Green leaves do not waste enough energy (for our scientific models)… Why?

(A conversation with Darrell Piekarz)

A while back, I was listening to this CBC radio story on “the-top-10-unanswered-questions-in-the-universe”, [link to the radio show is here:]

and it was pretty cool. It explained things in a way non-physicists could understand too.

There was one story/question that really interested me: How come plants don’t waste enough energy? Plants are converting light energy thru photosynthesis at a rate that is not wasteful enuf according to our current mathematical models.  So scientists are now asking—“Does biology operate on the quantum level?”—investigating whether quantum physics (entanglement) is operable in green plants (it’s one way of explaining why photosynthesis is “too” efficient–it doesn’t fit the equations)….

This whole idea thrilled me. When I was a kid going to public school, I remember being really discouraged by the way teachers taught that science had already figured everything out–all the answers were known; there was nothing new for us to discover. Turns out that was not true.  And over the years I’ve kept track of some of the really big questions that humanity is still puzzling over–beacuse that thrill of discovery, of investigating and figuring things out, is a wayyy better feeling than the smug kinda–nothing-left-to-do attitude that was poured into us in public school.

If you go to the CBC radio link above, to “Part One”, press play, and scroll thru to 14:04 (one minute, till–15:00); you’ll hear Dr. Andrew White, professor of physics at the University of Queensland in Australia, describe the conundrum (yup, he’s the one with the Aussie accent). He mentions that another key researcher in this field is Dr. Gregory Scholes, based at the University of Toronto…

SO; I wanted to know more about this, but since I’m not a scientist, I asked Darrell Piekarz to explain this to me in ordinary English.  Darrell is a senior Dharma practitioner with a science background. And here is some of our conversation…..

Q: A recent episode of the CBC radio show Quirks and Quarks asked 10 scientists what was the most interesting question they thought science hadn’t answered yet.  For Doctor White the most interesting question was: ‘How is it possible that chlorophyll in a plant leaf uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose more efficiently than science can explain?’  What does he  mean?


Darrell: What they seem to have discovered is that photosythesis does not waste energy.  It’s too efficient for our classical theory.  It should not be doing what it does.  It doesn’t fit.  At the moment, the only possible explanation we have for this is that photosynthesis is actually operating according to what physicists call ‘quantum coherence’.  Scholes and his group at U of T have discovered that plants aren’t wasting enough energy.  They are highly efficient as they convert light into glucose sugar.


Q: How does a plant do this converting?


A: The plant absorbs light in the form of photons. A photon is a packet of energy vibrating away as it interacts with chlorophyll and other molecules of photosynthesis, it vibrates and energizes the molecules in such a way (the most efficient way) that it prompts them to create sugar.  In fact, it does this too efficiently for our current theories.

There are two problems.  [A] it does this too efficiently for our ideas of how plants convert energy and [B], it also does this too efficiently for any man-made process we’ve been able to invent to operate at room temperature (we’ve only been able to observe effects approaching this level of efficiency at super, super artificially cold temperatures or  in high-energy colliders).  Scholes has shown that plants are 95% efficient converting light energy into sugar.  This defies the classical definition of how plants convert energy.  It’s also way more efficient than any man-made conversion.


Q: How efficient are man-made attempts to convert energy?


A – Our best solar collectors are 30% efficient.  So nature is way ahead of us and we think the reason it is so efficient is this phenomenon known as quantum coherence.


Q: Can you explain to me, simply, what Quantum coherence is?


A: Quantum coherence in this case means the energy absorbed from a photon of light takes simultaneous pathways at the molecular level.  It’s like this – imagine you are in your car going home at rush-hour and you need to pick the best route, the fastest of three possible routes home.  Your ‘quantum’ car takes (tries) all three routes (in a femto seconds, a millionth of a billionth of a second) at once and when you arrive home, it turns out you took the best route.  This is a phenomenon in quantum physics known as coherence.  The photon takes the most energy-efficient route. For  example, it is now believed that in migration, birds follow the most efficient paths navigating the Earth’s geomagnetic fields.


Q: How does something go in three directions at once but only come out at one of the pathways?


A:  When I say something goes in three pathways at once, I’m actually using a very simplified example.  The photon actually radiates out as a wave infinitely in all directions at once so (somehow) the energy is available to all possible molecular pathways (in the plant) at once.  The collapse of the quantum wave is the picking of one pathway, the most efficient pathway as it turns out in the plant cell and this yields 95% efficiency and it happens nearly instantaneously.

And Scholes’ group has been able to observe this within a plant (marine algae) at room temperature.  This is a break-through in verifying quantum theory through experimentation because previous experiments were done at super-cold temperatures.  Previous experiments that proved the applicability of quantum mechanics were done at non-ambient, low temperatures that raised questions about the applicability of quantum mechanics to ‘real-world’ situations.  But this new research seems to show quantum coherence at room-temperature in a living organism…a marine algae.



Q: What’s the significance of this effect in algae, to us humans?

A: Well, on the research level, this work is a promising lead for future solar cell technology. Equally as  interesting this research implies that the quantum description could be universal and is certainly involved in biological processes and is most likely involved in human processes.  So it jumps the gap between you thinking of yourself at human scale and being aware of the quantum effect within your body.  This means our perceptions ought to shift as well from classical Newtonian sensing, ‘simple cause and effect’, bodies in space – a deterministic, no-probability view of ourselves – to a view of ourselves as ever-changing probabilities.  It’s another tool, another way of shifting our attention.

Meditation teachers have talked about quantum stuff for years, but have had some difficulty making the bridge because they can easily get sidetracked in abstraction – e.g. in the uncertainty principle and the difficult language of physics and mathematics.

And quantum stuff was cold but this is warm.  It’s biology.  It’s alive.  Anytime I’ve heard people talk about quantum mechanics and meditation, it just hasn’t gone anywhere.  But this is the bridge.  Meditation practitioners are experiencing non-Newtonian effects so they can relate to the quantum description, whereas non-meditators think they are only experiencing Newtonian ‘cause and effect’.  All I’m saying is that introducing meditators to physics has not always been productive.  Introducing them to biology is more accessible. This is an example of an exercise to shift your perception, that’s all!  Imagine all the things we are doing are a result of quantum effect, but they are happening too fast for us to observe, so the meditators need to slow down and observe.   This is a surface summary, but it made me so excited to study this research that I stayed up late reading it.


Q: I was excited too when I heard the radio story, but I didn’t understand all the implications. Thanks for this.  What I see, in Dharma terms, is how your helping me to understand this science is both dharmavicaya (investigation of phenomena*) and mudita** (Pali: “shared joy”)–the shared joy of discovery.


A: Marvellous!


*Dharmavicaya (investigation of phenomena) is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment enumerated by the Buddha. (See chapter 26 of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1998.)

**Mudita (Pali: “shared joy”) is one of the four Brahma Viharas, four Illimitables, key to full (boundless) development of  human consciousness. (See chapter 22 of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh.)


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