Friday, 29 July 2016

REVIEW: "Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology" by Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
by Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili
Broadway Books
ISBN: 978-0307986825
Copyright July 2016
Paperback, 368 Pages

Life on the Edge is an exceedingly reader-friendly book which effectively elucidates the seemingly intimidating and abstract discipline of quantum biology. Highly accessible and easily understandable to the general public and readers without scientific backgrounds, this book is certainly ideal for non-scientists or science enthusiasts passionate about and eager to gain additional knowledge in quantum mechanics and molecular biology, and of course, quantum biology.

Notably the most exciting and memorable part of the reading experience pertains to the times the reader is brought along on adventures into the microworld in an imaginary “nanotechnology submarine.” The discussion of the notion of plants as “quantum computers” was a lead-in to a “voyage to the center of photosynthesis”—into a leafwhere quantum mechanics was illustrated to enhance photosynthetic energy transport.

It was also fun and intriguing to venture upon the same nanosubmarine to witness the transformation of a tadpole into a frog; the example was used to further explicate the idea of the collagen protein, and the function of the collagenase enzyme, where the reader gets to “witness” firsthand the enzyme's jaws and “molecular incisor” in action. Out of the nanosubmarine experience, the collagenase enzyme was also very interestingly explained in the context of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The scientific concept of magnetoreception—“the ability to detect the direction and strength of the earth's magnetic field”—was one of the predominant ideas discussed in the book. This navigational sense, otherwise known as Erithacus rubecula, particularly in the case of the European robin, was said to have become the “poster child of quantum biology.” The authors also superbly explored magnetoreception in monarch butterflies, a species whose voyage is now recognized as “one of the great animal migrations of the world.”

Certain coverage in the book is strikingly engaging. A case in point would be when concepts of quantum biology were told through narratives of specific animal species supplemented with markedly fascinating details. One would learn for example, that an “unusual” capability of the anemonefish called “protandrous hermaphroditism”—the ability of “the dominant male to change sex on the death of the queen fish”—represents a potential form of “adaptation to life.”

The reader certainly ought to expect an abundance of relevant scientific terms in the book, and he or she may learn to relish it. The book contains discussions of for example, Schrodinger's wave function, and the kinetic isotope effect; a preliminary introduction to concepts such as the “neuromuscular junction,” what is called the “computational theory of mind,” or the notion of the “primordial replicator.” Inevitably present also include contrasting ideas of “order from order” versus the “order from disorder” principle, and “dualism” against “monism.”

The authors rather commendably presented material in a manner that made scientific terminology and concepts considerably less intimidating; concepts including for example, the “unstable” excitons, the enzyme ATPase, the chemical battery NADPH, the protein and photosynthetic complex Fenna-Matthews-Olson (FMO), and the “big bulky” enzyme and probably the “most abundant protein on earth”—RuBisCO.

The book neatly and elegantly converged to the eventual composite theme of exploring the way quantum mechanics is “intimately involved” in the origin of the universe, its “possible connection” to the origin of consciousness, and its possible help in accounting for the origin of life. In reading the book, the reader will enjoy the privilege of being armed with a basic knowledge of the expanding discipline of quantum biology, along with its various essential concepts—quantum entanglement, quantum tunneling, quantum superposition, and quantum coherence (versus decoherence)—and other notions such as a “quantum walk” as opposed to a “classical random walk,” quantum spin, or even quantum mechanics' potential involvement in human thoughts.

The book also includes the slightly rarer, but equally cherished, inclusion of captivating historical morsels. The idea of vitalism, or the vitalist principle, was a pretext scientists initially held on to, which was later undermined by 19th century scientific work and gave way to mechanism. Another eye-catching detail was that of the purported means of “pleasant smells” to ward off illness such that in medieval Europe, a plague victim's house had to be aired and perfumed by “lighting fragrant fires scented with incense, myrrh, roses, cloves and other aromatic herbs” at the insistence of physicians.

The book is filled with evidence which indicates the authors' attentive consideration allocated towards their target audience. Quantum mechanics was referred to as a “strange science,” and incredibly helpful analogies were furnished in the illustration of concepts—there was the analogy of the “molecular billiard table,” and most memorably, the guitar isakin to a quantum instrument.” It is also worth a mention the numerous diagrams aptly included in the book at specific junctures as supplementary material.

Taking it one step further and to a more personal level, the authors addressed the reader directly; during the discussion of the olfactory system, the reader is urged to read “the remainder of the chapter” with “an orange in front of you, perhaps chopped into segments so that the tangy aromas are released and travel through your nose to reach the nasal epithelium,” and “you might even slip one of the segments into your mouth to allow its volatile odorants to find their way through the retronasal route to that same tissue.” In an unmistakable effort to help the reader better assimilate information by constructing a more conducive learning environment, the authors also added, “Limonene is a volatile liquid that will gradually evaporate at room temperature, so your orange will be releasing millions of limonene molecules into the surrounding air.”

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

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