This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

23Feb/11

Birds are Quantum Physicists!

Remember a few months back when an article came out describing that ability of birds to see magnetic fields?  Well, here's another chapter in that interesting aviary saga.

As I mentioned in a previous post, scientists have been trying to figure out just how it is that birds are able to accomplish this amazing feat.  Many hypotheses involve the protein cryptochrome, a molecule that seems to be nearly one-of-a-kind as far as biological structures go.

Now, scientists have taken the awesome factor for this mechanism one step higher...they're suggesting that these birds may actually be using quantum entanglement in their navigational systems.

For those uninitiated into the world of really really tiny physics, entanglement basically describes two electrons that are inextricably linked.  Any time you subject an electron to a magnetic field, you affect its "spin",  a quantum property that is too complex to be explained in this short post.  However, if that electron is entangled with another, then any time electron "A" changes its spin, electron "B" will react as well, even though it was never subjected to the magnetic field.

Sounds creepy huh?  Apparently this is a concept that dates back to the good old days of Einstein, who famously described it as "spooky action at a distance."

So might birds use this?  Well, one theory is that in a bird's eye are pairs of these "quantum entangled" electrons.  Occasionally, one of these electrons will move away from the other, causing it to experience a slightly different magnetic field than its partner.  Through some unknown mechanism, the bird measures this change in magnetic field by measuring the quantum state of the two electrons.

If you think this sounds hard to believe, you wouldn't be alone, and scientists are still trying to figure out just what is going on.  There have been many experiments performed on quantum entanglement, but nearly all of them require very specific environmental conditions that are never seen in nature (such as having a temperature close to zero degrees Kelvin).  To see such an effect in a warm-blooded living organism is fascinating.

It's discoveries like this that make me love the world of science.  Quantum physics is a field that has been around for less than a century.  Go back a hundred years, and you would have found a number of physicists who theorized that we were just at the cusp of "figuring out" the entire universe.  Now, we've got an entire new field of physics that almost nobody understands, and yet we're finding creatures that utilize properties of these fields at a fundamental level.  The universe is a strange place, indeed.  Who knows what other mysterious discoveries are out there, waiting to be uncovered.

via The Wired Blog

4Aug/10

Birds can see magnetic fields?!?

As if I need yet another fact laughing in my face for needing glasses since I was in the 3rd grade, a new study coming out of Goethe University suggests that robins can SEE magnetic fields.

It has been widely known for some time now that birds often possess the ability to navigate using the earth's natural magnetic field - this is what allows them to navigate in the same direction over long distances.  What hasn't been quite as clear is the manner in which they achieve this amazing feat.

Recent evidence suggests that some birds may simply be doing it the old fashioned way, using a special kind of molecule in their eyes cryptochrome. This molecule becomes activated by blue light coming in through the bird's right eye.  It becomes very sensitive to changing magnetic fields, and turns this information into a darkening/lightening of the bird's visual field depending on the strength of the magnetic field (see below).

When researchers blocked the vision of the birds' right eye, they made random choices in the direction they chose, whereas they almost always went north in control experiments.  Just one more piece of evidence that our feathery friends are more complicated than we give them credit for!

via Discover Science