Quantum Life Science


Quantum mechanics has, in large part,
been passed over by the biologists.

Dr Roger Taylor, Robens Institute meeting, 
University of Surrey, 1995

The theoretical lineage that precedes quantum life science as it is now emerging is a complex admix of the structuralist drive to living systems description and the later enabling of that by the quantum revolution and the quantisation of energy.  For those that might wonder 'structuralism' - even as is discussed here, where we seek foundation for a quantum structuralism - is not a reductionist approach. 

The structuralist history extends most latterly from European Natuurphilosophy but, pre-quantum, theoretical development was constrained to rely on mathematical progress, geometric construction particularly and the required geometry - see link below - was a long time coming, almost 50 years after the quantum revolution in fact.


Whilst structuralist biology was held in stasis, however, the advent of the quantum 
revolution opened the way for physical analysis to extend to living systems and a
signal beginning for the physicists to make this move came from one of the founders
of the quantum revolution itself.

Schrodinger's 1944 What is Life? is perhaps most often quoted as inspiration for the
quantum path being taken to living systems analysis, but Paul Dirac in 1931 in fact
made more definitive statement on the issue and posited that the nature of life is
a fundamental and central question not only for biologists, but for physicists
as well

In the excitement of the quantum revolution, however, that view was never widely
accepted and only a small fraction of the physics community took up Dirac's
challenge (Phillips & Quake, 2006).   

By the time the quantum revolution was settling out, of course, the second world
war distracted all science and physics particularly.  Freed from that constraint
the mainstream might again have taken up the quantum life idea, especially when,
following Crick and Watson's 1953 characterisation of the structure of DNA, both
Bohr and Max Delbruck recognised that there would be a new physics within
the giant
molecules (Morrison, 1992).  It was, after all, the insistence of Pauling on
the basic importance of quantum chemistry that was decisive for Crick [and Watson]’s
work (Morrison, 1992) and, further, as 
Penrose reports, both Crick and Watson (as
well as J. B. S. Haldane and Maurice Wilkins) 'each expressed indebtedness to the
penetrating ideas that Schrodinger put forward'. 

Yet as Davies opines, more than six decades later 'Life still seems an almost magical
state of matter to physicists; furthermore, its origin from non-living chemicals is not
understood at all.' (Abbott et al., 2008). 

One has to wonder if part of the reason for this has to do with the larger philosophic
conclusions Schrodinger proposed as a result of his quantum based thinking which, to
say the least, are bleak.  Whilst obviously he was working from an informed position
for his time, it seemed to him that the evolutionary landscape of the cosmos - as
a slow slide to equilibrium - necessarily carried living systems and all other forms
with it, whereas, in fact, it is that cosmic slide that guarantees the free energies on
which living systems depend for their very existence.  It is all far more complex,
beautiful, subtle and profound than even Schrodinger could ever imagine ...

Whilst the majority of physicists may have stayed with the elaboration of quantum theory for the purposes of physics, there was also of course that fraction who were willing to explore the involvement of quantum processes in living systems.  It is this historical lineage of, to the mainstream, 'obscure' work, that is therefore little known outside of its own field and of which many mainstream workers, including those who would seek to contribute to the quantum life theoretic, seem to remain unaware, Penrose, Davies, Tegmark and Kauffman not least among them (see Abbotts et al., 2008; Kauffman, 2008).

Bioelectromagnetics - the historical name for what is becoming quantum life science - long ago 
established the presence of steady endogenous currents in biological systems (BBorgens, 1989).  Historical contingencies more to do with the social milieu than scientific reason, however, militated against development of the field and brought about the general demise of electrical analytics of the living state as a part of scientific culture around the time of the biological mainstream
revolution, i.e., mid-1800 (see Rosenberg, 1962; Borgens, 1989).

Thereafter the
perspective languished in the aftermath of mainstream development and remained poorly studied until the first decades of the 20th century and the advent of quantum mechanics (
review, Lund, 1947; review, Borgens et al., 1989).

Bioelectromagnetics, of course, as an early part of the fallout of the quantum revolution, came back 
into development with theoretical contribution in the main from physics, structural biology and physiology, through the work of such as Lakhovsky (1939), Szent-Gyorgyi (1941), Schrodinger (1944) and Lund (1947) in the early part of the last century, to Frohlich (1969), Prigogine (1969), Waddington (1969), Bohm (1969), Goodwin (1969), Adey (1972), Ling (1984), Smith & Best (1989), Borgens (1989), del Giudice et al., (1989), Popp, Liboff, and Ho more latterly, amongst others, through to the early 1990s.

Theoretical development being much dependent on the findings of experiment meant that it 
was only with the technological advance by Jaffe in the late 1970s in the development of a vibrating probe (simply an instrument of fine sensitivity) that, along with a steadily growing literature linking endogenous electrical fields to control of development and regeneration in animals and plants (Borgens, 1989), revivified interest in this approach.

Borgens and McCaig (1989), referring to the internal and external organismal currents and current patterns with relation to morphogenesis - wherein, particularly, changes in current patterns foreshadow materially detectable cellular changes (Robinson, 1989) - even suggested that:

‘ ... the morphogenetic field, as described by the classical embryologists, may in fact have a physiological basis as an electric field'. 

That field should play a part in form - and, indeed, precede the biological action - is a guiding principle for bioelectromagnetics.

Even for bioelectromagnetics, as Oschman (1993) attests, living systems present themselves as exemplar, here in terms of energy conversion and as a possible source of novel behaviours in quantum systems:   

'Where in the physics laboratory can one see in operation the perfectly co-ordinated working together of a wide range of physical principles, all directed toward a cooperative action?  Living systems are ideally suited to handle and inter-convert virtually all of the forms of energy that are known to science or that may be someday discovered.  To accomplish these conversions, living systems undoubtedly employ quantum mechanical tricks that are as yet undreamed of by the physicists who study inanimate matter.'

Adey charts progress made in bioelectromagnetics research and the vision of a quantum description with which to inform our understanding of living systems:

'In less than a century, the frontier of our understanding has moved from tissues to cells to molecules.  The use of imposed fields will now reveal the essential importance of biological organisation at the atomic rather than the molecular level and in physical rather than chemical terms; with coherent states between adjacent molecular electric charges and enormous co-operativity in energy release by very weak triggers as the physical essence of living matter.' (Adey, 1988)

Already working at the level of quantum systems Adey (above) touches upon the natural extension to collective dynamics, the possibility of coherent states and the possible mechanisms for sensitive systems behaviours, including the classical butterfly of effect from 'weak triggers' to enormous co-operativity, appreciation of which principles contributed to the later picture painted by Oschman & Oschman (1994):

'All components of the living matrix are semiconductors.  This means they are able to generate and conduct vibrational information.  Where two or more components intersect (semiconductor junctions) there is a possibility of signal processing … semiconductor molecules convert energy from one form to another.  One way this takes place is through the piezoelectric effect ... this means that waves of mechanical vibration moving through the living matrix produce electrical fields and vice versa [i.e., waves of electricity produce mechanical vibrations].  Phonons are electromechanical waves in a piezoelectric medium.  Piezoelectric properties arise because much of the semiconducting living matrix is highly ordered or crystalline.  Specifically, many of the molecules in the body are regularly arrayed in crystal-like lattices.  This includes the lipids in cell membranes … and other components of the cytoskeleton, such as microtubules and microfilaments.  The high degree of structural order (the matter field) gives rise to a highly ordered or coherent electromagnetic field.  This electromagnetic field is composed of giant coherent or laser-like oscillations that move rapidly throughout the living matrix'.

These laser-like coherent oscillations are in fact known as Frohlich oscillations, a concept introduced by one of the significant early workers in bioelectromagnetics.  We will meet these again later. 

This very sophisticated vision, a severe challenge to the physics modelling capabilities of the mid-90s, arose out of a period of concerted interdisciplinary working, as Adey (1994) testifies: 

'Over the past decade, remarkable collaborative developments between the physical and biological sciences have moved these apparently disparate disciplines toward a single realm of science.  Research on fundamental states of matter, in terms of what are known as its non-equilibrium states and its non-linear electrodynamics, has gone hand-in-hand with a new vista incorporating these concepts at the frontiers of cell and molecular biology; and in consequence, there is now in prospect a new definition of living matter in these physical terms … Beyond the chemistry of molecules that form the exquisite fabric of living tissues, we may now discern a new frontier in biological organisation, perhaps more difficult to comprehend.  It is based on physical processes at the atomic level, rather than in terms of reactions between biomolecules'.  (Adey, 1994)

Despite all this we still do not have a simple model for the quantum mechanical working of the biological cell and one can only suspect that, again, significant development that might have been made in the later 1990s and thereafter has been 'backwatered' again by the then newly fashionable areas of research focus in bioengineering and nanotechnology or, as has more recently developed, synthetic biology and quantum computing.  

Be that as it may, these prospective areas of physics research development are at last working at the biological scale, are immensely highly funded, well resourced and, with translation of their findings to the biological circumstance, should enable a first draft for the quantum vision of life within five years, if not sooner. 

The question is, where do we start? 

The more I examine the universe and study the detail of its architecture
the more

evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.

Freeman Dyson quoted in Davies (1995) Are We Alone?

Quantum Life Science in a Fractal Universe

This website created 23 November 2009