Friday, March 25, 2011

Maxwell Equation Sesquicentennial

I am a big James Clerk Maxwell fan. In fact, I have made my living applying Maxwell’s equations to biology and medicine. Yes, I own one of those tee shirts with Maxwell’s equations written on it. I keep a copy of Maxwell’s A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism in my office (although I have never read it in its entirety…Oh how I wish Maxwell had access to modern vector notation!). I have read The Maxwellians (outstanding) and The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (good). So, this month I am celebrating with gusto the sesquicentennial of the publication of Maxwell’s famous equations. The March 17 issue of the journal Nature has a special section containing four articles about Maxwell’s equation. In an editorial titled “A bold Unifying Leap” (Volume 471, Page 265) the editor writes
“In this issue we celebrate the first expression of those equations by Scottish physicist Maxwell in the Philosophical Magazine 150 years ago. There he drew together several strands of understanding about the behaviour of electricity, of magnetism, of light, and of the ways in which these fundamental aspects of nature behave in matter. As Albert Einstein remarked, ‘so bold was the leap’ of this work that it took decades for physicists to grasp its full significance. And although it was a wonderful expression of science at its purest, it was forged in the thoroughly practical culture of intellects at that time.”
Russ Hobbie and I mention Maxwell’s equations in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. We added a new homework problem to the 4th edition in Chapter 8 (Biomagnetism):
Problem 22 Write down in differential form (a) the Faraday induction law, (b) Ampere’s law including the displacement current term, (c) Gauss’s law, and (d) Eq. 8.7. … These four equations together constitute 'Maxwell’s equations.' Together with the Lorentz force law (Eq. 8.2), Maxwell’s equations summarize all of electricity and magnetism.
All four of Maxwell’s equations are discussed in our book. Section 6.3 is dedicated to Gauss’s law, governing the electric field produced by a collection of charges, and we analyze the usual suspects: a line of charge and a charged sheet. Ampere’s law appears in Section 8.2 (The Magnetic Field of a Moving Charge or Current), and--in one of my favorite homework problems--we show in Problem 13 of Chapter 8 how "one can obtain a very different physical picture of the source of a magnetic field using the Biot Savart law than one gets using Ampere’s law, even though the field is the same." Faraday’s law is presented in Section 8.6 on Electromagnetic Induction, followed by a discussion of magnetic stimulation of the brain. Even Gauss’s law for a magnetic field (Eq. 8.7, stating that the magnetic field has no divergence) is introduced. Maxwell’s great insight was to add the displacement current term to Ampere’s law. We show how the charging of a capacitor implies the existence of this additional term on page 207, and explore its role in biomagnetism (slight).

Russ and I never analyze what may be the greatest prediction of Maxwell’s equations: the wave nature of light. We state in Section 14.1 that “the velocity of light traveling in a vacuum is given by electromagnetic theory as c = 1/√(ε0 μ0)”, but we never derive this result from Maxwell’s equations. Many of the applications of electromagnetic waves—such as wave guides, antennas, diffraction, radiation, and all of optics—are barely mentioned, if mentioned at all, in our text. For those who want to learn these topics (and all students of physics should want to learn these topics), I suggest Griffith’s Introduction to Electrodynamics (undergraduate) or Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics (graduate). Richard Feynman introduces Maxwell’s equations in his celebrated book The Feynman Lectures on Physics. In Chapter 18 of Volume 2, he writes
“It was not customary in Maxwell’s time to think in terms of abstract fields. Maxwell discussed his ideas in terms of a model in which the vacuum was like an elastic solid. He also tried to explain the meaning of his new equation in terms of the mechanical model. There was much reluctance to accept his theory, first because of the model, and second because there was at first no experimental justification. Today, we understand better that what counts are the equations themselves and not the model used to get them. We may only question whether the equations are true or false. This is answered by doing experiments, and untold numbers of experiments have confirmed Maxwell’s equations. If we take away the scaffolding he used to build it, we find that Maxwell’s beautiful edifice stands on its own. He brought together all of the laws of electricity and magnetism and made one complete and beautiful theory.”
Anyone with a historical bent may want to read Maxwell’s original papers and accompanying commentary in Maxwell on the Electromagnetic Field: a Guided Study, by Thomas Simpson. The book contains a detailed analysis of Maxwell’s papers, including On the Physical Lines of Force, which is the publication we celebrate this month. Simpson’s book is the best place I know of to learn about the “scaffolding” Maxwell used to build his theory.

I will close with one of my favorite quotes, again from the Feynman Lectures. At the end of his first chapter introducing electromagnetism, Feynman writes
“From a long view of the history of mankind—seen from, say, ten thousand years from now—there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

Murderous Microwaves

I have written previously on the topic of cell phone electromagnetic radiation and cancer, but the issue remains a concern among the general public. Kenneth Foster reviewed three new books about the risks associated with cell phones in the March issue of IEEE Spectrum (disclaimer: I have not read any of these books):

Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family, by Devra Davis;

Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution, by Ann Louise Gittleman

Dirty Electricity: Electrification and the Diseases of Civilization, by Samuel Milham.

Foster writes
“Do you feel zapped, disconnected, electronically polluted by electromagnetic fields in your homes and workplace? Are you fearful of your electricity? These three books will feed your fears.

But are such fears justified? Public debates have been going on for more than a century about the possible health hazards of electromagnetic fields from power lines and radio-frequency energy from broadcast transmitters—and now cellphones. At the same time, health agencies have repeatedly reviewed the scientific literature and found no clear evidence of a problem. How can these totally different perspectives be reconciled?”
Foster ultimately concludes that these perspectives can’t be reconciled. He counters these alarmist books with exhaustive scientific studies, such as Exposure to High Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, Biological Effects and Health Consequences (100 kHz–300 GHz), Edited by Paolo Vecchia et al., International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, 2009; and Risk Analysis of Human Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields, by Zenon Sienkiewicz, Joachim Schüz, Aslak Harbo Poulsen, and Elisabeth Cardis, report of the European Health Risk Assessment Network on Electromagnetic Fields Exposure, 2010. The first report concludes that
“In the last few years the epidemiologic evidence on mobile phone use and risk of brain and other tumors of the head has grown considerably. In our opinion, overall the studies published to date do not demonstrate a raised risk within approximately ten years of use for any tumor of the brain or any other head tumor. However, some key methodologic problems remain - for example, selective non-response and exposure misclassification. Despite these methodologic shortcomings and the still limited data on long latency and long-term use, the available data do not suggest a causal association between mobile phone use and fast-growing tumors such as malignant glioma in adults, at least those tumors with short induction periods. For slow-growing tumors such as meningioma and acoustic neuroma, as well as for glioma among long-term users, the absence of associations reported thus far is less conclusive because the current observation period is still too short. Currently data are completely lacking on the potential carcinogenic effect of exposures in childhood and adolescence.”
In the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I examine this topic in Section 9.10, Possible Effects of Weak External Electric and Magnetic Fields. We focus on power line (60 Hz) fields (another story….), but many of the same conclusions apply to cell phone (1 GHz) fields. A key factor is the energy of a microwave photon.
“Radiated energy is in the form of discrete packets or photons, whose energy is related to the frequency of oscillation of the fields. The energy of each photon is E = , where h is Planck’s constant and ν the frequency. At room temperature, the energy of random thermal motion is kBT = 4 × 10−21 J. At 60 Hz, the energy in each photon is much smaller: 4 × 10−32 J. At 100 MHz it is 7 × 10−26 J.”
Therefore, cell phone frequencies correspond to photon energies that are nearly 10,000 times less than thermal energies. Moreover, the energy required to break chemical bonds is hundreds of times greater than thermal energies. If cancer is caused by the breaking of bonds in DNA by photons, then cell phone photons are one millions times too weak to cause cancer. If enough photons were present, the tissue temperature could rise, but no one has evidence that there is a significant heating of the brain by photons; the fields are not that strong. We are left with no plausible mechanism connecting microwaves and cancer.

With weak epidemiological evidence and no mechanism, I remain a hard-boiled skeptic. In fact, my only reservation with Foster’s review is that his criticisms may have been too tame. My views are closer to physicist Bob Park, who is a vocal (and often sarcastic) critic of those who insist that cell phones cause cancer. Nevertheless, even Foster’s mild criticisms triggered a heated debate in the comments section following his review. Interestingly, most of the comments make emotional arguments, not scientific ones, indicating the need for a better understanding by the pubic of the basic physics of how electromagnetic fields interact with tissue. (At this point, I again plug our book, Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, as the best source to learn the physics …. although I admit on this one claim I may be slightly biased.)

So who should you believe in this debate? How about the National Cancer Institute? It is hard to think of a more unbiased or authoritative source of information. Their fact sheet provides a science-based analysis of the issue. But Ken Foster is a pretty reliable source of information too. He has spent nearly 40 years studying electricity and magnetism, with much of that analyzing the biological effects of E&M fields. His 1989 paper “Dielectric-Properties of Tissues and Biological Materials: A Critical Review,” (Crit. Rev. Biomed. Eng., Volume 17, Pages 25-104), written with Herman Schwan, is a highly-cited classic. Foster’s article “Risk Management: Science and the Precautionary Principle” (Science, Volume 288, Pages 979-981, 2000) provides useful insight into the role of scientific evidence in evaluating risk. Russ and I cite several of Foster’s papers in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, including
Foster, K. R. (1996). Electromagnetic field effects and mechanisms: In search of an anchor. IEEE Eng. Med. Biol. 15(4): 50–56.

Foster, K. R., and H. P. Schwan (1996). Dielectric properties of tissues. In C. Polk and E. Postow, eds. Handbook of Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Fields. Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press, pp. 25–102.

Moulder, J. E., and K. R. Foster (1995). Biological effects of power-frequency fields as they relate to carcinogenesis. Proc. Soc. Expt. Biol. Med. 209: 309–323.

Moulder, J. E., and K. R. Foster (1999). Is there a link between power-frequency electric fields and cancer? IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology 18(2): 109–116.
(Note: when preparing this blog entry, I found that we have the title to the last paper incorrect in our book. It should be "Is there a link between exposure to power-frequency electric fields and cancer?" I will correct that in the erratum, found at the book website.)

In conclusion, I don’t believe the evidence supports the hypothesis that cell phones cause cancer. Give me some convincing new evidence or a plausible mechanism, and I’ll reconsider.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Retinal Injuries from a Handheld Laser Pointer

Are laser pointers safe? Apparently, it depends on the laser pointer. A recent article by Christine Negroni in the New York Times (Feb. 28, 2011) states that
“Eye doctors around the world are warning that recent cases of teenagers who suffered eye damage while playing with high-power green laser pointers are likely to be just the first of many.”
Negroni cites a letter that appeared last September in the New England Journal of Medicine (Wyrsch, Baenninger, and Schmid, “Retinal Injuries from a Handheld Laser Pointer”, N. Engl. J. Med., 2010, Volume 363, Pages 1089-1091), which says
“In the past, laser pointers sold to the public had a maximal output of 5 mW, which is regarded as harmless because the human eye protects itself with blink reflexes. The measured output of the laser in [the case of a person who was injured] was 150 mW. The use of lasers that are threatening to the eye is normally restricted to occupational and military environments; laser accidents outside these fields are very rare. However, powerful laser devices, with a power of up to 700 mW, are now easily obtainable through the Internet, despite government restrictions. These high-power lasers are advertised as ‘laser pointers’ and look identical to low-power pointers. The much higher power of such devices may produce immediate, severe retinal injury. Despite their potential to cause blinding, such lasers are advertised as fun toys and seem to be popular with teenagers. In addition, Web sites now offer laser swords and other gadgets that use high-power lasers.”
I attended a talk just last week where the speaker waved his green laser pointer around like a light saber. I don’t know the power of his pointer, but I wonder if I was in danger.

One concern arises from the bozos who point lasers at airplanes. The U.S. Congress plans to toughen the laws on this sort of horseplay, making shining a laser at a plane a federal crime with up to five years imprisonment. I’m all for high school students learning science by hands-on activities, but do it right. Buy a 5 mW red helium-neon laser pointer and use it safely to do some optics experiments (I suggest observing Young’s double slit interference pattern). Don’t buy a 700 mW green laser pointer and start shining it up into the sky! Do you think I am being a schoolmarm out to ruin your fun? Consider this: the website reports that
“A $5000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of the person(s) who aimed a laser into the cockpit of a Southwest Airlines flight approaching Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The flight, which originated in Milwaukee, was 2000 feet over the town of Millersville, near Old Mill Road and Kenora Drive, when it was illuminated around 6:45 pm on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011. Millersville is about 8 miles from BWI Airport.”
You better be careful; someone may be watching.

How do you tell the difference between a safe, educational experience and a potentially disastrous prank? You begin by learning about light and its biological impact. Russ Hobbie and I discuss light in Chapter 14 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. We address topics related to light and safety, although we don’t analyze the particular concern of laser damage to the eye. For instance, we discuss how ultraviolet light damages the eye (Section 14.9.6) and how light can be used to heat tissue (Section 14.10), as well as a detailed discussion of radiometry (the measurement of radiant energy, Section 14.11) and the anatomy and optics of the eye (Section 14.12).

In another New York Times article, Negroni relates how high powered laser pointers can pose a risk to pilots. And on her blog, she explains why helicopters may be at a greater risk than airplanes.
“A helicopter cockpit has glass extending below the level of the pilots' eyes toward the ground exactly where the lasers are. Rotor craft fly at low altitudes over residential areas and busy highways. They are not flying autopilot and they may be piloted by a single person. They hover and may make inviting targets. That was the case on Tuesday when a Los Angeles television station sent its chopper to follow and report on the police activity and it was hit by a laser. ”
If you prefer video, watch and listen to Christine Negroni on MSNBC.

The interaction of laser light and vision is one more example of why a firm understanding of physics applied to medicine and biology is so important.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Role of Magnetic Forces in Biology and Medicine

The current issue of the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine contains a minireview about The Role of Magnetic Forces in Biology and Medicine by yours truly (Volume 236, Pages 132-137). It fits right in with Section 8.1 (The Magnetic Force on a Moving Charge) in the 4th Edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. The abstract states:
“The Lorentz force (the force acting on currents in a magnetic field) plays an increasingly larger role in techniques to image current and conductivity. This review will summarize several applications involving the Lorentz force, including (1) magneto-acoustic imaging of current; (2) ‘Hall effect’ imaging; (3) ultrasonically-induced Lorentz force imaging of conductivity; (4) magneto-acoustic tomography with magnetic induction; and (5) Lorentz force imaging of action currents using magnetic resonance imaging.”
The review was easy to write, because it consisted primarily of the background and significance section of a National Institutes of Health grant proposal I wrote several years ago (and which is now funded). The review describes ground-breaking work by many authors, but here I want to highlight studies by three talented undergraduate students who worked with me at Oakland University during several summers.

Kaytlin Brinker

Kayt studied a method to measure conductivity called Magneto-Acoustic Tomography with Magnetic Induction, or MAT-MI (Brinker and Roth, 2008, The Effect of Electrical Anisotropy During Magnetoacoustic Tomography with Magnetic Induction. IEEE Trans. Biomed. Eng., 55:1637–1639). This technique was developed by Bin He and his group at the University of Minnesota. You apply two magnetic fields, one static and one changing with time. The rapidly changing magnetic field induces eddy currents in the tissue, which then experience a Lorentz force from the static field, causing the material to move and initiating a sound wave. Measurement of the acoustic signal allows you to gain information about the conductivity distribution. Kayt’s task was to determine how anisotropy (the conductivity depends on direction) would influence MAT-MI. She “found that when imaging nerve or muscle, electrical anisotropy can have a significant effect on the acoustic signal and must be accounted for in order to obtain accurate images.”

Nancy Tseng

Nancy, who had just graduated from high school when she worked with me, analyzed a technique originally pioneered by Han Wen and then developed further by Amalric Montalibet. A sound wave is propagated through the tissue in the presence of a magnetic field. The Lorentz force causes charge separation, inducing an electrical potential and current. Measurement of the electrical signal provides information about the conductivity. Tseng looked at this effect in anisotropic tissue (Tseng and Roth, 2008, The Potential Induced in Anisotropic Tissue by the Ultrasonically-Induced Lorentz Force. Med. Biol. Eng. Comput., 46:195–197). She found “a novel feature of the ultrasonically-induced Lorentz force in anisotropic tissue: an oscillating electrical potential propagates along with the ultrasonic wave.” The effect has not yet been measured experimentally, but represents a fundamentally new mechanism for the induction of bioelectric signals.

Kevin Schalte

Kevin derived a tomographic method to determine tissue conductivity using the ultrasonically-induced Lorentz force (Roth and Schalte, 2009, Ultrasonically-Induced Lorentz Force Tomography, Med. Biol. Eng. Comput., 47:573-577). “The strength and timing of the electric dipole caused by the ultrasonically-induced Lorentz force determines the amplitude and phase of the Fourier transform of the conductivity image. Electrical measurements at a variety of [ultrasonic] wavelengths and directions are therefore equivalent to mapping the Fourier transform of the conductivity distribution in spatial frequency space. An image of the conductivity itself is then found by taking the inverse Fourier transform.” I would never have undertaken this project had I not been a coauthor on the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. Only by working on the textbook did I come to fully understand and appreciate the power of tomography (see Chapter 12 on Images and Section 16.9 about Computed Tomography).

I often read about how the United States is falling behind other nations in math and science, but working with outstanding undergraduates such as these three gives me confidence that we remain competitive.

Finally, let me reproduce the all-important acknowledgments section of the minireview:
“I thank Steffan Puwal and Katherine Roth for their comments on this manuscript. I also thank Bruce Towe, Han Wen, Amalric Montalibet and Xu Li for permission to reproduce their figures in this review. This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health grant R01EB008421.”