Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology Hardcover – July 28, 2015
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"Remarkable...Life on the Edge is a fascinating and thought-provoking book that combines solid science, reasonable extrapolation from the known into the unknown, and plausible speculation to give an accessible overview of a revolutionary transformation in our understanding of the living world."
—Wall Street Journal
"The elemental provocation of the book lies in the authors' ability to make the complex conceivable... McFadden and Al-Khalili give sure footing to the anything-goes bafflement of quantum theory."
"McFadden and Al-Khalili draw readers into a revolutionary new paradigm. . . An intellectually exhilarating visit to the baffling frontiers of science!"
"The book elegantly opens up a new way of looking at nature."
—The Independent; “Books of the Year”
"A really original science book about a new field of research ... Groundbreaking."
—Financial Times, “Books of the Year”
"Coherence is just one of the complex phenomena that Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden set out to teach the reader. They succeed by using delightfully revealing analogies and similes, some borrowed from their prior work, that make slippery concepts sit still for study."
"Hugely ambitious ... the skill of the writing provides the uplift to keep us aloft as we fly through the strange and spectacular terra incognita of genuinely new science."
—The Times (UK)
"Physicist Jim Al-Khalili and molecular biologist Johnjoe McFadden explore this extraordinary realm with cogency and wit."
"This thrilling book is an overview of a field that barely exists ... Al-Khalili has a genius for illustrating complex ideas via imaginative sidetracks."
—The Sunday Telegraph
“The great virtue of this book is its thesis – it sets out a clear and enthusiastic argument for the importance of quantum biology.”
"Life on the Edge gives the clearest account I've ever read of the possible ways in which the very small events of the quantum world can affect the world of middle-sized living creatures like us. With great vividness and clarity it shows how our world is tinged, even saturated, with the weirdness of the quantum."
"This illuminating account of an important new field is a wonderfully educative read."
—A C Grayling
About the Author
Jim Al-Khalili OBE is an academic, author, and broadcaster. He is a leading theoretical physicist based at the University of Surrey, where he teaches and carries out research in quantum mechanics. He has written a number of popular science books, including Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science. He has presented several television and radio documentaries, including the BAFTA-nominated Chemistry: A Volatile History and The Secret Life of Chaos.
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Thanks and congratulations to Jim and Johnjoe!
The authors not only reviewed many studies about physics and biology, but also cited many other books and discussions on the topic of life. These cited materials also very helpful. I have since read several other books on the topic, and formed my own idea about what life is.
Top international reviews
Life on the Edge was coauthored by McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili at the end of 2014. In those 14 years, quantum biology has progressed from wild speculation to mainstream, due in part to the work of these authors, and it is interesting to compare the two books.
Compared with Quantum Consciousness, the chapter on Quantum Genetics has been both tightened up and made more tentative. The proposed mechanism for directed mutation, using the inverse Zeno effect, has been clarified and restricted. There is no longer any special appeal to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The authors have rowed back significantly from ideas that quantum mechanics is generally a major driver of mutation, which is a shame as it has the potential to explain some tricky bottlenecks in evolution.
Similarly, the chapter on Mind is much more believable. The authors start by discussing Roger Penrose's ideas, such as the ability of the mind to bypass the Goedel theorem by being a quantum computer. Fortunately they do not undermine their own credibility by taking these ideas too seriously, and in fact their analysis is a very clear critique of Penrose's. Their proposed role for quantum mechanics in ion channels seems very plausible.
I am not very persuaded by the proposed link between consciousness and electromagnetism. A human has a psychological and social need to be able to explain their own decisions, and this explanation is generally in terms of a sequential narrative. There is no necessity for this narrative to match what actually happens in the brain, except in its inputs and outputs. A brain is a black box to its owner almost as much as to others. Electromagnetism is a possible way for the mind to work in a synchronised way, but whether or not this happens is independent of the nature of consciousness. Moreover, it is not clear how this relates to quantum mechanics, except very indirectly. McFadden's earlier book Quantum Consciousness tries to make the connection, though in a hand-wavy and not very plausible way. I can see why he has dropped this idea, though I think he could have removed all the references to electromagnetic theories of consciousness from this book altogether. They belong in a different book.
The chapter on the beginnings of life is greatly clarified compared with similar ideas expressed in Quantum Evolution. The problem with any understanding of the beginnings of life is that there is a period of about 100 million years where somehow, somewhere on the Earth (or just maybe, in space) life began. Presumably this happened because a self-replicating molecule appeared, which mutated and evolved into a modern eukaryotic cell. Trying to identify the original molecule just by looking at modern cells is difficult or even impossible. Replicating the start of the process might take an ocean of water and 100 million years, which makes it a tricky experiment. Until either of these is done, we have no way of knowing what the first self-replicators were or even how complex they had to be. At least, McFadden and Al-Khalili show how the incredible search capabilities of quantum mechanics could help achieve the first step, of constructing the first self-replicating molecule.
The overall gist of the book is that life is a consequence of the boundary between quantum mechanics and classical physics, which seems to be key to many of the most important processes in biology, from photosynthesis to respiration and scent. It is hard to disagree with these conclusions. Time for biologists to learn some quantum mechanics.
Halfway through the book I am starting to find newer information and at least learning something new so its probably worth reading but so far a poor example of popular science writing. I would in fairness give his co-author the benefit of the doubt as the faults in the book coincide so neatly with the faults in Khalil's TV presentations, and in the few other books by this author I have read.
I think this is an important book and I wish I had the mathematical skill to delve further into this important and fascinating subject.
Don't be put off please. Read this and be amazed at the progress of understanding our theoretical and experimental scientists have made in just the last few years. Thankyou to the authors
So here it goes - a flash of a new world, like Alessandro Volta have seen a few centuries ago. It's fascinating and I hope this is a kick for whole new thinking. Book full of thoughts and questions, not the answers. We have to wait, sadly. This is a world of our children.
The authors are very fair about pointing about these uncertainties and generally explain things well, although I have a few criticisms:
The introduction to QM could be better as it doesn't explain properly the concepts of decoherence, entanglement and measurement and how they are related to each other. Instead they start off with measurement as wave-function collapse, and then talk about decoherence as a kind of "measurement by the environment", which it sort of is, but this all needs a bit more explanation, which could still be done in plain English without maths. None of this affects their main arguments I don't think, but might be misleading.
Also potentially very misleading is that a reader who didn't know better might get the impression that they were claiming that life uses QM "magic" to violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. I certainly hope they aren't claiming that!
And finally the chapter on consciousness is pretty much pure apple-sauce, with no more reasoning behind it than the Principle of the Conservation of Spookiness.
But at the end of the day it's still a thoroughly interesting and scientific book which is highly recommended!
It opens the door to some exciting new possibilities..
Although it is far from perfect this book will provide interest and inspiration for many with an enquiringly mind.