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.
Review by Brian Clegg