Material World, Discovery

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In a similar vein to the first episode of Wonders of Life in which Brian Cox used the laws of physics and chemistry to explain …, well …, the wonders of life, Discovery and Material World this week, used those laws to explore quantum biology. This emerging field sees the convergence of quantum mechanics with the life sciences in an attempt to explain various biological phenomena such as avian migration, the efficiency of photosynthesis and even our ability to smell.

The quantum nature of smelling gained ground recently, with a report in the journal PLOS ONE showing that olfactory receptors in humans had the ability to detect molecular bond vibrations, which is likely to have an impact on the response signal those receptors send to the brain. In Material World on Thursday, Quentin Cooper was joined biophysicist Dr Luca who is a leading authority on the vibration theory of olfaction since 1996. He explained how the new finding casts even more doubt on the previously-followed shape theory of scent detection, which follows a ‘lock and key’ idea and has been disputed since the mid-1990s.

The ever-inquisitive Cooper also tried his best to pull quantum biology analogies from Professor Tim Jacob, and Professor Neil Shubin, author of the interesting new book The Universe Within, which explores the echoes of the universe’s nature that can be found within our bodies. Both interviews were brief and left me wanting more, however, they certainly portrayed the essence of topic.

Looking for further information, I stumbled across the Discovery series, and an episode called Quantum Biology that went out from the BBC World Service last Sunday. As the name suggests, the programme had no frills and it got its teeth into the core of the subject; however, being quite obviously a low profile show, the production quality had more to be desired. But the calibre of the interviewees was second to none. If you’re looking to kick back to some idle chit-chat, this is by no means the programme for you, but in terms of scientific content, I felt it offered a very high standard.

On a small side note: Sir David Attenborough joined Richard Bacon on Monday’s 2 o’clock broadcast. I guess the primary focus of the interview was the current Africa series but Attenborough’s soothing tones (only accentuated by radio) gently traversed the topics of 3D nature programmes, his time as controller of BBC2 and poaching. He is a captivating figure with such a vast experience in science broadcasting; you cannot help but sit up and listen. Despite perhaps showing his age with his distaste for Twitter and the surprising revelation that the 86-year-old doesn’t even use email, he is showing no signs of giving up his role as leader of the pack in nature documentaries.

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