In the science fiction novel I’m currently outlining, human beings harbor “wildstrains” of genes and gene-groups that enhance or alter human function. Some of these variants have occurred naturally in a small number of human beings (“human calculator” ability, “photographic” memory, temperature regulation in extreme environments, prodigious musical or mathematical creativity, incredible strength, lightning reflexes, etc.) and others have been “borrowed” from other species (infrared/night vision, chameleon-like skin color changes, glow-in-the-dark skin, limb regeneration, photosynthesis, no biological aging, etc.).
One “superhuman” ability I wouldn’t mind having is the ability to see or otherwise sense compass directions, via direct perception of magnetic fields. If you were playing devil’s advocate you might say “just get an iPhone.” It’s true — GPS does the job pretty well. Still — it would be nice to have such an extra sense “built in.” The cognitive scientist Peter König has invented a device — the “feelSpace belt” — that allows human beings to perceive magnetic direction via vibrating pads on a belt. One of the volunteers who tried out the belt — Udo Wächter — described his experience:
“I suddenly realized that my perception had shifted. I had some kind of internal map of the city in my head. I could always find my way home. Eventually, I felt I couldn’t get lost, even in a completely new place.”
Writer Quinn Norton implanted a magnet into her finger to give her the ability to directly feel electromagnetic fields. While the implant didn’t give her any powers of navigation, it did allow her to directly perceive live wires, active electric outlets, and any strong source of EMF radiation.
Many animals, including birds, bees, cows, and salmon, have demonstrated the ability to perceive magnetic fields, and direct their behavior accordingly. A group of cows will align themselves along the north-south axis — unless a power line disrupts the local magnetic field. In that case, they’ll all stand willy-nilly (interestingly, the researchers initially noticed the north-south alignment from looking at satellite pictures of cows and deer via Google maps).
So how do these animals do it? This experiment confirmed that birds do not use magnetic particles in their beaks (an earlier hypothesis), but rather information from their eyes to navigate via magnetic fields. More recent research has isolated the flavoprotein cryptochrome as being key to the process. How does cryptochrome work? This article explains the “radical pair” hypothesis. In short, a radical pair is a pair of molecules, each with an unpaired electron. If the spins of the two unpaired electrons become entangled, this reaction can potentially interact with the visual system of the bird (or other animal).
In other words, birds (and possibly other animals) use quantum entanglement to see magnetic fields. Biologically, robins can maintain the entangled state for longer than humans have been able to do, even in the most highly controlled laboratory experiments.
Hope For Humans?
Crytpochrome is also found in the human eye, but its function there appears to be related to circadian rhythms, not magnetoreception. Can the human eye detect quantum entanglement in other ways? The retina won’t send a signal to the brain unless it is hit by at least seven photons, so there is no way a human eye could detect the entangled state of a single photon. However, two independent groups of Swiss and Italian researchers have been working to connect a pair of entangled photons to thousands of other photons (with a technique called micro-macro entanglement) so that the entangled state (or lack thereof) can be perceived by the human eye. Initial experiments showed promise, but the entanglement test used was later shown to generate false positives.
If our eyes could be somehow modified to contain the same crytochrome-based biological mechanism as the robins, we might perceive a dark (or light) spot or line in our field of vision that would maintain its orientation as we moved our heads (in the same way a compass arrow always points north, even as you rotate the compass). That would be cool.
I know, I know … just get an iPhone.
The Mysterious “Quantum” Dance of the Bees
In the mid-90’s, mathematician Barbara Shipman was working on her PhD thesis at the University of Arizona, on the dynamics and geometry of flag manifolds. Part of her work involved creating 2-dimensional projections of the 6-dimensional manifolds (in the same way a circle is a 2-dimensional projection of a 3-dimensional sphere). Looking at the projections, she noticed an eerie similarity to the “waggle” and “circle” dances that honey bees use to communicate food locations to fellow workers (Shipman’s father was [is?] an agricultural scientist and bee researcher, so she had grown up with a familiarity with the bee dances). Shipman knew that depending on the distance of the food source, the “waggle” dance would change its pattern, and then suddenly shift to a “circle” dance. Shipman found that the bee dance patterns exactly matched the 2-D projections of the 6-D flag manifold space she was researching.
Imagine a torus (donut-shape) passing vertically through a horizontal plane. If you observe the interaction of the two shapes from the perspective of the plane (two dimensions) then first you see an oval growing bigger, then suddenly two ovals getting farther apart, then two circles, then two ovals getting closer together, then one oval getting smaller until it disappears. In the same way the oval “suddenly” becomes two ovals (as the hole of the donut passes through the plane), the bees waggle dance instantly shifted to a circle dance.
So were the bees perceiving a six-dimensional manifold of some sort? Or were they somehow using 6-D geometry to encode location information?
Shipman’s research (and speculations) were described by Adam Frank, in an article originally published in Discover magazine in 1997. It’s a great read.
Shipman speculated that the bees might somehow be perceiving information on the quantum level. From the Adam Frank article:
“The flag manifold, she notes, in addition to providing mathematicians with pure joy, also happens to be useful to physicists in solving some of the mathematical problems that arise in dealing with quarks, tiny particles that are the building blocks of protons and neutrons. And she does not believe the manifold’s presence both in the mathematics of quarks and in the dance of honeybees is a coincidence. Rather she suspects that the bees are somehow sensitive to what’s going on in the quantum world of quarks, that quantum mechanics is as important to their perception of the world as sight, sound, and smell. “
Shipman has been criticized for such speculations. The scientist Zac Hanley, in his response “Bees Aren’t Quantum,” tears into Shipman for daring to suggest a possible explanation for the correlation she has found between flag manifold mathematics and the dances of bees. Hanley points out that bees don’t need to consciously “think” about math in order to actually perform the calculations (just as we don’t have to consciously “think” about the relative harmonic frequencies of sounds in order to perceive music). However I don’t think either Shipman or Frank suggested that bees do any such thinking — the “how” isn’t addressed in Adam Frank’s article.
So can bees “see” quarks, or perceive some kind of hidden 6-D reality? Probably not. Do bees have molecules of cryptochrome in their bodies that are involved in their circadian rhythms and navigational functions? They definitely do. I don’t know if the research is there yet, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to consider the possibility that bees use cryptochrome-generated radical pairs to see magnetic fields, just as birds do. Do bee brains contain neuron-circuits that encode locations using some kind of 6-D math? And then decode the same information while watching another bee dance? Could be.
Why is this important? We all know about colony collapse disorder. One of the many possible explanations for the dramatic decline in bee populations (especially in the U.S. and Europe) is the increase of cell phone towers and cell phone use. One study in India (reported by CNN) attached cell phones to a hive and powered them up. The bees did not fare well. This study got more press than it deserved — radiation from cell phones drops off very quickly with distance. Still — it’s possible that very weak electromagnetic fields from power lines and cell towers could be disrupting the delicate quantum-entangled state that allows birds (and possibly bees, cows, salmon, and other animals) to navigate/orient via magnetic fields. Cows near power lines standing willy-nilly, bees getting lost, and so on.
Thorsten Ritz, in his paper Resonance effects indicate a radical-pair mechanism for avian magnetic compass, found that extremely weak oscillating fields disrupted the ability of the robins to navigate. From the paper:
In the control condition, the robins exhibited seasonally appropriate northerly orientation, but in the presence of broadband (0.1–10 MHz, 0.085 µT) and single-frequency (7 MHz, 0.47 µT) oscillating fields, both vertically aligned, the birds were disoriented.
The strength of the field used in the experiment is less than one-third of one percent of the Earth’s magnetic field (31 µT, or 31 millionths of 1 tesla, at the equator). How much EMF radiation is just drifting about, on average? Well, it varies greatly, but there are many source in any urban environment. I’m not near any major power lines, but my EMF Gauss meter picks up an ambient rating in my music studio (where I’m writing this post) of between .1 and .5 mG (milligauss). Consistent exposure to anything over .4mG is considered a possible risk factor for childhood leukemia, and possibly other cancers. Human beings can probably avoid EMF health risks by not living next to power lines, not using electric blankets, not sleeping next to refrigerators, and limiting cell phone use. But what about birds and bees? 10mG (10 milligauss) = 1µT (1 microtesla), so .4mG is the equivalent of .04µT. That’s about the same as the strength of the field that disrupted the ability of the robins to navigate, in Ritz’s experiment. So it’s possible that ambient EMF radiation in developed areas (or anywhere near power lines) is enough to disrupt bee navigation. And if bees can’t find their way back to the hive, they die.
What Can Be Done?
There is a growing awareness of EMF pollution and its risks. Communities pushing back against telecommunications and power companies is the only thing that will make any difference — capitalism left to its own devices will ignore all safety and environmental considerations. Technologies do exist that either shield or cancel out electromagnetic fields. Alcatel-Lucent’s lightRadio “cell tower in a Rubik’s cube” device uses less power and possibly emits less radiation (I can’t find a good reference re: lightRadio and EMF levels — if you have one let me know).
Keeping our crops pollinated may hinge on protecting the ability of bees to preserve quantum coherence, and we may reduce rates of childhood leukemia in the process.