Quantum Snowflake

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"Nyet, nyet," exclaimed the taxi driver, whose agitation only intensified when I pointed to the road ahead. My knowledge of Russian was minimal, but I recognized the word for "no." Although his explanation made no sense to me, his trembling hands, quivering voice, and widened eyes communicated instantly what words take longer to express, that gripping feeling that makes the blood run cold, that primal emotion of fear.

The local newspapers had not mentioned the Ebola virus research program at Vector Laboratories two miles ahead, but this was Russia. The authorities probably wanted to prevent panic. Rumors, however, are not easily suppressed.

"Spaceba," I replied, thanking the driver as I stepped out of the taxi, whereupon a subzero gust reminded me that I had come to Siberia. An early dusk had fallen across the frozen landscape, which lay before me in melancholy shades of muted gray. The penetrating cold stifled all color but the fading red flare of the driver's cigarette as he sped away. Alone, I pushed ahead on foot into the wintery frost.

Who would have thought that Alexei and I would be collaborating again? Five years ago he, a quantum physicist, and I, a cell biologist, were the first to demonstrate the link between biological quantum computing and the evolution of superbugs. Our interest grew out of quantum biology, which found that quantum physics is at work in many biological systems. We marveled at how photosynthesis, for example, transfers light energy to light-sensitive chromophores based on both the wavelike and particle natures of photons, which hop across chromophores, performing, in effect, quantum computations to maximize the efficiency of energy uptake.

When we proposed that biological quantum logic circuits might explain the uncanny ability of some disease-causing bacteria and viruses to mutate into antibiotic-resistant strains, at first our colleagues laughed. After all, quantum computers, which exceed the performance of classical computers because they execute operations on qubits rather than binary bits, are still rudimentary and would require the hardware to be supercooled in order to harness the quirky properties of quantum physics. Once quantum processing at room temperature was shown to be possible in certain systems, however, we knew that we were on to something. The following year, when we showed that, by delivering discrete pulses of laser light to cultures of Nizhny virus, we could produce new strains resistant to novgormycin in one-tenth the time that would have been possible if the mutations had occurred randomly, the medical world took notice. According to our model, the virus-infected cells held their RNA in a quantum superposition of multiple states, such that the molecular conditions within the cell guided the choice of configurations in a way that forced adaptive mutations to maximize survivability. The virus, we learned, had commandeered the host cell's machinery, not only for replication, but also for quantum computation.

No one had anticipated what happened next. When Vector launched research in response into the 2020 worldwide Ebola epidemic, we thought that, by storing the infectious specimens in freezers at -70 Celsius, the potential hazard was nullified. Hardly. Although at very cold temperatures macromolecular interactions come to a standstill, the reverse is true for quantum logic circuits, which become more efficient as cold temperatures decrease quantum decoherence. To our great surprise, our freezers had turned the biological samples into more efficient quantum computers. Within the infected cells, arrays of viral nucleocapsids had lined up in concatenated strings, which enabled the tightly wound nucleic acid helices to operate synergistically to process quantum logic sequences. In quantum computing, information flows even faster in the cold. The frozen cultures that we thought were safely asleep were, in fact, silently thinking. Suspended in liquid nitrogen tanks were cold, calculating, viral quantum biocomputers lying in wait, patiently planning their next deadly epidemic.

By now I must be nearly there. Reaching for my phone, I tried to call Alexei, but my fingers were too numb to dial. Far ahead, a faint outline at first appeared and then faded behind a flurry of snowflakes, as a dense snowfall obscured my view. The myriad snowflakes flittered before me as if they were so many particles popping in and out of existence in an otherworldly landscape where the strange behavior of the quantum realm had invaded ordinary experience. The sky also flickered, appearing alternately bright and dark, which bewildered me until, finally, I understood that it existed in both states simultaneously. In a shiver of realization, I remembered that one of the symptoms of hypothermia is hallucination. Then all collapsed to black.

"Wake up, wake up, Bill. We've been waiting for you!" As I opened my eyes, there was Alexei, standing before me while poking at a log on the blazing fire that warmed his office.

"Did it work?" I asked.

"Brilliantly," he replied, grinning. The collection of Ebola strain genome sequences that you sent us completed the data set we needed to implement project Quantum Snowflake. We have now successfully interfaced the quantum microcomputers in our Ebola cultures with Blue Ice, the 512-qubit superconducting quantum computer developed in Geneva. Ebola intelligence, if I may call it that, was no match for Blue Ice. The best from Ebola was a quantum peep, whereas our technology achieved a quantum leap in computational capability. We named the project Quantum Snowflake because the innumerable permutations of snowflake structures reminded us of the countless possible molecular conformations a virus might take to evade the immune system.

"Will this lead to new vaccines?" I asked, as I sipped the cup of tea my host had brewed.

"Not just new vaccines," clarified Alexei, gazing expectantly out the window, "smart vaccines that can block human infection by any and all current or future strains of Ebola virus."

Relieved, I inquired hesitantly, "Can we be sure this technology will never fall into malicious hands?"

"That is a question that even Blue Ice cannot answer. Quantum computers process facts, but they cannot discern between right and wrong." The human contribution will always be needed.

About the Author: 
William P. Cheshire, Jr., M.D., is a Professor of Neurology at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where he is past president of the staff. He was educated at Princeton University, West Virginia University, Trinity International University, and the University of North Carolina.