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INTERVIEW with quantum biologist Johnjoe McFadden

By RRJ Editorial


Johnjoe McFadden is Professor of Molecular Genetics at Surrey University. His most recent book, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, examines the role that quantum mechanics – arguably the strangest area of scientific study – has to play in some of both the most basic and the most complex aspects of biology. Co-authored with Jim Al-Khalili, the book brings the two scientists’ groundbreaking work on introducing quantum ideas to the field of biology to a wider public audience.


We caught up with Johnjoe to ask him about his writing, the arts-science divide, and the future of quantum biology.



RRJ Editorial: In your books such as Life on the Edge, you look outside the traditional academic community for an audience. Why did you decide this was the best way to present some of your ideas?


Johnjoe McFadden: The question here is really: why do you want to communicate ideas? It’s because you have ideas, and there’s no point having an idea unless you can communicate it. It strikes me that science is a process of finding out about the world, and the world is a fascinating place. A lot of people don’t know how wonderful, and weird, and peculiar the world is. More than anything else, for me, I have a drive to tell people what is so fascinating about the world we live in.


Science is about the world; it’s not a body of research that stands alone from reality. It is our best description of reality, and what we find there is, to me, utterly fascinating. When people ask me why I’m interested in science, I ask how anyone can not be interested in it. I can’t understand how anyone can not be interested in the world that they live in, and not try to understand how it works. It’s the most peculiar object that we know in the universe, and life is the most peculiar thing that’s inhabiting our universe.


With our book, Life on the Edge, there seemed to be a connection between that most peculiar phenomenon – life – and the most peculiar science, quantum mechanics, which reveals that the world is a lot stranger than our perceptions tell us it is. And strangeness is always fascinating. We saw that the strangeness of science is aligned with life, the most remarkable phenomenon that we know, and we felt that it was a story that needed telling.



RRJ: To people without an academic background in science, there is a sense that science is becoming increasingly complex and unassailable. What role do you think that “popular” science has to play in today’s world?


JM: You’re right, in that to become an effective scientist involves about ten years of training – a degree, and then a PhD, and then probably another three years before you’re particularly effective. But then the products of that scientific research – such as new drugs, stem cell therapy or GM crops – they’re going to be out there in the world, and people who aren’t scientists are going to be dealing with them, whether they like it or not, just as you’re already dealing with highly advanced technology whenever you pick up a mobile phone.


Your mobile phone probably isn’t going to cause you an ethical dilemma, but stem cell research might; it could allow you to live forever, or it could allow you to cure diseases that are currently incurable, and it could change humanity irrevocably. So it’s important to engage with science because increasingly major decisions in people’s lives will be based on science that they don’t understand very well. So I think there’s a need to popularise science in the sense of making difficult science accessible to people who haven’t had that ten-year training.


But again it’s not just a practical thing. To some extent, when someone paints a picture or composes a piece of music, what is the practical use of that? Artists don’t have to justify that they produce art because it’s considered a worthy endeavour, because people want to look at it or listen to it. To me, science is just like that.


Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and his Origin of Species changed the way people look at the world forever, and you don’t need to justify it in terms of what practical application it has. The answer would be zero – you can’t do anything with the Origin of Species; you can’t save someone’s life or make any technology out of it. The point is to provide another angle on our world and our human experience, and that to me is the part that interests me most: the way that science allows you to see the world in a different way. A large part of science, and a part that is often forgotten these days, is that it’s part of human experience, and just as valid as forms of art. To me, that’s part of what popular science has to do: deliver that fascination and reveal hidden aspects of the world.



Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859

RRJ: There’s a commonly held idea of science as something collaborative: working in a lab, sharing ideas etc. But we often don’t think of writing a book as being a collaborative effort; how did you go about co-writing Life on the Edge with Jim Al-Khalili?


JM: Collaboration in writing a book is rare and it’s difficult. It was hard for us both. I’m a biologist and Jim’s a physicist, and initially we approached each chapter as having a biology-focused front end and a physics-focused back, so I wrote the beginning and Jim wrote the end of each chapter. Then, when we looked over each other’s work, there was some stuff in what Jim has written that I wasn’t clear about, but I thought, “well, Jim knows what he’s talking about”. And the same kind of thing was happening when Jim read my work. It was our agent who told us it wasn’t working, because there were elements of both the biology and the physics that weren’t comprehensible to a non-specialist.


We had to get over our reluctance to criticise each other’s area of expertise and their writing about it. We had to tell each other what needed rewriting, and then we went through a long process of reiterations in which I was rewriting Jim’s words and he was rewriting mine. In the end there wasn’t really any part of the book that wasn’t written by both of us.



RRJ: Your writings on quantum biology are, at first glance, relatively removed from your academic background, where your professional focus is on infectious diseases. How did that parallel direction come about?


JM: My interest in quantum biology came about because infectious diseases involve microbes and I’m a specialist in the genetics of microbes, particularly the microbe that causes Tuberculosis. And when you’re interested in genetics, one of the other interests that you inevitably have is genetic mutation.


In the late 1990s there was an unusual paper that came out about mutation, suggesting that bacteria have some peculiar way of choosing which genes they need to mutate; this was called adaptive mutation. It came from a very well-respected lab in the US, and a highly respected researcher there found this very peculiar phenomenon that couldn’t be accounted for in conventional biology. It’s always interesting to scientists when something can’t be accounted for, so everyone in the field of molecular genetics and microbial genetics (which is the area I work in) was scratching their head about this and trying to come up with an explanation.


I happened to be reading a very good popular science book about quantum mechanics, called Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbin. I found the area fascinating, and it seemed to me that there was a possibility of using quantum mechanics to account for adaptive mutation, based on the weird features of quantum mechanics whereby systems can be in different states at the same time. But I didn’t know enough about quantum mechanics to know if it was really feasible, so I got in touch with our physics department and talked to some people there, and they asked me to come and give a seminar. The reception I got was polite but sceptical, but Jim Al-Khalili was also in the audience, and he found the idea interesting enough to strike up a connection.


Over the next couple of years, we would meet occasionally for a coffee or a beer and talk through ideas, coming up with some possible way forward and then knocking it down, saying it wasn’t feasible. But eventually we came up with something that was feasible, and we wrote a paper together in 1999, and that’s what sparked my interest in quantum biology.


I was then so convinced that quantum mechanics was really involved in biology that I went on to write a popular science book called Quantum Evolution, in which I made the claim that mutation was driven by a quantum mechanical engine, and thereby that quantum mechanics was fundamental to evolution and indeed all of life. That was published in 2000. It was reasonably successful, but then the field went dead. We tried to get some funding to take it forward – in science, as in the arts, getting funding is fundamental, as it’s too expensive to do work without it. When Charles Darwin did his Origin of Species, he had big family money behind him and he could go for several years cruising to the Galapagos, but we can’t do that anymore.


So as we couldn’t get funding we’d just meet now and again, but then about 10 years later, suddenly lots of interesting stuff about quantum biology emerged, and that persuaded us to write the book together. And now we’re having another bash at getting funding. Now that claiming that quantum mechanics is involved in biology comes across as an admission of eccentricity rather than insanity, we’re hoping to get some funding to take the work forward and do some science. So far we’ve really just been talking and coming up with theoretical ideas, but we’re hoping that will change.



RRJ: It’s interesting how creative your investigations are, combining areas of interest and collaborating with other thinkers. Most lay-people see science as something very methodical, so it’s fascinating to see the creativity behind your theories.


JM: Personally I think that science is one of the most creative enterprises on the planet. As someone once put it, science is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration; but it’s the 1% inspiration that really moves science on, and without that it wouldn’t go anywhere. It’s only where people take inspirational leaps forward that new science makes big advances. You’ve got to be methodical to be a scientist and that’s the way to success, but without creativity you would just be a technician.



RRJ: You’ve expressed an interest in literature as well as science, and the writing in your books is beautiful and has a literary quality to it. Do you think that the connection between the arts and the sciences is often ignored or overlooked by the communities on both sides of the line?


JM: I think it is. Back in the 1950s, CP Snow wrote Two Cultures, a very influential essay saying there are two distinct sides of Western culture: science and the creative arts. He argues that scientists have probably never read Shakespeare and most creative arts people wouldn’t know what the second law of thermodynamics is, and that there’s a gulf that’s emerged between the two disciplines. Allowing that divide suggests that there are two distinctly different ways for the mind to work, and two different kinds of people, and it’s just not true.


Talking of literature, about ten years ago I organised a symposium called Human Nature: Fact and Fiction, looking at the question of what human nature is from both a scientific angle and a literary angle. We invited Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, some other authors and some scientists such as Steven Pinker. We also had some literary critics and academics there; interestingly, whereas the authors were very sympathetic and interested in science, the critics hated it. So I think the academic community studying art and literature generally has a much more negative view towards science than actual artists and writers. Creative people are often very interested in science, and somehow I think the divide is driven more  by the people around the edges of creativity.


I think when artists and scientists have opportunities to get together, they often find they have a lot in common, and particularly a drive to understand the world and to express what is so interesting to them about the world. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, he wrote them because he thought he had insights into human nature and the human condition that he wanted to talk about, and that he wanted people to know about. Similarly, in science, people think they have insights that are valid, relevant, and potentially valuable, and they want people to know about them.



RRJ: Going back to the topic of your book: recent research into quantum biology has the potential to change how we think about what it means to be alive. Where do you think this could take us in the future?


JM: As you say, it’s a new perspective on what life is. At its most ambitious, that’s what we try to do, to provide a new perspective on what  makes life so special, because I don’t think classical science sufficiently explains life.


I think there are lots of potential benefits in terms of understanding how things work: understanding photosynthesis may help us to make better solar panels that will capture more energy and make cleaner energy, or understanding how enzymes work could help generate better drugs. More interesting to me in a way is the “what is life?” question, and discovering whether it is possible to make life from scratch. That to me is a fascinating possibility; we would certainly like to have a go at that, to make life from a test tube, from chemicals. That’s something I think would be incredibly interesting, and potentially powerful. I’m sure many people would also find it scary as well, but everything’s scary until you get to know it and learn how to use it properly. To me, that’s the most exciting and groundbreaking advance that could happen, if it could allow us to make synthetic life.


I want to mention one other thing that I won’t say too much about at the moment, but I’m working on a new book called Life is Simple. The book will explore Occam’s Razor, a scientific guiding principle that if you have many explanations for something, it’s best to choose the simplest. It’s been extraordinarily useful in science, and this book is about exploring what it means, and why finding the simplest solution is usually the best. That’ll be another story in the future that your readers may find interesting when I’ve finished the final chapter.




Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology is published by Bantam Press. Buy it here.

Life is Simple
by Johnjoe McFadden will be published in 2018. Keep up to date with Johnjoe McFadden’s publications and activities on his website or on Twitter.



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