By Meg Jorsh
TV physicist Jim Al-Khalili revealed the baffling world of quantum biology in a talk at the North Staffordshire Medical Institute.
The BBC star – best known for his Radio 4 show The Life Scientific – joked if the insanely complex subject did not give his listeners a headache, he would not have been doing his job.
Professor Al-Khalili spoke to a sold-out audience of 150 at the medical research charity’s 48th annual Wade Lecture.
He told them: “If you haven’t got a headache then clearly you don’t understand quantum mechanics. If you think ‘maybe I’ve got it’ then you haven’t. It’s meant to be confusing.”
Prof Al-Khalili explained that the quantum theory of physics, when applied to biology, could potentially reveal how the atoms in animals and plants behave differently to those in inanimate objects.
But he admitted the new field – which looks at the behaviour of subatomic particles – was a controversial topic for many traditional biologists.
He added: “Quantum biology is still in its infancy; it’s still speculative. Quantum mechanics is weird and very sensitive, it’s hard to understand and biology is complicated enough as well.
“There’s still widespread scepticism among biologists, mainly surrounding the question of ‘so what?’
“It does seem that there are some mechanisms within living cells that need some help from the quantum world, but we don’t know how this happens.
“To observe quantum mechanics in the non-living world you need to cool things down to near-absolute zero in a vacuum and even then the quantum effects don’t last very long.
“Has nature hit upon shortcuts to give it an advantage? Can we learn from nature to develop new or more efficient quantum devices?”
Having wrapped up his hour-long presentation, the popular scientist stopped to sign autographs and take selfies with dozens of fans.
Prof. Al-Khalili, who was awarded an OBE in 2008, explained that respect for his audience was key to his success as a science broadcaster.
He said: “I’m of a generation when I first started doing science communication it was just becoming acceptable for science researchers to talk to the public. Before that you had to do one or the other.
“Richard Dawkins, brilliant though he is, once he wrote The Selfish Gene he was no longer seen as an academic. But people like me and like Professor Brian Cox, I still spend half my time at the University of Surrey, I still have PhD students, I still publish papers. It was still only my generation that it’s become acceptable to do both.
“Public engagement in science acknowledges that it has to be a two-way process. Part of that is acknowledging that the audience you talk to is no less clever than you, they’ve just not devoted their lives to studying this stuff.
“I couldn’t perform an operation – I can’t even do my own bank statements.”
The professor, who still spends half of his time teaching at the University of Surrey, later joined Institute members, staff and supporters for a formal dinner.
He decided to attend in part because he had never visited Stoke before.
“So far it’s been very pleasant,” he added. “If tonight is indicative of the good people of Stoke then it’s a lovely place.”
Institute bosses hope to welcome Professor Al-Khalili back in 2021 to speak at a series of talks planned for the Year of Culture.
The event on Thursday, October 5th, came just a week after the Institute’s annual awards evening, at which more than £100,000 was handed over to top local researchers.
The money will be used to fund groundbreaking studies into a range of health conditions, including childhood asthma and sleep apnoea, lung disease and brain injuries.
Experts in prostate and bladder cancer, bowel disease and health literacy will also profit from the funding injection.
The North Staffordshire Medical Institute, based on Hartshill Road, Stoke, is a medical charity funded by public donations and the revenue from its purpose-built conference facilities.
For more information about their work, visit https://nsmedicalinstitute.co.uk/, like them on Facebook @nsmedicalinstitute or follow them on Twitter @nsccentre.