sense of smell in creatures. This book was great. My only criticism is that it could have had more pictures. When discussing complex chemical phenomena, sometimes words alone can not convey the whole story. I work as a rocket scientist by day, and even I had to read many paragraphs multiple times before I got the gist.
PAwriter4kids More than 1 year ago
The authors discuss the mind-bending theories of quantum mechanics using concrete examples of animal behavior and human biology. How do robins migrate? How do enzymes and genes propagate efficiently and error-free? How can photosynthesis proceed as quickly as it does? The field of quantum mechanics is as complex as life itself, and the authors take time to examine how being in two places at once, spooky connections and travel through impenetrable barriers is reality, not science fiction. This being said, I wouldn't recommend this book to someone without some background in science or a serious desire to learn more. Despite the use of helpful figures, an overview isn't enough to explain some of the concepts and I found myself needing to reread sections. My favorite parts? Contemplating the rearrangement of molecules from tadpole to frog. Envisioning the creative thinking process when Nobel prize-winner Dudley Herschbach asked German researcher Klaus Schulten "where in the bird is the laser?" (p. 190) And most of all the comparison of decoherence dampening in laboratories (reducing noise) as compared to biologic systems (using noise).
LorettaM More than 1 year ago
Okay, I think I bit off more than I could chew, so to speak. The reason I chose this book to read is because #1, I saw a movie called “Coherence” which fascinated me a couple of years ago. I am a big fan of Science Fiction and this movie really “twisted my brain”. I enjoyed it, and it involved Quantum Theories of which I no nothing about. I didn’t even get an A in Science or Biology in high school, so this was a difficult read, as slow read. The #2 reason is, I enjoyed the series Wayward Pines based on a book by Blake Crouch. He also wrote a fiction book this year, based on researched scientific quantum theories titled,“Dark Matter”, and it was a wonderful read. So, I thought I would read an actual book on Quantum Theory, Physics and Biology. A lot to wrap my head around. John joe and Jim Al are actual researchers of Physics, so I chose this book. The book starts out explaining bird migration and magnetic fields, to help those who are not familiar with quantum theory. It really captivates the imagination on where Quantum theories are going. There are drawings and figures to illustrate what the authors are explaining. It really helps, but I wish they had more illustrations. The book is well written and researched. I am going to have to go back and reread it slowly to ingest what was explained since I am not a Physicist. I would recommend this book to those who are interested in Physics and Quantum theories, and Biology. A real brain buster! I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.