Friday, May 6, 2011

Central Slice Theorem and Ronald Bracewell

Chapter 12 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology deals with images and tomography. One of the central ideas in tomography is the “central slice theorem.” Russ Hobbie and I write in Section 12.4 that
“The Fourier transform of the projection at angle θ is equal to the two-dimensional Fourier transform of the object, evaluated in the direction θ in Fourier transform space. This result is known as the projection theorem or the central slice theorem (Problem 17). The transforms of a set of projections at many different angles provide values of C and S [the cosine and sine parts of the 2-d Fourier transform] throughout the kxky plane [frequency space] that can be used in Eq. 12.9a [the definition of the 2-d Fourier transform] to calculate f(x,y).”
I consider the central slice theorem to be one of the most important concepts in medical imaging. How was this fundamental idea first developed? The answer to that question provides a fascinating example of how physics and engineering can contribute to medicine.

Ronald Bracewell first developed the central slice theorem while working in the field of radio astronomy. His 2007 New York Times obituary states
“Ronald N. Bracewell, an astronomer and engineer who used radio telescopes to make early images of the Sun’s surface, in work that also led to advances in medical imaging, died on Aug. 12 at his home in Stanford, Calif. He was 86…

With his colleagues at Stanford University in the 1950s, Dr. Bracewell designed a specialized radio telescope, called a spectroheliograph, to receive and evaluate microwaves emitted by the Sun….

Later, in the 1970s, the techniques and a formula devised by Dr. Bracewell were applied by other scientists in developing X-ray imaging of tumors, called tomography, and other forms of medical imaging that scan electromagnetic and radio waves. Dr. Bracewell advised researchers at Stanford and other institutions, but did not conduct laboratory research in the field.”
Russ and I cite Bracewell’s 1990 paper “Numerical Transforms” (Science, Volume 248, Pages 697-704). The central slice theorem was published in 1956 in the Australian Journal of Physics (Volume, 9, Pages 198-217). Early in this career Bracewell published a lot in that journal, which is now defunct but maintains a website with free access to all the papers. Bracewell also wrote a marvelous book: The Fourier Transform and Its Applications (originally published in 1965, the revised 2nd edition is published by McGraw-Hill, New York, 1986). When writing this blog entry, I checked this book out of Kresge Library here at Oakland University. Once I opened it, I realized it is an old friend. I am sure I read this book in graduate school. It contains many pictures that allow the student to gain an intuition about the Fourier transform; an extraordinarily valuable skill to develop. The Introduction states
“The present work began as a pictorial guide to Fourier transforms to complement the standard lists of pairs of transforms expressed mathematically. It quickly became apparent that the commentary would far outweigh the pictorial list in value, but the pictorial dictionary of transforms is nevertheless important, for a study of the entries reinforces the intuition, and many valuable and common types of function are included which, because of their awkwardness when expressed algebraically, do not occur in other lists.”
The text also does a fine job describing convolutions.
“Convolution is used a lot here. Experience shows that it is a fairly tricky concept when it is presented bluntly under its integral definition, but it becomes easy if the concept of a functional is first understood.”
Many of the ideas that Russ and I present in Chapter 11 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology are examined in more detail in Bracewell’s book. I recommend it as a reference to keep at your side as your plow through the mathematics of Fourier analysis.

Finally, Bracewell’s view of homework problems, as stated in his Preface to the second edition, mirrors my own.
“A good problem assigned at the right stage can be extremely valuable for the student, but a good problem is hard to compose. Among the collection of supplementary problems now included at the end of the book are several that go beyond being mathematical exercises by inclusion of technical background or by asking for opinions.”


  1. I just checked with our library (Washington University). We have four copies of the text. One in the general stacks, one in the Physics section and two in Chemistry. The two in Chemistry can be reserved only for a four hour period. The other two are checked out. Must be a good book,.. I'll have to get in line!


  2. "Another outcome of Bracewell's research was a book published first in 1965 titled, The Fourier Transform and its Applications, which has become the gold standard of this subject and can be found in the personal libraries of many astronomers, engineers, physicists, and medical researchers. Many years ago, before an observing run at Kitt Peak, I needed to refer to this book. I looked for it in the shelves of the library at the National Optical Astronomical Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, but could not find it. The librarian informed me that the book had been signed out. I told her that this is a very useful book, and they should have more than one copy. She agreed and said that there were indeed eleven copies; all were in use by the resident astronomers."