Dec 21, 2019 I Sequoyah Kennedy

Building Blocks of Life Shown to Exist as a Quantum Wave

Oh boy, the last couple of years have been prime spooky quantum nonsense years. We've learned that time doesn't really exist, multiple versions of reality can exist at the same time without things going sideways, and that objects (barely) visible to the naked eye can become quantum entangled. That's just to name a few. And there's seemingly no end to the reality-breaking experiments quantum physicists are coming up with. Physicists just demonstrated that amino acid chains display quantum wave interference. That is, it's not just sub-atomic particles that can act as both a wave and a particle, but entire molecular chains. Specifically, molecular chains which are the building blocks of life.

Anyone who's heard enough about quantum physics to yell about it, ignorantly, after a couple of drinks has heard of the double-slit experiment. In fact, that's what caused me to start yelling about it, ignorantly, after a couple of drinks. This famous experiment showed that tiny subatomic particles like photons and electrons cause wave interference with themselves. They exist as both a particle and a wave function at the same time. Theoretically, since everything is built in one way or another by sub-atomic particles, this should apply to entire molecules and, by extension, entire structures of molecules like DNA and life itself, including you and me. Groovy.

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The double-slit experiment.

The problem is the testing of that conclusion. Up until now, the experiment could only be done with tiny particles like photons, the constituent parts of light. And light is weird anyway. But recently, physicists at the University of Vienna came up with a way to perform an experiment showing the quantum interference pattern of an amino acid chain called Gramicidin, a biomolecule comprised of 15 different amino acids extracted from the Brevibacillus brevis soil bacteria.

Physicist Armin Shayeghi and his team coated a spinning wheel with a layer of ultra-cold Gramicidin and then fired incredibly short pulses of lasers at the spinning wheel. The laser's pulses were measured in femtoseconds —one femtosecond is one quadrillionth of a second—just short enough to only knock one Gramicidin chain of the wheel. The Gramicidin was then carried on a tiny beam of argon gas, one piece at a time, to the interference measurement device.

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Amino acids are the building blocks of DNA.

As predicted, this beam of molecules behaved as though it were a wave and not a chain of individual particles. Armin Shayeghi and co-researchers say:

“The molecular coherence is delocalized over more than 20 times the molecular size.”

This means that the beam of molecules was detected as a blurry smear 20 times the size of the individual molecules. This can only result from wave interference and can not happen if the amino acid chains were purely particles. The researchers continued:

“The successful realization of quantum optics with this polypeptide as a prototypical biomolecule paves the way for quantum assisted molecule metrology and in particular the optical spectroscopy of a large class of biologically relevant molecules.”

The implications for this are staggering. For one, it gives a little credence to your weird aunt who won't shut up about everything being vibration—a little. But it also paves the way for measuring just how far up the ladder this whole quantum weirdness thing goes. There's nothing that says it shouldn't go all the way. What would it take to measure a beam of people? That's just a weird string of words. Or what about elephants? They're even bigger. Oh no, I think science is making me dumb.

Sequoyah Kennedy

Sequoyah is a writer, music producer, and poor man's renaissance man based in Providence, Rhode Island. He spends his time researching weird history and thinking about the place where cosmic horror overlaps with disco. You can follow him on Twitter: @shkennedy33.

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