Natural History ... is either the beginning
or the end of physical
Sir John Herschel
in The Study of Natural Philosophy, p. 221, 1831
It is Schrodinger’s What is Life? that is credited
as inspirational for both Roger Penrose and Paul
Davies, who in 2008 published Quantum
of Life as, effectively, a discussion document to
spur mainstream theoretical development.
Their enquiry is couched in terms of identifying in
living systems material behaviours otherwise only
the ‘more puzzling features of
quantum mechanics ... distant
globally coherent behaviour ... witnessed in the
phenomena of superfluidity and superconductivity'.
(Penrose Foreword in Abbott et al., 2008).
This approach focusses on more exotic quantum
phenomena whilst seemingly passing over the
'trivial' quantum aspects of biosystems working -
the 'bottom-up' approach - yet both will surely
be needed for any truly useful synthesis? Stuart
Kauffman has pointed out the apparent lack of
any such an approach:
'But if all the explanatory arrows point downwards, it is something
of a quiet scandal that physicists have largely given up on trying to reason ‘upward’ from the ultimate physical
laws to larger-scale events in the universe.' (Kauffman, 2008)
Penrose summarises the position: ‘ ... of great interest, therefore, is whether or not such “strongly” quantum-mechanical features of Nature might be playing significant roles in the essential processes
of life’ and outlines some of the pertinent issues
Is it merely the complexity of biology that gives living systems their special qualities and,
if so, how does this complexity come about?
are the special features of strongly quantum-mechanical systems in some way essential?
If the latter,
then how is the necessary isolation achieved, so that some modes of large-scale quantum coherence can be maintained without
their being fatally corrupted by environmental decoherence?
Does life in some way make use of the potentiality for vast quantum superpositions,
as would be required for serious quantum computation?
How important are the quantum aspects of DNA molecules?
It is this last of Penrose's questions that most directly acts as a point
of access for the model to be outlined here, but some of these other questions have answer indicated along the way.
The 'quiet scandal' that Kauffman (2008) speaks of is, of course, actually not so, there being a long
history to natural dissent from mainstream thinking and for which quantum theory gave hope of transition from bio-logic
to quantum logic, i.e., whereby the physical characterisation of system components offers a more reasonable
tractability for our understanding of the organisation and dynamics of these self-organised quantum systems.
The physical structuralism that was made 'backwater' by the mainstream focus is bioelectromagnetics
and findings here can inspire both the biologist and the physicist alike.
Further, however, the 'high
level' approach of Abbott et al., launched without explanation of the 'trivial' quantum working of living
systems, automatically allows us to take the hypothesis to the extreme and approach the issue from the point of view of allowing
the assumption that living systems may be the purest quantum systems we will ever have the privilege of examining.
This proposal is not so outrageous as might at first seem given our state of ignorance and that we have only just begun to
explore the possibilities of quantum structures and systems for the purposes of quantum computing. Our 30 or so years
of research compare poorly with the 3.8 bn years of natural experiment that life must have undertaken. Neither do we
yet know the full extent or limits of quantum systems behaviours and components.