Photosynthesis allows plants to convert light from the Sun into energy, and, in some cases, it does this incredibly well. In fact, certain bacteria can capture 95% of the light that hits them and turn it into useful energy.
Solar panels also convert light from the Sun into energy—but they aren't nearly as good at it. The very best solar panels ever tested in a lab (i.e., not the ones actually available for sale and installation on your house) were able to convert about 34% of the light that hit them into electricity. (Individual experimental solar cells can do better than that. But those are even further away from being incorporated into commercially available panels.)
Why can't we use the Sun's energy as effectively as bacteria can? The secret may be that the bacteria are using quantum physics to transmit energy. It's sort of like the bacteria have a method for keeping boxes of energy from falling off the truck during transport.
We don't often think of biology and quantum physics as overlapping realms of science. But, truth is, quantum physics could be incredibly important to understanding the way biology works and to the very development of life on Earth itself.
Tonight at the World Science Festival, astrophysicist Paul Davies and quantum computing innovator Seth Lloyd will talk about the growing field of quantum biology—why it works, what it means, and how it might shape our future. The Bad News: The Festival is happening in New York City and tonight's panel is sold out. The Good News: You can watch a live webcast of the event online.
I'll be hosting the webcast tonight, starting at 8:00 Eastern time. You can watch the video feed and join in the conversation at the World Science Festival's website.
EDIT: Thanks to the readers for pointing out that I'd made some big errors in this. Should be fixed now.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.