Physicists claim that the underlying reality of everything is the quanta. Now it seems that evidence has emerged that even humanity's sense of smell is linked to quantum physics.
Researcher Luca Turin, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes evidence supporting the idea that the vibrational mode of atoms in molecules can be sensed by olfactory nerves. He thinks the brain interprets the differences of subtle shifts that affect even the nature of existence at the quantum level.
He first broached the idea in 1996 and it was roundly dismissed.
Now, although the idea is still controversial, physicists gathering at the meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) in Dallas report that it might be true. If it is, the electrons are losing infinitesimal packages of data—the quanta—in the form of energy.
Some of the scientists at the APS meeting think that experiments could be conducted using an apparatus composed of exceedingly thin wires that can reveal when electrons actually shift onto proteins within the nose. They believe that molecules defined as "odor molecules" may well absorb those quanta and signal their existence.
What must be done, they claim, is an artificial smart nose that's much better than any existing chemical sensor must be constructed.
Researchers already know how molecules detected by the olfactory senses translate that information into a form recognizable and identifiable by the brain. But how such a molecule is singled out and recognized in the first place remains a mysterious process.
Turin's landmark work in 1996 suggested "vibrational modes" of an odorant were its signature and that the process of detection and identification was tied up in the quanta itself. In essence, Turin argued, molecules are virtually a collection. He drew an analogy of the molecules as atoms lined up on a spring. When subjected to the right frequency—in his view a quantum—the spring will vibrate and that is what the olfactory process detects.
"It's a very interesting idea," Jennifer Brookes a University College London researcher based at MIT told BBC News. "There's all sorts of interesting biological physics that implement quantum processes that's cropping up.”
While Turin's idea has been debated vigorously over the years, the recent reports at the APS meeting reviewing experimental findings makes the idea more plausible.
Another piece of research that impressed the physics community was a paper Turin published that revealed flies can detect the difference between molecules that have just one atom of hydrogen that's changed.
Using his spring analogy again, Turin explained that the vibrational frequency was lowered by the change and the flies reacted to it.
Theory gaining respect
Speaking to BBC News about Turin's work, Dr. Andrew Horsfield of Imperial College London said, "There's still lots to understand, but the idea that it cannot possibly be right is no longer tenable really. The theory has to at least be considered respectable at this point."
Horsfield is attempting to discover how the so-called vibration could be measured. He and his colleagues have used nanowires to effect electron transfers in a bid to perfect the "electronic noses" needed to detect the molecules and link it to a quantum.
Brookes concurs with Horsfield and said as much in the paper she presented at the meeting. She asserted the theory of smell, linked to vibration in a quantum physics sense, is reasonable.
"I believe it's time for the idea to develop and for us to get on with testing it," she said. "Mathematically, the theory is robust, and even if it's not happening in smell, it's interesting to think it might be a discriminatory process in nature in other ways."
Other researchers are investigating that other senses too may be linked into or affected by the quanta. Those senses include taste and sight.
In the end it's possible that everything is actually affected, influenced, or strongly linked into the quanta. Work by other researchers over the past decade has suggested the human mind itself may have strong links to it.