Schrödinger’s microbe: implications of coercing a living organism into a coherent quantum mechanical state

Abstract

Consideration of the experimental activities carried out in one discipline, through the lens of another, can lead to novel insights. Here, we comment from a biological perspective upon experiments in quantum mechanics proposed by physicists that are likely to feasible in the near future. In these experiments, an entire living organism would be knowingly placed into a coherent quantum state for the first time, i.e. would be coerced into demonstrating quantum phenomena. The implications of the proposed experiment for a biologist depend to an extent upon the outcomes. If successful (i.e. quantum coherence is achieved and the organism survives after returning to a normal state), then the organism will have been temporarily in a state where it has an unmeasurable metabolism—not because a metabolic rate is undetectable, but because any attempt to measure it would automatically bring the organism out of the state. We argue that this would in essence represent a new category of cryptobiosis. Further, the organism would not necessarily retain all of the characteristics commonly attributed to living systems, unlike the currently known categories of cryptobiosis. If organisms can survive having previously been in a coherent state, then we must accept that living systems do not necessarily need to remain in a decoherent state at all times. This would be something new to biologists, even if it might seem trivial to physicists. It would have implications concerning the physical extremes organisms can tolerate, the search for extraterrestrial life, and our philosophical view of animation.

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Acknowledgments

We acknowledge and thank Leron Borsten and Raimundo Real for in-depth discussions on this topic, and their insights into some of the ideas contained within this manuscript. Jared Cole, Bill Langford and two anonymous reviewers also provided useful comments that improved the manuscript, including suggesting the phrase “Schrödinger’s microbe”. J.W.B. acknowledges the support of the Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and the Environment initiative at Imperial College London. A.G. was supported by funding from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.

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Bull, J.W., Gordon, A. Schrödinger’s microbe: implications of coercing a living organism into a coherent quantum mechanical state. Biol Philos 30, 845–856 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-015-9500-4

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Keywords

  • Coherence
  • Cryptobiosis
  • Decoherence
  • Living organism
  • PICERAS
  • Tardigrade