The Quantum Theology of Matzah: Science delves the spiritual mysteries of yeast

What’s the difference between bread and matzah?

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 11.16.48 PMThe youngest child at the Passover seder asks, “Why on other nights do we eat bread or matzah but on this night only matzah?”  The Torah says that the matzah didn’t have time to rise before the slaves had to flee Egypt, so Jews focus on this inflation and all its many symbolisms: inflation of self, of ego, of pride, of valuing material achievements, Pharaoh’s  tyrannical sense of himself as a deity, and so on.

But this answer skips over a more fundamental question: Isn’t matzah really, after all, just bread? Both matzah and bread are just flour, and water, so aren’t they just versions of the same thing?  If they’re different, what’s the difference? What makes bread bread and matzah matzah? Why do we say an extra prayer over matzah?

The simplest answer is yeast. But what does yeast do? Yeast makes flour and water into bread. Yeast makes bread rise. It also makes grapes into wine. Grape juice is just a soft drink, but wine is literally a spirit. A cracker is a good delivery platform for dip, but bread is the staff of life itself. Wine leavens our spirit. Bread sates. It’s no wonder humans worshiped bread and wine for thousands of years and even now many religions still sanctify them and use them to sanctify us. And it’s no wonder the Passover haggadah calls matzah “the bread of affliction.” Matzah is dead bread. Yeast adds life to inert foodstuffs, transforming them magically into something spiritual. By ingesting wine and bread, we take some of that magic into us.

Humans recognized and harnessed the magical properties of yeast millenia before they learned to write 5000 years ago, but we are now just discovering the truly mysterious – even mystical – properties of  yeast, and these new scientific discoveries seem to answer our questions about matzah. In other words, science gives us a window into the spiritual mysteries of yeast.

The quantum biology of yeast and enzymes: gateway between life and death

Yeast is a single-celled living creature. When we let these creatures feed on their favorite food – sugar or carbohydrates – they digest it into sugar’s components: energy, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and some residue molecules that add flavors. Even pre-literate cultures were in awe of the way yeast brought bread and wine to life and worshiped it as divine. Now, modern biology is coming to grips with this ancient wisdom: yeast is the gateway between the living and the inert. But how, precisely, does it perform this trick? After tens of thousands of years, the new science of quantum biology has finally given us a glimpse of how yeast performs its magic.

The process the ancients observed as a result of yeast’s action is bubbling, rising fermentation – chemists call it catalysis. In the cooler processing of wine, the alcohol is retained in the liquid for our pleasure. Carbon dioxide is partly released when wine is moved in barrels. Some winemakers leave some of this carbon dioxide in the wine, and wine with lots of it is nicknamed “bubbly- like champagne – but most wine is “degassed.” When we bake bread, we don’t get drunk on it because the higher heat of baking evaporates the alcohol, but like it does in wine, the carbon dioxide gas creates bubbles. These expand and burst in the sticky dough, giving bread its texture.

High school chemistry labs often use yeast as an example of enzymatic activity. But what they didn’t teach us, because chemistry isn’t etymology, is that enzyme is just the Greek for “in yeast.”

Enzymes are present in all living things. They are incorporated into every living cell on Earth and are essential in every process that sustains life: digestion, neural action, making new cells and repairing old ones (growth and healing), reproduction, and so on. They’re not organisms, but no organism or living process survives without them. In short, they’re a good battleground for the eternal philosophical war between materialists and vitalists. Materialists believe the universe and everything in it, including humans and human consciousness, is a vast machine. It is made up only of physical things and the physical processes or forces between them. Vitalists argue that there is a meta-physical force in the universe that animates all life, a force that cannot be reduced to mechanical explanations. Human consciousness illustrates the problem and limitation of materialism: how does our experience of having a mind arise from mere stuff? Fundamentalist materialists argue that everything can be explained ultimately, by self-consistent systems of reason, like logic or mathematics. Religious vitalists argue that the metaphysical force is divine. And although there’s plenty of fake news and overheated press that periodically announces it, no one has ever created life from non-living stuff. No frankensteins, though the dream and nightmare of achieving godlike powers haunts humanity.

Yeast is so powerful a stage for this contest between mechanism and vitalism because although it is a living thing, science until recently seemed confident it was purely a chemical machine. True, how yeast and other enzymes brought life to non-living stuff so efficiently was still mysterious, but in the debate, yeast offered the best proof for the materialist view of life. It seemed to explain how life is introduced into inert matter without resort to purely non-mechanistic explanations. Until now.

It turns out that enzymes require quantum effects to do their work, and quantum mechanics defy a strictly materialist view of the cosmos. Quantum physics defies logic, though we’ve learned to use it in MRIs and computer chips, and most scientists and engineers simply put aside the way quantum mechanics rattles the foundations of science. In the majority version of quantum theory, every quantum process requires an aware being, an observer, to watch it work in order for it to become real. This has mind-boggling implications, not least of which is it hints at the essence we invoke when we say the extra prayer over matzah. In order for me to explain, I first need to review the craziness of the quantum world.

Five weird things about quantum mechanics

To most, even sophisticated scientists, quantum mechanics seems just weird. There’s no way to explain quantum processes without over-simplifying or resorting to analogies which only dimly picture its actual, full-on weirdness. But here are a few of the facts that you will need to know as we continue with our discussion of matzah. I leave it to you to decide how, or even if, you want to grapple any of it yourself:

  1. Sub-atomic entities behave like both waves of energy and particles at the same time.
  2. A sub-atomic entity isn’t in any one specific place until you observe it. Then it seems to settle on one. (Called “the Uncertainty Principle”)
  3. A single sub-atomic particle can be in two places at once. But if you affect one, its other self will react, even if they are separated by millions of miles. (Called “Superposition”)
  4. They can pass through otherwise impassible-seeming barriers and travel faster than the speed of light, and both backwards and forwards in time. (Called “Quantum Tunneling”)
  5. A subatomic particle holds multiple possible logically exclusive properties at the same time. When it is observed or measured, it “collapses” from its various possible quantum states into one state. I.e,. it stops behaving quantumly and starts behaving classically. (Called “Measurement”)

Quantum tunneling in yeast

To understand the quantum theology of matzah, the last is the most important. Until now, biologists have been content to leave the weirdness of the quantum world to physicists, because they thought they were immune to it. Biologists assumed there was an unbreachable barrier between the sub-atomic world of quantum weirdness and the macroscopic world of biology, which conveniently remained obedient to classical laws of physics. Thankfully (they believed) subatomic monkey business disappears when it pokes its head up into an organism, because the complexity of the organism automatically “measures” (observes) it, though no one specified how. They now seem to be really wrong. It’s awkward.

Resurrected by water, living yeast seems to make the inert come alive. Yeast explodes the flat mound of dough and makes it rise as little bubbles of alcohol explode inside. It adds tastes by creating new molecules. But what was once thought to be a classical, if incompletely understood, mechanical process, we now know requires quantum tunneling (see above, #4).

If you’d rather nap, this is a good time

Here’s the technical explanation: an enzyme in yeast takes a positively charged sub-atomic particle, the proton from the alcohol it has created, and transfers it to another molecule. This new molecule, with the addition of its extra proton, now has a positive charge. Like a magnet, it now attracts molecules carrying a negatively charged particle, the electron. So the new molecule that the yeast created (called nicotinamide alcohol dehydrase or NADH) becomes a very effective carrier and releasor of electrons. With NADH, the ingredients can now perform their actions very quickly, hundreds of times more efficiently. It’s like the brew now has an electric current running through it, with electrons able to hitch a ride and jump off when a chemical reaction needs an extra jolt of energy to make it happen.

So far so good. This is all safe, mechanical chemistry.

As it turns out, though, the speed at which electrons get transferred from alcohol to NAD+ to make NADH cannot be explained by classical chemistry. Quantum tunneling, number three on our list of weird quantum effects above, can. Again, at the risk of over-simplifying, a subatomic particle like an electron can travel across barriers instantaneously by using its superpower of quantum tunneling. As this effect occurs among millions of molecules in the dough, it speeds up the process enough for biologists to conclude it must be involved.[1] Since quantum tunneling have been confirmed in the activities of other enzymes, this is more than a guess.

This neat explanation of the quantum role in enzymatic action leaves one huge mystery, though: In order for the transport of the electron to occur, it can’t be just a probability, and in order for it to be more than a probability, it has to be observed or measured. The quantum Uncertainty – the electron can be here or there and therefore nowhere at all, really – has to become classical behavior: I see it now. Until now, biologists, scientists and other materialists have maintained that the sheer bulk and realism of the organism in which the quantum action occurs somehow collapses any quantum craziness, that the fact of the organism as a macroscopic entity itself performs the “observing.” But that argument no longer holds water and even seems like a tautology, fabulous circular reasoning, because enzymes drag quantum action and weirdness into the scene of the organism at every level. Enzymes, and the quantum, is ubiquitous in every process of every cell in an organism.

Wake up

In short, enzymes seem to be the essence of life itself.

“Enzymes have made and unmade every living cell that lives or has ever lived. Enzymes are as close as anything to the vital factors of life. …. [T]he discovery that enzymes work by promoting the dematerialization of particles from one point in space and their instantaneous materialization in another provides us with a novel insight into the mystery of life.”

– Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology  (Broadway Books, Jul 26, 2016) p. 97

There’s simply too much quantum funny business going on everywhere in a living being to say one part of the organism is classical and collapses the other part that is quantum just by dint of being a big thing like a fish or a bird.

Another way materialists banish the quantum: the Many Worlds Hypothesis

Scientists have resolved the measurement problem another way. When the wave of quantum possibilities collapses into an actuality, the information contained in those probabilities has to go somewhere. Information, like energy, has its own law of conservation in the universe. Some quantum physicists suggest that instead of collapsing the quantum into the classical through observation, every time a quantum event collapses into a classical one, other universes are spawned. All the other probabilities that didn’t occur here do occur there, in these new universes. This is the Many Worlds Hypothesis, although I personally think the adjective “many” doesn’t do it justice in its sweep.

The Many Worlds Hypothesis is mathematically satisfying and sidesteps any suggestion of metaphysics. But let’s look at how radical it really is.

There are a virtually infinite set of quantum events occurring everywhere at every instant everywhere in an organism, let alone the whole universe. Each of them would create an incalculable set of alternate universes. Now imagine all the quantum processes going on all over the universe every instant, each one spawning an alternative universe of its own, presumably where the same laws of physics apply so they are spawning and infinity of multiverses, too. When I do the dizzying visualization of this scenario, it leads me to ask: Which is the more ridiculous vision of the cosmos, the one where there are unlimited infinities of universes or there is a Single Entity observing everything? In my opinion, the Multiverse Hypothesis creates a vision of the cosmos that is at least as crazy as imagining an unprovable Big Guy in the Sky watching everything.

But who knows? That’s what they said about quantum theory in the twentieth century. And that’s what most well-educated, postmodern, rational, sophisticated people say about God.

Quantum theology of matzah: Where is He?

Quantum theology is a term used by a few but growing number of theologians and mystics. On the other side of this philosophical tug of war, they are eager to seize on quantum theory to prove the existence of God. Many of their essays and speculations are plagued by vagueness, weak understanding of science, and an over-heated, optimistic leap into the irrational analogies between quantum science and the mystical. Their “proofs” often require taking analogous-sounding mysteries as literal equivalents. Quantum theology is largely the provenance of well-educated but reductionist fundamentalists.

The case of yeast is different. In this dance between the material and the vital, between science and faith, science leads us to conclude something strange is happening in bread that doesn’t occur in matzah. The new science of quantum biology shows quite specifically how the process of life itself depends on quantum action. In every possible process where life is created or sustained, enzymatic action is involved. And with quantum action comes the requirement that someone or something is observing the process. The nose of the quantum camel, and the problem of a conscious observer, has entered the tent of biology, but they were summoned by the biology. In fact, the tent is the camel. Something or someone has to be observing quantum events in enzymes to make them operative in life. Someone or something has to be operating life. Omnisciently.

Put biophysics together with the metaphysics of matzah and you get a powerful sermon. Matzah is bread without human attention (shmurah matzah notwithstanding) and without the attention of a Cosmic Consciousness. It represents enslavement to inert material. It is both literally the bread of affliction, the food of slaves, and symbolically life without redemption from our inner Egypt, the body without a soul. Matzah invokes a God who redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery more than three thousand years ago and Who continues to operate the universe today by attending to its every quantum event. He is an incomprehensibly vast God Who observes every infinitesimal event, all the infinite infinitesimal events that occur every instant to sustain each living cell of each living organism. This is a God that watches everything actively. This God expands and unfolds His Cognizance as vastly, but more comprehensibly, than the universes imagined by the Many Worlds Hypothesis, where every quantum event creates disconnected alternatives, This God gives the universe an elegant unity. His watchfulness also makes life possible. It’s hard not to like this God and this idea of Him. Unless of course you find the very idea of anything not mechanical offensive to reason.

Sermon on Matzah

One of the sermons on matzah is a kabbalistic one. Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic of Safed, explains that the three matzahs on the seder plate represent Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. Matzah invites us to stretch our scientific wisdom to its fullest extent beyond enslavement to our preconceptions, confirmation of our biases. It suggests the liberation of science from its prejudices. Is it really harder to believe in God than in the Multiverse Hypothesis? I don’t think so. The benefits of embracing both the intrinsic beauty of the metaphysical explanation and the elegance of its logic make a pretty persuasive case against scientific atheism. From the outside looking in, all the attempts to exclude a Universal Observer from the quantum situation look like contortions by science to avoid the obvious, the result of a fundamentalist-like commitment to a belief that there must not be a God in the universe.

This message in the matzah makes it the twin of Elijah’s cup, its secret sharer and, perhaps, the answer to the question it poses. One seder decades ago, when my children saw Elijah’s cup standing at the end of the seder, they asked, “Where is he?” The matzah asks the same question about God: “Where is He?” and answers, “Not in this poor, dead bread that we eat because we are slaves. But yes, in everything that lives.”


[1] Prof. Judith Klinman of UC Berkeley first suggested that quantum processes were involved in the enzymatic action in 1987. She has more recently found experimental evidence for it. See, for instance, Judith P. Klinman and Amnon Kohen, “Hydrogen Tunneling Links Protein Dynamics to Enzyme Catalysis,” Annual Rev Biochem. 2013; 82: 471-496.

3 thoughts on “The Quantum Theology of Matzah: Science delves the spiritual mysteries of yeast

  1. Fascinating,though most traditional commentary claims that matzah is spiritual and bread is material. The poor person is closer to God, less proud, more pure.

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    1. Agreed, Lazarre! But matzah is spiritual precisely because it invites reflection on what is missing in the material, no? Like Lazarus rising from the dead. Well, it’s at least a conundrum and maybe a paradox.

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