ISIS Report 23/06/10
Quantum Jazz Biology*
Interview with Dr. Mae-Wan Ho about her pioneering work
in understanding life by David Riley, MD, editor in chief of Alternative
Therapies in Health and Medicine (ATHM); Rollin McCraty, MD, of the
Institute of HeartMath; and Suzanne Snyder, managing editor of ATHM
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ATHM: Please tell us a little bit about your
background and schooling.
Ho: I was born in Hong Kong; started school in Chinese
and then transferred to an English school for girls, run by Italian nuns. I got exposed to serious Western ideas
late-ish in life, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was quite good in
school, and the nuns let me do whatever I liked; didn’t have to listen if I got
bored. So I escaped the worst of reductionist Western education because ideas
that didn’t fit just rolled off my back. I guess that explains why I’m always
at odds with whatever the conventional theory is in every single field that I
I was in the convent school until
I entered Hong Kong University to read biology and then biochemistry as a PhD. Again,
I learned almost nothing useful during that time.
Maybe I exaggerate: I learned, by myself, of things I liked to learn
about. After I finished university, I got a postdoctoral fellowship, and began
to change fields because I didn’t like the kind of research I was doing. I began
to revolt against neo-Darwinism and the reductionist way of looking at things
gone into biochemistry for my Ph.D. because of something I heard from
one of the professors who quoted Albert St. Györgyi - the father of
biochemistry—that life was interposed between two energy levels of an electron.
I thought that was sheer
poetry. That made me want to know, “what is life?”
So I went into biochemistry thinking I would find the answer there. But it was very
dull because biochemistry then was about cutting up and grinding up everything,
separating, purifying. Nothing to tell you about what life is about.
Biology as a whole was studying
dead, pinned specimens. There was nothing that answered the question, what is
biological organization? What makes organisms tick? What is being alive? I
especially detested neo-Darwinism because it was the most mind-numbing theory
that purports to explain anything and everything by “selective advantage”, competition
and selective advantage.
I spent a lot of time criticizing
neo-Darwinism until I got bored. What neo-Darwinism leaves out is the whole of
chemistry, physics, and mathematics, all science in
fact. You don’t even need any physiology or developmental biology if everything
can be explained in terms of selective advantage and a gene for any and every
character, real or imaginary.
Finally, I met some remarkable
people and learned a lot from them, and completely changed my
field of research to try and answer that haunting question, “what is life?” I
wrote a book on the ‘physics of organisms’, not ‘biophysics’,
which is largely about the structure of dead biological materials and physical
methods used in characterizing them. The physics of organisms is about living
organization, quantum coherence and other important concepts.
ATHM: Did you change fields during your
schooling or afterward?
Ho: It was after my schooling; almost a complete
break with my previous training. In the first year of university, we had to do
everything. We had to do all sorts of chemistry, including thermodynamics.
Thermodynamics was the first class in the morning. It was a huge class. I
always arrived late. The lecturer spoke very quickly, very quietly, wrote on
the board with one hand and rubbed off with the other. So I understood nothing
to relearn all the thermodynamics, but that came later. The first person who
started to influence me was Fritz Popp, a quantum physicist studying light emission
from living organisms. When I first met him, I didn’t understand a single word
of what he was saying, but he mentioned something called quantum coherence. I had
a feeling it was very important, and I decided to find out as much as
possible about it.
ATHM: Who were some of your other influences?
Ho: The second person whose work influenced me most was
Herbert Fröhlich. Fröhlich was a solid-state
physicist. He was very interested in why organisms are, among other things, so
sensitive to electromagnetic fields and microwaves of very low intensity, very
weak fields, such as those from high tension power lines and mobile phones (see
Drowning in a Sea of Microwaves
and other articles in the series, SiS 34). He had a theory of ‘coherent
excitations’ that was related to the theory of quantum coherence because he
treated the organism almost like a solid-state system.
idea was that the living cell is not like a bag of water with enzymes dissolved
in dilute solutions. In fact, the whole cell is jammed with molecules and organelles,
and it’s more like solid state device. In such a system, if you pump it up with
energy, it could get into coherent states, just like a solid-state laser. With
the help of my good husband Peter Saunders, a mathematician, I began to
understand what Fröhlich was talking about. Then I worked with Fritz Popp over
a period of several years, and learned a lot of deep quantum theory from him.
He was a very good teacher and, in the end, I learned things from him that
maybe he didn’t intend to teach. I owe him a real debt. Working with him was
After that, I went back and
relearn all my thermodynamics. I had another great teacher in Kenneth
Denbigh. He was well known for a number of excellent
textbooks on non-equilibrium thermodynamics. The most important for me was a little book called The Thermodynamics of the
Steady State. I was fortunate enough to be in constant communication with
him, he was retired by then. He was a very generous teacher; I ended up
extending his work with his blessing. He remained my friend to the last.
must mention Erwin Schrödinger, who wrote What Is Life? A book that
inspired many, including me.
Those are some of the influences
that led me to write my book, The
Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, first published in 1993.
That was when I first applied quantum coherence seriously to explain living
organization. The more definitive theory was in the second edition, published
in 1998. The first edition was patterned after Schrödinger’s What Is Life?
The remarkable thing about
Schrödinger’s book is that he wrote it before solid-state physics, before the
transistor was invented. Most people know that book because it predicted DNA as
the genetic material. But that was only half of the book. The other half was
about coherence. That was the line of enquiry I followed. In 1996, I suddenly
had an insight into a theory of the organism, the thermodynamics of living
organisms. That is more developed in the 1998 edition of The Rainbow Worm.
It was enlarged and updated in a third edition in 2008.
In the1993 first edition, I said
that quantum coherence was responsible for biological organization, and nobody
really believed it, even though I provided a
combination of what appeared to me good theoretical arguments backed up by
experimental evidence. Not even my best friends believed it.
2010, one of the things that most excites biologists is quantum coherence in
photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process whereby green plants and
other organisms harvest light. They obtain energy from the sun for growing and
doing all the sorts of things that constitute being
alive. Using very sophisticated instrumentation, scientists have discovered
that the very fast reactions involve quantum coherence. They are amazed that
quantum coherence can exist, and can persist for hundreds of femtoseconds. A
femtosecond is 10-15 second. And this happens over a distance of
nanometers (10-9m). Scientists are very excited about that, which
is sad, because the whole organism is quantum coherent.
ATHM: Quantum mechanics is important in
explaining the biochemistry in the molecules. As you said, many scientists go
on to treat the molecules like classical ball-and-stick models. But how those
nonliving chemicals get magically turned into living systems is still a
mystery. So you are saying that coherence is the defining quality of a living
Ho: We discovered an
imaging technique in my lab that made all organisms look like liquid crystal
displays. We put little organisms under a microscope, the polarizing light
microscope that earth scientists use to look at rock crystals. The microscope has two crossed polarizers, so the field is completely dark as
no light can get through, unless you have these rock crystals that are ‘birefringent’;
that have a particular kind of crystalline order that changes the direction of
light, so they appear bright and colorful. These crystals have a special atomic
order. Liquid crystals do the same, they are also birefringent. They have
special molecular alignments, and can appear bright and colorful too; but you
need a specific setting of the microscope to bring that out, as the
birefringence of liquid crystals is weaker than rock crystals, though the
principle is the same.
in a living organism, there is nothing static and that was what puzzled
us at the beginning: How can they look like liquid crystal displays, even if
they are liquid crystals? They’re moving around all the time, so there can’t be
any static molecular order to give the brilliant colors. (That’s why I called my book, The Rainbow and the Worm,
the Physics of Organisms. The ‘worm’ wasn’t really a worm; it was a Drosophila
larva, a little fruit fly larva that hatches out of an egg. )
made this amazing discovery, which gave me one of the most powerful aesthetic
experiences I had in my life, I was actually looking for something else. I was
looking for molecular order in the egg that is more subtle, like a pre-pattern
of the body plan that eventually appears in the course of development. That was
what we were looking for. And we did find it, but it was nowhere near as
exciting as the moving organism appearing like a dynamic liquid crystal
The explanation is that all the
molecules are moving coherently together and the molecular motions are slower
than the vibrations of light. So at every instant, the light senses the
molecular order and therefore gives you this liquid crystal display. That
really is the best evidence of the molecular coherence that exists in the whole
organism. The water associated with the living
organisms – some 70 percent by weight and 99 percent by count of molecules - is
most important in this respect because the water is responsible for a lot of
the liquid crystallinity and also the flexibility of the proteins and other macromolecules,
so that they can all move coherently together (see numerous articles in
a long running series spread over many issues of SiS, for example, Liquid Crystalline
Water at the Interface, SiS 39; Water’s Effortless
Action at a Distance, SiS 32; First Sighting of Structured
Water, Positive Electricity
Zaps Through Water Chains, SiS 28)
The quantum coherent organism is
not just a theoretical concept; it needs more than simply applying conventional
quantum theory to organisms. The conventional quantum mechanics needed to be
stretched, and that’s what I did in my book. The
analogy is a multi-mode laser that is pumped up to be coherent in many frequencies,
a whole range of frequencies. The wide range of frequencies in an organism is
just fantastic. In my book, I say that it’s like 70 doublings of the octave.
the analogy of ‘quantum jazz’ to express the quantum coherence of the organism.
It goes through a fantastic range of space and time scales, from the tiniest
atom or subatomic particle to the whole organism and beyond. Organisms
communicate with other organisms, and are attuned to natural rhythms, so they
have circadian rhythms, annual rhythms, and so on. At the other extreme, you
have very fast reactions that take place in femtoseconds. And all
these rhythms are coordinated, there is evidence for that.
course, you can never find a non-living example of this kind. You find bits of
it in solid state systems that can become coherent in a few frequencies. You
find bits of it in, say, a tuned radio. When a radio is tuned, you can receive
the signal that you are attuned to. The organism is tuned to all the
If you look at the heartbeat, it
is actually a reflection of all the frequencies in the body, which makes it appear superficially to be highly irregular
Heartbeat of Health and other articles in the series, SiS 35). But if you analyze the heartbeat with the right
mathematical tools, you can extract just the kind of multimode quantum
coherence characteristic of the living organism. That’s what is so
ATHM: It seems that nobody agrees on a
definition of a living system yet. Do you think that coherence is going to have
to be included in an accurate definition of living systems?
Ho: Yes, I would define
organisms as “self-organizing quantum coherent systems.” So the problem also
involves defining quantum coherence, especially that of organisms. At
the moment, there are bits of definition that fit. Phase correlation is
important for quantum coherence in general terms. For example, in the heartbeat
data time series data, if you shuffle the data so the data points come in a random
order, the coherence is lost on analysis, because the phase correlation is
In my book, I mention factorizability, which is a bit technical. An
organism is full of activities over all time and space scales. In a fully
coherent system, the activities are all correlated, yet each of these
activities will appear as though they are independent of all the others. That
is really counterintuitive. It is because they are so perfectly correlated that
the cross-correlations are just the self-correlations multiplied together. So
it is analogous to the classical situation in which the joint probabilities of
two independent events are the two independent probabilities multiplied
of quantum coherence comes from the work of quantum physicist Roy Glauber, who
won the 2005 Nobel Prize in quantum optics. Glauber’s work is among the
wonderful things that Fritz Popp introduced me to.
the imagery of Quantum Jazz
(SiS 32, SiS 34) to put it across. Imagine
a huge jazz band of musicians making music, from very small instruments
to the very large, playing very fast to very slow, with a musical range of 70
octaves. They are improvising from moment to moment, spontaneously and freely; and
yet keeping in tune and in step with the whole. That is the ultimate quantum
have different degrees (order) of quantum coherence (see The Rainbow Worm).
The fully quantum coherent state would be quantum coherence of n order, n being
a very large number approaching infinity. This state is only reach rarely,
perhaps once or twice in a life time, for some of us, or maybe not at all. You
get an inkling of it when you have an aesthetic experience, a very special
aesthetic experience, like one I had when first encountering the rainbow worm.
Some people would call it a mystical experience. (I’m not a mystic or a religious
person, but I do love art. I do art as much as I do science, and in much the same way. That’s what makes life fulfilling
You can have lower degrees of
coherence; the work-a-day coherence that keeps life
ticking over. If you have a fully quantum coherent system, you will never age
and you will never die. But, we do age and we do die. That’s because of
incoherence of varying degrees. In my book, I suggest that time is really the
accumulation of incoherence.
you accumulate incoherence, you age. So, I think a happy coherent person ages
more slowly than someone full of angst and strive. It’s fascinating to think about
I’m not saying that quantum
theory is the be all and end all, the answer to life, the universe and everything.
But it gives you an insight into how to think about these things. Conventional
quantum theory isn’t enough. Quantum coherence has
practical consequences. Please explore it. Please do something with it because
it will change the whole way we regard health and disease. That’s what’s
no doubt that at least some of the more esoteric things people ascribe to
quantum effects are real, such as instantaneous communication at a distance,
remote healing, etc. But we can push the boundaries from the very conventional
toward quantum coherence of the organism, to complete quantum coherence of the
universe. I believe the universe is quantum coherent. Quantum coherence is
everywhere. And if we know how to tune into it, we see it. If we ignore it, if we’re
very reductionist and mechanical in our thinking and in what we do, we’ll miss
it (see Nature
is Quantum, Really and other articles in the series, SiS 22).
ATHM (Dr McCraty): I completely agree. From a
very simple perspective, when we measure coherence in the rhythms of the
biological system or the human being, there are the energetic parts, the things
that we can’t measure or touch—things like our thoughts and emotions, for
example. I think of those as energetic systems, but not in an esoteric way.
They’re the things we can’t measure. But as we become more emotionally incoherent,
more angry and irritated for instance, that’s instantly reflected in an
incoherence in the rhythmic activity of the different systems in the body (see Happiness Is A
Heartbeat Away, SiS 35). I think that parallels very well with what
you were saying: Accumulating incoherence ages the system.
Ho: That’s right. The heart is so important. It
coordinates the activities, but more importantly, it intercommunicates with
ATHM (Dr McCraty): Right! And is affected by
Ho: It is like a symphony. I’m a Taoist at heart. And
quantum coherence and Taoism are one because coherent action is effortless
action. Once I found this physics of organisms, I never wanted to leave it
because I realized that I needed to find my way back to reclaiming my complete
Western education tends to divide
you up. It divides you up into the observer and the observed, the controller
and the controlled. God knows what else. Life isn’t like that. Life is
spontaneous and free, and everything works by intercommunication. It’s a
perfect social anarchy because each player is as much in control as he or she
is sensitive and responsive. That’s the ideal of the happy person, of the
And when you’ve got a group of
people playing music together and they get into a coherent state, it’s so
beautiful. It is just the most beautiful thing. You can feel it in the
audience. I’m not a musician, but I can feel how sublimely happy the musicians
are when they are in that state.
ATHM: Is sustainability a characteristic of
Ho: Yes. If you look at the thermodynamics of a
sustainable system, it’s actually based on the ‘zero entropy’ ideal. In the
quantum coherent system, because all the activities are linked together, are
correlated, the entropy is zero; the system has
effectively a single degree of freedom
ATHM: So increasing entropy is also
characteristic of incoherence.
Ho: Yes. If you have an ideal sustainable system, it is a circular economy. To express it thermodynamically,
if you have a closed circle, then you don’t accumulate or generate entropy. Of
course, the organism is an open system, and what you find is that if it doesn’t
accumulate entropy inside and the entropy, the entropy must be exported
outside, but even the entropy exported - the waste - is minimal. That is the
ideal of sustainability, and it is approached by natural ecosystems that last
for thousands of years. If we want to recreate it, then we learn to do it
nature’s way, nature’s circular economy, which is why recycling makes sense.
ATHM: So then, our current spasms of financial
crises would be a reflection of social incoherence?
Ho: It’s interesting: people say, “Energy is just
like money.” That is the greatest fallacy. In fact, the coherent system, the
sustainable system, works by goodwill and by fair exchanges. It works by fair
trade—you have to compensate realistically for the
resources. You’ve got to make full compensation of resources. If you pay too
little, you make people work far harder and exploit the natural
resources more, and therefore, you deplete your environment. And because you
depend on your environment for input, you are now poorer.
If you generate too much money,
what happens? This is more like entropy because once again, you inflate
artificially the buying power of some people, and they tend to consume far too
much. So fair exchange is like energy. But if unfair exchange is what we
indulge in, especially in the financial market, that’s more like entropy, sheer
entropy. That’s why it tends to devastate the natural
ecosystem and make everyone in effect poorer as a result.
look at the conventional system, because it’s based on infinite growth, it
doesn’t close the cycle. It’s like a hurricane. It swallows up everything in
its path and it lays waste, and that’s why it’s a boom and bust, which is
inherent to the system (see Sustainable
Agriculture, Green Energies and the Circular Economy, SiS 46).
ATHM: What are you working on now?
Ho: I’m working on far too many things, among which, trying to
paint seriously. We publish a magazine Science in Society that
promotes both independent art and science. We are engaged in numerous campaigns
to persuade politicians and people to be sustainable, not to have genetically
modified foods, and things like that. Maybe you should ask me what I’m not
ATHM: In one of your books you say, “Science
is a quest for the most intimate understanding of nature. It is not an industry
set up for the purpose of validating existing theories and indoctrinating
students in the correct ideologies.” Based on that, do you think science is
moving in the right direction?
Ho: Some of it is moving in the right direction,
which is why I’m so keen to keep looking at the
literature to see if researchers are onto quantum coherence yet, for example.
There is a lot of research on water, and I mentioned some research in
photosynthesis. They’re discovering, slowly, quantum coherence in living
systems. In physics, quantum optics is moving in a very interesting direction
Quantum computing and
high-temperature super conductivity—these things are threatening to change
biology. Biology is the most mechanistic still. Medicine is the worst. It’s way
behind. I feel very strongly about all these drugs that are not good for us. I
spend quite a lot of time protecting my husband from his doctors, stopping them
from giving him more drugs. These drugs cause so many side effects that they
often outweigh the benefits because medicine is still based on the same
Molecular genetics has made it
worse. But even genetics is pushing in the organic,
non-mechanistic direction. I wrote the book Living with the Fluid Genome
(ISIS publication) some time ago. It deals with the area of why genetic
engineering is so bad because it doesn’t realize that the quantum coherence,
this wholeness in the living organism, is in itself directing a natural genetic
engineering that you get an inkling of in the ‘fluid genome’. The genome
responds to the environment. Some responses can result in changing the genes
themselves. And now, ironically, this very mechanistic push into molecular
genetics is uncovering a lot more of the fluid
ATHM: Would you say that some of the ideas
that are coming out of the area of genomics validate the principle of
Ho: Yes, and they don’t know how to handle it. The ‘inheritance of acquired characters’ was a hypothesis
put forward by, among others, French naturalist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck. To be
called a Lamarckian or a neo-Lamarckian was a real insult. I was a neo-Lamarckian
back in the 1980s and before. To-day if you look at the molecular
mechanism, there is no clearer example of Lamarckism at work. It really is the
inheritance of acquired characters. Experience can mark and change genes, and
these influences can be passed on to the next generation. This is all coming
out of the molecular genetics research, genomics. We call it epigenomics now
Inheritance - What Genes Remember and other articles in the series, SiS
ATHM (Dr Riley): I would like to go
back to something you said earlier. You talked about the reductionism in
biology. To me, medicine is much worse. Would you agree that looking at things
from a systems biology approach, rather than just a reductionism of medicine,
is moving in that direction?
Ho: It depends on what you call systems biology
because to some people “systems biology” is little more than putting everything
in the computer and hope that it makes sense. Some useful information came out
of analyzing the genome, and now the epigenome, but they still fall very, very
short of making sense, it’s a lot of information in
search of a systems theory.
ATHM: Is there anything else you would like
to say about the limitations of current medical thinking?
Dr Ho: Current medical thinking is to define diseases
by molecules. You have single molecule diseases; you have single molecule
interventions. In fact, there are a lot of misdiagnoses, a lot of ignoring the
whole system. There was so much fanfare, so much hype with gene therapy. And
frankly, they’ve caused more grief than benefit.
You can’t just push a molecule
into a system because the molecules are acting in an entire network, and
they’ve got to change according to the whole. They’ve got to do quantum jazz
with the whole organism, with all the other molecules, and with the whole
system at every single location in the body.
For example, in your body, you’ve got trillions, tens of trillions of cells.
And any single cell is different at every moment. How can you hope to cure
diseases by focusing on a single molecule that you
put under the control of a viral promoter that makes it over-express in every
cell all of the time?
Harmful side effects are getting
worse with these so-called biologicals, biological medicines that they are
pushing onto the market.
ATHM: Can you give us an example of the
biological medicines you’re referring to?
Ho: Oh, quite a number of them. The worst ones perhaps are antibodies, involved in a
catastrophic drug trial in 2006 (see London Drug Trial Catastrophe –
Collapse of Science and Ethics and other articles
in the series, SiS 30). Six young healthy volunteers in London, UK,
became violently ill after being injected with a trial drug supposed to fight
autoimmune disease and leukemia. All six suffered multiple organ failure, and were admitted
to intensive care. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency
(MHRA), which gave approval for the trial, immediately withdrew authorisation;
and an international warning went out to prevent the drug being tested abroad.
The drug TGN1412 was a monoclonal antibody.
The names of the drugs bear no
direct connection to what they really are, so you’ve got to look at the drug,
and then you’ve got to figure out, “Is it a protein? Is it a monoclonal
antibody? Or is it something else?” Another example
is the recent Swine flu vaccines, practically all potentially dangerous, more dangerous
than the Swine flu itself (see Swine Flu Pandemic - To
Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate? And other articles in the series, SiS 43,
ATHM: When you were talking about the work in
photosynthesis, you mentioned that the scientists are all excited about
coherence over a few femtoseconds, but the measurements that you’ve done in the
larvae are showing global coherence sustained over minutes.
Ho: Yes! By the way, Fritz Popp is still involved in
light emission bio-photon research. Some of my friends in Catania whom I also
work with, including Franco Musumeci, we all met at Fritz Popp’s lab. We found
a lot of evidence of long range coherence, as describe in my book, but it tends
to be dismissed because people don’t understand it and because you can’t write
down an equation on it. But I have no doubt that life
is quantum coherent. Organisms are quantum jazz players, dancing life into
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho is best known for
pioneering work on the physics of organisms and sustainable systems; also a
critic of genetic modification and neo-Darwinism. She is Director and
co-founder of the Institute of Science in Society (www.i-sis.org.uk),
and Editor-in-Chief and Art Director of its trend-setting quarterly magazine Science in Society.
She has more than 170 scientific publications,
over 500 popular articles, and a dozen books, including The Rainbow and the
Worm, The Physics of Organisms (1993, 2nd ed.1998, reprinted 1999, 2001, 2003,
2005; 2006, 3rd ed, 2008); Genetic Engineering: Dream or
Nightmare? (1998, 1999, translated into many
languages, and reprinted with extended introduction, 2007); Food Futures Now: *Organic
*Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free (2008); Green Energies - 100%
Renewable by 2050 (2009).
*A slightly different version appeared as Conversation
in the June issue of ATHM