WATCH: This is how birds use quantum mechanics to navigate

For centuries, scientists have struggled to understand how migratory birds can collectively navigate to the same spot each summer and winter, generation after generation.

Now an emerging hypothesis suggests that birds navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field as a guide. So how do they know which way that magnetic field is pointing without a compass? As the first episode of the University of New South Wales’ new eLearning series, The Quantum Around You, explains, they use quantum mechanics.

Hosted by super enthusiastic and slightly eccentric quantum physicist, associate professor at UNSW's School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications Andrea Morello (of Veritasium fame), the new weekly YouTube series aims to teach you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how quantum phenomena impact our world.

And while it may sound strange to think of birds using effects we hardly understand ourselves to migrate, the science behind the theory is FASCINATING.

As Morello explains in the first episode, there’s evidence that some birds, particularly European robins, can actually visualise the magnetic field of Earth by detecting quantum entanglement.

The theory goes that electrons in the receptor cells of birds’ eyes can change their spin, and therefore their state of entanglement with other electrons, based on the Earth’s gravitational field. And depending on which way they’re flying in relation to this field, the electrons will either absorb energy from the Sun or release it back into the optic nerve. 

This is amazing, not only because it’s a quantum phenomenon taking place inside the cells of a living creature, but also because it may mean that birds can SEE quantum entanglement - something our best scientists can barely visualise.

This also means that they may be able to see with their own eyes whether they’re going west or north, sort of like an inbuilt, Google Glass-style compass. And that. is. mind-blowing. 

Check out the video above to find out exactly how the electrons in birds’ eye cells are affected by quantum entanglement and the Pauli exclusion principle - we promise Morello explains it much better than we do.

Subscribe to UNSW eLearning to see the new episodes of The Quantum Around You each Tuesday, and check out the teaser below to see what’s in store. We now have a new favourite lecturer…