A new and growing field that explores whether many biological processes depend on uniquely quantum processes to work. Under particular scrutiny at the moment are photosynthesis, smell and the navigation of migratory birds.
Are you curious about who is contributing to Quantum Shorts and where their ideas come from? This is a short interview with Betony Adams, runner up in the 2013 Quantum Shorts flash fiction contest. Her short story Dice was praised by 2013 judge Patrick Nielsen Hayden, manager of the SF and fantasy line at Tor Books, who said "I liked the way it shifts levels and fakes the reader out". Mariette di Christina, who oversees Scientific American and is a judge again this year, said "Most of all, I enjoyed a story that went about its business with subtlety and elegance and displayed a strong narrative arc."
How did you hear about the Quantum Shorts contest?
Betony: I was an MSc student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. My supervisor, Professor Francesco Petruccione - himself a quantum physicist - told me about it.
What inspired your story Dice?
Betony: Einstein is often quoted as having said, in response to the essentially random nature of quantum theory, that god does not play dice with the universe. Apart from the vivid image it gave me of a dice-tossing deity, I was struck by the analogy. At least for me, the idea behind a dice-roll or coin-toss, behind the lure of gambling, is of pure potential more than winning. Before the dice lands or the coin settles, everything is still possible. I quite like this as a way of conceptualising god, as the space of absolute possibility. To be human, in comparison, is to struggle with diminishing possibility, to watch as the measure of a life destroys all the other possible paths we might have taken.
What are you most excited by in science now?
Betony: I find quantum biology, the application of quantum theory to biological systems, very interesting. That something on a scale as large as migrating birds' circumnavigation of the earth might be related to something as small as the spin of an electron is quite wonderful. Other astonishing topics include how strange quantum effects like coherence and electron tunneling might help turn light into matter through photosynthesis, or explain the way in which the sense of smell works or how brains respond to anaesthetic. There's quite a bit of poetry in it.
I also think epigenetics is fascinating. A recent experiment where mice were given electric shocks when exposed to the scent of cherry blossom to induce a fear response, found that this fear response was passed on to future generations through methyl attachments in their DNA. The fact that history is in us, quite literally, the ghost in our molecular machine, I find beautiful and terrible at the same time. Beautiful because we have traces of other lives in our cellular memory, and terrible for the same reason, that birth is not a clean slate, that trauma endured by one generation is generated to the next, written in the body.