Life on the Edge: Quantum thermodynamics, quantum biology and the arrow of time

Funded by a philanthropic grant by the John Templeton Foundation, our interdisciplinary research project explores how the ‘arrow of time’ manifests at the quantum scale – which has exciting implications for the understanding of time and life itself.


In this project we will investigate 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. Expanding the theoretical and philosophical frameworks used to understand the ‘arrow of time’ and reversibility, the project will encompass three theoretical investigations, an experimental approach using live cells, and a philosophical exploration of the deeper meanings of time.

The emerging field of quantum biology seeks to understand whether quantum mechanics plays a role in biological processes. There is growing evidence from recent research that phenomena such as photosynthesis, respiration, bird navigation – and even the way we think – are all influenced by quantum mechanics.

In ‘Life on the Edge’, we are exploring a key question in quantum biology. While time as we experience it only flows forwards, at the scale of quantum physics, time is reversible – with processes making just as much sense when viewed forward or backwards through time. However we also know that many complex processes are irreversible. How these irreversible processes emerge from smaller reversible building blocks is not fully understood, but may have implications for our understanding of life itself.

‘Life on the Edge’ is funded by a $3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation – the largest philanthropic gift ever received by the University of Surrey. The project involves a research team drawn from across six universities in the UK and US, but hosted by the Quantum Foundations Centre at Surrey. The team is an interdisciplinary group of researchers with expertise in quantum physics, applied mathematics, computational chemistry, experimental molecular biology and philosophy.

Team leaders

Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Principal Investigator

Jim Al-Khalili OBE FRS is a theoretical physicist at the University of Surrey where he holds a Distinguished Chair in physics as well as a university chair in the public engagement in science. He received his PhD in theoretical nuclear physics from Surrey in 1989 and then spent two years as an SERC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University College London before returning to Sur...

Dr Andrea Rocco

Principal Investigator

Andrea Rocco graduated in Physics at the University of Pisa (Italy) in 1994, discussing a thesis in quantum field theory. In 1998 he obtained his PhD in Physics from the University of North Texas (USA), where he focused on the role of stochastic processes in classical and quantum mechanical systems. Between 1998 and 2007 Andrea held postdoctoral positions at the University of...

Project themes

Our research is guided by three of the ‘big questions’ which informed Sir John Templeton’s vision and continue to baffle scientists today: What is the nature of reality? What is the nature of time? And what is the nature of life?