Friday, January 28, 2011

The Quantum Ten

Over the holiday break, I read The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition and Science, by Sheilla Jones. The book is about the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920’s.
“The seeds of the shift currently taking place in science were sown eighty years ago, from 1925 to 1927. That’s when a dramatic two-year revolution in physics reached a climax, the denouement set the course for what was to follow. It’s the story of a rush to formalize quantum physics, the work of just a handful of men fired by ambition, philosophical conflicts, and personal agendas….

Remarkably, this dramatic shift in science was primarily the work of ten men, and they were ten fallible men, some famous and some not so famous, although they also had a large supporting cast. The triumphs and tragedies, loves and betrayals, dreams realized and ambitions thwarted, shaped the competition over who would get to define truth and reality. There never was a consensus. By the time of the pivotal Fifth Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1927, there was so much ill will and disappointment among the creators of quantum physics over their various competing theories and over who deserved credit that most were barely on speaking terms.

The Brussels conference was the first time so many of them had come together: Albert Einstein, the lone wolf; Niels Bohr, the obsessive but gentlemanly father figure; Max Born, the anxious hypochondriac; Werner Heisenberg, the intensely ambitious one; Wolfgang Pauli, the sharp-tongued critic with a dark side; Paul Dirac, the quiet one; Erwin Schrodinger, the enthusiastic womanizer; Prince Louis de Broglie, the French aristocrat; and Paul Ehrenfest, who was witness to it all. Their coming together, however, lasted only for the duration of the conference.”
I enjoyed the book, but couldn’t help wishing that it would focus less on the personal problems of the scientists and more on their science. I prefer my scientific biographies to be a bit more rigorous with an emphasis on the science, like Pais’s Subtle is the Lord. Nevertheless, the story was fascinating in a gossipy sort of way. The book is full of tidbits like this:
“From time to time [Schrodinger] did consult on the mathematics with his Zurich colleague Hermann Weyl, who was at that point embroiled in a passionate love affair with Schrodinger’s wife, Anny. Wince the Weyls were part of the same sexually permissive crowd as the Schrodingers, the affair was no cause for tension between the two colleagues.”
I found myself oddly attracted to Paul Ehrenfest, “an intense physicist with a debilitating streak of self-doubt who could rarely see the valuable gift he offered to physics and a passionate friend to both Einstein and Bohr.” Then, near the end of the book, I discovered--to my horror--that not only did Ehrenfest take his own life (I had heard that before), but that just before he committed suicide he shot and killed his son. My admiration vanished.

There was no biological physics in The Quantum Ten, but I couldn’t help wonder how these great scientists fared in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. A quick survey gave the following results:
  • Albert Einstein. I discussed Einstein’s presence in our textbook about a year ago in this blog, and concluded that “we rarely mention Einstein by name in our book, but his influence is present throughout, and most fundamentally when we discuss the idea of a photon.”
  • Niels Bohr. His model for the hydrogen atom is referred to, but not derived. His contributions to calculating the stopping power of a charged particle in tissue are discussed in Chapter 15 (Interaction of Photons and Charged Particles with Matter).
  • Paul Ehrenfest. His name never appears in our book.
  • Max Born. The Born charging energy is discussed in Chapter 6 (Impulses in Nerve and Muscle Cells).
  • Erwin Schrodinger. The Schrodinger equation is mentioned in Chapter 3 (Systems of Many Particles), but never written down.
  • Wolfgang Pauli. The Pauli exclusion principle is stated in Chapters 14 (Atoms and Light) and 15 (Interaction of Photons and Charged Particles with Matter).
  • Louis de Broglie. His name is not in the book, although I have mentioned him in this blog before.
  • Werner Heisenberg. He and his uncertainty principle are not in the book.
  • Paul Dirac. I discussed Dirac in the blog before. His delta function shows up in Chapter 11 (The Method of Least Squares and Signal Analysis).
  • Pascual Jordan. His name never appears in our book.
I am not overly concerned that the quantum ten don’t figure prominently in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. Russ Hobbie and I do not focus on microscopic phenomena, where quantum mechanics is essential. Probably the greatest contribution to biological physics from any of the quantum ten is Schrodinger’s book What is Life?, which had a major impact on the early development of molecular biology (see The Eighth Day of Creation).

P.S. We had a significant revision of the errata this week. It is available at the book’s website: A big thank you to Gabriela Castellano for finding many mistakes and pointing them out to us. If you, dear reader, find additional mistakes, please let us know.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gaussian integration

Chapter 8 in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology covers Biomagnetism: the measurement of the magnetic field produced by electrical currents in nerve and muscle. One issue that arises during biomagnetic recordings is that the magnetic field is not measured at a point, but is averaged over a pickup coil. Therefore, when comparing theoretical calculations to experimental data, you need to integrate the calculated magnetic field over the coil.

One way to do this is Gaussian quadrature, which approximates the integral by a weighted sum. Homework problem 40 in Chapter 8 shows a three-point Gaussian quadrature formula for integrating over a circular coil. At the end of the problem Russ Hobbie and I write “Higher-order formulas for averaging the magnetic field can be found in Roth and Sato (1992).” The reference is to “Roth, B. J. and S. Sato (1992) Accurate and efficient formulas for averaging the magnetic field over a circular coil. In M. Hoke, S. N. Erne, T. C. Okada, and G. L. Romani, eds. Biomagnetism: Clinical Aspects. Amsterdam, Elsevier.” This book is actually the proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Biomagnetism, held in Munster, Germany on August 19-24, 1991. I didn’t attend that meeting, but my colleague Susumu Sato did. Sato is a senior scientist in the Epilepsy Research Branch of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. When I worked with him he had an active research program in magnetoencephalography (MEG), including a large and expensive shielded room and a multi-channel SQUID magnetometer.

The introduction of our paper states
“The MEG is measured by detecting the magnetic flux through a pickup coil, usually circular, that is coupled to a SQUID magnetometer. Often the source of the MEG is modeled as a current dipole, whose position, orientation and strength are determined iteratively by fitting the MEG data to a dipolar magnetic field pattern. To obtain an accurate result, this dipole field must be integrated over the pickup coil area to obtain the magnetic flux. Since this integration is repeated for each dipole considered in the iteration, the numerical algorithm used to estimate this integral should be efficient. In this note, several integration formulas are presented that allow the magnetic field to be integrated over the coil area quickly with little error. These formulas are examples of a general technique of approximating multiple integrals described by Stroud [1].”
Reference [1] is to: Stroud AH (1971) Approximate Calculation of Multiple Integrals, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, pp. 277-289.

I remember deriving several of these formulas independently before discovering Stroud's textbook (it is always deflating to find you’ve been scooped). The derivation requires solving a system of nonlinear equations (which I rather enjoyed). Each formula requires evaluating the magnetic field at N points, and the integral is accurate to mth order. We presented a 1-point formula accurate to first order, a 3-point formula accurate to second order (this was the formula examined in the homework problem), a 4-point formula accurate to third order, a 6-point formula accurate to fourth order, a 7-point formula accurate to fifth order, and a 12-point formula accurate to seventh order.

The general formulation of Gaussian quadrature was developed by Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. Gauss's name appears often in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, including the Gaussian function (Chapter 4), Gauss's law (Chapter 6), the cgs unit for the magnetic field of a gauss (Chapter 8), the Fast Fourier transform (FFT, Chapter 11) about which we write "the grouping used in the FFT dates back to Gauss in the early nineteenth century," and the Gaussian Probability Distribution (Appendix I).

Friday, January 14, 2011

DNA animation by Drew Berry

I know that the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology doesn’t discuss much about the physics of life at the molecular level. In the preface, Russ Hobbie and I wrote that “molecular biophysics has been almost completely ignored.” Nevertheless, I recently ran across an animation of DNA that is so good I just have to tell you about it.

My story starts with the January-February issue of American Scientist, the science and technology magazine published by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. The cover of this issue shows DNA, packed “tightly in some chromosomal territories and loosely in others, forming sheer walls and intergenic fissures, as seen in the cover image from a 3D animation by renowned molecular animator Drew Barry.” When I read this, I asked myself: Who is Drew Berry, and where can I find his animations?

It turns out you can find Berry’s wonderful animation “Molecular Visualizations of DNA” on youtube: Trust me, you really want to watch this video. It explains DNA packing into chromosomes, transcription, and translation in a visual way that is unforgettable. Other Berry animations can be found at

In 2010, Berry was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the so-called “genius award”. The MacArthur website says
“Drew Berry is a biomedical animator whose scientifically accurate and aesthetically rich visualizations are elucidating cellular and molecular processes for a wide range of audiences. Trained as a cell biologist as well as in light and electron microscopy, Berry brings a rigorous scientific approach to each project, immersing himself in the relevant research in structural biology, biochemistry, and genetics to ensure that the most current data are represented. In three- and four-dimensional renderings of such key biological concepts as cell death, tumor growth, and the packaging of DNA, Berry captures the details of molecular shape, scale, behavior, and spatio-temporal dynamics in striking form. His groundbreaking series of animations of the intricate biochemistry of DNA replication, translation, and transcription demonstrates these multifaceted processes in ways that enlighten both scientists and the scientifically curious. The sequence and pace of each molecular interaction are precisely coordinated, at the same time as the ceaseless motion of the molecules reveals the complex and seemingly random choreography of the molecular world. Committed to educating the public about critical topics in medical research, Berry created a two-part animation of the malaria life cycle that illustrates the pathogen’s development in the mosquito host and its invasion of and diffusion throughout human cells. In these and many other projects in progress, Berry synthesizes data across a variety of fields and presents them in engaging and lucid animations that both inspire a sense of wonder and enhance understanding of biological systems.

Drew Berry received B.Sc. (1993) and M.Sc. (1995) degrees from the University of Melbourne. Since 1995, he has been a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. His animations have appeared in exhibitions and multimedia programs at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Royal Institute of Great Britain, and the University of Geneva.”

Friday, January 7, 2011


This week researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a white paper titled “The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering”. It begins
“There are few challenges more daunting than the future of health care in this country. This paper introduces the dynamic and emerging field of convergence—which brings together engineering and the physical and life sciences—and explains how convergence provides a blueprint for addressing the health care challenges of the 21st century by producing a new knowledge base, as well as a new generation of diagnostics and therapeutics. We discuss how convergence enables the innovation necessary to meet the growing demand for accessible, personalized, affordable health care. We also address the role of government agencies in addressing this challenge and providing funding for innovative research. Finally, we recommend strategies for embedding convergence within agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which aims to optimize basic research, improve health technology, and foster important medical advances.”
If “convergence” is the melding of physics and engineering with the life sciences, then I suggest that a good place to start your search for convergence is the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. The MIT white paper is singing our song about the integration of physics with biology. But I am a Johnny-come-lately to convergence compared to my coauthor, Russ Hobbie, who pioneered this approach decades ago.
“Between 1971 and 1973 I audited all the courses medical students take in their first two years at the University of Minnesota. I was amazed at the amount of physics I found in these courses.”
You can find more about the white paper in an article in the Science Insider. The authors talk about three revolutions in biomedicine: the first was molecular and cellular biology, the second was genomics, and the third will be convergence. I must admit that I find the white paper a little self-serving; most of their examples feature MIT researchers (says the guy who writes a weekly blog about physics in medicine and biology with the goal of peddling textbooks!). But I agree with its premise. Indeed, the first sentence of their concluding paragraph sounds as if it could be a promotion for our book.
“The merger of the life, engineering, and physical sciences promises to fundamentally alter and speed our scientific trajectory. NIH and other affected agencies, if adequately funded and made ready, can be thought leaders in this next scientific revolution. The time is right for NIH and other agencies to take up convergence as the wave of the future, creating dramatic new opportunities in medicine for new therapies and diagnostics, economic opportunity, as well as promise in many other scientific fields, from energy to climate to agriculture.”