Exploring the quantum realm with Jim Al-Khalili

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1 April 2020 4 minute read


If you’ve ever heard of Schrödinger’s cat, watched Avengers: Endgame, or binge-watched The Big Bang Theory, then a branch of physics called quantum mechanics may sound familiar. Quantum mechanics (or quantum theory) is one of two theories in physics that work to describe the fundamental properties of the universe, the other being Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Science fiction has wrapped quantum mechanics, which focuses on the atomic level, with an intimidating veil of esoterica and counterintuitivity – teleportation, things being in two places at once, particles also existing as waves, and so on. But the fact is a lot of the things we rely on every day wouldn’t exist without it. Smartphones, MRI scans, GPS, and even the structure of the internet rely on fundamental universal principles that it explains.

However, there has been much debate about whether the principles of physics and chemistry that underpin inanimate objects could also apply to biological systems. Enter quantum biology, a currently speculative field focused on studying biological systems through the lens of quantum mechanics. In the next decade or so, it could help to improve our understanding of a whole swathe of biological phenomena – DNA mutations, photosynthesis, and even the migration patterns of birds.

In this episode of Create the Future, we talk to someone well-versed in the intersectional study of quantum biology: QEPrize Judge Professor Jim Al-Khalili. We speak to Jim about his work and what he describes as the 'dawn of quantum bioengineering’. We also explore how Einstein's theory of relativity affects GPS, the relationship between science and engineering, and the important roles that they both play in society.

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About the Guest

Professor Jim Al-Khalili is an academic physicist, author, and broadcaster well known to TV for presenting documentaries, and to radio for his Life Scientific series. Since 2005, he has held a joint chair in physics and in the public engagement in science at the University of Surrey, where he teaches and conducts theoretical research in quantum physics. He is also co-director of the Leverhulme Doctoral Training Centre for Quantum Biology.

Jim has written a number of books on popular science and the history of science, between them they have been translated into over twenty languages. His book, Pathfinders, was shortlisted for the Warwick Prize in 2013, and more recently, Life on the Edge: the coming of age of quantum biology was shortlisted for the 2015 Royal Society Winton Prize.

Episode quotes

  • [Quantum biology] is a new research area. It brings physicists, chemists and biologists together and it's based on this idea that inside living cells, there seem to be certain things that go on that you cannot explain without appealing to the counterintuitive world of quantum mechanics.
  • I decided to pursue theoretical physics rather than experimental physics when, as an undergraduate student I almost electrocuted myself. I was cleaning some vacuum chamber in an experiment in a lab and I had to clean these electrodes and then realised after I’d finished, that I hadn't unplugged it. I could have been frazzled with several thousand volts. I could almost imagine at that point thinking, you know what, this isn't, I'm not cut out for this. I'm much safer on a blackboard with equations or in front of a computer screen.
  • Even if the more speculative ideas that we're pursuing in our research in quantum biology don't come to fruition, there is going to be a convergence of several areas … So, on the one hand, you have nanotechnology, developing mechanical devices down to the nanoscale, a billionth of a metre, manipulating molecules. You also have synthetic biology, developing instrumentation, which relies on the machinery of life itself. You also have quantum technologies, people who are working on developing quantum sensors, quantum computers and so on. You can imagine a convergence of all these coming together.
  • [On his son’s career choice] He’s very smart – maths and physics A-Levels and so on, and I sort of assumed he'd follow my footsteps into physics. But he said in the end: 'no'; he was going to do electronic engineering, and that's what he did … his rationale was that “Dad, you can do the deep thinking I want to do something useful.” It is sort of a quite sweet distinction between physics, which is about wanting to know the hows and whys, and engineering, which is putting that knowledge to some use in society.
  • There are innovations that we so take for granted because they are so part of our everyday life, it doesn't occur to us to dig back and find out what actually made them possible in the first place, because they are so ubiquitous. I think somehow that's where a lot of engineering innovation suffer. We so take them for granted that don't realise the geniuses that actually allowed that to happen in the first place.

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