Friday, July 20, 2018

A Dozen Units from Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology

Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology: A Dozen Units from Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology Medical and biological physics have their share of colorful and sometimes obsolete units. For the most part, Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology sticks with standard metric, or SI, units; mass, distance and time are in kilograms, meters, and seconds (mks). Some combinations of units are given special names, usually in honor of a famous physicist, such as the newton (N) for kg m s-2. I have always found the units for electricity and magnetism difficult to remember. The coulomb (C) for charge is easy enough, but units such as the tesla (T) for magnetic field strength in kg s-1 C-1 are tricky. IPMB uses some common non-SI units, such as the liter (l) for 10-3 m3, the angstrom (Å) for 10-10 m, and the electron volt (eV) for 1.6 × 10-19 J.

Let’s count down a dozen unfamiliar units discussed in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. We’ll start with the least important, and end with the one you really need to know.
12. The roentgen (R). Chapter 16 of IPMB states that the roentgen “is an old unit of [radiation] exposure equivalent to the production of 2.58 × 10-4 C kg-1 in dry air.” The unit’s name written out as “roentgen” begins with a lower case letter “r” even though Wilhelm Roentgen’s last name starts with an upper case “R.” It's always that way with units.

11. The diopter (diopter). The diopter is a nickname for m-1, just as the hertz is a nickname for s-1. It is used mainly when discussing the power, or vergence, of a lens, and appears in Chapter 14 of IPMB. The diopter does not have a symbol, you just write out “diopter” (“dioptre” if you are English, but that is so wrong).

10. The einstein (E). Homework Problem 2 of Chapter 14 defines the einstein as “1 mol of photons.” Units like the mole (mol) and the einstein are really dimensionless numbers: a mole is 6 × 1023 molecules and an einstein is 6 × 1023 photons. John Wikswo and I have proposed the leibniz (Lz) to be 6 × 1023 differential equations. Some define the einstein as the energy of a mole of photons, so be careful when using this unit. I’ll let you guess who the unit was named for.

9. The poise (P). Chapter 1 of IPMB analyzes the coefficient of viscosity, which is often expressed in units of poise or centipoise. The poise is a leftover from the old centimeter-gram-second system of units, and is equal to a gram per centimeter per second. The viscosity of water at 20 °C is about 1 cP. The poise is named after Jean Leonard Marie Poiseuille (sort of), just as the unit of capacitance (the farad) is kind of named after Micheal Faraday. The mks unit of viscosity is the poiseuille (Pl), where 1 Pl = 10 P. The poiseuille is not used much, probably because no one can pronounce it.

8. The torr (Torr). Pressure is measured in many units. The torr is nearly the same as a millimeter of mercury (mmHg), and is named after the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli. The SI unit for pressure is the pascal (Pa), a nickname for a newton per square meter. One Torr is about 133 Pa. The bar (bar) is 100,000 Pa, and is approximately equal to one atmosphere (atm). How confusing! All five units—torr, bar, atm, mmHg, and pascal—are used often, so you need to know them all.

7. The barn (b). The barn measures area and is 10-28 m2. It is equivalent to 100 fm2 (the femtometer is also known as a fermi). Nuclear cross sections are measured in barns. By nuclear physics standards a barn is a pretty big cross section. The term barn comes from the idiom about “hitting the broad side of a barn.”

6. The debye (D). Homework Problem 3 in Chapter 6 of IPMB introduces the debye. It is defined as 10-18 statcoulomb cm, where a statcoulomb is the unit of charge in the old cgs system. It is equivalent to 3.34 × 10-30 C m. The debye is named after Dutch physicist Peter Debye, and measures dipole moment. The dipole moment of a water molecule is 1.85 D.

5. The candela (cd). Radiometry measures radiant energy using SI units. Photometry measures the sensation of human vision with its own oddball collection of units, such as lumens, candelas, lux, and nits. A candela depends on the color of the light; for green 1 cd is equal to a radiant intensity of about 0.0015 watts per steradian. A burning candle has a luminous intensity of about 1 cd.

4. The svedberg (Sv). The centrifuge is a common instrument in biological physics. A particle has a sedimentation coefficient equal to its sedimentation velocity per unit of centrifugal acceleration. The units of speed (m s-1) divided by acceleration (m s-2) is seconds, so sedimentation coefficient has dimensions of time. The svedberg is equal to 10-13 s. IPMB gives the symbol as “Sv”, but sometimes it is just “S” (easily confused with a unit of conductance called the siemens and a unit of effective dose called the sievert). The unit is named after the Swedish chemist Theodor Svedberg, who invented the ultracentrifuge.

3. The curie (Ci). The curie is an older unit of radioactivity that is now out of fashion. It is named in honor of Pierre and Marie Curie, and it measures the activity, equal to the disintegration rate. The SI unit for activity is the becquerel (Bq), or disintegrations per second. The becquerel is named after Henri Becquerel, the French physicist who discovered radioactivity. One curie is 3.7 × 1010 Bq. The cumulated activity is the total number of disintegrations, and is a dimensionless number often expressed in Bq s (why bother?). An older unit for cumulated activity is the odd-sounding microcurie hour (µCi h).

2. The Hounsfield unit (HU). The Hounsfield unit is used to measure the x-ray attenuation coefficient µ during computed tomography. It is a dimensionless quantity defined by Eq. 16.25 in IPMB: H = 1000 (µ – µwater)/µwater (for some reason Russ Hobbie and I use H rather than HU). The unit is strange because everyone says the attenuation coefficient is so many Hounsfield units, including the word “units” (you never say a force is so many “newton units”). The attenuation coefficient of water is 0 HU. Air has a very small small attenuation coefficient, so on the Hounsfield scale it is -1000 HU. Many soft tissues have an attenuation coefficient on the order of +40 HU, and bone can be more than +1000 HU. The unit is named after English electrical engineer Godfrey Hounsfield, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for developing the first clinical computed tomography machine.
and the winner is....
1. The sievert (Sv). The most important unusual unit in IPMB is the sievert. Both the sievert and the gray (Gy) are equal to a joule per kilogram. The gray is a physical unit measuring the energy deposited in tissue per unit mass, or the dose. The sievert is the gray multiplied by a dimensionless coefficient called the relative biological effectiveness and measures the effective dose. For x-rays, the sievert and gray are the same, but for alpha particles one gray can be many sieverts. An older unit for the gray is the rad (1 Gy = 100 rad) and an older unit for the sievert is the rem (1 Sv = 100 rem). The gray is named after English physicist Louis Gray, and the sievert after Swedish medical physicist Rolf Sievert.

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