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Are birds using quantum entanglement to navigate?

Sounds wild, but it may well be so.

  • Birds' navigation using Earth's very faint magnetic fields suggests an incredible level of sensitivity.
  • There's reason to think that sensitivity may be based on quantum entanglement in cryptochrome in their eyes.
  • Identifying the role of quantum physics in biology could lead, well, who knows where?

Okay, this is far from confirmed, but it's pretty radical, and exciting. It's a possible and plausible answer to a question that's puzzled biologists ever since the manner in which birds navigate became apparent. The question is: How can birds possibly be able to perceive and follow something as faint as the Earth's magnetic field? The possible answer? It may be that they perceive it through the interaction of entangled quantum particles in their eyes.

Behind this hypothesis is years of confirming and seeking to explain birds' phenomenal sensitivity to Earth's magnetic field. The most plausible explanation for it has to do with the effect of the magnetic field on entangled molecules of a chemical in birds' eyes, Cry4, or cryptochrome. Other animals, and plants, share the chemical, though it's believed that birds have developed their own variant. Quantum entanglement, Einstein's "spooky action at a distance," is a topic that comes up often at Big Think because it's a theoretical vehicle upon which some of the strangest and most interesting new ideas ride. Here's what we mean:

And now this.

The theory

(Michal Ninger/Shutterstock)

When a photon, a light particle, hits a cryptochrome molecule in a bird's eye, it knocks loose an electron that may then become associated with a second molecule. The two molecules then both have an odd number of electrons, and they become a radical pair. Since the oddness of both of these radicals was created simultaneously by that loosened electron, the spins of one electron in each molecule of cryptochrome become locked together in relation to each other and the radical pair becomes entangled.

This entangled state is extremely fragile, and temporary, so it won't survive beyond just 100 microseconds (1/10,000th of a second). But during that brief interim, the radical pair will be in either one of two states. The suspicion is that the Earth's magnetic field affects the amount of time the molecules spend in either state, and changes to the duration of these states somehow tells the bird where he or she is. The exact means by which the bird perceives them is unknown, though it's been suggested that it may have to do with one or both states causing the presence of absence of some as-yet-unidentifed chemical.

Why this isn’t just craziness

(NASA)

Supercomputer model of Earth's magnetic field.

This might not seem to make sense because magnetic fields are so weak, but it's real. How weak? "The energy of interaction of a molecule with a ≈50-μT magnetic field is >6 orders of magnitude smaller than the average thermal energy kBT, which in turn is 10–100 times smaller than the strength of a chemical bond," according to a 2009 study, Chemical magnetoreception in birds: The radical pair mechanism. However, "It has been known since the 1970s that certain chemical reactions do in fact respond to applied magnetic fields." (Our emphasis.) The study also notes that radicals always seem to be involved.

The radical pair theory is really the best explanation for birds' navigation systems we have, since experiments attempting to detect effects of magnetic fields directly on biological processes — bypassing chemistry — have come up empty-handed.

The study proposes that perhaps photons are throwing electrons far enough from their normal thermal equilibrium that they remain entangled long enough to respond to the subtle cues coming from the planet's magnetic field. Quantum entangled particles created by scientists last for mere nanoseconds. One such scientist, Erik Gauger, tells Nova, "It seems nature has found a way to make these quantum states live much longer than we'd expect, and much longer than we can do in the lab. No one thought that was possible."

Proof of birds' sensitivity

(Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Map of Earth's magnetic field, 1895.

A number of experiments to confirm what's going on are cited in the paper, some of which the authors find more convincing than others. However, the most compelling evidence of birds' amazing sensitivity comes from experiments with caged European robins, whose navigation abilities were easily disrupted. "Linearly polarized radio frequency fields 100 times weaker than the Earth's field (≈500 nT), with frequencies of 7.0 MHz or 1.315 MHz, are sufficient to disrupt the migratory orientation of caged European robins." (Again our emphasis.) Playing with the magnetic field also easily baffled the birds, with researchers finding a "20–30% increase or decrease in the intensity of the ambient magnetic field is sufficient to disorient caged birds."

Entangled echoes

Clearly, avians possess an almost unbelievably delicate sensing mechanism of some sort. The intersection of quantum mechanics and biology — even human biology — is a fascinating notion. As mentioned above, some wonder if it may also relate to consciousness and other currently bewildering phenomena. If we can come to fully understand the mechanics or chemistry of birds' impressive capabilities, what other mysteries might we be able to unlock?

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Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

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