Birds Use Quantum Mechanics to Navigate?

A European robin like the ones used in the study
(Click for credit)
In a previous post, I mentioned that some Christians don’t like the idea of quantum mechanics. In fact, some take great pains to fight against it, considering it a threat to a Christian worldview. Whether or not you like a theory, however, has little to do with its validity. Only the data are important, and when it comes to the data, there is overwhelming support for the validity of quantum mechanics. As a result, it’s hard to fight against it. In fact, a recent study suggests that rather than fight against it, we should marvel at how God has used it to accomplish some truly incredible things.

The study focused on how European robins sense the earth’s magnetic field. Lots of animals have been shown to be sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field, and they use it to help them navigate. In some cases, such as that of the rainbow trout, it has been shown that the animal does this with magnetite particles in a certain tissue. Those particles move in response to the earth’s magnetic field, allowing the animal to use them to orient itself.1

Migratory birds and homing pigeons have also been shown to be sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field. Magnetite has even been found in the upper beaks of such birds, which lends support to the idea that they sense the earth’s magnetic field in a way that is similar to that of the rainbow trout.2 Oddly enough, however the magnetic sensitivity of these birds is affected by light. Yellow and red light, for example, disrupt the birds’ ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field.3 This is more than a little odd, since the motion of magnetite in a magnetic field should not be affected by light.

As a result, scientists have suggested that at least some of a bird’s sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field is based on quantum mechanics. The thought is that light hits specialized cells in the birds’ eyes, and that causes a protein to release a pair of electrons. In this situation, the electrons would exhibit the odd characteristic of quantum entanglement, where neither has a set spin. However, when one electron ends up developing a given spin, the other electron must instantaneously take on the opposite spin in order to conserve angular momentum. If that were to happen, the electrons would move in different directions, feeling slight differences in the earth’s magnetic field. When the changing field forced one electron to take on a given spin, the other electron would take on the opposite. The way in which this happens would allow the birds to essentially “see” the earth’s magnetic field, if they could detect those spins in some way.

An experiment back in 2004 seemed to confirm that this process plays at least some role in the European robin’s ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field.4 The researchers used very weak oscillating magnetic fields to disrupt the birds’ ability to navigate. Magnetite could not possibly respond to such fields, but quantum entanglement would. This lent support to the quantum entanglement model.

Here’s the most recent addition to this story: A physics group has built a mathematical model to test the theory against the data. They showed that the physics of quantum entanglement could explain the data collected in the previous study, but only if the electrons remained entangled for a minimum of a few tens of microseconds.5 Since a microsecond is a millionth of a second, that doesn’t sound like very much to you and me. However, it is a huge timespan in these kinds of quantum systems!

You see, quantum entanglement is a very hard state to maintain. All you have to do is slightly disturb one of the two members of the entangled pair, and the entanglement falls apart. When scientists study entanglement in the lab, they are generally really pleased when they can get the state to last just a few microseconds. Indeed, the authors of the study state that their model and the experimental evidence suggest that European robins can sustain quantum entanglement in their optical system longer than the best human-made system can!

If these studies are correct, then, God not only designed birds to use quantum entanglement as a matter of course, He designed them so well that the birds use it better than the best human technology modern science has produced. Even on the quantum level, God’s design is amazing!


1. David Gubbins and Emilio Herrero-Bervera, Encyclopedia of geomagnetism and paleomagnetism (Springer, 2007), p. 48
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2. Judith Goodenough, Betty McGuire, and Elizabeth Jakob, Perspectives on Animal Behavior (Wiley, 2009), p. 223
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3. Wolfgang Wiltschko and Roswitha Wiltschko, “Magnetic compass orientation in birds and its physiological basis,” Naturwissenschaften 89(10):445-452, 2002
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4. Thorsten Ritz, et. al., “Resonance effects indicate a radical-pair mechanism for avian magnetic compass,” Nature 429:177-180, 2004
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5. Erik M. Gauger, et. al., “Sustained Quantum Coherence and Entanglement in the Avian Compass,” Physical Review Letters 106:10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.040503, 2011
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12 thoughts on “Birds Use Quantum Mechanics to Navigate?”

  1. Go ahead and show how THAT happened via random mutation. Actually, I would love to hear what they have come up with on this one.

  2. Dr Wile, interesting article. Thanks. One thing I have to ask about is this business that some Christians object to quantum mechanics. I’ve never met one who did. Matter of fact I don’t know any non-technical Christians who have even HEARD of quantum mechanics, much less object to it!

    So what could a person possibly object to anyway? Would they object to Uncertainty? The “God doesn’t role dice” idea? Have you really known about someone who argues against quantum mechanics? Well … other than Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen I suppose.

    1. R. C. Sproul is the one I mentioned in my previous post. In his book, Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology, he attacks quantum mechanics. Here is one quote from the book:

      “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled. Perhaps that one maverick molecule will lay waste all the grand and glorious plans that God has made and promised to us… Maybe that one molecule will be the thing that prevents Christ from returning.”

      In 1985, an article in Christianity today called it “the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity.” (Allen Emerson, “A Disorienting View of God’s Creation,” Christianity Today, February 1,1985, p.19.) I think the aversion of some Christians to quantum mechanics is fairly well documented.

      The indeterminacy is the issue. If quantum mechanics is correct, lots of outcomes are based on probability rather than deterministic mechanisms. That bothers many Christians.

  3. As a Christian I have no problem with quantum mechanics, at least with my very limited understanding of them. I even think that the multiple worlds theory could be part of the mechanism that God uses in his omniscience. If he can see all of the multiple worlds that would result from different choices that are made as he directs the world in his sovereignty. I think that I managed to state that without making too many errors but I would appreciate your insight.

    1. Well put, Eric. That is an interesting view of God’s omniscience. I had not thought of it that way, but it seems plausible.

  4. While I am aware of some of the quantum mechanics issues, my depth of knowledge in this issue isn’t very much. Would a scientist, who is also a Christian and who also understands quantum mechanics, believe that quantum mechanics means that a “rogue particle” could be outside of God’s control? Or, can God control any particle that He wants to control?

    1. Kathy, I personally think that our probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics is incomplete. I expect there are determinant mechanisms going on, but we are unable to see them. Thus, what we see merely looks like chance; it isn’t actually chance. I expect many scientists see it that way.

      If you think nature is truly indeterminate, I don’t think you necessarily have to conclude that God is not in control. He is greater than nature, so while nature might be indeterminate, He could easily control it in such a way that it is not indeterminate to Him. In fact, Dr. Alvin Plantiga thinks it is possible that God actually interacts with nature at that level, essentially “manipulating” the rolls of the dice so as to get the outcomes that He wants.

  5. Interesting! My physics major son, soon to be graduate student (!), also recently said that he thought something was wrong with our idea of quantum mechanics. He was surprised that you attended a lecture by Plantiga – he knew how to pronounce the name.

    My interpretation of Dr. Sproul’s comment is that no matter the model, God would have to someway still be in charge, able to control anything that He wished to control. I guess I’m thinking that a non-religious scientist would see chance in the model, with no room for God.

    1. Kathy, you are absolutely right. A lot of non-religious scientists see chance with no room for God in quantum mechanics. However, I think that is an unwarranted conclusion.

      Dr. Plantinga is a great speaker. He is both challenging and entertaining!

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