Simon Raggett’s thoughts on avian navigation

Editor’s comment:
This is Simon Raggett’s latest piece.  He has been immensely helpful in putting together my poster for BioNav RIN 13. We are all struggling to see if we can understand how animal navigation might work.  As Jim Khalili says, we cannot just use quantum mechanics as the magic solution to hitherto intractable problems.  Simon begins to explore these issues.

Richard Nissen

I’ll try and make some comments on what I’m thinking at the moment about fields, information, navigation, coherence, entanglement and spacetime. I rather distrust the trend to plug in the concept of information as a ‘get out of jail free’ card in some conventional as well as unconventional views.

I have just reread Vedral’s book, and I think the problem here is one of direction, the difference between the information needed to understand everything about a piece of matter when we looking in, and the information coming from it. If we take the traditional picture of a gas diffused evenly in a container, it requires an enormous amount of information to specify the state of every molecule in the container, but an observer can derive nothing like that quantity of information from looking in the container. Maybe this is a naïve argument, but it expresses my uneasiness about the information idea.

I am similarly uneasy with using the interference of quantum waves as an information store. The quantum wave can be seen as a store of the possible position and other states of the quanta, but when it decoheres or collapses, the other possibilities are eliminated rather than stored, except in the ‘many worlds’ model, which comes as yet another ‘get out of jail free card’.

In terms of fields, the most obvious candidate for importance in navigation is the electromagnetic (EM) field. In simplistic terms, this is the product of the negatively charged electrons and the positively charged protons, which give positive charge to the nucleus of the atom as a whole. The EM field involves the interchange of photons between the charged particles in the field. This field is usually seen to determine the relations of things that are larger than the nucleus of the atom and smaller than planets. This means that most interactions in the brain and between the brain and the external environment can be understood in terms of the EM field. As time has gone on, more and more of conventional physics, chemistry and biology has come to be understood in terms of a complicated cat’s cradle of interactions between electrons and nuclei in the same and different atoms and molecules. For instance, a generation or so ago biochemistry seemed to be taught with hardly any mention of the interaction of electrons, but now that’s part of standard undergraduate text books.

The more difficult questions arise when we talk about entanglement. In the first place it is apparent that it is not a general property of quanta such as protons and electrons, but appears to only involve the spin of such quanta and the polarisation of photons. For quanta to be entangled it is necessary for them to be coherent (in a wave state), which means that they have to have avoided too much interaction with the environment. Entangled quanta, for instance electrons that have been in the same orbital, can become spatially separated, as in the case of the avian radical pair. When one quanta decoheres the other will instantaneously decohere, and the spin-state chosen by one quanta will determine the choice of the other electron’s spin-state. This represents the extent of what entanglement can do. Mass and charge, which always seems to be associated with massive particles, are limited as per relativity to light speed. Only spin is capable of being transmitted instantaneously.

This does seem to raise some questions about the nature of the universe itself. One view, perhaps the majority, is that the quanta are fundamental and spacetime arises from the relationship between the quanta. I find the reverse more plausible in a way, with spacetime as fundamental, and the quanta as mere oscillations or disturbances in this fundamental spacetime. This seems to fit the science rather better. For one thing, the quanta don’t seem very fundamental in themselves. In special relativity Einstein proposed that massive particles could be converted into energy (mass-energy equivalence), and later research showed that quanta in collisions could disintegrate in a shower of photons, which in turn could raise the heat or energy of other matter. Perhaps more importantly, making spacetime fundamental makes entanglement less anomalous. Changes in spacetime itself are not limited by light speed, so if spins are seen as a networks in spacetime (derived from Penrose and loop quantum gravity) the instantaneous transmissions in entanglement do not look so contrary to normal scientific understanding. Recent research has supported the notion of spacetime as a reality rather than an abstraction. In accordance with previous theory, experiments have shown than an electron accelerated to one quarter of the speed of light can turn the virtual photons of the vacuum into real persisting photons.

All this is not that distant from some mainstream physics, so if we let that stand for a moment, we can think what means in terms of consciousness, navigation, dowsing and anomalous aspects such as telepathy and precognition. I think the main point I am trying to make is that it is possible to distinguish between what can be explained in terms of the EM field (Occam’s razor suggests we should look first at the better understood theories of the EM field), and what requires us to look at the underlying level of spacetime. Further to this, links with spacetime rest on coherence and entanglement which are fragile in relation to the environment, so this has to be considered when invoking them.

Consciousness does seem to require such a link to the spacetime level. That’s really a matter of what I’ll call privilege. The question as to why any particular aspect of classical or even quantum physics should support consciousness in the brain, when there is no indication that they support it in the rest of the universe. Penrose further suggested through an argument related to the Gödel theorem that the brain performed functions that no system of algorithms could perform. Science can be seen as a system of algorithms with the solitary exception of wave function collapse where the choice of position of a particle is an effect without a cause. The Gödel theorem takes one into difficult areas to do with logic, but in fact I think the taken for granted processes of choice and preference, beer or wine, apples or pears require a non-algorithmic processing of future scenarios by the brain.

The role of the brain should not be under estimated. Physics has shown us that the external world is nothing like what we perceive. The external world is just bits of energy oscillating in the vacuum. As the saying goes, there are no things, there is no colour green. What we perceive is put together by a series of processes inside the cortex. Our perceptions are referred to as representations, but this really misleads in suggesting they are something like the external world. I think a good analogy is to compare the map of the London tube to the actual railway system. The coloured lines and other symbols on the small two dimensional piece of paper bear no resemblance to concrete tunnels of metal rails and vehicles, but in evolutionary-speak the map is adaptive if you want to find your way round London. The reason for emphasising this is that the brain might be able to do quite a lot of the work involved with navigation and dowsing.

As I mentioned before one could look to inheritance, with the routes and other behaviour imprinted in the brain. The avian compass studies do show entanglement having a functional role in the avian brain, and this and what we know about photosynthesis, overturns cherished notions in biology. However, it looks like a local computation in the avian brain in a form of quantum computing. Although it doesn’t seem to be spelt out, I think the processes allows a more rapid search for the ways of synthesising the necessary chemicals.

With dowsing I would tend, to look at two aspects. Firstly, our old friend the EM field. The body is all dipoles, water and biomolecules, and it’s looking for more dipoles in underground water. My physics isn’t good enough to work out the possible attractions, given that EM force diminishes by the inverse square law, but they seem to deserve investigation. The other aspect is the unconscious. Mainstream consciousness studies is for ever playing up the unconscious as a way of eroding the role of consciousness, but they do have a point. There’s no doubt that much of the brain’s processing is unconscious and even for a novice the landscape and maps of it might hold many hints as to the location of water.

Where you come to issues like precognition and telepathy, I think you have to look beyond either the EM field or the brain. Recent experiments suggest an above chance ability to know the next image on a computer. I suspect this may relate to the suggested smudging out of the present moment. Uncertainty principle doesn’t seem to allow the present moment to be a singularity, and many a favour working memory of the immediate past plus anticipation of the immediate future blended together in the brain. The latter part here looks to suggest some entanglement with the about to be revealed processing of the computer. Telepathy, which does seem to occur, could only really work on the basis of some form of entanglement. The problem is that quanta have to stay coherent, or a bit more plausibly recohere. Noticeably telepathy seems to be a hit or miss affair, in contrast to the high reliability of dowsing and bird navigation, suggesting that entanglements of this kind are not reliable systems..

Is the land linked at all into the spacetime level, or is it all explained by the EM field and the brain’s response to signals from it? I suspect that there is another level of involvement between the land and spacetime, and that this may be where minds have been involved. This way lies the dangerous country of haunting, elementals and reincarnation memories. My brother-in-laws house in Sweden lies on what I think we call here sand ways or church ways, and when we’ve been there my wife has sometimes complained of weird vibrations.

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