Birgitta Whaley: Finding the quantum in biology

Birgitta Whaley: Finding the Quantum in Biology

October 28, 2020

Birgitta Whaley, Professor of Chemistry and co-director of the Berkeley Quantum Information and Computation Center, presented this year's endowed G.N. Lewis Lecture at the College of Chemistry. Professor Whaley currently serves on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. She is a foremost expert in the fields of quantum information, quantum physics, molecular quantum mechanics, and quantum biology. 

This lecture is given annually in honor of Gilbert Newton Lewis who was the longest serving dean of the College of Chemistry from 1912 to 1941. The half century which terminated with the death of Gilbert Newton Lewis in 1946 will always be regarded as one of the most brilliant in the history of scientific discovery, and his name ranks among the highest in the roster of those that made it great. The electron theory of chemical valence, the advance of chemical thermodynamics, the separation of isotopes which made possible the use of the deuteron in the artificial transmutation of the elements, the unraveling of the complex phenomena of the absorption, fluorescence, and phosphorescence of organic dyes are among the achievements which will ever be associated with his name. He mentored a number of future Nobel Laureates including Harold Urey (1934), William F. Giauque (1949), Glenn T. Seaborg (1951), Willard Libby (1960), and Melvin Calvin (1961).

About this lecture 

The development of quantum mechanics nearly 100 years ago transformed both physics and chemistry, providing a new understanding of the microscopic behavior of atoms and molecules. Questions were also asked about the implications of quantum mechanics for biology, leading to analysis of the structure and stability of biological systems within the framework of quantum and statistical mechanics. A second era of quantum biology began with the development of lasers in the 1960s, ushering in a new generation of dynamical experiments that could probe the very short time scales relevant to atomic and molecular motion. Ultra-fast spectroscopies led to a renaissance of interest in quantum dynamical effects in biology.

Today, advances in quantum sciences and nanotechnology are bringing tools of advanced quantum optics and of quantum information science and associated technologies to selectively probe complex biological systems. In this talk I shall present a brief overview of biological phenomena that are currently believed to involve non-trivial dynamical quantum effects, and then address the role of quantum phenomena in the initial stages of photosynthesis and how we can access these with quantum light sources.

About Professor Whaley

Professor Whaley’s research lies at the interface of chemistry, quantum physics, and biology. Her work is broadly focused on quantum information and quantum computation, control and simulation of complex quantum systems, and quantum effects in biological systems. Her recent research in quantum biology seeks to characterize and understand the role of quantum dynamical effects in biological systems, with a perspective that combines physical intuition and detailed quantum simulation with insights from various branches of quantum science – quantum physics, molecular quantum mechanics, and quantum information.

After Professor Whaley received her bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in 1978, she spent one year at Harvard University on a John F. Kennedy Fellowship, and then moved to the University of Chicago where she earned her doctorate in chemical physics in 1984. Whaley was a postdoctoral fellow at Tel-Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem prior to joining the faculty in the Department of Chemistry at Berkeley in 1986.

Over her career to date, she has authored 244 scientific publications, and her work has been widely recognized with numerous awards, including the Bergmann Memorial Research Award, the Alfred P. Sloan Award, and the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Research Award. In addition, she has been honored with several visiting professorships in the United States and abroad. Professor Whaley is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science.

She has served as a member on a number of Advisory Boards of scholarly journals, research Centers, Institutes, and national laboratories. At present, she is a member of the Editorial Board for the European Physical Journal (EPJ) Quantum Technology and Advances in Physics X. She is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS) and serves on the Steering Board for Quantum – the open-access peer-reviewed journal for quantum science and related fields.