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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Quantum Biology: The Hidden Nature of Nature

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So, uh, quantum biology. I suspect from

that cheer we got at the beginning

that all I need to say is QB for this crowd.

Is that right?




but... quantum?

That's what we're going to talk about tonight.

And, um... in a...

in the moment we're going to talk to some extraordinary scientists and physicists

Who let's just say have a bit of an anxiety about quantum mechanics.

And I think we can help them with that tonight.

Let's just give it up first of all for the Biology

here in the room. Clap if you are a biological entity.

Good! Nice!

Now it didn't sound to me

as though everyone clapped.

So if you're not a biological entity, please clap.

Hunter College, right? There you go. Sure.

Uh... so with deference to all these cyborgs

in the room, we are - the rest of us anyway -

biological creatures; and as such, we share a certain kind of wisdom

about how things work and how quirkily things can sometimes work

And while the physicists in this room would have us all believe

that quantum mechanics is a little terrifying

it's kind of tangle of irreconcilable

phenomena, goes against

newtonian and relativistic concepts

of the Universe.

Waves and particles... you know...

insane discontinuities of one kind or another...


God's throwing dice!

Oh my Goodness!

Particles that jump energy levels without warning!

A freaky merger of local phenomena and non local events

where connections between things seem to exist across space and time.

"How could is it be?" The physicists say all the time.

We could help them with this, though,

because when the Quantum Mechanics entered the world of the Physics,

it was like this elephant in the room, really. I mean,

If the elephant were neutrino though,

it was invisible...and then visible...

and then an elephant sometimes maybe more of a rhinoceros

depending on who or what was looking at it.

That's the anxiety of Quantum Mechanics.

I'll gonna sort all this out tonight.

It's the sort of thing that makes physicists crazy.

But, as biological creatures,

That's hold our hands together. Come on! All of us!

Biological entities hold your hands together

and try to reassure physicists

that we understand some what is going on here.

Packets of energy that appear out of nowhere

and change everything and then disappear again?!

We understand this.

Jeremy Lin!


[[ people laughting ]]


Physicists going insane when things are calculated to be one value

and then suddenly turn out to be something totally different!!

We understand this;

we just call the the Facebook IPO.

That's right? Let's go!


Or when, in the quantum world,

the things defy any level of predictability at all.

Watching near more closely,

in the state,

it'll makes the more likely to deliver really scary surprises?

We understand this;

We just call a North Korea...


hate it

when things think to behave no known laws of Physics.

But... Uh...

We see this sort of thing all the time and we understand in it!

It's Donald Trump's hair. Right?

I mean, what is going on with that hair

obeying no known laws of physics?


quantum mechanics suggests that objects can act across time and space with no apparent connection,

and I mentioned this a moment ago,

as though they are part of some mass secret conspiracy.

Now, why is that so hard to understand?

I mean, we've understood for centuries

the secret conspiracies that control all of us. Right?

In God we trust? Yeah. I believe that. Sure...sure...

So, together as biological entities,

we have a sense - an intuitive sense - of the quirkiness of the universe.

And in this fusion of biology and quantum mechanics,

you may have more knowledge than you think.

Of course, there are some of you here - the QBs in the audience -

who will have laughed at all the right points

and will nod when some of the physicists get a little mysterious here.

Just turn to them and say, "What's going on?"

Or, perhaps I can help you with that.

All right, tonight,

let's look at the examples of life and biology that we kind of grew up with.

We're going to leave this here as a bit of an example for what we're going to be talking about tonight.

We are taught in our science classes that life is a complicated system of chemical molecules and atoms and interactions between phenomena

that become very complex and beautiful, but always orderly.

Yet, what we're going to learn tonight is that because of quantum mechanics,

some of these little balls can detach and disappear and do things unpredictably...

and that in fact, animals and biological systems take advantage of the ability to disappear,

to be between two places at once, to be doing two things at once.

In fact, these orderly molecules can sometimes look like Donald Trump's hair.

All right?

And that's what we're going to explore tonight.

And we're going to do it in very concrete ways with phenomena that you can relate to.

For instance, it's not well-known why birds are able to navigate and go from one place in the world to the other

because they can't see perfectly all the time.

And they don't have radar, at least, that we've been able to detect.

But what do they have?

What is it that's going on in their complicated brain cells that allows them to navigate?

We're going to explore that tonight because there may be a quantum explanation of all that.

And then, of course, on a much more basic level,

the mystery and ubiquity of something called photosynthesis. It's why life is here.

Photosynthesis: how plants take light and turn it into energy.

Now, we're taught that that's understood, but in fact, it's not so well understood as your science teacher may have led you to believe.

And a quantum explanation for photosynthesis is on of the most exciting things happening now in either biology or physics.

So, this is going to be a wild ride. Get ready. Here we go. Quantum biology, folks.

Let us now welcome to the stage the first person to develop a realizable model for quantum computation.

A friend of the World Science Festival, his research focus is on the quantum mechanics of living systems, economics and cosmology.

When he first heard about quantum biology, he thought it was crazy, but now he's hooked.

Please welcome MIT professor Seth Lloyd.

Next up, a professor of physics at the University of California Irvine who believes the biological sciences are currently undergoing a revolution

as more information is gathered about these processes. Today, he is working to understand quantum entanglement in live birds.

Help me welcome Thorsten Ritz.

And a dear friend of the World Science Festival, a big star in my life, and finally out last participant runs a "Think Tank" that tackles the big questions of existence.

He's wondered how black holes radiate energy, what caused the ripples in the big bang afterglow, and now, the role of quantum mechanics in the formation of life.

Please welcome from Arizona State University Paul Davies.

So, to all three of you, a lot of what we talk about at the World Science Festival in some of these edgier topics is a convergence that seems to be taking place between certain fields and other fields.

Explain how you see a convergence between biology and quantum mechanics in general terms. Paul?

Right. Well, life is made out of atoms; atoms behave quantum mechanically,

and one thing we need to dispel right at the outset is your little model. Uh, here.

Ball and stick models, for most purposes in Biology, seem to be adequate.

When we're talking about quantum biology, it's true that the balls and the sticks -

that is, their shapes and chemical affinities of the molecules - require quantum mechanics,

but we're after something else. We're after all that creepy, weird stuff like tunneling and entanglement that's all playing around in Biology.

Why should that be so? Well, I think one answer is that life has been around for a long time,

a billion years on this planet, at least.

And there's plenty of time to learn quantum trickery if it confers an advantage.

When you say quantum trickery, you're distinguishing between quantum phenomena in the little balls and an organism taking advantage of quantum phenomena to get an advantage in biological competition.

Right. So, supposing some of this weird stuff that we're going to talk about confers an advantage,

it doesn't have to be huge. You know, even a factor of two or even fifty percent

in the speed of some reaction or some more efficient process,

then it's no surprise that Biology would've selected for that after such a long period of trial and error.

So that's one argument, and then the other is that, of course, we can always think about life's origin.

Life came out of some sort of molecular milieu. We don't know what it was, but it was quantum mechanical and maybe retained some of its quantum origins. So, it's all speculative.

Yeah, that something from nothing business is always a sign that there may be some quantum explanation. That's for sure. And we'll come back to that.

Seth Lloyd, I said at the top that you thought that quantum biology, when you first heard about it, was crazy.

It seems to me in science, this is a continuing narrative. We have undecidability in mathematics, incompleteness in mathematics...

it seems to me a lot of systems contain this sort of internal weirdness, and maybe we have to get used to the fact that this is how the world works.

How do you see this convergence between quantum mechanics and biology?

Well, as you say, John, quantum mechanics is weird. That's kind of its defining characteristic.

um, it's funky and strange and, you know you have

particles behave like waves

and waves behave like particles

so each wave of light that's hitting me right now consists of gajillions of little tiny,

that's a technical term too, gajillions of little

Hockenberry: gajillions, yea as MIT says

gajillions of little particles called photos

And the light behaves like waves, but the photons behave like particles, and they are intrinsically quantum mechanical.

and you know..quantum mechanics is weird and strange to us, but

say photosynthetic organisms don't really care about that

all they care, as Paul was saying, is, you know,

if you could do a little extra quantum hanky-panky can you reproduce more efficiently? well if you can, then quantum hanky-panky

is what was going to be.

Weird and strange, and counterintuitive or not.

and that's what we're here to talk about. Now, uh,

Thorsten Ritz, one of the advantages that quantum mechanics may confer

is that it seems to defy our notions of distance and it seems to defy our notions of time

so that if you use certain quantum mechanic phenomena, you can

cheat time and cheat distance. how does that happen

in a general way, without necessarily referring to some of the things like

birds and photosynthesis we're going to talk about a little later.

Well I think it has a lot to do with, you know what Seth eluded to,

that you have these, these dualities all the time.

You have, you know, something that is a wave and a particle at the same time

And so once you start asking things like,

where it's actually placed, it becomes a bit difficult and you can't answer it in this particular manner anymore

when you think about transport getting from A to B

there may be something that isn't A and B at the same time

and then at some point it just, you know, it just decides to

magically, go and fall into one

and there are options that you have in quantum mechanics that you don't have classically

They're sometimes a but subtle to actually understand, you know,

what the differences are, um

Hockenberry: When you say options what do you mean?

you have option in quantum mechanics that you don't have in classical. what does that mean

It means that you can have different kinds of behaviors, you know

classically you would think that something hops from A to B

and that's for example one option. um

quantum mechanically you can have something, you know, that

stays in both things at the same time

while, um, you're also moving things around

so it's like this wave-like nature that is something that is a concept that is quite far spread

but at the same time it's a particle, which you put on a given location

In my deference to Richard Feynman, or possibly to the humanists here in the Hunter college audience

is this a product of our observation, in other words,

is this how we perceive it, or is it really in both places at the same time, or is that one of the unresolvable issues?


Um. Sorry.

let's just rephrase that: is there a god? is there a god?

I'll ask him that. I heard once that when god saw quantum mechanics he smiled


Or she, yea

But it's the word really that let you down there

because reality, the nature of reality in quantum mechanics is not like in everyday life.

and to say is it really in two places at once, or was it really there or was it really moving, and such and such

if you believe in standard quantum mechanics, you simply can't answer questions like that

So, your question was actually meaningless.


But well done.

That's metaphysics for ya, don't you love that

Um, so let's take that a little further down the road

Part of one of these features of quantum mechanical phenomena is that they are

rarely observable, relatively rarely observable.

Now often the explanation is because it happens at such a tiny scale,

but there are other reasons why quantum phenomena aren't observable and

it relates to the complexity, or the noise of the system. Explain that to me.

Right, as Seth already explained, that uh,

photons can be like waves or particles, so can electrons,

and the key factor in quantum mechanics is that this wave-like nature, uh

if you want to retain the quantum features, not all of them but most of them,

you've got to keep that wave-like nature undisturbed, and

let me just give you a simple example: imagine that you go to a flat pond,

you drop a couple of stones, simultaneously, splash, the ripples spread out

and what you find is that the waves from one

start overlapping the waves from the other.

Now in some places the waves will add together,

and in some places they will cancel

So that's called coherence, now

if you came along with a stick and just sort of jiggled the water like that it would mess all that up. You'd loose that pattern.

So it's essential in quantum mechanics that you retain this coherence if you want to see in a simple way quantum effects of work.

Quantum effects may still be there, but if it's all messed up, if it's decohered,

it's also lost in the details

Alright, so coherence refers to a state

where, like the smooth pond, you can see the actions of the individual stones being tossed in.

The waves, the phases, or whether the waves are in step or out of step, uh

that aspect is retained and not disturbed.

And decoherence refers to attempting to skip stones

in the middle of a thunderstorm on the same pond.

Right, it's all messed up because there's external interference, and

in the case of say electrons, that external interference might be the surrounding environment that's coupling to it

and so guys like Seth that try to actually utilize, make quantum technology,

have to screen out all that, that environment.

And that's the tricky thing with biology because, you know, it doesn't look like

a very screened environment, it's sort of warm and wet, and

and what you really want is something close to absolute zero of temperature,

shielded from all that disturbing environmental influence.

So it's a little like in a quiet room, when somebody's cellphone goes off

you can really hear it, but if you're on the subway you can't

that's a decoherent envrionment, a coherent environment is the quiet room, right?


I just thought of that.

It just uh, kind of randomly occurred to me there.

Which is why, by the way, it was so surprising

when the first evidence came out that quantum mechanics is

playing a strong role in biological systems. Because cells,

are hot, wet places, with all kinds of noise and stuff going along

When we build quantum computers, we try to put

everything down at very, very low temperatures, so you know

you have an electron here and there at the same time, alright,

and it's wave is waving in this coherent fashion,

and if there's any kind of jiggling around, then it starts, you know, getting

all decoherent, as Paul was saying, and once it's decoherent

that it could just as well could be here or there at the same time

it's no longer here, and there at the same time.

And nobody expected that in biological systems, in cells,

you can have things like particles of light or particles of energy that are like, you know,

coherently going like this, because cells are a hostile environment to quantum coherence.

At least theoretically, it looks like they are.

Yea, well, I mean theoretically people thought:

"Ah this will never happen", with the exception of course, of Roger Penrose, but let's not talk about that

Alright, how many of you are familiar with quantum computing, something that Seth just talked about,

clap, just clap. Yea ok. Alright.

So, there is a good understanding

So there is a good understanding of quantum computing

is part of the journey that we are going to take tonight, Thorsten

and attempt to figure out

if the phenomena that Seth was talking about, is talking about

Basically, taking a system and reducing it into a kind of coherent state where you can take advantage

in information terms of quantum interactions that potentially cheat time and cheat special coherence

that sort of thing

biological systems are also creating states where they can do their own quantum computing

is that kind of we are talking about here?

I will hope that actually

that we learn from biology potentially something about how to create such states

in hot and wet environments

And there may be different ideas, i mean, offices in nature never cool us down

The Description of Quantum Biology: The Hidden Nature of Nature