Time, Life, and Quantum Physics: University of Surrey to Research the Interconnection

Life Green Time Fish

The University of Surrey has received its largest-ever philanthropic grant, funded by the John Templeton Foundation and worth US$3m (£2.1m), to lead a major new research project. The project will focus on the fundamental nature of time and its potential to reveal both scientific and philosophical insights into the quantum world – whose implications for life itself are explored in the new field of quantum biology.


Image Right:  Professor Jim Al-Khalili, University of Surrey.  (Image Credit: The University of Surrey; above Image Credit: Pixabay)

The project, “Life on the Edge: quantum thermodynamics, quantum biology and the arrow of time” will be led by Professor Jim Al-Khalili and Dr Andrea Rocco from the University of Surrey. Professor Al-Khalili was recently awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his outstanding services to science and public engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He is a Professor of Theoretical Physics and Distinguished Chair in Physics at the University of Surrey, as well as a University Chair in Public Engagement in Science and a prominent author and broadcaster. Dr Andrea Rocco, a theoretical physicist with broad experience in nonlinear dynamics and statistical mechanics; is a Senior Lecturer in Physics and Mathematical Biology at the University of Surrey.

The work will be completed in collaboration with colleagues from Arizona State University, University of Bristol, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California San Diego (UC San Diego) and University of Oxford.

Researchers across the UK and US will explore the complex interrelationship between the nature of time and the distinct ways in which the passage of time and quantum physics manifest in inanimate objects compared to living organisms – with potential implications for the understanding of life itself. The project brings together the disciplines of quantum physics, applied mathematics, computational chemistry, experimental molecular biology and the philosophy of science.

The project aims to not only revolutionise ideas in fundamental science, but also to influence a wider audience and inspire the next generation of scientists through a series of events. There will be a series of meetings attracting international scientists to ‘Blue-Sky Thinking’ Workshops, a programme for schools and lay audiences, and online content.

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind. The Foundation focuses its support on grantees who push the boundaries of understanding across a range of subjects in the sciences, philosophy and theology.

Three of the ‘Big Questions’ that have informed Sir John Templeton’s vision, and which continue to baffle scientists and philosophers today, are: What is the nature of Reality? What is the nature of Time? What is the nature of Life? The key insight that will drive the ‘Life on the Edge’ project is how these profound questions are not independent but are instead different aspects of the same question: How does the arrow of time manifest in different systems and at different scales?

Professor Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey said, “One of the most profound aspects of existence is the distinction between past and future, the so-called arrow of time. This self-evident time ‘asymmetry’ is a defining characteristic of life: we’re born, we grow older and we die. Time never runs backwards for us, even if we sometimes wish we could turn the clock back. With this generous gift, our researchers will be able to study the way quantum processes underpin the machinery of life. We hope to move closer to an answer for how and why life is so special: is it the way living matter is able to utilise the time symmetry of the quantum domain that distinguishes it from inanimate matter?”

Aamir Ali, Program Officer for Math and Physical Sciences at the John Templeton Foundation, said, “The hypothesis that biological systems may have evolved to harness quantum processes — and could serve as a new laboratory for fundamental physics — is the sort of ‘big question’ thinking that aligns perfectly with the Foundation’s vision for our Math and Physical Sciences program. Jim and Andrea have assembled an excellent team and proposed not only an impressive research program, but also extensive public outreach activities. Communicating about scientific discoveries and the scientific process to the broader public is essential. We couldn’t be more excited to see how the results of this grant will come to full fruition.”

For further information contact Simmie Korotane, Press Officer, [email protected]

About the University of Surrey

The University of Surrey – a global community of ideas and people, dedicated to life-changing education and research. The University of Surrey is a research-intensive university committed to teaching and research excellence with a focus on practice-based education programmes, providing a world-class experience to its students who go on to make positive contributions to society. It is committed to working in partnership with students, business, government and communities in the discovery and application of knowledge.

About the John Templeton Foundation

Founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation supports research and dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind. The Foundation funds work on subjects ranging from black holes and evolution to creativity, forgiveness, and free will. It also encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, theologians, and the public at large.

With an endowment of $3.8 billion and annual giving of approximately $140 million, the Foundation ranks among the 25 largest grant making foundations in the United States. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, its philanthropic activities have engaged all major faith traditions and extended to more than 190 countries around the world.

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