Cosmos, science and media from Carl Sagan to today

This video is called Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey (Part 1).

By Bryan Dyne in the USA:

Cosmos reboot falls short of the mark

14 April 2014

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (Cosmos) is a remake of the 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the new series comes after three and a half decades of scientific advances—sequencing of the human genome, discovery of the Higgs boson, quantification of conditions in the first moments of the Big Bang, and detailed spacecraft exploration of parts of the solar system. Yet, beyond some scientific generalities, little of this enormous progress would be apparent from watching the new series.

Alongside Tyson, the new series is being produced by Seth MacFarlane in collaboration with Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow) and astronomer Steven Soter, both of whom worked on the original Cosmos series. It is being aired on ten 21st Century Fox networks and on the National Geographic Channel and being distributed across 170 countries and in 45 languages—one of the widest television distributions to date. So far, six out of 13 episodes have been aired, with an estimated 27 million viewers in the US.

In itself, the production of this new Cosmos is a welcome development. Almost without exception, US television is dominated by series promoting the police and military, the occult and mystical, and sometimes all of them at the same time. In contrast, Cosmos sets as its task the socially progressive work of portraying the world as it is objectively, examining natural laws before a mass audience, and placing human society within the context of the development of the universe.

This video is called Cosmos: A Personal Voyage – Episode 1 (Carl Sagan).

The original Cosmos derived much of its strength from its seriousness and the internal consistency and fidelity to the scientific method which the show promoted and defended. At times, the new series follows the original in that respect. The second episode features a wonderful sequence showing the development of the eye, as part of its discussion on natural selection. Using a split-screen technique, viewers see ocean life evolve over hundreds of millions of years on the left and a view of what those creatures actually saw on the right, starting with patches of light and dark and slowly getting clearer as each modification of the eye came along. Throughout the segment, Tyson explains that by tracing these developments through the fossil record, we can rule out claims of an “intelligent designer” for the eye. It evolved.

William Herschel

In another animated sequence, viewers are introduced to astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822), who observationally described binary stars in apparent orbit about one another, generalizing Newton’s theory of gravity from the movement of bodies within the Solar System to all celestial bodies. This was one of the critical demonstrations that established that natural laws discovered on Earth can be extrapolated to areas of the universe beyond direct human experience.

Another sequence worth noting revolved around the life of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church. The Church has always asserted that this was for his heretical theology. Cosmos, on the other hand, explains that the true reason for Bruno’s execution was his ideas about scientific inquiry and how to understand the world. His methods led him to expand on Copernicus’ idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun, to say that the Sun and all the stars were the same, that the stars also had planets and that those planets could have life. To this day, Bruno’s writings are still on the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts.

But beyond a few such exceptions, the show is largely lacking in describing the development of science as a social process, or even in providing concrete examples of momentous discoveries and how they came about. A segment describing the development of Newton’s theory of gravity took as its focus petty personal frictions between Newton, Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley, rather than the vast upheavals of Enlightenment Europe, or the meticulous work of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler in acquiring the observational data which could be unified by Newton into a single theoretical framework.

Albert Einstein is discussed equally ahistorically, but in the opposite way: rather than his inspiration coming from conflicts, he is presented as the isolated genius who arrives at his unifying idea by virtue of his alienation. In reality, Einstein’s work temporarily sealed a rupture in physics which had erupted in the 1860s and which attracted work from many of its best minds. Taking as his point of departure the surprising results of Michelson and Morley in 1887 that the speed of light appeared to be the same to both stationary and moving observers, Einstein worked out the implications of a fixed speed of light using mathematics developed by Riemann, Lorentz, Poincare, and Weyl. That his most productive years occurred in Europe between 1905 and 1917, spanning a World War and two Russian revolutions, should be worthy of notice, but the news Cosmos makes no reference to this background.

Christiaan Huygens by Bernard Vaillant, Museum Hofwijck, Voorburg

In contrast, the original series depicted Christiaan Huygens, one of the foremost astronomers of the 1600s, as a product of his time. While viewers were given a glimpse of his work, such as early (and quite accurate) initial estimates of the distances from Earth to nearby stars, the focus was on the time and place in which he lived. One got a flavor of Huygens’ contemporaries, the character of 17th century Holland, the proliferation of free thought, the science and technology being done, the architecture, i.e. the culture as a whole.

The production also includes segments which are factually incorrect, misleading or empty. Tyson describes the proteins that help DNA to operate as “creatures” rather than molecules, which is what they actually are. His “ship of the imagination” dodges rocks in the asteroid belt per the science-fiction norm. Rather than discussing what is known about how life developed, Tyson blithely states that the origins of life are unknown, as if the decades of research into this topic have produced nothing. And the momentous imagery produced by robotic probes throughout the solar system (Voyager, Cassini, Galileo, numerous Mars missions, etc.) is by and large dispensed with in favor of computer graphics manufactured to order.

Tyson’s career may play a role in these weaknesses. He is not a full-time scientific researcher and has published little, serving mainly as a media popularizer involved in publishing books, TV appearances, the Hayden Planetarium and sitting on science panels for the Bush and Obama administrations. He seems somewhat disconnected from the science he once practiced. However, it is not simply that Tyson the media figure is missing something essential compared to Sagan the working scientist. Rather, there has been a shift in intellectual life over the past 35 years, particularly among the liberal intelligentsia. No longer is Western society, and science along with it, flush with resources and expanding at a high rate. American capitalism is on the decline, and this is felt in the official treatment of science. The new Cosmos had a chance to challenge its audience, seeking to raise popular understanding of science. Instead, Tyson largely appeals to the lowest common denominator.

One of the many ways this has manifested is in the exposition of the scientific method. To the show’s credit, Cosmos explains the relationship between observations and theories that model those observations and make predictions. In the third episode, it shows how the observations of comets over centuries transformed them in common understanding from harbingers of doom to predictable celestial phenomena, based on the work of Halley, Hooke and Newton.

But rather than asserting the growing superiority of science over religion in explaining how the world works, the show muddles the two. There are constant concessions to religious language. The highly accurate predictions of the astronomers are referred to constantly in the program as “prophecies.” In the fourth episode, Tyson similarly refers to the fact that the speed of light is always constant as a “commandment” of the universe, rather than explaining the underlying physics.

Given the advances since 1980, it is long past time for the presentation of what has been learned and the process of how this has been learned to a mass audience. Sadly, the weaknesses of the new Cosmos in this respect overshadow its strengths.

The author also recommends:

Carl Sagan (1934-1996): An appreciation
[13 January 1997]

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Flying snakes, new research

This video is called Flying Snakes – The Physics Of Snakes That Fly.

From Wildlife Extra:

Flying snakes intrigue scientists

They glide through the air with the greatest of ease…

March 2014: Forget Snakes on a Plane, there are some species of snakes in the world that are at home in the air. Three species of snake in the genus Chrysopelea are known to glide, and one, Chrysopelea paradisi, has even been seen turning in mid-air. They can travel as far as 100ft through the air, jumping off tree branches and rotating their ribs to flatten their bodies and move from side to side.

Animal flight behaviour is an exciting frontier for engineers to both apply knowledge of aerodynamics and to learn from nature’s solutions to operating in the air. Flying snakes are particularly intriguing to researchers because they lack wings or any other features that remotely resemble flight apparatus.

Before you envision flying snakes raining down from the sky, the ones involved in this study are small — about 1m in length and the width of your thumb — and live in the lowland tropical forests of Asia and Southeast Asia.

Virginia Tech Assistant Professor Jake Socha, renowned for his work with flying snakes, recently teamed with Boston University and George Washington University researchers to explore the snakes’ lift and wakes using computer simulations.

Previously, experiments in a wind tunnel had returned an unexpected finding: the snake’s shape is not only good at generating a force of lift, but it also gets an extra boost of lift when facing the air flow at a certain angle.

“After experiments uncovered this, we decided to use computer simulations to try to explain it,” says Lorena Barba, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the George Washington University.

So much of the aerodynamics of animal flight — especially that of flying snakes — remain a mystery. Scale is important, but also the manner in which flight is achieved.

“Rather than fixed wings, animal fliers have flapping wings,” explains Barba. “In the case of gliders, their small scale means they’re always in a flurry of whirling winds. By understanding how they can be graceful and efficient under these conditions, we can in turn use that knowledge to create small flying machines that are equally graceful.”

Whirls of wind can be particularly useful: these little vortices “can give flying snakes an extra lift,” notes Barba. “The shape of the snakes in flight — which is a flattened version of its shape at rest — gets help from little vortices around it.”

Next, the researchers would like to include more elements of the snake’s real gliding conditions into their computer simulations, such as its full body forming an S-shape, rather than working with just a section.

“This will be more difficult to do in a computer model, but it will probably reveal more about the complicated flow patterns snakes take advantage of to be such gifted gliders,” Barba says.

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African penguins and physics

This video is called African penguins go for a swim – Mountain of the Sea – BBC.

From National Public Radio in the USA:

RoboCop? How About RoboPenguin!

by Adam Cole

January 01, 2014 3:06 AM

At the American Physical Society’s fluid dynamics conference this winter there was a healthy infusion of biology. In between talks on propellers and plane wings, there were presentations about flying snakes, fire ants, humpback whales and hummingbirds. Physicists from all over the world are turning to the natural world to help them solve engineering problems.

It’s not a new phenomenon. Otto Lilienthal, the “Father of Flight,” famously studied storks to help him develop his gliders. But it’s still a bit surprising that another scientist has turned to flightless birds for inspiration — specifically, he’s turned to African penguins.

Flavio Noca, now a professor of aerodynamics at Switzerland’s University of Applied Sciences, first encountered the power of penguins back when he was a grad student. He came across a paper that described the incredible acceleration of emperor penguins: from zero to 15 mph in just a second.

“I was just amazed by their performance,” Noca remembers. “That’s when, basically, I decided, ‘OK, I want to work on penguins.’”

It’s not just their speed that impressed him. Penguins can move side to side and make sharp turns effortlessly – things that underwater craft built by humans struggle to do. But very few people have studied penguins, so little is know about how these champion swimmers manage their underwater acrobatics

“There are just, for some reason, only two basic papers,” Noca says.

So Noca set out to learn more. He started by filming zoo penguins to track the exact movement of their wings.

“It was very hard because penguins have their own mind(s) so they’re not going to go where you want them to go,” Noca says.

But after analyzing lots of underwater videos, Noca and his students were able to describe the exact stroke of a penguin’s flipper. But they still needed a way to model that movement in the controlled lab environment.

This year, Noca’s research assistant, Bassem Sudki, developed and manufactured a completely novel joint mechanism that can mimic the stroke of a flipper. With the mechanical flipper churning in the water, Noca can better measure the flows and forces involved, and learn exactly how penguins achieve their maneuverability. He says someday this mechanism could help underwater craft dart through ocean.

The flipper mechanism was just one example of bio-inspired design on display at this year’s fluid dynamics conference. Many of the attendees believe they are on edge of a new wave of discovery. Scientists finally have the technology to not only understand mechanics in the natural world, but to actually replicate natural structures within human-made machines.

Nature, they say, can help engineers when they are stuck on a particular problem.

“Nature has been going through millions of years of engineering,” Noca explains. “And it has found one solution.”

It might not be the best solution, but it could be one that humans are able to imitate and improve upon.

Coolest science of 2013, in GIFs

From Surprising Science blog in the USA:

December 24, 2013

The Coolest Science of 2013, in GIFs

An electronic circuit that dissolves in the presence of water. From video by University of Illinois

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a GIF is easily worth a million. The file format—which uses a series of images to produce a looping video, like a flip book—is a tremendous way to convey all sorts of moving wonders, and 2013 was the year that the GIF truly went mainstream, with GIFs of celebrities, sports and politicians filling the Web.

But 2013 was also a banner year for science—so much so that the word ‘science’ was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year. It’s appropriate, then, that we use the GIF to explore some of the coolest, weirdest, most remarkable science stories of 2013. What follows is a non-exhaustive list of amazing science GIFs from 2013, in no particular order.

Top: Dissolving Electronics

Over the past few years, the University of Illinois lab led by John Rogers (one of Smithsonian magazine’s American Ingenuity Award Winners) has engineered all sorts of amazing devices that bridge the gap between biology and technology: stretchable batteries that could be used in wearable gadgets or medical implants, tiny LEDs that can be implanted in the brain to manipulate individual neurons and ultrathin electronics that can graft circuits onto human skin.

Perhaps the most amazing creation, though, is their entirely dissolvable electronic circuit, which could someday be used in environmental monitoring and medical devices so that circuitry disappears after it’s no longer needed.

A Solar Eruption

From video by NASA

Solar activity, as you might imagine, can get pretty intense. In February, NASA released a video of a particularly turbulent day in the life of the sun, as a trio of events—a solar flare, a coronal mass ejection and shifting of magnetic field lines in the Sun’s atmosphere—all occurred at the same time.

Pitch Drop

From video via Trinity College, GIF via It’s Okay To Be Smart

In 1944, Trinity College physicist Ernest Walton set up one of two pitch-drop experiments worldwide, seeking to experimentally prove that pitch is a viscous, flowing material. Walton has since died, but 69 years after his legendary experiment began, Trinity researchers finally managed to catch a drop of pitch falling on camera this past July.

Chelyabinsk Meteor

Video and GIF via Gifric

In February, a massive, 12,000-ton meteor—the largest known to hit Earth since 1908—flew through the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia at 60 times the speed of sound and shattered into pieces. The meteor caused damaged to about 7,200 buildings and caused nearly 1,500 people to seek medical attention for injuries. Luckily, no one was killed; luckier still, dozens of local residents caught the event on camera.

A Thought Moves Through a Fish’s Brain

From video via Current Biology, Muto et. al.

This one seriously sounds like science fiction: In the GIF above, that tiny purple blip zigging and zagging around is an individual thought of a zebrafish, moving around its brain.

Japanese scientists captured it by using a probe sensitive to florescence, relying upon a particular gene called GCaMP that reacts to the presence of calcium ions by fluorescing brightly. Because calcium concentrations fluctuate when neurons fire, the florescent spot is the location of neuron activity in the fish’s brain.  This was confirmed by the fact that the pattern above occurred after the researchers released a paramecium into the fish’s environment—and the particular brain areas activated matched the neurons that fired when the fish visually tracked a dot moving around in the same directions.

A Washcloth is Squeezed in Space

From video by Canadian Space Agency, GIF via io9

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who spent 166 days at the International Space Station before returning in May, is the ideal astronaut for the social media era: he frequently tweeted photos from space and posted videos to his followers on YouTube, who number just over one million, to show what life in space is really like. In April, in response to a question submitted by high school students, he posted a video showing what happens when you try to wring out a washcloth in the space station’s zero-gravity environment. Spoiler: it’s not too easy.

Artificial Muscles Dance

From video courtesy of Dr. Mingming Ma

Put these thin black polymer films down on a moist surface, and they’ll dance around of their own accord. In January, a group of MIT researchers revealed a special polymer that can move on its own, harnessing the energy present in water. They envision the material someday being useful in powering tiny electronics, utilizing an energy source that’s already abundant in the environment.

A Red Batfish Eats

From video by Enoshima Aquariaum

In October, our Smart News bloggers called attention to one of the ocean’s most peculiar creatures: the red batfish, found on the continental shelves of the Pacific. The GIF above, taken from a video filmed at Enoshima Aquarium in Fujisawa, Japan, shows the creature feeding on a piece of krill.

A Pineapple Rots

From video by Temponaut Timelapse

A pineapple, a time-lapse camera, and two months of time: That’s all you need to document the process of decomposition in a uniquely clear (and revolting) way. The video above, released in August, shows bacteria, fungi and ants hard at work, breaking down succulent pineapple flesh that was left out to be filmed as it decomposed.

The folks at Temponaut Timelapse have created all sorts of remarkable timelapses, of subjects both beautiful (New York City’s skyline, for instance) and wonderfully repulsive (rotting strawberries, bananas and grapes).

A Chain Levitates

From video by Earth Unplugged, GIF via io9

In June, a video that made the rounds seemed to depict the impossible: Earth Unplugged showed how a bead chain can appear to levitate as one end falls out of a beaker. As it turns out, there’s no magic involved, but rather a fascinating scientific explanation. Once some beads are dropped out of the container, their momentum pulls more beads along with them, and the limited flexibility of the chain causes it to assume shapes that appear to defy gravity as it falls.

Planet Mars, new research

This video says about itself:

Mars Atmosphere Loss Mystery: Probe Will Investigate

July 18, 2013

NASA’s MAVEN mission’s Neutral Gas Ion Mass Spectrometer will look at how matter interacts with the solar wind in the Martian atmosphere. This data could reveal why the formally wet Red Planet has become the barren world we see today. — MAVEN mission gallery here.

Young student’s smartphone batteries invention

Eesha Khare

From the Intel site in the USA:

With the rapid adoption of portable electronics, Eesha Khare, 18, of Saratoga, California, recognized the crucial need for energy-efficient storage devices. She developed a tiny device that fits inside cell phone batteries, allowing them to fully charge within 20-30 seconds. Eesha’s invention also has potential applications for car batteries.

Women in British science, new research

This video from Ireland says about itself:

Reflections on women in science; diversity and discomfort: Jocelyn Bell Burnell at TEDxStormont

Apr 4, 2013

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell inadvertently discovered pulsars as a graduate student in radio astronomy in Cambridge, opening up a new branch of astrophysics — work recognised by the award of a Nobel Prize to her supervisor. She is now a Visiting Professor in Oxford.

From Kingston University in London, England:

Unearthing the hidden women of science and inspiring the next generation

08 May 2013

A group of historians and scientists is about to embark on a major project to scrutinise the role of British women in science. It will focus on finding and assessing the careers of scientific women who may not have received credit or recognition for their work. The £33k project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and run jointly by Kingston University, University of Liverpool, the Royal Society and the Rothschild Archive London, aims to examine how women were involved in scientific societies between the years 1830 to 2012 and look at how that can inform policy today.

It will involve the establishment of a network of academics to gain a better understanding of how historical perspectives might impact future education policy making. Recent statistics show that only a third of science, technology, engineering and maths students in Britain are female and just 11 per cent of senior positions in science are held by women.

“Women’s unequal participation in science subjects at all levels, both in education, academia and in industry, is currently receiving close attention from policy makers, educationalists and social commentators,” project leader Dr Susan Hawkins, a senior history lecturer from Kingston University, said. “Part of the purpose of our work will be to closely examine data on women in science in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The hope is that by looking at women’s relationship with science in the past, we can pinpoint ways to encourage young women to participate more fully in the subject.”

There was a wealth of historical information which could open a window into the past but it was often dispersed across different archives, Dr Hawkins, who originally trained as a scientist, explained. “Through the network we hope to identify where these archives are and what revelatory material they may contain.” Part of the project will involve a shadowing scheme which will allow researchers studying the history of science to spend time alongside a female scientist in the laboratory, gaining an understanding of how science works today and the challenges faced by women in the field.

The network will be organised around a series of events, including three workshops, a two-day international conference to be held at the Royal Society in May 2014 and an exhibition open to the public. The first workshop will aim to identify archives that may contain information on women in science. It will concentrate on two groups of women – those whose work was recognised by the scientific community of their time and those who, despite producing work of high standard, were not. “The intention is to look at the characteristics that link the two groups of women and also to find out what set them apart,” Dr Hawkins added. Another workshop will focus on identifying possible oral history projects.

“The final workshop will pull together the findings from the first two events and allow us to make recommendations to government on future projects to help increase female participation in science,” Dr Hawkins said.

The issue of the representation of women in science has dominated headlines in the media in recent months. According to a report in last month’s Independent newspaper, female professors account for 5.5 per cent in physics, 6 per cent in chemistry and maths and just 2 per cent in engineering. This has prompted growing calls for better representation of women in science both in universities and in industry – a sentiment also echoed by Kingston University’s new Chancellor American playwright and author Bonnie Greer. “It is crucial that women continue to take up the study of science and maths as historically women have been kept out of these professions, so who knows what genius has been lost?” she said recently. “When you think of all the big problems that are out there waiting to be solved, every ounce of human intelligence is needed.”

Things were extremely tough for women in science in the past and they often did not receive proper recognition, according to Dr Hawkins. “It was a real struggle. For instance, the Royal Society didn’t accept female fellows until as late as 1945,” she said. “There were women in the scientific field but they really had to fight to be recognised, independent of any men they might have been working with.”

Guests from around the world will attend a launch event for the project at the International Congress for the History of Science Technology and Medicine to be held in Manchester in July.

Robins, flowers and quantum mechanics

From the BBC:

28 January 2013 Last updated at 00:05 GMT

Quantum biology: Do weird physics effects abound in nature?

By Jason Palmer and Alex Mansfield BBC News and BBC Radio Science Unit
Perfume chemist

The multi-billion-dollar fragrance industry might just benefit from the ideas in quantum biology

Disappearing in one place and reappearing in another. Being in two places at once. Communicating information seemingly faster than the speed of light.

This kind of weird behaviour is commonplace in dark, still laboratories studying the branch of physics called quantum mechanics, but what might it have to do with fresh flowers, migrating birds, and the smell of rotten eggs?

Welcome to the frontier of what is called quantum biology.

It is still a tentative, even speculative discipline, but what scientists are learning from it might just spark revolutions in the development of new drugs, computers and perfumes – or even help in the fight against cancer.

Find out more

Until recently, the delicate states of matter predicted by quantum mechanics have only been accessed with the most careful experiments: isolated particles at blisteringly low temperatures or pressures approaching that of deep space.

The idea that biology – impossibly warm, wet and messy to your average physicist – should play host to these states was almost heretical.

But a few strands of evidence were bringing the idea into the mainstream, said Luca Turin of the Fleming Institute in Greece.

“There are definitely three areas that have turned out to be manifestly quantum,” Dr Turin told the BBC. “These three things… have dispelled the idea that quantum mechanics had nothing to say about biology.”
SEM of chloroplast

Deep within plants’ energy-harvesting machinery lie distinctly quantum tricks

The most established of the three is photosynthesis – the staggeringly efficient process by which plants and some bacteria build the molecules they need, using energy from sunlight. It seems to use what is called “superposition” – being seemingly in more than one place at one time.

Watch the process closely enough and it appears there are little packets of energy simultaneously “trying” all of the possible paths to get where they need to go, and then settling on the most efficient.

“Biology seems to have been able to use these subtle effects in a warm, wet environment and still maintain the [superposition]. How it does that we don’t understand,” Richard Cogdell of the University of Glasgow told the BBC.

But the surprise may not stop at plants – there are good hints that the trickery is present in animals, too: the navigational feats of birds that cross countries, continents or even fly pole to pole present a compelling behavioural case.

Experiments show that European robins only oriented themselves for migration under certain colours of light, and that very weak radio waves could completely mix up their sense of direction. Neither should affect the standard compass that biologists once believed birds had within their cells.

What makes more sense is the quantum effect of entanglement. Under quantum rules, no matter how far apart an “entangled” pair of particles gets, each seems to “know” what the other is up to – they can even seem to pass information to one another faster than the speed of light.

The weird world of quantum mechanics

Albert Einstein

Quantum mechanics starts with the simple idea that energy does not come in just any amount; it comes in discrete chunks, called quanta. But deeper into the theory, some truly surprising – and useful – effects crop up

  • Superposition: A particle exists in a number of possible states or locations simultaneously – strictly, an electron might be in the tip of your finger and in the furthest corner of the Universe at the same time. It is only when we observe the particle that it ‘chooses’ one particular state
  • Entanglement: Two particles can become entangled so that their properties depend on each other – no matter how far apart they get. A measurement of one seems to affect the measurement of the other instantaneously – an idea even Einstein called “spooky”
  • Tunnelling: A particle can break through an energy barrier, seeming to disappear on one side of it and reappear on the other. Lots of modern electronics and imaging depends on this effect

Experiments suggest this is going on within single molecules in birds’ eyes, and John Morton of University College London explained that the way birds sense it could be stranger still.

“You could think about that as… a kind of ‘heads-up display’ like what pilots have: an image of the magnetic field… imprinted on top of the image that they see around them,” he said.

The idea continues to be somewhat controversial – as is the one that your nose might be doing a bit of quantum biology.

Most smell researchers think the way that we smell has to do only with the shapes of odour molecules matching those of receptors in our noses.

But Dr Turin believes that the way smell molecules wiggle and vibrate is responsible – thanks to the quantum effect called tunnelling.

The idea holds that electrons in the receptors in our noses disappear on one side of a smell molecule and reappear on the other, leaving a little bit of energy behind in the process.

A paper published in Plos One this week shows that people can tell the difference between two molecules of identical shape but with different vibrations, suggesting that shape is not the only thing at work.

What intrigues all these researchers is how much more quantum trickery may be out there in nature.

“Are these three fields the tip of the iceberg, or is there actually no iceberg underneath?” asked Dr Turin. “We just don’t know. And we won’t know until we go and look.”

‘Hugely important’

That question has ignited a global push. In 2012, the European Science Foundation launched its Farquest programme, aiming to map out a pan-European quantum research structure in which quantum biology plays a big role.

And the US defence research agency, Darpa, has been running a nationwide quantum biology network since 2010. Departments dedicated to the topic are springing up in countries ranging from Germany to India.

European robin

Do European robins use the molecular equivalent of a pilot’s heads-up display?

A better understanding of smell could make the hit-and-miss business of making new fragrances more directed, and learning from nature’s tricks could help with developing next-generation quantum computers.

But what the next wave of quantum biologists finds could be truly profound.

Simon Gane, a researcher at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital and lead author of the Plos One paper, said that the tiny receptors in our noses are what are called G-protein coupled receptors.

“They’re a sub-family of the receptors we have on all cells in our body – they’re the targets of most drug development,” he explained.

“What if – and this is a very big if – there’s a major form of receptor-drug interaction that we’re just not noticing because we’re not looking for a quantum effect? That would have profound implications for drug development, design and discovery.”

Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey is investigating whether tunnelling occurs during mutations to our DNA – a question that may be relevant to the evolution of life itself, or cancer research.

He told the BBC: “If quantum tunnelling is an important mechanism in mutations, is quantum mechanics going to somehow answer some of the questions about how a cell becomes cancerous?

“And suddenly you think, ‘Wow!’ Quantum mechanics is not just a crazy side issue or a fringe field where some people are looking at some cranky ideas. If it really might help answer some of the very big questions in science, then it’s hugely important.”

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