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Life on the Edge - Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden ****

You might think that this book has received four stars, but if you know anything about quantum theory you will be aware that a quantum object can be in a superposition of states. And this quantum book is in a superposed state of 5 stars for the subject - which is fascinating and important - and 3 stars for the writing - which is disappointingly poor, given Jim Al-Khalili's expertise and experience.

It might seem that the whole concept of 'quantum biology' is a truism that hardly needs exploring. When every chemical reaction or electrical activity in a living organism is based on the interaction of quantum particles, why would there be a need for a separate discipline? But the (still relatively few) workers in the field like quantum physicist Jim Al-Khalili and biologist Johnjoe McFadden are looking at special cases. Where quantum effects, like entanglement, have a direct impact on large scale systems. Whether it's the robin's ability to steer using a molecular magnetic compass or the detail at the heart of photosynthesis, there seems to be some strange quantum behaviour that would take biologists by surprise as much as the general reader. And, the authors suggest, perhaps it is the reason that life itself can exist.

There are two aspects of the book that are truly fascinating. One is the exploration of the way that photosynthesis makes use of quantum effects - in fact, could not work without it. It's absolutely mind-boggling that the excited electron that has to be passed as an energy source to the reaction centre has no way of getting there without making use the of the quantum probabilities of taking every path to find its way. And as the authors explore the incredible unlikeliness of life getting started as a result of random interactions it becomes increasingly obvious that there surely must have been some kind of quantum effect that was involved in that process. (We have no idea what it might be, so having a chapter titled How life began' is a bit optimistic.)

One thing I didn't like, which is a common failing when a media scientist writes a book, is the way that quantum physics is presented with a broadcast gloss. What I mean by this is that in a TV or radio programme, where you only have a minute or two to explain something, you often have to gloss over the detail in a way that means you will say something that isn't quite true to keep things moving. But in a book you have the space to explain things properly, and this kind of glossing is a shame. It happens early on where quantum physics is first explained. We hear for instance that quantum particles can be in two places at once (where in reality they aren't at any fixed location) and quantum spin is mentioned in a way that suggests it's literally about a particle spinning around (it's not).

There was also what seemed like a little cattiness. Several times (again, as it's on quantum physics I assume this was Al-Khalili) there are at least four little digs about the way that quantum entanglement doesn't make 'paranormal phenomena' (his inverted commas) such as telepathy possible. At one point he says 'despite the bogus claims of telepathy'. If you don't know the field, you might wonder why this obsession with telepathy, but if you do it's hard not to suspect that this is a dig at Nobel Prize winner Brian Josephson who has previously made exactly this suggestion.

However, neither of these is the reason for the 3 stars for writing, which is rather that apart from those highlights of photosynthesis and the origins of life the book gets bogged down in biochemical details that are frankly not very interesting and that fail to carry the reader. Quantum physics may be glossed, but biological details get the opposite treatment. Perhaps it's the difficulty of having a co-authored book. Perhaps it's because the authors are too close to the subject, but I found parts of it very tedious, perhaps reflective of the old Feynman observation about biologists spending far too much time learning the names for things.

Overall, then, a fascinating topic, a branch of science that is shiny and new and wonderful. But not the book it should have been.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Comments


  1. “Life on the Edge” -The Fabric and Integrity of Science : Political correctness would expect that what I have to say here be self-censored……My enjoyment of an otherwise well written book by Al-Khalili and McFadden was dulled by their failure to cite pioneering scientists who broke the very ground on which they are preparing to build. I point out the following: …A. The first articulation that the “living organism is quantum coherent” was outlined in a most remarkable and original book by Dr Mai-Wan Ho first published in 1993 - “ The Rainbow and the Worm- The Physics of Organisms”. This book went through multiple print runs, and editions, and is a science best seller . It is amongst the most original I have ever read. It should have been cited in many places in "Life on the Edge". Indeed I am not alone in this judgement - Mai–Wan was awarded the Ilya Prigogine Prize in 2014 for her work in the “ The Rainbow and the Worm”. …B. The second error involves my own work on Lamarckian modes of inheritance in both somatic and germ line cells. There is a modern literature, prior to John Cairn’s work in the immune system on Lamarckian Inheritance based on RNA intermediates, reverse transcription and, the direct penetration of Weismann’s Barrier in particular . John Cairns failed to cite our prior work despite the clear evidence he was aware of the priority. Following mediation between Frank Fenner and Howard Temin, the editor of Nature , John Maddox, published the Steele & Cairns Letter. Howard Temin found it necessary to correct the scientific record at that time with his Nature article. My colleagues in Canberra and Sydney also jointly signed a letter published in "Immunology & Cell Biology". …..It is beholden on scientists that follow to maintain the integrity of the literature - and to correct the record when it is pointed out to them. I trust Al-Khlili and McFadden will find a way of dealing with these issues of priority and the historical scientific record in future editions of “Life on the Edge"…..I sign off illustrating the importance of understanding prior work Thus our detailed work on strand-biased somatic mutation and related signatures led to break throughs in understanding cancer and diagnosis. The non-randomness of somatic hypermutation displays targeted codon-context of rogue deamination of DNA at transcription bubbles (Lindley , 2013). This moves the field into an entirely new ball game ie. there exists in-frame DNA reader exists in the nucleus coupled to the transcription apparatus that monitors the in-frame integrity of the DNA as it is being transcribed . This discovery will lead to a complete revision of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology that DNA gives RNA give protein.-…. Edward J Steele PhD….. Refs: Steele, E.J. Somatic Selection and Adaptive Evolution: On the Inheritance of Acquired Characters Williams-Wallace, Toronto, 1979: University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981. Steele, E.J., Lindley, R.A. & Blanden, R.V. LAMARCK'S SIGNATURE : How retrogenes are changing Darwin's natural selection paradigm Allen & Unwin, Addison-Wesley-Longman 1998; Steele, EJ and J. Cairns (1989) Nature vol 340: 336.; Steele , E. J. ( 1989) Molec. Reprod. Develop. 1 : 231-232; Steele, E. J. ( 1989) Immunol. Cell Biol. 67 : 151-152; Steele, E.J. (2009) J Roy Soc Western Australia Special Issue "Evolutionary Biology Symposium 2009" Vol 92 (4) ; 437-446; Steele, E.J. and J.W. Pollard (1987). Molec. Immunol. 24 : 667-673.; Temin HM (1989)Nature vol 339:254-255.; Gorczynski, R.M. and E.J. Steele (1980). Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 77: 2871-2875.; Gorczynski, R.M. and E.J. Steele (1981). Nature. 289 : 678-681.; Blanden, R.V., et al (1998 ) Immunological Reviews 162 : 117; Steele, E.J. and Blanden, R.V. (2000) Science 288 : 2318 ; Steele, E.J. (2009) Molec. Immunol 46 : 305; Lindley, R.A. and Steele, E.J. (2013) ISRN Genomics. Vol 2013 Article ID 921418, 18 pages.; Lindley, R.A. (2013) Cancer Genetics. 206:222.

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    1. Thanks for your very full comment. The only thing I would point out is that this was a popular science book, not an academic paper, so although you may feel the authors did not cover particular areas you would like to have been covered, they have no requirement to cite specific sources. This might be seen as an inevitable limitation of the field or an admirable freedom.

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  2. Dear Brian:

    Both the authors are professional scientists and they understand their obligations to maintaining the integrity of the published scientific record popular or otherwise. That really is not a defence at all. It also has nothing to do inevitable limitations or admirable freedom. The published scientific record maintains its integrity by honesty on the part of serious scientists. It is most unfortunate these transgressions have occurred and I now leave it to the good sense and integrity of the scientists involved to correct the record in their next edition. As Fred Holye often said " There is no point in arguing with priority in science, just acknowledge it" or as Winston Churchill said about the Truth " The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, Ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is."

    So I really trust the authors have the good sense to do the right thing in this case. Because if they have transgressed in two major areas of science relevant to their book, what else is there in the book that is unreliable?

    Ted Steele

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    1. Fair point. It wasn't really a defence, it's just as a popular science writer myself, what I try to do is get the science across, rather than reference every scientist involved - you have to be selective, and I don't think it matter whether the authors are scientists or not: the aim of popular science should always be to make the science more accessible, not to ensure complete citation.

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