Monday, 10 February 2014

Jim Al-Khalili - Quantum Biology Seminar

I've been a big fan of Jim Al-Khalili's for a while now. I think it was his TV series on the history of chemistry ("Chemistry: a volatile history) that "ignited" my interest in him and I've been a fan since. I like to think of him as "the thinking man's Brian Cox" which isn't meant to be insulting to Cox, as he goes for a much broader and younger audience but Jim's presentations are usually a lot more detailed and devoid of phrases like "stuff" and when he says "billions" he means it rather than it meaning "lots".

Anyway the University of Bristol invited him to give his seminar on quantum biology. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss and I turned up 30 minutes early, eager to get a good seat at a full capacity talk.

As usual the talk was expertly delivered at a level that suited a university audience consisting of chemists, physicists and biologists. I think I found the history of the field the most interesting in the sense it can be traced back almost a hundred years which was news to me. A really interesting observation was how a champion and pioneer of the field, Pascual Jordan, essentially destroyed it by being an avid supporter and member of the Nazi party. Just goes to show how politics and society can have a profound effect on the advancement of science.

If I was being honest I'd say the meat of the talk discussing the potential examples of quantum biology in nature wasn't as impressive as the things he usually discusses. I think that's just because as a biologist I'm already aware and familiar with the examples he gave. I'm much more impressed when he's talking about pure physics but I guess that's just because the unfamiliar is more exciting to me. I'm sure there are physicists out there who find the biology just as fascinating.

One thing I did appreciate though was that he discussed some of his own research and it was nice to see he is still active in science outside of communicating it. It was also fun to see him get some in depth questions/grilling from quantum chemists in the audience and to see him defend his ideas. I'd have liked to pick his brains a bit more about his biological approach as I got the impression he was treating DNA as a molecule that existed in a vacuum whereas in life things get a lot more complicated (polymerases may auto- correct or the bulkier hydrogen atoms may be mutagenic through their increase in size alone). That said his basic idea of seeing whether DNA mutations can occur through quantum tunnelling is still interesting - even if biology itself may muddy these effects in vivo.

In conclusion it wasn't my favourite talk/presentation by Jim it was still an enjoyable hour and excellently delivered. He's still one of the best science communicators out there though and it was exciting to get a glimpse at Jim-the researcher for once. Well worth a look if he's giving the talk anywhere near you in the coming months.

UPDATE: It seems a few of you would like some examples of this Quantum Biology of which I speak. I forgot you weren't all at the seminar. Here are some links to get you started. If you want actual research papers you can probably pubmed it with the terms listed. Not all of these are excepted as fact yet but they are becoming very popular theories.

European Robin migrates via quantum entanglement
Quantum Theory of smell 
Superposition in Photosynthesis
Quantum tunneling in enzymatic reactions

and here are a few links that act as good introductions or reviews of Quantum Biology.

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