Life on the Edge (2015)

I am working my way through Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, and although I’m not quite done yet, I just have to pause and talk about it with you.


What is life? And, maybe more importantly, why and how exactly is life? This is the huge question that McFadden and Al-Khalili aim to start answering in this book about quantum biology, which is the key to unlocking why and how life exists. They start with the example of the robin – as featured on the cover – that is able to use magnetoreception to navigate our vast planet, and take us on a journey through science history, from classical physics (Newton and his apple) to the birth of the field of quantum physics to the present day.

I’ll admit that this book can get very dense. While the authors do a great job trying to simplify the extremely complex processes that are quantum mechanics, as well as the complex biological processes they are explaining through quantum mechanics, the easier-to-grasp analogies often get buried within very technical explanations. For example, while reading about how enzymes work, I remembered learning about proteins and active sites as a pre-med taking organic chemistry, and still I found myself having to reread lines over and over before the point was made clearly enough for me to move on. I appreciated that they didn’t water down the science in this book, even though the switch between the real science and the laymen’s terms was often not smooth.

One of my favorite parts was the historical journey through scientific knowledge. In school, I never learned extensively about quantum mechanics. We covered it just a smidge in high school, and college biology courses don’t go into it at all. (A point that is made in the book, about how quantum physics and biology have only recently begun to overlap.) In particular, it was fun to see how scientific contributions that I have learned about fit into the history of quantum biology, learning about how Bohr and Schrödinger and Newton and others fit into the grand narrative.

The authors were great at conveying the sheer excitement about unlocking how and why life is possible through quantum biology. Even though the material could be very dense and complex, they still found humor and awe in the phenomenon all around us. I still remember learning about the double-slit experiment for the first time, and how my mind couldn’t even grasp it enough to be fully-blown, and reliving that complete awe while reading the authors talk about this famous quantum mechanics experiment.

Prepare to have your mind blown. Don’t be fooled by the animation, this is a really excellent explanation.

I’m still working my way through the book, but it’s so exciting to me to learn about a new way to think about biology. I have always been a very trees-for-the-forest kind of person. I’d wonder about the very fundamental-fundamental reason why things were happening. Why did the apple fall from the tree? Oh gravity. But how did the apple get up in that tree? Let’s talk about trees and fruit-bearing plants and even genetics. But what about how it grew? We can talk about photosynthesis. But what makes photosynthesis happen? I want to talk about what is happening inside the molecules of the cells. What is making the atoms of those molecules do this? At that level, it’s hard for biology professors or even chemistry professors to answer questions. But that’s exactly what quantum biology is aiming to answer for us, and Life on the Edge is a great starting point for this exciting field.

It’s been a little while since I’ve actively learned science stuff, and while the book was hard for me to read at times, I’m super excited to keep learning about quantum biology and finally start to have my fundamental questions answered. Why and how does life happen? At the most fundamental level that we are able to conceive of right now, that I sometimes have a hard time conceiving of at all?

This is a great read if you love science and having those questions answered down to this level. The writers know their stuff, they know the research, and their fun personality shows through in a great way in the book.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

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