Quantum Vision Lets Birds See the Magnetic Field

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May 02, 2008

Quantum Vision Lets Birds See the Magnetic Field

Magneticvisionbird_2 Birds' ability to navigate huge distances while migrating has always been a source of natural wonder, and totally sweet long panning shots for nature documentaries.  But now it seems that the avian autopilot is of interest to science, and possibly the X-Men - because the birds might have QUANTUM MAGNO-VISION.

It's accepted that our frequent-flyer feathered friends must be accessing the Earth's magnetic field somehow, but the little question of "How?" remained unanswered for a long time. A step towards answering that came forty years ago with the discovery of cryptochromes in bird eyes.  Cryptochromes, as well as being terrific scorers in Scrabble, are a class of light sensitive chemicals which allow plants and animals to detect blue light.  Of course, that just changes the question from "How?" to "How do the cryptochromes do it?"  Recent research finally has some ideas for how this chemical not only allows you to see the wide blue sky, but the vast magnetic compass that runs through it.

Both the current theories are based on the reaction of cryptochromes to blue light.  An incident photon creates a radical-ion pair in the bird's retina (one molecule with one too many electrons, and one too few, so both are electrically charged).  Professor Hore of the University of Oxford proposes that these charged particles can be pulled apart by an applied magnetic field.  While actual cryptochromes are quite hard to get hold of, a similar synthetic molecule known as a carotenoid-porphyrin-fullerene triad (or CPF for people who don't want to spend ten minutes saying its name) was examined by his team.  By shining blue light on a chemical solution and applying a magnetic field, he was able to create different concentrations of radicals and ions in different parts of the solution.  If birds can detect this chemical imbalance (and most of biology is just moving chemicals around), then they have their magnetic compass.

Professor Iannis Kominis of the University of Crete has a different idea.  He argues that when the blue photon triggers the creation of radical-ion pairs, the orientation of the exchanged electrons are affected by the Earth's magnetic field.  The reaction when the radical and ion recombine to form neutral molecules is thus affected by the direction of the applied field.  One apparent flaw is that the time the radical-ion pair is separated is too short to allow the magnetic field to change things, but he answers this with a real-world example of quantum craziness - the Quantum Zeno effect.  The very fact that the pair separation is constantly being checked by the bird prevents it from recombining as quickly as normal.  This is a known quantum effect, an utterly scientific version of "a watched pot never boils" - the more you observe such a statistical quantum process, the slower it gets, because each time you check you redefine the particle as absolutely being where it is.  It's like driving the family car, but every time a kid asks "Are we there yet?" you get teleported back to where you started.

Incredibly, this is exactly the effect used in the very latest atomic magnetometers, the pinnacle of humankind's ability to detect tiny magnetic fields.  And it seems avians have had them in their eyeballs all along.  Some would point out that finding such sophisticated systems inside an animal would be evidence of an intelligent creator.  To which the answer is, of course, that if there is any such creator he went to a lot of effort creating things which could be decoded by scientific experiment and analysis.  Instead of just putting all the answers in a book.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

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Cryptochrome eyes


This is an interesting and incredible scientific discovering, but I can think of three or four applications to sci fi books, the application applied to humans would be the menange of the pilots of the Dune books.

Nothing shocking here, if you didn't know homing pigeons could see magnetic fields such as the north and south poles in order to navigate, than you didn't attend enough schooling.

the intelligent design comment is a bit of a cheap shot, but there's no reason a God who created the physical universe (and by extension, the laws of physics) wouldn't follow his own rules in creating something, and there's no reason a text meant for religious guidance needs to provide a perfect explanation of the universe's physical mysteries.

...and isn't it strange that, if a god 'did it all', he / she / it did it in such a way as to make it look like he / she / it never did it? Genius!

Next: let's discuss the 'controversy' in evolution. [sigh]

...and isn't it strange that all the 'holy' books only ever contain information that you would expect the ignorant, desert-dwellers (for example) to know? No DNA sequences, no cosmological secrets, no unifying formulas - just bronze age rambling.

Strange, that.

Your conclusion was invalid. Opinion is not science.
You would be wise to stop showing disdain for other people who believe something different than what you-an insignificant primate
with an ego he clearly cannot control-happens to believe.
Your beliefs are not "better" than anyone else. Stop using science--a rational, intelligent method, to lash out against your oppressive, conservative mommy. Get help, dude!

Evolution adapting to the laws of physics is NOT evidence of "intelligent design" it's evidence of the basic mechanics of evolution.

This also is NOT the first time that nature has preceded an invention that was thought to be 'invented' by man; example: sonar.

Wanna - your argument is null. The argument science makes against 'god' is that there's "no reason" to posit the existence of one. If we find a creature that "god" provided with abilities that defy the laws of physics, then I will reconsider.

jer35mx : The point here is _how_ the birds detect the magnetic field, rather than whether they do or not...

The explanation I read was 'maybe they have tiny iron filings in their brains' - I guess if this new theory is true, it means they can't use their 'magno-sense' in the dark, they actually need to look at the blue of the sky to know. pretty sweet. :)

and *rolleyes* stop being so offended people and read the last paragraph again. he's pointing out the _irony_ - that some people would use a pretty cutting-edge scientific discovery as evidence for a religious viewpoint coming from scripture thousands of years old...

One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him. The scientist walked up to God and said, "God, we've decided that we no longer need you. We're to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't you just go on and get lost."
God listened very patiently and kindly to the man and after the scientist was done talking, God said, "Very well, how about this, let's say we have a man making contest."

To which the scientist replied, "OK, great!"

But God added, "Now, we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."

The scientist said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.

God just looked at him and said, "No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!"


This facetious joke makes a deep statement regarding the reality of our Universe. Whether you're a Christian, Atheist, Jew, Muslim, etc., there is an explanation that is required of your set of beliefs as to what created the Universe. This applies to atheism as much as any religion of the world.

Indeed, the idea of a Universe ex nihilo continually undermines the development of any modern theory of organic differentiation. The controversy gets to the point where only two major premises can be rationally considered: 1) Our universe is eternal. If it is not eternal than it had to have a beginning (scientific research points to the fact that it did have a beginning). If it has a beginning than it must come from somewhere (have a cause). This source/cause must be eternal. If this source were not eternal then it had a beginning and you're right back where you started. If this cause is material (another universe or physical dimension) and it has existed for eternity as it must have, then the basic law of entropy would have been dwindling down the power of this source from eternity past leaving nothing to the modern observer in which to reside. Or (2)This source/cause is eternal, as indeed it must be, and immaterial. This puts it in a realm outside of the effects of entropy and other physical laws. The source must be personal because it chooses to act (once there was was no Universe, now there is), and it must be exceedingly powerful and vast in order to create our exceedingly vast and powerful Universe.

A careful read of the second premise to an open-minded observer should cause those genuinely seeking for truth to reconsider a material theory for the problem of origins. It certainly makes room for an immaterial or 'spiritual' source. Perhaps this does not point to Yaweh or Allah specifically at this point of philosophical rhetoric, but you're certainly dwindling down the possibilities, as well as opening some new ones for the skeptical mind.

going by that theory, are you then open to the idea of a 'supergod'? or a chain of supergods to the point of infinity, where each realm is superior to the other (such as wad a spiritual being is to our physical world), where the traditional "God" as christians know him to be, is but a mayor in this infinite governmental hierachy.

if not, kindly explain how "God" came about.

before you point fingers at me, i am not trying to blaspheme. i'm just saying that you cant assume something to be absolute just because he/she/it appears to be so. for instance, an ant might look upon you as a (if i may) pseudo-god for your sheer dominance in size, but never dream of acknowledging "God" due to its incapacity for intellectual thought. similarly if someone or something out there created "God", how would you know?


I'm not sure what your 'ex nihilo' ('out of nothing') sentence is trying to convey.

The two premises you put forward are either false or not the only options and therefore your entire argument collapses.

As others have pointed out, if you want to posit a creator, others can posit a creator of the creator and continue adding creators in to infinity. It answers nothing and is, indeed, a non-answer. It's just the old 'god of the gaps' or 'goddidit'.

The Big Bang theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bang) is fairly well supported and explains how the universe started and where we are today and possibly where it's all headed.

Beyond that we move in to the weird and whacky world of quantum mechanics, best summarised as "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics".

Makes me wonder if artificial electromagnetic fields, such as around power lines, mess with bird navigation at some level.

Thomas writes:

"...and isn't it strange that, if a god 'did it all', he / she / it did it in such a way as to make it look like he / she / it never did it? Genius!

Next: let's discuss the 'controversy' in evolution. [sigh]"

Apart from the servilely political correct gender-recognition in the comment, the other problem is that there are plenty of reasons to suspect that the order/symmetry found in life, the predisposition for life forms to take on greater complexity, and the convoluted hypothesis of RNA/DNA evolution which fails to explain why life forms with less complex amino acid chains cannot be found on Earth. Not to mention why, in a purportedly randomly generated universe, that there would be laws binding the behavior of matter and that would presumably account for the rapid generation of life under accomodating conditions (in as little as 7 million years, according to some theories).

MA writes:

"...and isn't it strange that all the 'holy' books only ever contain information that you would expect the ignorant, desert-dwellers (for example) to know? No DNA sequences, no cosmological secrets, no unifying formulas - just bronze age rambling.

Strange, that."

There's nothing strange about the idea that God in a free-will universe would decline to impart certain scientific knowledge to humans or advance them technologically in a significant way, just to get them to believe in Him. Still, the recent discoveries that dinosaurs and birds have much in common lends an interesting angle to the old trope that Genesis was horribly flawed because it got the reptile and bird order all wrong (not that Genesis was intended to be a taxonomy of species diversification.)

Meanwhile, the "ignorant desert-dwellers" apparently had a far higher concept of egalinatarianism than, say the Greeks and Romans and pretty much every other society of the time - "In Christ there is no male or female, no Greek or slave, etc." and Christianity introduced a concept of grace and forgiveness that was revolutionary. (No points for regurgitating the tired argument that because many of the self-identified followers of Christ failed to follow the teaching that the teaching itself was somehow flawed.)

It's clear to see that a depressingly large of the supposedly "rational" pro-evolution arguments these days are as dogmatic, faith-based, and assumption-bound (often in the worst sense) as any religious viewpoint. Worse yet, some of those who make them, like the most hypocritical members of my faith, Christianity, seem to enjoy propping themselves up as intellectual superiors, incorrectly relying on the valid ideas and advances that others have made in order to denigrate the ideas of others.

Stick to the Science writes: "Evolution adapting to the laws of physics is NOT evidence of 'intelligent design' it's evidence of the basic mechanics of evolution."

Some quibbles follow:

STTS seems to misunderstand the more fundamental (logical) argument behind the idea that the laws of physics and the order found in life point to a designer (and an original one, as opposed to the helper posited by many ID proponents). If the universe is chance-based, why then a set of physical laws that leads inexorably to life? Why not a set of laws that more readily descend to chaos? STTS's answer to the question is an example of the most common tautology found in the arsenal of the materialist: Things are as they are because they are as they are. STTS phrases it more or less as Evolution follows the laws of physics because that's what evolution does. The question though is why the laws of physics support evolution? It's a fair one and a tough one for those who believe that the universe came about due to random chance (i.e. without a creator mind). STTS's position is grounded by the idea that the laws of physics could quite naturally form in such a way that life would be possible, if not inevitable, but STTS has absolutely no reason to assume this except the present existence of life. In other words, STTS assumes "no god" rather than having any physical proof one way or the other. Meanwhile, the order of life from supposed chance is unsatisfactory.

"This also is NOT the first time that nature has preceded an invention that was thought to be 'invented' by man; example: sonar."

True enough, but the more complex and directed the phenomenon, the more the case for order seems to make sense. It's easy enough to theorize that certain creatures developed abilities in response to the physical phenomenon around them. It gets harder when we realize that nature only seems to do this is specific cases and when the ability is highly complex.

"Wanna - your argument is null. The argument science makes against 'god' is that there's "no reason" to posit the existence of one. If we find a creature that "god" provided with abilities that defy the laws of physics, then I will reconsider."

This argument is highly flawed. First of all "science" makes no argument for or against 'god' (or "God" for that matter). Science merely attempts, through an ordered and rigorous process, to explain natural/material phenomenon. This is why "science" has very little to say on the many available reasons to posit the existence of God - the numerous historical and personal claimed encounters with God, the miracles of the Old and New Testament, and other evidence that is anecdotal by science's standards, but highly persuasive using historical and logical forms of reasoning - not to mention the innumerable personal experiences that point individuals to belief in God. Given the contradictions among religions, it is certainly fair to discount some of these experiences, but science can by no means discount all of them. It should be pointed out that only one true experience in this array would be all there is needed to confirm God's existence.

As to a creature that defies the laws of physics? It depends on what you mean by the question. Christ was recorded to have died and rose again after three days. Science is in no position to confirm or deny this, only to observe that the phenomenon goes against the regularly observed physical laws of the universe. Any attempts to explain it away by arguing that "miracles don't happen" would form a false argument and confirm a certain insincerity of those who demand miracles for proof of God's existence yet automatically rule out any not immediately observed. Yet, science is replicable in many circumstances, but scientists place a great deal of stock in the theoretical and inductive/deductive (the Big Bang and evolution as the source of diversity for starters)

It reminds one of the passage where a rich man asks Abraham to send a dead man back from the afterlife to warn his brothers. Abraham responds that the brothers have Moses and the Prophets and if they do not beleive them, they would not even believe a man returned from the dead.

Science has little to say about the specifics of these experiences. They become a question of the veracity of the witnesses and the faith of the witnessed.

Whoops! It seems the authorship here is posted at the bottom - so the quotes in the above posts are actually attributed to only MA and then Matthew. My apologies for the confusion.

In response to Remy's thoughtful post, MA (I'm sure of it this time :) writes:

"I'm not sure what your 'ex nihilo' ('out of nothing') sentence is trying to convey.

The two premises you put forward are either false or not the only options and therefore your entire argument collapses.

As others have pointed out, if you want to posit a creator, others can posit a creator of the creator and continue adding creators in to infinity. It answers nothing and is, indeed, a non-answer. It's just the old 'god of the gaps' or 'goddidit'."

Actually, MA seems to miss that Remy gets at the heart of the metaphysical problem with his/her post, and in what I think is an important way (and have long thought so regarding the specific subject).

The universe out of nothing (or a very inexplicable something) is indeed a fair description of the Big Bang, since physicists and cosmologists have sensibly declined to attempt to explain much if anything before that point.

Remy is getting to the idea that the fundamental difference between theists and non-theists is where to begin. MA's implies that the non-theistic position is to begin with nothing or chance or some sort of cycle that the universe arises out of. MA's further seems to imply that the theist position requires an extra step in that argument: Where did God come from?

This though is a misunderstanding of the theist position. The theist position is that God simply was. This is very important to understand because MA, as do many materialists, seems to imply that the non-theist position is superior because it assumes nothingness or an eternal cycle or some other purely physical prime event/eternal source. However, the idea of an eternal God is NO DIFFERENT from these materialist conceptualizations.

Something from nothing in a materialist cosmology is an absurdity. Therefore, the material world must point to some eternal source or cycle (prior to the Big Bang). How we get to this source or cycle in this cosmology is unknown given the materialist limitations of science. Even if some sort of cycle is posited from an inaptly named "universal field theory" an important question remains: Where does all the material come from?

The assumption that something non-personal, inanimate, and purely physical is no less perplexing than the assumption of an eternal mind/power in the form of God. Indeed, in some materialist and metaphysical conceptualizations the two ideas converge - The Spinozian "God", the prime mover, etc.

Some have tried to suggest that the principle of Occam's Razor points to the purely physical (or non-intelligent) source, but this I think is an over generalization of the problem, which is the existence of the material source of the universe.

In fact, given the universiality of physical laws and the tendency towards order (or symmetry, if your prefer that term) the idea that a universal and eternal oneness and mind is the source or root of all things is perhaps the simpler explanation. This doesn't simplify whatever "physical" explanation may exist (or not, since God is posited as a metaphysical being) but Occam's Razor only suggests that whatever isn't necessary shouldn't be added. The idea that matter simply is, is naturally accompanied by a host of concepts as to how it gets to be the way it is and in the order it is now. That, compared to the notion that the fundamental essence of the universe (metaphysical or otherwise) is a directing intelligence, gets quite involved, Occam's-wise.

Even more interesting to me is that Remy gets the paradox of infinite regression pretty spot on in that post. The question I like to ask people is that, if we can point back to a Big Bang, and if there was something before that Big Bang, even if it was an infinite pinprick of super-compressed matter that sat in that form unchanged - time, as a concept, points backwards infinitely. If that is the case (and even if we suggest that time doesn't function in that primordial instance the way it does now) then how did we get to this point? A simple enough thougth experiment involves mathematics. Starting from point zero on a number line, go in reverse. Theoretically, one would proceed forever. Yet, based on where we are on the line, all that one traverses into the negative domain *has already come* when we speak of it in the terms of time.

This leaves us with a very different idea of time (one that is focused on existence and not order of events) and fits in quite nicely with certain Biblical concepts (I am the beginning and the end, the first and the last). Left in a purely physical domain though, where time is a component of the physical laws and wedded to motion, it becomes an irresolvable paradox.

Remy seems to get that and that the answers materialists posit for the origins of the universe are no more accomodating or better grounded than the theist ones.

Hey, just wanted to say that I have been really informed by this conversation. It's interesting to see the different perspectives. I specially appreciate your lengthy and well-thought responses ME. I hope you don't mind that I mentioned your comments on another blog that a friend of mine leads. If anyone is interested feel free to check it out. It merely continues this discussion here, but from a Christian perspective. It is not intended for an audience of skeptics, but you are welcome as well.

Here's the link:



As you may have guessed, I'm not a skeptic (at least not in the philosophical or contemporary sense - more in the Pauline sense, as a Christian, of examining everything and keeping the good - which is a tall order!)

I'm honored that you found the comments worthy of further discussion. I found your comments on this thread to be well reasoned and thoughtful as well.

Best Regards,


The "Universe ex nihilo" argument seems to misunderstand causality. Space-time came from the big bang, thus there was no "before" the big bang. The universe has no cause. It just is.

I find it so interesting that an article on birds' navigation leads to a whole debate about God. It shows that at the heart of everything is this deep desire to know and understand why we are here. Obviously the author knows that such a discovery SHOULD cause one to stand in amazement. Indeed, it raises questions about the validity of randomness! Why bring up God otherwise?!

To me, it makes more sense that God would NOT disclose this kind of information in a book, because it it's taken us centuries to discover something that "avians have had ...in their eyeballs all along."

That really puts us in our place!

Hi, I totally agree with you Grey. Now, Peet, I think you misunderstand the issue when you say that the universe "just is." If it was that simple to explain away the problem of origins then scientists like Richard Dawkins wouldn't spend years of their lives trying to develop a theory which tries to state that there is no beginning to the Universe by making time elliptical in shape rather than a cone. Now, I know that you might not understand that last part unless you are familiar with Dawkin's theories. But the point is that we observe the Universe to have a beginning (a singularity; one point at which it came to be, like the tip of a cone). It came out of nowhere and modern scientists have a problem with that as much as Christians or other religious individuals do. You either have to assume that the Universe is eternal or that an eternal Being created the Universe. Saying that at one point there wasn't a Universe and then another there was for no reason is poor science (if you can call it science; maybe humanist intuition might be better) and actually requires more faith to believe in then to believe that an intelligent and powerful Being brought the Universe into existence. Neither well known atheists like Richard Dawkins nor theists agree with the point you seemed to be trying to make. Don't be offended when I tell you that. I appreciate your challenging comments. But I say this so that atheist and evolutionists begin to think at higher levels intellectually about this topic rather than dismiss it with the wave of a hand because it might sound to them like Greek mythology. There's a lot of fake stuff out there that is distracting from the truth that can be arrived at without having to be a religious fanatic or an ignorant peasant. There is within us an intellectual acuity that allows us to see that this Universe is designed by a Designer and that it is very likely (and I would say certainly) that this Designer wants to have a relationship with us. And I know this sounds strange to you and other skeptics reading this because it sounded strange to me when I was a passionate atheistic evolutionist. But there is no need to become ignorant in order to believe in God, or that this God would reveal Himself to us through the Universe He created and, as I deeply believe, through Jesus Christ.

I'm not trying to preach a sermon here by the way. Just stating my thoughts. :-)

From the article: "It's accepted that our frequent-flyer feathered friends must be accessing the Earth's magnetic field somehow".

Who accepts that bunk?! When you spend the majority of your life above the horizon there is one dominant object that serves as your navigational assistant: the sun. What evidence is there that there is anything else providing cues on where to migrate to? It seems to me that using the power of observation (even for bird-brains) is a simple matter and realising that the sun is moving farther south doesn't seem far fetched at all.

I personally think that this person is being satyrical but I don't really know for sure or care, above that the bulk of the artical beyond his personal appendage in it is interesting but makes me wonder.

Define observe or to look at? Am I misunderstanding something or are other people? If you understand observation and the difference between passive and active this might not seem so mysterious. It's really all obvious. Active the "scanner" sends out something and listens for it coming back. It's like sonar or radar. Our eyes are passive but all that means is the emitter is located elsewhere ie the sun. Now the point of this is that it's actually impossible to observe something without interfering with it at some level even if it seems to produce the same result unless the universe is lossy or some alternative actions lead to the identical conclusion. We really can't see that far to be sure. Anyway back to the point which is really so simple it doesn't need this highlighting of related topics. To view something you have to bounce something off it. It's as simple as that. A blind man throws a ball at a wall and it bounces back so he knows there's an obstruction. But to do that he had to throw the ball at it. It might not have seemed to make a percievable change to the wall because he can't see every atom. But sure it'll bounce back everytime as if it never changed. The same is so with anything else that I know off.

The point here is that observation and interaction are intertwined. That I know of there's no way of doing one without the other. If this didn't happen the universe would surely be broken. It's that interaction, the bouncing back that allows us to observe. Observation is just the conclusion of some interaction.

So the real blunder here is that with all this quantum mumbo jumbo is not reference to God but that people perpetuate this stuff and still fail to define observe. It sounds to me what you call quantum is what happens everywhere every instant (unless the universe is serial and everything moves in its own instant just so fast it doesn't seem like it) so many times that to put a number anywhere near it online would take years to upload.

Now if they made it more specific and said that the observation was from an ambient source that was there in both tests and that intercepting the rebound made a difference to the intercept of the actual particle thing or whatever it is being tested it would make more sense that it would be mysterious and at least suggest that some things can move back in time or kind of see the future, but then it could mean a million other things. I mean it could just be whatever's being intercepted from it is extending out continuously enough that when it hits the observer the other end is still attached to the thing it's coming from or bounding off and therefore effecting it even though it seems like from a simple mind that it shouldn't. Chances are it's beyond words anyone could be asked to put here but not as far beyond as those put here where everyone goes OMG SUPERSTITION IT KNOWS OMG OM FUCKING CHRIST OH FUCKING GOD I STUCK A STICK IN MY ASS AND IT'S GOT SHIT ON THE END IT FUCKING KNOWS MAN THOSE ATOMS ARE CLAIRVOYANT I TELL YOU DAY KNOW WOT DOSE UDDER MOLLUSCULS AR DINKING MAN DAT WAY OUT THERE! To second that and another angle of ridicule: My brains has atoms in it oh yes 126K Cubed * 100billion of them at a guess and it uses ions and shit and they bond unbond OMG I has an ATOMIC BRAIN it realies (((GET IT LIKE REALITY))) on tiny little atoms it uses nanotech that's so hardcore man like FUCKING WOOOWWWWOW FUCKING ME.

So now I've asked the real question: Define observe and it's true meaning to quantum. Is anyone going to give me an answer.

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