L I F E !
have been attacked by physicists ignorant of biology and by
biologists ignorant of physics who
can consequently neither
understand my theories nor judge my
Lakhovksy quoted in Smith & Best (1989)
No definition for 'life' will here be attempted on the grounds that, in fact, definition is the last thing we achieve.
A common focus in
Biology and physics now naturally meet in the research and development driving nanotechnological
innovation where, given the scale of working, living systems are first point of reference and resource for nanotech 'parts'. Best
summary of this comes from the website sales blurb for Quantum Aspects of Life, a signal publication from Abbott, Davies & Pati (2008)
(with Foreword by Roger Penrose) aiming to establish mainstream foundation for quantum life science.
'The burgeoning fields of nanotechnology,
biotechnology, quantum technology and quantum information processing are now strongly converging
... [at their focus is] ... the living cell  an information replicating and processing system that is replete with naturally
evolved nano-machines, which at some level require a quantum mechanical description. As quantum engineering and nanotechnology
meet, increasing use will be made of biological structures  for producing novel devices for information storage, processing
and other tasks. An understanding of these systems at a quantum mechanical level will be indispensable.'
The theoretical remit of their approach is characterised as being
to do with 'bio-info-nano-systems' (BINS) and intrinsically recognises living systems as exemplar for some sort
of information processing. So too the computing industry has realised it can learn from living systems organisation
and such is the drive for a catalogue of parts that Microsoft and many other research units around the world have plans
to model the biological cell computationally. Vast resources are, therefore, today given over to the collation
and organisation of the relevant data. One wonders how they will make it work, i.e., how it is to be made
animate, what logic or real power might be proposed as ordinating and driving the dynamics and identities of
these vast carbon-systems based atomic arrays, without their having to realise the quantum nature of living
The completion date estimated for the mapping of the cell, according to the Microsoft
Towards 20:20 Science report, is 2015, this being poetically congruent with the best estimate of Professor Martin
Plenio (Imperial College) as to the limit on computational development indicated by Moore's Law. As the problem
is essentially a matter of component scaling it has long been proposed that beating it will require quantum computing,
but 30 years or so of physics based research in this area have gained little beyond the principles of molecular nets, DNA
as a nanowire and using the quantum states of atoms for data storage in information processing. For the gedanken
experiment to be undertaken here just this much is enough and quickly takes us to a very different
vision of the living state and science.
Is it not then a magical irony that in seeking
answer to Moore's Law and raiding the naturally nano-scaled systems of the cell for components with which
to construct the perfect qubit, we are brought to realise that just such an object can in fact be found within
the living cell? We reach the heights of irony when it is borne in mind that this much sought-for object is actually
listed and illustrated on Wikipedia!
One day we will all look back on this and laugh.
When you get down to it, how could we ever have been so 'unscientific' as to imagine that living systems are anything
other than the result of fabulously complex quantum systems working? Living systems are themselves 'emergent',
in both instantaneous and evolutionary scale and thus require material and energetic means by which their realised
state is maintained, i.e., how anything 'works', strictly speaking, is not within the remit of life science,
but the natural ground of physics. Putting it another way, you cannot solve the 'problem' that is
life, i.e., biology, by doing biology.
The thing is, things aren't things, they only appear to be things
and in fact all apparent things are dynamic and transient resonance structures. For the scale of living things
as we know them the resonance structures of interest are necessarily those of the component elements, in this case, given
that we are essaying into the wilds of quantum systems, quite literally the component elements.
Realisation of the quantum description of living systems would
not only be the ultimate achievement of the structuralist movement, but it is also naturally a requirement for quantum theory
if it is ever to be claimed as 'complete'.
Transition to the quantum vision as
the basis of future living systems analysis can be effected by a number of means, the simplest of which is through
language. As pointed out earlier, it is after all only a trick of history that set the study of living
systems as work under the name of Aristotle's 'biology' rather than anything we today, better informed,
might now use in description, such as 'carbon physics', 'carbon systems physics' or even 'quantum
systems physics'. Only at the limits of this description can we begin to define any transcendent or emergent phenomenology
that might then constitute the 'bio-logos'.
and Man - as exemplar and ultimum
Certainly, these highly evolved, highly complex, massive
atomic arrays generated by
quantum self-organisation, working from the scale of the atom upwards, after some
billion years - effectively a working rate of adding a base pair per year in terms of
average sequence length
- are readily identifiable as exemplars of complexity and,
in man, realise the complexity that is consciousness,
still to us a mystery and surely
some supremum of creation in terms of physics and information theory.
The exemplary status of living systems for nanosystems technologies is reflected in
as many aspects as disciplines
that attempt assay:
For organic nanotechnology:
' ... this view regards biological nanotechnology
not just as the existence proof for
nanotechnology but as an upper limit of its capabilities.'
For non- or far-from- equilibrium physics:
' ... we believe
that biological dynamics is the example of non-equilibrium physics.
Until now, much of the emphasis in the study of non-equilibrium systems has been
on small departures from equilibrium
...  ... Biology, though, may provide the
jumping-off point for systematic and predictive ideas on non-equilibrium
(Phillips & Quake, 2006).
Strangely, despite these many points of recognition
for the exemplary status of
living systems, most especially as has emerged in the phenomenon of man and that
we call 'consciousness' and all that is therein entailed (which is sort of every-
science, mathematics and quantum theory, this is apparently not
appreciated by all and it seems natural complex
systems are not a reference point
for some areas of quantum information theory.
of the quantum working of living systems, from proton tunnelling and electron transport, to birds 'seeing' magnetic
fields and photosynthetic systems operation being dependant on quantum coherence, has now sufficiently moved into the mainstream
such that New Scientist dares to declare that 'Quantum biology has come in from the cold' and will
' ... change the way we think about photosynthesis and quantum computing.' (6 Feb, 2010). (The reference
to 'quantum computing' arises out of current thinking around using light for computation).
Signature to the mainstream shift is publication of Quantum Aspects of Life, a discussion document with
contribution by two scientists both well respected by their peers and also heavily committed to the public understanding
of science. Both are also very efficient in terms of public engagement and publication, so there is a growing and
urgent need for all the life sciences to be aware of the quantum structuralist movement growing around them.
That Davies and Penrose's efforts have not been in vain is substantiated by the increasing number of meetings
being called to bring mainstream focus on the quantum analysis of living systems, e.g., The Physical Cell, London June
2010 (via Imperial and UCL). Worldwide similar such meetings have been running for decades, but as part of what mainstream
science would regard as backwater research. To bring such a vision to the home of the mainstream theoretic must
be seen by all as sure signature of change - unwanted perhaps by those comfortable in their niche, but long overdue to those
who have come to doubt the sufficiency of the Darwinian theoretic.