Special thanks to Johnjoe McFadden for answering 5 questions about the book he co-authored, which has recently been featured – Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
Professor Johnjoe McFadden is Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey and is the editor of leading text books on both molecular biology and systems biology of tuberculosis. For over a decade, he has specialised in examining tuberculosis and meningitis, inventing the first successful molecular test for the latter. He is the author of Quantum Evolution and co-editor of Human Nature: Fact and Fiction and writes for the Guardian on topics including GM crops, psychedelic drugs and quantum mechanics. – From Random House Australia
#1 – What was the impetus for Life on the Edge?
I am a biologist who has always been dissatisfied with the thermodynamic account of life. It seemed too boring a mechanism for such a wonderful phenomenon. Just over a decade ago I wrote the book, Quantum Evolution, which made a case for quantum mechanics in biology. However, in 2000, the experimental evidence for quantum mechanisms in biological phenomena was sparse. That has recently changed with strong experimental quantum phenomena turning up in photosynthesis, enzyme action, bird navigation. So I decided it was time to write a new book.
#2 – In a couple of lines, what IS ‘quantum biology’?
It is the science which studies the involvement of non-trivial quantum phenomena, such as coherence, entanglement and tunnelling, in life.
#3 – Each chapter in the book focuses on a different example. How did you decide which examples to put into the book? What did they illustrate?
The examples were drawn from systems in which the strongest evidence for quantum phenomena existed.
#4 – What is your relationship with other author, Jim Al-Khalili? How did you work together to produce this book?
We both work at the University of Surrey as a microbial geneticist. In about 1997 I got interested in the possibility of quantum tunnelling being involved in an odd form of mutation discovered in bacteria. To find out if the idea had any legs I offered to give a talk to the Physics department at Surrey. The talk was very sceptically received but Jim was in the audience and he came up to me afterwards to say he was interested in pursuing the idea further. Over the next two years we hammered it out into a hypothesis that was published in a paper in 1999.
The paper failed to convince many people but, nevertheless, I went on to write Quantum Evolution published in 2000. However, the field of quantum biology remained moribund so we both continued our own research in quite different areas. Then, following a burst of new quantum biology research in the late 2000’s we decided it was time to put together a new book describing these exciting new developments.
#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects that you can tell us about?
Yes, I am working on a book about another topic close to my heart, Ockham’s razor. This, as you know, is the principle of parsimony, that, given alternative solutions to a problem that each fit the data, the simplest is more likely to be true. This unappreciated principle has been crucial to science and was how we threw angels out of heaven or creation out of biology. It remains a vitally important principle today and was used to make the original case the existence of the Higgs boson. But the principle’s author, William of Ockham, is also a fascinating figure. He was a 13th century Franciscan monk who disproved all the standard proofs of God, was accused of heretical teaching, accused the pope of heresy and had to flee Avignon (where the pope was seated at the time) chased by papal soldiers into the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor (who was crowning his own pope in Rome at the time).
William of Ockham was the first person in history to argue for a separation between religion and science – a separation that continues to challenges us today but, I will argue, was key to the development of western science. I think he’ll make a great topic for another popular science book.
[Image Credit: Andrew McKay, https://www.at-bristol.org.uk/assets/images/FOI%202014/Johnjoe%20McFadden%20(c)%20Andrew%20McKay%2022%20Nov.jpg