Michael Clarke-Whittet

PhD student in quantum biology tackling molecular noise and quantum decoherence.
I like playing music, hiking, and the rule of three in lists.

  • Michael Clarke-Whittet

Quantum communication in a biological world

How many people have a degree in a life science and a degree in quantum physics? Probably not many. I certainly don’t. In my degree I did advanced organic chemistry and part of that was working with quantum chemistry which mostly focusses on the electrons that form bonds and hybrid orbitals. In that context I encountered some of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics as tools for understanding the kinds of chemistry going on inside our own cells. Pauli’s exclusion principle that sets the framework for electron orbital theory, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which explains why trying to fully know what an electron is doing it any moment is a gamble, Planck’s theory of the quantisation of energy into discrete levels from which quantum physics gets its name. Perhaps the biggest contributor to quantum chemistry was the Swedish life scientist (and humanist) Linus Pauling, who formed the basis for much of our understanding of chemistry today. Perhaps Pauling should be a good source of inspiration, he worked on defining orbital hybridisation as well as arguing for the now ubiquitous structures of proteins, the alpha helix and beta sheet.

How can a biologist fit into discussions on quantum mechanics?

To a quantum physicist, quantum chemistry is only the basics - most of which can be learned fairly quickly. To a biologist, both seem like nonsense. I’ve been in seminars where there is an audible cringe from biologists when chemical drawings are shown. Quantum mechanics are so far away from the science of biology that I have no idea what would happen to an unsuspecting room of any kind of biologist if the speaker started to discuss their thoughts on the stochastic Schrödinger equation. While my quantum biology peers tend to be good at meeting in the middle of each other’s knowledge, some researchers aren’t used to it.

From my perspective as a life-science focussed quantum biologist often discussions need to start at the beginning:

· What is the context

· What does it do

· Who does it help

In life sciences there tends to be an immediacy to the purpose of research; there is a disease we need to understand, a drug we must develop, or an organism we need to observe. Often times these things can be difficult to predict or seem far away when dealing with the quantum, but effective communication must engage the listener. Knowledge is a rare resource because it can be shared without being diluted or portioned so long as it is done effectively. Advanced concepts can be communicated to even somebody with the least prior experience but it is a genuine skill to be able to do it. For the time being, I see my role in situations like this as finding questions which bring the topic into focus and prompt the speaker into doing something deceptively tough- starting at the beginning.

How can a quantum physicist fit into discussions on biology?

There are some things quantum physicists don’t know. Ask a physicist what protein is and you will get about the same answers anybody would give. Which isn’t a failure, it makes absolute sense because physicists never encounter them professionally. The fictional detective and real fellow of the royal society of chemistry, Sherlock Holmes, famously did not know whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun revolves around the earth, because it never was important to him. The best thing a quantum physicist can do to engage in biology is reign in the idea that everything is describable in physics and everything which isn’t is just a case study of physics. Another good piece of advice is that, of course, nature is diverse by definition. Our understanding of what is possible and what is impossible in nature is based only on what we have already observed – and we are a long way from observing the totality of nature. Only recently was the long-held understanding that mitochondrial inheritance comes only from the mother in humans shown to not be the whole reality. Any approach that deepens and improves our understanding of nature must be heard.


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©2019 by Michael Clarke-Whittet, all views expressed here are my own.