Life, as you and I know it, is something of a predictable event. It acts reasonably normally (as we experience it) because we don't look very closely or at a very fine level.

If we had the inclination and tools to look very, very closely what we'd see would be a world that is so far outside out our usual thought patterns that we'd be sure we were stranded in another dimension. Reality is that strange.

When we get to looking at the very small, it doesn't take too long to start delving into the peculiar world of Quantum Physics, a study that allows for things to be in place A at one time and place B at another without ever having in between them. This field of study predicts things to not be so much solid but basically as congealed light. It is the realm of uncertainty and probability.

Look very, very closely and you will see that electrons don't exist as dots but as clouds. They orbit the nucleus of atoms at predictable distances, but, unlike a satellite that you can predict a position of in the sky with great accuracy, you can't tell where they are; just where they are likely to be. One of the more interesting notions that plays with this phenomenon, is that which is called the Quantum Zeno effect.

In quantum mechanics, things exist at specific states, be that orbital distances or combinations of particles. It's the getting from state A to state B that is a little odd because this isn't a done deal kind of interaction; it is a probability kind of action. Think of this process not like getting in your car and going to grandma’s, but more like the chances of winning a trip to grandma’s. Getting from state A to state B is likely to occur during some time period and, if you wait long enough and you've bought enough lottery tickets, it's highly likely to happen (but not guaranteed). The really odd thing about this is that that act of watching this transition disturbs the probability of it happening, tending to suppress the probability. In quantum mechanics, the particles act more like waves than stones and the probability function collapses towards the initial state under observation. Presumably, if you watch for it often enough, it will never happen (such is the life of a shy particle). This is the Zeno effect.

Most science people have a disjoint notion of the two realities, quantum and classical. Our senses hold to the classical (some would say natural) physics where push reacts with shove and apples always fall downwards at very predictable rates. Quantum mechanics typically inhabits worlds that are either so energetic as to be outside our experience (black holes or sun like temperatures) or so small as to be unappreciated (molecular or atomic sized). That view may be changing.

Some years ago, researchers found that a chemical called cytochrome is selectively reactive to specific light in the blue-green range. When this wavelength of light strikes this chemical, it absorbs it splitting up an electron pair in the process and creating two ion pairs. Normally, these decay back to the original bound state very quickly but in one of two combinations. The mix of how that decays back, a research team found, could be influenced by a magnetic field. With one applied, the resulting chemical reaction was a little different than without. Since this process takes place very, very quickly and the magnetic field required needs to be strong to influence it.

However, a recent research team found that when a weak magnetic field was applied to the chemistry, the reaction took much longer than predicted and the resulting chemical reaction product is biased by the magnetic field itself, even under these weak conditions. The magnetic field had to be applied at particular windows of values, corresponding to the quantum predictions of a Zeno effect; the field is acting as the observation and delaying the rate of movement from state A to state B. It turns out that this weak field is the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field.

This would be interesting in a bench top sort of way, but the chemical in question is found near the nerve layers of birds' eyes suggesting that this quantum chemistry could enable birds to actually see the Earth's magnetic lines in some way, possibly by color or by other light patterns. If you've got a pair of polarized sunglasses, look through them at a bright blue sky and then tilt your head towards your shoulder (turning it 90 degrees). You'll see a very different sky and this could be what birds work with for long-distance navigation, actually being able to see where they should be going.

This example illustrates a little appreciated point of what is science: Science is the description of the reality around us. It is not the reality around us. Things don't not exist because science hasn't described them, rather it is the other way around — things exist for science to describe.

Mankind tends to view the world through a rather narrow lens that is being opened wider all the time. What we need desperately to keep in mind is that this lens is still quite narrow and the world around us, what with things like quantum mechanical navigational aids embedded in birds, is still a wondrous and mysterious place that we, as a species, have only just begun to see.

“Perilous to all of us are the devices of an art deeper than we ourselves possess.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

(Copyright © 2021 APG Media)

Recommended for you

Load comments