Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Quantum Navigation

Black-bellied Plover
Wiggins Pass, FL

"If you haven't found something strange during the day, it hasn't been much of a day."
--John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist, originator of the terms "black hole" and "wormhole"


I've been (trying to) read a book that dances in and out of quantum theory. I'm not sure I'm grasping all of it - much of it is still unknown, or hypothesized, after all - but the subject, when you pare away most of the language I stumble over, is really quite fascinating, as is the history of one of its founders, Max Planck. Indivisibility, duality, the Uncertainty Principle, misbehaving electrons! Tiny does not always mean simple.

In a strange twist of tonight's research, I stumbled across an article about birds and quantum theory: Wired Magazine's "Reverse-Engineering the Quantum Compass of Birds". First hypothesized in 1978, scientists are getting pretty darned close to understanding the "cellular navigation tools" that birds use with greater accuracy than our own GPS units to fly great migratory distances. According to this article, it's all about "superoxide, an oxygen molecule that may combine with light-sensitive proteins to form an in-eye compass, allowing birds to see Earth’s magnetic field".

Biophysicist Klaus Schulten of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a pioneer in avian magnetoreception, is a guy who apparently has a fascination for winged friends that far surpasses my own. I mean, really, the guy has been working on this model for 30+ years. That's real patience and love, folks.

From the Wired articles: "According to this model, when a photon hits the compass, entangled electrons are scattered to different parts of the molecule. Variations in Earth’s magnetic field cause them to spin in different ways, each of which leaves the compass in a slightly different chemical state. The state alters the flow of cellular signals through a bird’s visual pathways, ultimately resulting in a perception of magnetism."

Sheesh, who's the evolved species now?

Oh, and if that wasn't strange enough for you, here's a black-bellied plover tidbit: this guy is the only American plover with a hind toe on it's foot.

GPS in its eye and a hind toe. Somedays, I just feel humbled.

Nikon D2x, Nikkor 80-400 VR

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