The hardest thing to get your mind around with quantum physics is that the smallest units of the universe like electrons or photons aren’t a solid and stable thing, but a potential of any one of its future selves – or what is known by physicists as a ‘superposition’, or sum, of all probabilities. It’s all its possible selves – all at the same time.
At its most elemental, physical matter isn’t solid and stable – indeed, isn’t an anything yet.
Tangled by entanglement
Another strange feature of quantum physics is a feature called ‘non-locality’, also poetically referred to as ‘quantum entanglement’. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr discovered that once subatomic particles such as electrons or photons are in contact, they remain aware of and influenced by each other instantaneously over any distance forever, despite the absence of the usual things that physicists understand are responsible for influence, such as an exchange of force or energy.
When entangled, the actions – for instance, the magnetic orientation – of one will always influence the other in the same or the opposite direction, no matter how far they are separated.
Modern physicists have demonstrated decisively that once two subatomic particles have connected, the measurement of one photon instantaneously affected the position of the second photon. The two photons continued to talk to each other and whatever happened to one was identical to, or very opposite of, what happened to the other. Today, even the most conservative physicists accept non-locality as a strange feature of subatomic reality.
Although modern physicists now accept these effects as a given feature of the quantum world, they console themselves by maintaining that this strange, counter-intuitive property of the subatomic universe does not apply to anything bigger than a photon or an electron or to anything alive. The prevailing view is that quantum effects are only seen in laboratories with non-living systems at temperatures close to absolute zero.
Once things gets to the level of atoms and molecules, to the hot and wet world of the living organism — which in the world of physics is termed ‘macroscopic’ — the universe starts behaving itself again, according to predictable, measurable, Newtonian laws.
At the heart of biology
However, the latest evidence demonstrates that quantum effects like entanglement could be at the very heart of biological processes. A multi-center study carried out by the University of California at Berkeley. Washington University at St. Louis, Missouri and the Institute of Physics of Charles University in the Czech Republic, discovered that quantum processes inside of green sulfur bacteria drives the essential process of converting solar energy into oxygen and food.
The researchers tracked the workings of the protein network connecting the external solar collectors, or chlorosomes, to energy centers inside each cell by hitting these proteins with ultrafast laser pulses and following the trail of the light through the cell structure and into its reaction centers, where the conversion of light into oxygen and carbohydrates takes place.
To the amazement of the researchers, the light traveled in several directions at once – much as an electron does when travelling undetected in its superposition state. The researchers believe that this energy in a sense ‘tries out’ various pathways before finally choosing the most efficient.
This stunning finding suggests that the most basic and fundamental of all biological processes, responsible for most of life on earth in the form of oxygen supply and food source, is driven by a quantum process.
Quantum green tea
Another study by a group from the Autonomous University of Barcelona discovered that the antioxidant effects of green tea, which counteract the effects of free radicals, have to do with an effect in which, electrons in a molecule somehow are able to jump over and adhere to a second molecule, even though the laws of classical physics says that electrons are bound together too tightly ever to do such a thing.
This phenomenon of jumping ship from one molecule to the next is known as ‘quantum tunneling’. The Spanish researchers have discovered that electrons from the antioxidants, called catechins, in the tea engage in a mopping up exercise of free radicals, which produce an extra electron. The catechin electrons are able to tunnel to a free radical electron, binding it up and preventing it from damaging cells in the body.
In fact, entanglement is now easy to achieve in large ‘macroscopic’ systems in the lab. Physicist Vlatko Vedral of the University of Leeds, working with a team from Portugal and Austria, was able to show that photons from a laser can be entangled with the crystal lattice of a mirror and that this relationship would persist at high temperatures.
Tied up in the Canaries
In several flamboyant gestures, the famous Austrian quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger and his team have most recently entangled a pair of photons between two islands in the Canaries separated by 144 km metres of sea. Zeilinger and his co-workers have also transferred money securely between an Austrian Bank and Vienna City Hall using pairs of entangled photons produced by a laser and distributed via optical fibers. They even showed that non-local links could be established in space by bouncing laser pulses off a satellite to a receiving station on Earth.
The implications of these discoveries are staggering. They suggest that scientists must drastically modify their understanding of reality, particularly biological reality.
By accepting these quantum effects as a natural facet of nature we are acknowledging that two of the bedrocks on which our world view rests are wrong: that influence only occurs over time and distance, and that particles, and indeed the things that are made up of particles, only exist independently of each other.
They suggest that we have to ask ourselves a very fundamental question, perhaps the most fundamental of all: does anything exist before we perform a measurement on it? Or to put that another way, if quantum entities, which are so impossible to define before measurements are taken, drive all our basic life processes, does anything exist as an actual something independently of us?
Suddenly the idea that thoughts can affect the physical world doesn’t seem so strange.