Life on the Edge

  • by Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili
  • Narrated by Pete Cross
  • 12 hrs and 43 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Life is the most extraordinary phenomenon in the known universe; but how did it come to be? Even in an age of cloning and artificial biology, the remarkable truth remains: Nobody has ever made anything living entirely out of dead material. Life remains the only way to make life. Are we still missing a vital ingredient in its creation? Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe Macfadden reveal the hitherto missing ingredient to be quantum mechanics and the strange phenomena that lie at the heart of this most mysterious of sciences. As they brilliantly demonstrate here, life lives on the quantum edge.

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More woo than new

I have a problem with most of the new science books that I've been reading lately. They really aren't saying anything new and when they do they seem to enter into woo woo land. The authors demonstrate nicely how certain biological processes such as the internal magnetic compass of a certain kind of Robin, the photosynthesis in plants, the universal energy currency of life: ATP, the enzyme process, and how the sense of smell can all be thought best in terms of quantum mechanics.

Those examples make up the first half of the book. My problem with the book is the second half. All objective knowledge can be broken down into the subatomic quantum mechanical level, but that doesn't mean they should be. The authors go off the rails and enter the land of woo with ascribing the origins of life, the genetic code in general and mutations in particular, and our consciousness as best understood by quantum mechanical processes. As much as the next person, I love the mysteries of the quantum world, but I don't want to reduce the process understudy down to that level unless it is absolutely necessary. I really get tired at how many authors (including these) refer to the problem of consciousness as the "hard problem". There have been many strides lately on understanding consciousness, but mixing it with the woo woo of physics the way a Depak Chopra would is never the right approach.

It is a pity. This book had a lot going for it in the beginning, because the authors as biologist really know how to explain the physics. The authors tell the listener in very clear terms what Feynman meant by "all the mysteries of physics are contained within the double slit experiment". (Everyone who reads books like this one should take the time and trouble and look up the Feynman Lectures on the Character of Physical Law on Youtube, seven of the happiest hours I ever spent). This book explains the double split experiment, the particle/wave duality, the measurement problem, and more specifically for the book, quantum tunneling, entanglement, coherence, and superposition. Also, the authors really knew how to explain the steps in the scientific process a biologist needs in order to reach coherent, consistent, and non-contradictory conclusions.

I'm still looking for new popular science books that teach me things I don't already know and which don't enter into the land of woo.



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- Gary "l'enfer c'est les autres"

Good content. Needed another edit.

I can't write a bad review since this book introduced me to exciting, novel concepts. The amount of quantum effects that are relied on in biological systems throughout the body hints at the possibility that many, many more will be found over time. My favourite? Electrons in photosynthesis acting like little quantum computers to find the most efficient path. Also, evidence of quantum effects used by neurones are provocative indeed, although the ones found so far wouldn't seem to contribute to consciousness in any sensible way.

But one more edit would have done this book a lot of good. They struggle with the order in which they explain key concepts, which means the early chapters are burdened with long tangents and scattered organization. The later chapters are less burdened since they've explained most of the ground work by then, but clarity and directness are never these authors' strongpoints.

The biggest burden this book carries, however, is the idea that quantum particles are literally particles, which makes things seem more mystical than they need to. Mainstream physicists dropped this idea long ago in favour of "fields." So, for example, it may not surprise readers that a magnetic field can interact with something on either side of a wall. Talk about the same phenomena as a "particle," however, and suddenly it's like we're reading about magic.

They write one thing which is alarmingly misleading. They claim that even if a detector in a 2-slit experiment hypothetically didn't interact with the particles at all, it would still remove the interference pattern. How do they know what would be true in this hypothetical reality?

In fact, it is specifically the interaction of the measuring device that causes the interference pattern to disappear. To suggest otherwise implies that "measuring" mystically causes wave-functions to collapse through the conscious act of observing rather than the physical interaction of the measuring device. Tisk tisk.
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- Tristan "Urban planner. Environmentalist. Geek."

Book Details

  • Release Date: 07-28-2015
  • Publisher: Dreamscape Media, LLC