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Friday, July 29, 2016

Life on the Edge: Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden #Review


Life_on_the_Edge: Coming of Age of Quantum BiologyJim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden

       The book is pillared on Erwin Schrödinger’s "What is Life?", written in 1943, based on a series of public lectures given at Trinity College Dublin and spoken of with almost reverence by the authors. The concept of life and consciousness is quintessentially the most thought-provoking question ever posed by humankind. The suggestion that quantum mechanics may lie at the defining edge between ‘live’ and ‘not-alive’ should invoke interest in the modern day scientist. This way "Life on the Edge" proposes "at least one of the missing pieces in the puzzle of life found within the world of quantum mechanics.”

In this book the authors, introduce two of the fascinating quantum physics phenomena, quantum tunneling and quantum superposition, via a number of seemingly commonplace biological topics: the homing precision of a migrating Robin, enzyme reactions at ‘normal’ temperatures, photosynthesis, and the anatomy of smelling. Most of us are familiar with quantum phenomena thanks to the advent of technologies such as electron microscopes, fast processors and MRI scanners. The weirdness of particles (or rather dual nature) in quantum systems is superposition of states until an observation is made goes well with 'gadenken' experiments like “Schrodinger's cat”. The act of observing the cat - alive or dead - forces the quantum states to become only one. This 'de-coherence’ of states is what separates the quantum world from the classical physics of our everyday world.

The macro world of biology, and everyday other occurrences, is shielded from the weird quantum stuff via thermodynamics - an aspect that has remained the debate between Einstein and Bohr (with Heisenberg). Many animals employ the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate by. It has been proposed that magnetite, found in the tissues of some migrating species such as bees and some birds, may provide the ability to sense weak magnetic fields with the aid of magneto-receptors.  An eye pigment, cryptochrome, acts as a chemical compass depending on free radical pairs being in a superposition of singlet and triplet states. This quantum entanglement is familiar to physicists from esoteric experiments involving particles in isolated systems. This ‘de-coherence’ of quantum reactions comes about because of the ‘noise’ of large thermodynamic systems. Nonetheless, the evidence is compelling, even if the mechanisms are not fully understood, some properties of living systems depend on quantum mechanical phenomena such as tunneling, coherence and entanglement (with ample and nice evidence of spooky effect narration).

When an incoming photon (light particle) hits a specialised photo-receptor in the robin’s eye, it creates two electrons that are “entangled” in a quantum sense. Entanglement is one of the most mysterious quantum properties, allowing particles to remain instantaneously connected however far apart they are – which Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”. Experiments show that entangled electron pairs can be extraordinarily sensitive to the orientation of magnetic fields, and the behaviour of the spinning electrons as they move apart in the robin’s eye giving the bird a quantum compass.

In addition to this ability of birds, other systems, photosynthesis and enzyme reactions, are given a compelling discussion in Life on the edge. The evidence of these diverse findings strongly suggests that biological systems employ quantum phenomena at the heart of their macro behaviour. This has huge implications for the study of large-scale quantum systems and their possible technological innovations. 

The book is aimed at a lay audience, and in this it should succeed admirably as is delivered from Al-Khalili, accurately and suitably referenced, sufficing further reading and backing up the scientific claims. "Life on the Edge" is a well-written introduction to one of the most fascinating areas of modern science – quantum biology. With about eighty percent of the book, the reader is buoyed with enough references like Extremophiles, Life out of Mud volcano, Miller's experiment on creating Amino Acids rolling drastic methods, Butterfly effect, probability with Tinba virus (with just 20 Kb in size) etc., but in the end there is a philosophical termination to these subjects with "consciousness" taking the theme. The proposed conclusion is that quantum theory can account for human consciousness, put forward by the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose in 1989 and adopted by a few others. 

Their idea is that quantum effects modulate the fluctuating electromagnetic fields in the brain that some scientists associate with consciousness, though there is no convincing evidence for this.  Here the authors take a sensibly cautious tone, warning against the argument that, just because consciousness is a mystery, something as mysterious as quantum theory will help to explain it. But they cannot resist asking: “Is it likely that the strange features of quantum mechanics we discovered to be involved in so many crucial phenomena of life are excluded from its most mysterious product, consciousness? We will leave the reader to decide.”

Good Read!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos - ‪‎Michio Kaku - Review

Looking at night you are actually looking into your past!
The book falls into three parts: the first reviews our discovery of modern cosmology, the second describes some of the more intellectually challenging and counter-intuitive aspects of modern physics, astrophysics and cosmology theories, the third considers possible long-term futures for existence, knowledge and the universe. Along the way the usual suspects are rounded up, with black holes, time travel, quantum entanglement, string theory, 11-dimensional M-branes, and the anthropic principle all getting a mention.
Filled with informational punches one can glide through the time from Classical physics to the present spooky baffle. That the first image Hubble could capture was that of the Universe 13 billion light years ago (With about 300 million black holes in our night sky!). Whether the universe expands forever into a deep freeze or eventually contracts back into a hellish dot containing all energy, the future looks grim. Nearly all cosmologists agree that our universe isn’t static. It’s apparently expanding at an accelerating rate.
This we deduce from many years research with ET telescopes, and very fast computers. Step by step with the observations are the mathematical reasonings. The uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics, relativity, string theory all try to correlate the forces, fields and particles that constitute our existence. But, once entering into the realm of mathematics, the equations can lead to places that aren’t observable. Therefore, the concept that a parallel world might exist given the way Physicists vouch to evaluate the 11 dimensions, comes to the fore.
A beginner can get a glimpse of the how the Universe might have formed starting from dense stars to nebulae to pulsars to dwarfs. Along the way, the author mentions the works of Newton, Halley, Darwin, Einstein, Gamow and other luminaries along with Godel's Universe, Kerr black hole, Casimir effect and Schwarzschild values. These references, however, don’t obscure the main thrust which is to enable understanding of our universe, but are rather significant. Kaku explains why the night is black (read Olber's paradox), how the uncertainty principle links to consciousness (what a jump), and where quantum theory can lead to infinite realities. And with these spectral information he vouches for Strings Theory. Why not? Everything not forbidden is compulsory.
The heart of the book is the exotic physics. The path along proves to be an intellectually challenging one, starting with black holes, and especially their much-debated possible implications for time-travel. At places there is no clear yes-no answer, since there is no agreed one. The continuing fascination of quantum mechanics is well-discussed. Uncertainty and certainty are discussed at the same vigour, but when you look into certainty, questions like "Can a tornado striking a junkyard build up a Boeing 747?", appear and put the entire onus on probability and thus the ultimate Schrodinger's thought experiment emerges significant.
The pace with which he describes the events is very fast so that one need to have learnt already a few basic things about the Universe. Some catchy references, from what I have liked, include:
# How would you suspend 50000 pounds of water in the air with no visible means of support? - Answer - Build a cloud
# Vacuum is already empty and there is discussion about false vacuum
# A donkey falling into a pit has negative energy an bringing it up to the surface you bring it to neutral state (I am reminded of the medico in Chennai, who dropped an innocent dog from a third floor as if he was evaluating Guinea-feather experiment on Energetics!)
# Why is Gravity stronger than the electromagnetic forces? Because it is only a monopole unlike magnetism or charge which has positive and negative sides.
# The secret of nature is about losing the symmetry. A single homogenous drop develops into a heterogeneous human being!
# Butterfly effect: At critical time even the fluttering of the wings of the butterfly sends ripples that can tip the balance of forces and set off powerful storms.
# Objects exist because humans are there! : If a tree falls in a forest no one is there to see it and it does not really fall then. something related to collapse of the wave.
# What is the smallest distance one can travel? For moving from point A to point B in a room, quoting Feynmann, you move through the Milky way and other stars!!
# The Universe is behaving like a driver who slows down.
The vast range of topics discussed embraces modern cosmology, a subject increasingly replacing quantum mechanics and elementary particle physics at the head of the great race for knowledge and a theory of everything. The universe will prove itself to be more interesting than we have yet imagined.
Here is the circle of anthropic principle which has no end: The Weak - Constants of nature must be tuned on to allow for intelligence. The Strong - An intelligence of some sort was required to tune Physical constants to allow for intelligence.
The book does add weight to your knowledge of the things that have been Created.