Press "Enter" to skip to content

Do E-fields Cause or Hinder Cancer?


Field near a TNT molecule. Click to enlargeWith the ongoing debate about potential health hazards of living near radio/TV towers, or the dangers of extensive cell-phone use, it is reassuring to see the latest news on the efficacy of electric fields in slowing down some cancers. (Of course a skeptic might claim that the news is a spin job by cell operators to get activists from fighting the placement of towers and cell sites near population centers.)

Nevertheless, the study is intriguing because it describes a set of potential reasons why the E-fields might be the causal agent for the stunted cancer growth.

In vitro, the electric fields were seen to have two effects on the tumor cells. First, they slowed down cell division. Cells that ordinarily took less than an hour to divide were still not completely divided after three hours of exposure to an electrical field of 200 kHz... What causes cell division to slow down" In the 200-kHz case, the electric fields hamper the formation and function of a key cell structure known as the mitotic spindle. The spindle is composed of cell components known as microtubules. The microtubules in turn contain components that have a high electric dipole moment, in which there is a large separation of opposite electric charges. Therefore, parts of the mitotic spindle are greatly influenced, and apparently disrupted, by an electric field. The second effect of the 200 kHz fields is that they sometimes disintegrated the daughter cells just before they split off from their partners. The dividing cells sometimes destruct because a high-electric-field region develops between the two daughter cells. This leads to a large slope, or gradient, in the electric field from each daughter cell to this region. This gradient may rip organelles (cell structures) and macromolecules (such as proteins) from the scaffolding of the cells.

The possible contribution of the fields in the 2nd effect is interesting. Undoubtedly a mathematical model that imagines the stated macromolecules as simple dipoles with site-specific adhesion to the underlying cell (the cell "scaffolding" mentioned above) could be developed to calculate the effect of field gradient strength and frequency on the stated macromolecules. In this way the model could be used to predict fruitful frequency/strength ranges where the slowing down of cancer growth is done most efficaciously. A model that is based on a physical model of what might be occurring is one that has a good amount of "understanding" built in, i.e., it is not merely predictive. In this case, I assume that this modeling has already occurred, and that new experiments will be informed by the predictions of the model.

Back to the skeptics - while cell division might be stopped in some cases by the Field, in others the field might actually lead to mutation and enhanced cancer cell growth. And what’s really interesting here is that the enhancement can be imagined as due to the same mechanism as the growth slow-down, i.e. a field gradient being strong enough to induce growth.

Either way, the new E-field results open up a rich source of research possibilities with clinical potential.

Note: the graphic at the top of this post comes from the Collaborative Computation Project funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (sort of a UK version of the NSF)

Categories Modeling Physics Understanding & Prediction

Tessellatin' Rhythm and Fractal City Maps


Portland - The Fractal (Click to enlarge)One of the craziest art efforts out there is the geospatial art of Nikolas Schiller. Schiller takes satellite photos of cityscapes and melds them into quilts, morphs them onto spherical surfaces, and, basically anything else he can think of. The net result is a set of amazing images of familiar cities looking as if viewed through kaleidoscopes. Many of the images remind me of Escher, only with buildings and landscape features serving as the interlocking escher-figures, receding to infinity at the edges.

Maybe more insane is Schiller’s pace: a new map every few days for several years now, all posted on his Daily Render blog, subtitled A Digital Scrapbook for Past, Present, and Future.

Schiller also works with old maps, e.g. combining 16th century maps with current images.

The fractal connection is an obvious one, and Schilling has a special section devoted to images that are more fractal-like. (See the Dupont Circle tessellation, e.g.)

Schiller’s motivation is artistic and political. As described in a Washington Post article by D. Montgomery,

... Schiller remixes this surveilled reality to render geography as politically pointed art..."To change the world, start with the maps," says Schiller, who is co-chairman of the Statehood Green Party in Washington. "As insignificant as my art may be, it's still an extension of my feeling that each of us has the capacity to change things."

One of the computer sessions in the Chaos and Fractals class is devoted to experimentally determining the covering dimension of a coastline, effectively finding its fractal dimension. Schiller’s images should be amenable to the same type of analysis. An interesting assignment would be to find the covering dimensions of his renditions of DC’s Dupont Circle and compare it to his fractal tessellation of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Schiller sells his prints through imagekind.

Categories Art Fractals Maps Politics

Who Judges Science?


As more technologically complex issues that are based on current scientific research end up in the courts, it has become increasingly apparent that judges now need to have an almost-impossible mix of scientific acumen in addition to juridical expertise.

In When Questions of Science Come to a Courtroom, Truth has Many Faces, NYT writer Cornelia Dean presents a detailed look at the changing face of scientific cases over the past century. Including a history of morphing rules for the legal includability of scientific evidence and outside experts, the article is a stark warning about the dangers of scientific cases being judged by those least able to judge the science. (This is not an argument for knowing science content, but rather the process of science, from data to theory and acceptance.) In some cases, bad science rules the day in court because some judges don’t know enough about the scientific process to direct juries appropriately.

As Dean quotes at the end of her piece:

Mr. Faigman, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, criticizes what he calls the court’s “abdication” of any responsibility to determine scientific facts. This practice cannot last, he wrote. “Science and technology today are so pervasive that the court cannot continue its slapdash ways,” he said. “The scientific revolution is everywhere; it cannot be ignored with impunity.”

Dean writes about the 1993 seminal case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. For more on this case,see Daubert: The Most Influential Supreme Court Decision You’ve Never Heard Of by David Michaels. Michaels is a contributor to the The Pump Handle blog.

Billed as a water cooler for the public health Crowd, The Pump Handle is a very informative site collaboratively maintained by scientists and public health professionals formerly from the FDA, OSHA, MSHA, DOE, among other agencies. The Pump Handle name comes from the 1954 London cholera epidemic of 1854 and the attempts of John Snow to convince anyone who would listen of the dangers of water from public pumps.

Categories Politics Science

The Right of First Recusal


Some odd serendipity at work (isn’t serendipity always just a bit odd?). While cleaning out an incredibly messy office that I can’t stand being wink-wink-nudge-nudge described as chaotic, I came across an article written by Lance Morrow for Time magazine in 1990. Titled Let Us Recuse Ourselves Awhile, it is a paean to removing ourselves from all of the random facts, emotional baggage, and general neuronal detritus that clutter our brain, in effect stunting our ability to be curious and creative.

The closing paragraphs may be one of the first metaphorical appearances of fractals to appear in mainstream print:

History proceeds in gossip and fractals. Fractals are the mysterious and apparently irrational forms proposed by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who says that reality has shapes undreamed of by Euclid and surprises that ridicule the idea of order. The shape of a mountain is not a cone. Clouds, coastlines, tree branches, commodity prices, word frequencies, turbulence in fluids, stars in the sky, reputations, fame, the passage of history itself (think about the past ten months) -- all these are fractal shapes. The mind is the grandest, most mysterious fractal. It takes its shape from what it holds, and therefore, Zen-like, sometimes grows more graceful because of what it has kept out.

While reducing my own physical clutter I find justification to reduce my mental clutter, which frees my fractal-like brain to post about reducing clutter, allowing me to throw away the Morrow article which sat in a drawer for 17 years, uncluttering my fractal-like brain enough to undertake a more massive drawer cleanup, a drawer which containing endless layers of yellowed articles torn from old magazines, fractal-like. Serendipity, indeed.

And what type of cranial clutter did Morrow wish to recuse himself from?

The answer is frighteningly obvious, because we all suffer from the same flotsam callosum: any and all news of Donald Trump.

Categories Fractals

Intelligent String Theory Design - Patently Falsifiable


String Theory by Marlene Healey Prediction plays a crucial role in the continuing debate of whether string theory and intelligent design are linked by a common lack of falsifiability. Here’s how this argument goes:

1) ID does not make predictions that are testable, and therefore not falsifiable, failing Popper’s main criteria for categorization of a theory as scientific.

2) String Theory has not produced a prediction that is testable because it requires that there exist objects that are simply not observable - e.g extra dimensions. Therefore it is also not a scientific theory, making it analagous to ID (in a falsifiability sense).

It follow then that if you dismiss ID, you have to dismiss string theory. (See, e.g. W. Dembski’s Uncommon Dissent blog)

But do you? An interesting argument against this conclusion is provided by Amanda Gefter’s editorial in the Philly Inquirer titled A Scientific Leap Without the Faith. Gefter points out the distinct difference between string theory and ID as one of explanatory power combined with the internal elegance of the mathematics. In fact, it is the presence of mathematics that provides the oomph that catapults string theory over ID:

In the meantime, mathematical consistency could provide its own sort of falsification. Mathematics is the language science uses to describe the world, and if the equations of a theory lead to nonsensical results, the theory is mathematically falsified. Intelligent design cannot be described mathematically, so, to use physicist Wolfgang Pauli's famous phrase, "it's not even wrong."

You can be sure that there are many who disagree with Gefter. In fact, the link to Gefter I have provided is from a conservative site - The Free Republic - so reading the comments that follow Gerter’s piece is informative. The tone of these responses are pretty consistent - string physicists are relying on faith just as much as ID’ers - so ID can’t be dismissed by "hypocritical" scientists.

Of course, this position doesn’t prove whether ID is valid or not.

For that, one has to turn to a scientific look at ID. The best scientific summary of arguments against the validity of ID I have read is The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name by Jerry Coyne, who as the title implies, sees a deep connection between religious conservatism and the proclivity to accept ID. It is essential reading for ID’ers & evolutionists.

And string theorists.

Categories Evolution Physics Religion Understanding & Prediction

Hurricane Prediction, Pt. 2 - Path and Intensity


Projections for Hurricane Dean (NOAA)This post continues the discussion of hurricane prediction begun in my recent post. There I described efforts at predicting hurricanes before they actually start, and the use of correlates such as el niño and sand in the Sahara.

What about predictions once the hurricanes are on the scene? The recent news surrounding the potential path of Hurricane Dean, and the predicted intensity, are different types of models.

There’s an informative article today by Matt McGrath for BBC News that discusses the issues surrounding these predictions. (See The Science of Hurricane Prediction ) Of interest is the fact that it easier to predict the ultimate path of faster-moving hurricanes. In effect, when hurricanes "hang around" too long, their motion can be affected by many other factors - throwing off the model predictions.

The BBC News site has a number of clever animations, including an animated guide to how hurricanes form. This is a nice applet - one of a set of applets for many natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and volcanoes.

Categories Understanding & Prediction Weather & Climate

The Green Lantern and Quantum Poetry


A recent book of poetry by A. Van Jordan titled Quantum Lyrics has received a lot of favorable press. From the publisher’s (AP Norton) site:

This provocative, ambitious collection explores the intersection of the infinite world of physics with the perplexities of the human condition.

For more on Van Jordan, including how he came to include physics in his latest works, see his interview in nat creole.magazine.

I am very interested in Jordan’s work for a number of reasons:

a. I am a sucker for all things quantum. The idea of poetry with a quantum flavor, or poetry trying to describe quantum theory, seems to be the most natural fit in a world that appears highly unnatural because of quantum theory

b. Einstein is heavily featured. QL contains a set of poems about Albert as he "wrestles with his marital infidelities as he both reinvents physics and becomes a pioneer in race relations" (Read some excerpts here.)

d. How can I not react to the fractal reference by Linda Gregerson in the following review?

"The superheroes of DC Comics meet the Nobel laureates of particle physics: Charlie Chaplin meets Albert Einstein, who gives shelter to Marian Anderson when no hotel in Princeton will have her; the fractal repetitions of branching twig and leaf vein haunt the son of a father who did or did not teach him cruelty to women: all fuel for the sustained nuclear reaction of Quantum Lyrics. A. Van Jordan’s is one of the most capacious, deep-structural imaginations in American poetry today. These poems are radioactive."

c. The Green Lantern is mentioned. Along with The Flash, this was my favorite comic growing up. I could recite Hal Jordan’s Lantern Oath by the time I was 6:

In Brightest Day, In Darkest Night No evil shall escape my sight Let those who worship evil's might Beware my power - Green Lantern's light

Which always has been poetry to me…

Check out Perry Crowe’s LA Citybeat article on the very upsetting changes to Green Lantern over the years.

Categories Literature & Poetry Physics

Saharan Sand & Hurricane Prediction


I have written before about modeling earthquakes and hurricanes - two phenomena are often not covered in homeowners insurance because they are Acts of God. There is still a long way to go before these are understood to the satisfaction of a predominance of scientists.

But what about prediction? With hurricane season about to start in earnest in the Atlantic, it has been pretty quiet. How are hurricanes predicted, and how good are these predictions?

El Niño events and hurricanes are highly correlated, and hence the Niño is part of every hurricane forecasters toolkit/ There has been a lot of publicity of late indicating a strong correlation between Saharan sand storms and hurricane activity, suggesting that sand activity would complement El Nino as a predictor.

While no one would dispute the value of another correlate for hurricane activity, I did notice the typical media confusion between understanding what was going on, and what was purely a prediction based on a correlation. I was just about to write one of my typical rants when I came across a blog that already took the media to task back in 2006. Written by Daniel Collins from UW-Madison on his Down To Earth blog, the post title says it all: Bad Science Journalism: Linking Hurricanes and Dust

UW-Madison is where a lot of resarch is carried out. Their press release is quoted by Collins. I include the passage most salient to the discussion here about understanding vs. prediction:

While the UW-Madison work doesn't confirm that dust storms directly influence hurricanes, it does provide compelling evidence that the two phenomena are linked in some way. "What we don't know is whether the dust affects the hurricanes directly, or whether both [dust and hurricanes] are responding to the same large scale atmospheric changes around the tropical Atlantic," says Foley. "That's what future research needs to find out."

On a recent family vacation to Florida we were talking with a real estate agent about hurricanes in that area (northeast Florida) and he described a relationship between distance from the Gulf Stream and hurricane frequency and ferocity. While this sounds plausible - i.e. that there is a correlation, I need to see much more data before I would do anything hasty - such as making a large-scale real estate investment!

(The beautiful sandstorm picture is from the Abrangente blog. It reminds me very much of a scene from Bertolucci’s 1990 version of The Sheltering Sky.)

Categories Media Understanding & Prediction Weather & Climate

Unplugging Plug and Chug


Yo - Memorize This!In a disturbing coincidence, the stomach-turning "Plug and Chug" phrase cropped up in 2 situations this week. In physics class on Wednesday, a student made a comment about "plugging and chugging" to get a solution. I stopped him at that point and did my typical rant against that type of approach to doing physics. (Note - he was NOT advocating it!)

In short, there’s nothing more revolting to me as a physics teacher, and a physicist than the thought that somehow physics can be taught, and learned, by memorizing formulas and simply plugging in numbers and calculating.

How then to explain a quote by Erika Gebel in the Aug, 3, 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer? In an article titled "Masters of ‘spring’ theory: Physics Teachers embrace a new method", Gebel is describing exciting new changes to the way that physics is taught in high school. Citing the approach known as modeling physics , which had just been taught to local physics instructors in a faculty-development workshop in the Philadelphia area, Gebel reports that

Modeling is a departure from the traditional method, often referred to in physics circles as "plug and chug." That is, solving problems by plugging numbers into memorized equations - F = ma, F = mg, F = kx, and so on - then chugging through the math. In traditional physics, students are expected to memorize the equations before they really understand their meaning - that force, for example, is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration.

Now I am all for the modeling approach. In fact I know the instructors quoted, have observed their teaching, and have observed their students really catching on to physics concepts at an amazing level. In short, modeling works when it is done well.

But I sincerely doubt that any physics instructor would make a comment such as given by Gebel. In all of my years in physics, with different instructors, many different schools, I have never heard anyone espouse this "plug and chug" approach. The line that really bothers me is that "students are expected to memorize the equations before they really understand their meaning." I have never seen a textbook that simply gives an equation to be memorized.

Now I can imagine a statement to the effect that students often understand the meaning of an equation only after solving a set of problems using the equation. But this is after the text and instructor have presented either a deductive argument, or plausible explanation (that includes experimental evidence) for the equation.

Claiming that instructors expect memorization before understanding does a great disservice to those physics instructors who have labored for years to make sure that understanding physics is the ultimate goal of teaching and learning in the physics classroom.

And I’m sure that all physics instructors - regardless of whether they teach modeling or a more traditional approach - are all too familiar with a sizeable number of students who actually would prefer the "p& c" approach. These students are the most challenging to teach, and when they finally realize that approaching physics by focusing on concepts and unifying principles, with the mathematics in a supporting role, well, this is the reason I love to teach introductory physics more than anything else.

Categories Education Media Physics

Einstein vs. Quantum Orthodoxy, Revisited


Bob and Alice go spinning?Essential reading for all those reading the current Einstein biographies is a NY Review of Books article titled The Other Einstein by Lee Smolin. Smolin, a theoretical physicist, takes the biographers to task (although he does prefer Neffe’s biography, as I have - see my review) for not really answering the most essential questions about Einstein. One such question is whether Einstein’s childishness in later years was pre-meditated. Smolin writes:

The question that needs to be answered, although none of the biographers do so, is how this arrogant, charismatic revolutionary turned into the otherworldly sage who was said to be an "emblem...of the mature and reflective human being." The man who was once seen as childish became admired for being childlike. How did this happen? Had Einstein become resigned after facing political and personal tragedies, or was his new character, as Overbye and Neffe both suspect, at least partly an act? "Einstein the lonely genius," as Neffe writes, "was partly a creation of his own making."

Smolin does provide some fascinating stories that lend credence to this suggestion. He also has a very interesting take on Einstein’s later years - years though to be "wasted" by many scientists and biographers because of Einstein’s failed attempt to find a unified theory, and his stubborn battle against the probabilistic and non-realistic view of quantum mechanics in the Copenhagen Interpretation. According to Smolin, Einstein’s "act" worked against the acceptance of his fight against quantum orthodoxy:

Paradoxically, it appears that the myth of Einstein may have diminished the influence he might have had. To understand how and why this happened, we should ask who benefited by the diminishment of Einstein's legacy from that of the greatest scientist of the last two centuries to the gentle and wise clown of popular imagination.

Smolin goes on to provide a thorough account of just what Einstein’s problems with quantum theory were, and an excellent discussion of the EPR Paradox, Bell’s Theorem, and the Aspect experiment (this discussion is actually in a follow-up discussion Smolin has with Jeremy Bernstein. The link to this discussion appears at the end of the Smolin review.) Smolin is much more laudatory of Einstein’s efforts, and his distrust of quantum theory as currently "understood." It is well worth reading because the detail is much more than one will find in any of the Einstein biographies. And it is sure to be controversial. (See the aforementioned Bernstein response for a strong sample reaction.)

Of course, Smolin is no stranger to controversy himself. One of the founders of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, he is probably best known for his attack on string theory, and his opinion of the current state of quantum theory in his book The Trouble With Physics. Check out the Perimeter Institute site to read more about the research there. From their mission statement:

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is an independent, resident-based research institute devoted to foundational issues in theoretical physics at the highest levels of international excellence. We strive to create a lively and dynamic research atmosphere where many approaches to fundamental questions, both orthodox and unorthodox, are pursued simultaneously and where a balance between formal and phenomenologically-oriented research is established.

Unorthodox is the operative word here. How can anyone who is trying to tell the complete tale of Einstein be otherwise?

Categories Philosophy Physics