Jim Al-Khalili and the Quantum Robin

Quantum Navigation in the European Robin

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Quantum navigation.

We've known for some time that certain animals can navigate the Earth using it's magnetic fields, but the methods by which they do this have remained largely unknown. However, an emerging field known as quantum biology is shedding light on this area and suggests that nature maybe taking advantage of quantum mechanics to develop its biological compass systems.

Physicist Jim Al-Khalili looks at one migratory bird in particular, the European Robin, and how this species may be relying on the strange rules of quantum entanglement to find its way south each year.

Watch Jim's Friday Evening Discourse on the subject of Quantum Biology to find out more about the weird intersection between quantum mechanics and biology.


Natural World, Space & Time


Professor Jim Al-Khalili
London, UK
Filmed in:
The Theatre

The Royal Institution / Ed Prosser

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cc_by-nc-sa License: Creative Commons



I'm standing here on the roof of the Royal Institution. And I'm using something that we take for granted in the modern technological world, a compass, using GPS built into my smartphone. And I can use it to find the direction to magnetic north, which is that way, which means that south is that way. Which means Spain is over 1,000 kilometres in that direction.

I'm interested because what we think we're very clever at doing, nature has figured out before us. Lots of migrating birds and marine animals have built-in compasses in their brains, in their eyes, at the ends of the beaks, so they can detect the direction they should travel.

One bird in particular, however, does something much more clever. The European Robin uses quantum mechanics to find its way to Spain. That's why I'm so interested.

What's becoming increasingly clear is that the humble European Robin finds its way south from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean every winter by following and seeing Earth's magnetic field. And it does this with special molecules, proteins inside its retina called cryptochrome.

Essentially, these are light-activated, and they produce something called quantum entanglement. Light enters the bird's retina and knocks one of a pair of electrons off an atom and onto a neighbouring one. These two electrons, though, remain somehow coordinated in their actions. We say they're quantum entangled.

And because they're far apart, their actions are sensitive to the direction of the Earth's magnetic field. What happens next is that the direction of the field affects the way they cause chemical reactions to take place, sending signals to the bird's brain, telling it which direction to go.

Now, this is not only surprising but very fascinating for physicists, because we're used to trying to control the delicate quantum world inside our sterile controlled laboratory experiments. So the notion that nature has got there first, that somehow these delicate quantum phenomena can be maintained inside the warm, messy, complex environment of a living cell, is nothing short of miraculous, and until recently has been very controversial. But it's the reason why so many biologists and quantum physicists are becoming very, very excited, because it may be that the weird world of quantum mechanics plays a vital role in biology.

Quantum entanglement is the idea that particles, however far apart they are, still somehow, their fates remain intertwined. They are still aware of each other's existence.

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