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Quantum Biology – Wandering where the edge is
Brian Hanley   Feb 22, 2017   Ethical Technology  

I have had thoughts about quantum mechanics and biology for many years - ever since my thermodynamics class in chemistry as an undergrad. I discussed and developed them over the years. When I thought it was ready, decades ago, I wrote to Linus Pauling about my speculation that the most important differentiator for life is that from the molecular scale to the organization of organs, chaos (in the mathematical chaos theory sense) is the organizing principle. This means that living organisms are all potentially sensitive to quantum events. He was kind enough to write back, and I think it intrigued him, but there was no experiment that I could conceive of to do in support.

Some years later, I was talking to an older psychiatrist friend about this idea in the context of pondering the mystery of consciousness. He liked it, and called up his friend Arthur Young, insisting that I go spend a day with Arthur. I think that Arthur Young, who had made is fortune on patents on the helicopter, was rather disappointed in me at first, as I was unaware of who he was, or his thinking prior to our day at his house in Berkeley, chatting over tea and biscuits. I remember this little sign, “The Institute for the Study of Consciousness.” But, he was a gracious host, and tolerant of this ignorant nabob who was 50 years his junior. We ended up talking for hours.

At one point I asked him if he had thought about the possible implication of the quantum wave equation's necessity for an observation to collapse it into a specific state from all states. He was one of the few people who knew exactly what I was talking about, and he told me, "Oh, yes. I asked Werner a question quite similar to that." (This implication is that consciousness, or what have you, the omnipresent observer, is an integral part of the fundamental physics of our universe.)

A bit puzzled, I asked him who he that was. He frowned a bit and said, “Heisenberg”. The light dawned on me, and he smiled and told me that he had been lifelong friends with Werner Heisenberg from his time in college. And he told me that Werner had responded by saying that he didn't want his career derailed in religion and epistemology. "That is a battle for a younger man,” he said. 

There is another quote attributed to Werner that I think indicates that Arthur was telling me the truth about it. “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” I think that what Werner was alluding to is probably this matter in quantum mechanics.

One of my earliest thoughts on this relative to neuroscience is that our sensitivity to quantum events means that living organisms are organized to exploit a hole in probability. (No, this doesn't violate thermodynamics - think it through.) That hole is that even though 99% of some stochastic set of quantum events go one way, when looking at any single event with two states, for that single quantum the probability is 50%.

I don't agree with Hammeroff that we have a location for quantum computing in the microtubules. I think it's more general than that. I can't find any reason in physics to localize our quantum sensitivity to any specific molecule or location. This makes things complicated. Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't been able to justify his idea that it's localized.

I don't have any hard answers, but I think that there is enough here to think about and take seriously.

Brian Hanley
Brian Hanley is the founder of Butterfly Sciences, a company developing gene therapies for aging. He has a range of papers in biosciences, economics, policy and terrorism, in addition to a recent text on radiation treatment. He obtained his PhD in microbiology with honors from UC Davis, has a bachelors degree in computer science, is a multiple entrepreneur and guest lectured for years to the MBA program at Santa Clara University.


What in any of this suggests God at the bottom of the glass?

Thanks, Brian - so much here that I agree with.  I see Quantum Biology as the next frontier.  I think there’s a good chance that we’ll find that all molecular processes in living organism don’t obey quantum “rules” of chance, but instead are biased toward what is healthy for the organism and perhaps for the community.  Maybe a living system is a quantum system with an observer inside it.

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