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Foreword

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2014

Tony Leggett
Affiliation:
Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Masoud Mohseni
Affiliation:
Google
Yasser Omar
Affiliation:
Instituto de Telecomunicações
Gregory S. Engel
Affiliation:
University of Chicago
Martin B. Plenio
Affiliation:
Universität Ulm, Germany
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Summary

When the revolutionary conceptual structure for the description of the physical world which we know as quantum mechanics was first formulated nearly 90 years ago, and its predictions tested in the laboratory, most of the experiments in question were on systems which were both very well characterized and reasonably well isolated from their environments, such as single electrons and atoms, small molecules and near-perfect crystalline solids.

While from the very start most physicists have taken it for granted that the formalism of quantum mechanics, when combined with appropriate system-specific information, can “in principle” account for all phenomena occurring in the physical world, including those usually regarded as the subject-matter of biology, until quite recently the overwhelmingly majority opinion has been that in a biological context the role of quantum theory is confined to elucidating the equilibrium structures of the relevant molecules and their reaction processes, and that subtle phenomena such as superposition and entanglement, of which we can now routinely exhibit spectacular effects at the level of a few well-isolated photons or atoms, play at most a very indirect role in any phenomena of biological interest. A major reason conventionally given for this view has been that biological systems, at least working ones, are by their very nature “warm and wet” – a phrase which in the physicist's lexicon translates to “prone to massive decoherence”; it looks as though any interesting superposition, say of different energy eigenstates of one's system, would be rapidly decohered by the ever-present, and usually microscopically very complex, environment.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

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