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What We Can Learn From the Quantum Calculations of Birds and Bacteria

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As an undergraduate at Oxford University in the mid-1970s, K. Birgitta Whaley struggled to choose between chemistry and physics. Now, as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of its Quantum Information and Computation Center, she doesn’t have to: Her research interests span all realms quantum, including both chemistry and physics, as well as computer science and her newest pursuit, quantum biology, where physics meets the life sciences.

Whaley turned her attention to biology in 2007 after experimentalists demonstrated that green sulphur bacteria can synthesize sugar from light by biologically controlling quantum mechanical effects at temperatures up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. As a theorist, Whaley is interested in learning how these living organisms can process quantum information so efficiently, because she is seeking clues on how to design a robust quantum computer. But unlike the green bacteria, which can process quantum information at room temperature in nature, our best quantum computer prototypes are limited to controlling quantum effects in the laboratory at temperatures verging on absolute zero.

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