Today, on "Surf-Celebrity Science Class"...

Herewith, one of the most pleasing correspondences I've ever had with someone who originally contacted me with bold new scientific ideas.

Usually, such exchanges go kind of like this. This went much better.

And it turned out I was talking to someone famous, to boot!

From: Tom
Date: Mon, 8 Mar 2010 02:15:07
Subject: Magnetic healing?

I'm on some kind of similar path as you. In any case, really appreciated your summary of kinds, costs and usage of neodymium magnets.

I came across a guy who explained to me that microbes have a tough time living in changing magnetic fields. Germs, viruses... Perhaps that's one reason exercise is beneficial. The electricity delivered in pulses to muscles, causes pulsing magnetic fields all along the way.

This guy and his pals were making "Thumpers" (maybe spelled differently). They were buying Radio Shack strobe lights, then attaching coils in place of lights, and maintained that pulses of magnetism could cure bacteria deep within the body. His wife, for example, had some sort of deep sinus infection that he'd healed.

I talked long distance to the guy via telephone (back in a day where it made a difference that phones were far apart) and compared notes on power. I asked him to describe the results when he applied his thumper pulses to his television screen... again, this was before flat screens so that you'd wiggle a magnet in front of a computer monitor or TV and it would produce all kinda weird patterns. His thumper was effective within a foot or so. Meanwhile, I was twirling a couple of not all that strong cylindrical magnets two feet from my screen and it was going nuts. My magnets were like the size of a pack of Life Savers. These were suspended from my fingers by a loop of rubber band which I could then twirl. Wind and then it would unwind, kind of thing.

Point is, experiment with infected sores by waving the sore part back and forth by a neo magnet. Or, build a little rubber band twirler and try it out next time you have, say, a toothache. Twirl it by your teeth and see if it kills off the tooth caries.


My reply:

I don't think it's true that magnetic fields kill microbes. And if the incredibly weak magnetic fields from natural electrical activity in the body made life "tough" for microorganisms, walking past an electric oven would kill all the beneficial flora in your gut.

With regard to the magnetic "thumpers", the big question is, "How do the pulses know good bacteria from bad?"

(It turns out that magnetic "thumpers" are also known as "pulsers", and are quite popular among people who usually also believe that Hulda Clark and/or Royal Rife could actually cure just about everything with their electrical "zappers".)

If sinus infections never went away by themselves, then curing one with some gadget would be impressive. When you're dealing with diseases that do go away by themselves, and don't even have clear endpoints or objectively measurable symptoms, though, it's not a great idea to conclude that whatever you did before the disease went away must have cured it. This sort of uncontrolled test may point you toward a real phenomenon that you can then investigate properly, but all it proves by itself is that whatever you did before the disease went away didn't stop the disease from going away.

The "thumper" idea has the same problems as many other half-baked alternative-medicine theories. Magically targeting bad bacteria while leaving good ones, a simple scientific process with Nobel-Prize-worthy effects that would have been discovered by accident ten thousand times before 1910, et cetera.

Yes, CRT monitors are very sensitive to magnetic fields. Which is good, because otherwise the dot would just sit there in the middle and you'd have to wave the whole monitor around really fast to make an image! (You could, to be pedantic, use oscilloscope-style electrostatic deflection instead of magnetic deflection. But electrostatic deflection can't bend an electron beam nearly as sharply as a magnetic field; a 26-inch electrostatic-CRT TV could easily be six feet deep.)

Magnetic fields affecting electron beams are a real physical effect, discovery of which was an important, and inevitable, part of the development of human knowledge about electromagnetism. William Crookes (of the eponymous radiometer, among other things) probably did the magnetic-deflection trick first, but if he hadn't, someone else would have (and, indeed, did), well before the end of the 19th century.

Magnetic fields of modest strength affecting biological organisms, on the other hand, is a claim frequently made, which could easily be tested in a kitchen with less than a hundred bucks worth of basic scientific equipment, but which has never thus been proved.

(You can set up a pretty respectable molecular biology lab for under $US1000, these days. Praise eBay!)

If you walk through a really monstrous magnetic field - the kind with big warning signs about not entering the room unless you've ditched every metal object on your person, even if you're willing to sign an affidavit saying that those objects are not ferromagnetic at all - then you're likely to feel funny. Focused and pulsed magnetic fields directed into the brain can also create peculiar effects. Pulsed magnetic fields may even improve healing, though the verdict isn't quite final on that one yet.

But even magnetic fields so powerful that the feeble diamagnetism of water becomes sufficient to levitate living creatures do not, so far as anyone can see, kill so much as one lowly bacterium.

The notion that field strengths that aren't sufficient to rip a belt buckle clean through the leather could somehow kill germs is, thus, exceedingly difficult to defend.

I cordially invite you to set up some Petri dishes and conduct your suggested tooth-decay experiment. You may be the one who makes the breakthrough!

Tom replied:

I appreciate your thorough and helpful reply. However, I'm not coming from any place of proof. Just suggesting a possibility. As to selectively killing bad flora, that idea never entered my head. The point is that possibly there's something in the idea to consider rather than criticize.

As to a notion you seem to entertain I'll paraphrase as, "If that idea was any good, it would already have been invented". This is a very discouraging idea. The fact is, that in 1850 a bill was put before Congress to close the Patent Office because they thought everything of worth had already been invented. Wrong. Looking back from say the year 3000 we'll see that relatively little had been discovered by 2010.

As to the use of alternating magnetic fields as a deterrent to bacterial buildup (good or bad), I'd be willing to bet that in the not too distant future, it will be determined that the relatively strong magnetic fields used for MRI are curative of certain chronic disorders.

As a youth, my mother told me repeatedly that my ideas were probably already thought of. However, in 1971 I thought up something called the boogie board, and created its manufacturing process. 20-50 million of them have since been built.

Anyhow, best wishes.

Thanks for not flying off the handle over my typically "thorough and helpful reply" :-).

You may not be "coming from any place of proof", but neither is anybody who's postulating some new scientific claim.

I've explained why the "possibility" you mention is extremely implausible. It would be easy to test, people have tested similar claims many times, and as far as I know, it's never panned out. People have incidentally tested these claims countless times, actually; any time germs and a magnetic field are together and someone checks on the germs later, that's a test of your claim.

I mean, just to pick one example, "magnetic stirrers" are a normal piece of lab equipment. A rotating magnetic field from below a container spins a little stirring rod inside the container. Such stirrers are used in biology labs, and have been for decades. To my knowledge, no germicidal properties from the magnetic field have ever been noticed.

And, again, this'd be Nobel-Prize material. Even if you can only kill germs on inanimate objects by subjecting them to magnetic fields, that'd be a billion-dollar discovery. It'd be a wonderful alternative to autoclaving and chemical disinfectants.

So sure, possibly there's something in the idea. Possibly, Elvis is alive, and currently serving as Emperor of All the Underground Cities of Mars!

[UPDATE: Magnetotactic bacteria actually do respond to magnetic fields, and can in practice be manipulated to do strange things under magnetic control. This doesn't have anything to do with disease control, though.]

On top of the fact that this idea has been tested zillions of times - mainly accidentally, but I'm sure also deliberately; the idea that magnetism is somehow therapeutic is an old one - I've also explained why your friends with the magnetic strobe-circuit doodads are making inconsistent claims in the first place. Somehow, the magnetic fields kill "bad" bacteria while leaving the "good" ones alive.

The magnetism obviously doesn't kill the good bacteria, because otherwise anybody who passed through a strong magnetic field - or used one of these "thumper" things, in case it's field gradient or pulse frequency or something that's critical, not just field strength - would develop the same diarrhoea you get if antibiotics kill off your gut flora.

If you managed to confine the field to your armpits, though, it'd cure underarm odour!

There are quite a lot of beasties that live in and on the human body, more than a few of which would cause obvious effects if you killed them all off. And yet people who spend their whole working life right next to giant superconducting magnets, and people who work in magnet factories, and people who work next to the giant busbars in power stations and blast furnaces, do not exhibit any signs of loss of bacteria. (I'm also willing to bet that if you swab the bus bars, the surfaces of the magnets, et cetera, and culture what you find, there won't be any fewer, or any different species, of microorganisms than you'd expect.)

See also, for instance, people who believe that "colloidal silver" is some sort of cure-all. In that case they've at least got some factual basis for their claims; metallic silver has real antiseptic properties. But they go from that to saying that tiny silver particles (or concoctions that they just allege contain tiny silver particles...) will, if you drink them, be Good For What Ails You, and magically not kill any good bacteria. Which is the point where they and empirical evidence part company, and also the point where they stop making even logical sense.

David Hume's famous statement that "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence" does not mean that everybody should shut up and just believe whatever scientific orthodoxy, or the government, or some church, says. You're allowed to seek your own evidence, and to judge what evidence presented by others is plausible. You don't need a diploma to be a scientist. A scientist is just someone who does science.

But this doesn't make all claims plausible, or worthy of investigation. Life's too short to follow up on every possibility, no matter how unlikely.

Regarding the "bill to close the Patent Office" - now, see, that's not true either!

This urban legend is usually presented as "a US Patent Office guy in the 19th Century said that everything that could be invented already had been". The version of the story that says it was a Bill to close the patent office also exists in numerous versions. Nobody can decide what year this was supposed to have happened!

Sure, maybe in the future we'll look back on our skepticism about therapeutic magnetism and wonder how we could ever have been so wrong. But nobody's noticed any germ-killing effects yet, though. And lot of people have had MRIs. And most of those people have been sick.

Scientists all over the world are combing through every possible statistical source to find something publishable. A correlation between people having MRIs and infections clearing up would be a brilliant one. No luck so far, though.

I think the relevant saying is "it's good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out".

Regarding your mother's incorrect assumption that your ideas probably weren't new - indeed, the man who says it can't be done should not interrupt the man who is busy doing it. But this does not mean that the man who says it can't be done is the one who has to put up or shut up!

I'm reminded of this:

Small child: "My mummy says when I grow up, I can be anything I want to be!"
Adult: "What do you want to be, then?"
Small child: "I'm going to be a GIRAFFE!"

You might not actually choose to dash the child's hopes at the time, but you can still be pretty sure that kid's not going to grow up to be a giraffe, a fire engine, a jumbo jet, et cetera. This certainty does not make you close-minded.

However, in 1971 I thought up something called the boogie board and created its manufacturing process.

Wait - you're "the" Tom Morey?! Awesome! If you were here in person I'd ask for an autograph!

(This still doesn't make you exempt from having to prove your scientific claims, though!)

I should have known I was talking with an engineer :-). Take care that you don't come down with "Engineers' Disease", though - the tendency for people with a high level of technical knowledge to decide that their knowledge must be applicable to specialised fields that they don't actually know a lot about. The world teems with distinguished engineers who're spending their later years in futile pursuit of perpetual motion, antigravity, cure-alls and so on.

Now, just because someone is an engineer, and now thinks they're onto something big that isn't quite in their area of expertise, doesn't mean they're wasting their time. But this does seem to be a common failure mode for human minds, and I shudder to think how much hard work has been ploughed into these sorts of hopeless pursuits.

Tom replied:

Thank you for all the kind attention. You've developed a very thorough and convincing mind.

Interestingly, you hit quite a few nails on the head. Example: Yes... at age 75 now, having dabbled in way many things, more recently I've made up my alleged mind to spend the rest of my days of developing practical transatmospheric "flight" for the common man. Although I'm making progress and excitedly so, I certainly could be pissing into a windmill or whatever the phrase is. Then again, what FUN!

Health and healing...? About all I've really figured out so far is that not smoking, not drinking, plus getting into the ocean more often than not, exposing myself to ONLY moderate exercise and yet semi-regular doses of cold water shower finishes... has kept me fairly healthy.

Even so, right now I feel like the second half of the avocado that was perfect a couple of days ago when you ate the first perfectly flavored and textured half; then put this second half in the fridge. Now, spoon in hand, ready to dive in... fridge door still open and, "Hey! Where did those stringy things come from"?

Your arguments about all the folks who are regularly working with magnets, stirring fluids in labs etc, were very thought provoking. Thank you.

The whole topic reminds me of a curious event a few years back when our apartment was inundated by ants. In fact the suckers were EVERYWHERE for blocks around; no stain or crumb was left un-munched by the buggers. Funny thing was a good many took up residence in, or at least were staying alive in, the microwave oven! I'd swing the door open, stick in a cup of hot water for tea, and notice dozens of ants meandering around in there. Too busy at the time to do away with any of them, I'd simply shut the door, set the timer for two minutes and bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Then open the door, take out the boiling hot tea... and damn if they'd changed at all. Still milling around, none of their little feet up in the air.

Go figure?

Anyhow, thanks for your patient ponging of my pings. Aloha, And good bye. Am going off line for the next couple of weeks, So Cal is too cold for the bones. Heading for Cabo to drink in lots of light... roll in the sand and slosh around in the sea.


The ants survive because they're too small to be affected by the microwaves, which are "micro" by radio-wave standards, but still have a quite large wavelength. That's why you can see into the oven through that perforated metal on the door, without any microwaves getting out. Note that the perforations are similar in size to an ant!

You can actually drill quite a large hole through the metal around a microwave oven, to for instance install a "lipstick" camera, without any radiation escaping.

If you just put the camera inside the oven and turn it on, the camera's electronics will die almost instantly and obvious macroscopic sizzling and sparking will be happening within seconds.

If the camera's on the other side of a hole big enough to stick your finger through, though, it'll be fine.

(Most cockroaches are juuuust big enough for a microwave to fry them, if you give it a little while. The bigger the roach, the more trouble it'll be in.)

See also the magnificent series of Unwise Microwave Oven Experiments by Bill Beaty, who's one of my heroes.

I've microwaved many CDs, but haven't yet done the fantastic beer-bottle stunt!

24 Responses to “Today, on "Surf-Celebrity Science Class"...”

  1. Johnny Wallflower Says:

    Sigh. Do you ever grow weary of the Sisyphean task of debunking the Woo? Good on you mate, and keep it up.

  2. Anne Says:

    I have to quibble with your description of levitation magnetic fields as "strong", at only a few Tesla (speaking of electromagnetic woo). But maybe that's context - for me a 108 G is "weak", in that it doesn't materially affect the spectrum of the neutron star's atmosphere; when you get up to normal fields (1012 G) it starts to show up in the spectrum, and even a lazily-rotating star starts to have huge sparks cascading above its magnetic poles. Get up to a genuinely strong magnetic field (1014 G) and atoms have the aspect ratio of knitting needles, the field has the mass/energy density of lead, and it starts releasing blasts of gamma rays that modulate the height of the Earth's ionosphere at the pulsar's rotational period from across the galaxy. Now you're talking about a strong field!

  3. Erik T Says:

    Anne, I think you're missing some exponentials. That's the only way I can make sense of the above.

  4. Anne Says:

    @3: Argh. Yes, for some reason I forgot to check that my sup tags were working. In all cases they're 10^n, so 10^8 G, 10^12 G, and 10^14 G.

  5. Chazzozz Says:

    I'm most impressed with Mr. Morey's willingness to entertain Dan's alternative viewpoints instead of doggedly pursuing his own. Although the rhetoric tossed about by the usual quacks (and Dan's ripostes) can be quite entertaining, this has to be by far the most pleasurable post of this type I've seen yet.

    It's obvious that Tom is still keeping an open mind, but also still keeping a firm grip on his brain. Goodonya!

  6. Stuart Says:

    @Johnny Wallflower

    He doesn't grow weary of it - he loves it. The only way he could be any more pleased if is his correspondent was suggesting a magnet's role in power factor correction of engine electronics to increase the efficiency of homoeopathic fuel additives.

  7. wbeaty Says:

    Hi Dan! Hey, after years of me telling people that insects are too short, or that they scramble past the painful microwave antinodes to seek out the cooler nodes... I realized that it's simpler. Foods are heated by RF e-fields, and metal is a short circuit. Ants would get heated by dielectric losses, but while maximum heating does occur at a distance 1/4lambda (3cm) from the metal walls, at the walls' surface it's zero. Ants lay low to avoid cooking, but the thicker the bug, the hotter its back becomes.

    About weird EM biochem phenomenon: the lack of effects is a long-running myth. Low-freq EM fields have demonstrable effects on chemistry (and papers in the literature,) though nothing resembling the crackpot claims. I recall mid-1990s Tamoxifen cancer drug found harmed by milligauss fields. In 2004 someone here at UW produced DNA-break defects in neurons exposed to milliTesla 60Hz b-field above a certain threshold. Recently 100khz was found to kill dividing cells if the cells are necking down just prior to pinching off. I can track down these refs if you want. The bioeffects of AC b- or e-fields for decades was a 'taboo' research area because "electrical healing" in pre-1940s was a totally disreputable field populated by scammers and crackpots. It took fifty years for the taint to wear off to the point where legit scientists could chance doing research without becoming laughingstocks.

    Ah, here's the last one: 2007 100-KHz fields inhibit tumor growth.

  8. zedd02 Says:

    Slightly off topic, but my friend and I had a great discussion on the implications of the commonly occurring "bad" bacteria, etc. Of all the bacteria we've found, the bad (staphylococcus, E. coli, etc) only really affect you if your immune system is in relatively bad shape already, and these bacterial elements get out of balance. Otherwise, the human body continues on working.

    Even in it's worst form, the human body is resoundingly strong against most bacterial infections. Bacteria just doesn't cut it. And, of the billions (or perhaps trillions) of bacteria who swap DNA continuously, only a small handful (less than 1000) are actually significantly dangerous enough to be threatening to humans. Not saying that being able to cut bacterial infections isn't good, but that's a really tiny target to try and remove.

  9. Alex Whiteside Says:

    Microwave chemistry's a disputed zone at best. Last year I read about an elegant experiment that decoupled the thermal and nonthermal effects of microwave heating and found no difference. Last month, I read a new paper showing that a significant nonthermal effect should be present from simulations. Go figure. Maybe an experimentalist would have a stronger feeling about the evidence value of that simulation. ;)

    I'm going to go down and hug the NMR on a precautionary basis, anyway. I need to use my debit card less.

  10. Alex Whiteside Says:

    wbeaty: The microwave lining isn't a "short circuit", it's a reflector. That's a necessity to create standing waves in the cavity. Thus there could just as easily be a high intensity at any given point of the microwave lining as a low intensity.

  11. Red October Says:

    Hrm... A buddy of mine once succeeded in microwaving a bee. Much like our friend with his cup of hot water, he put his burrito in with the bee at first, only to have it more or less ignore the kilowatt or so of radio energy that should have been pulsing through it. When the burrito was cooked he took it out and let the bee have a minute of exposure on its own, which caused it to almost immediately explode quite fantastically. I am not certain, but I think that if you have something else in the microwave significantly larger than the thing you want to experience the unpleasant effects of having all its water mollecules danging a jig, then the larger thing will act as a sort of "sink", making the desired results take a lot longer. Again I am not certain of this. I am certain, though, that if you explode a bee in the microwave, your wife will cunt you out over it, even though if the bee were NOT in the microwave she'd have demanded you kill it. Life's funny.

  12. wbeaty Says:

    > The microwave lining isn't a "short circuit",

    Of course it is; that's how all mirrors work. Mirrors short out the e-field: they present a very low impedance to the e component parallel to the mirror, and a perfectly conductive plane will produce 100% reflection. The 3D standing wave pattern in the oven is determined by the 2D boundary shape; a metal surface which acts as an e-field node (a minimum.) The 1-D analogy is a waveguide with one end terminated by a zero-ohm short. The first node is at the reflector's location, with the first antinode 1/4lambda away, and so the dielectric heating of small objects near the shorting plane is ~zero. If an ant's height is easily be a high intensity at any given point

    The intensity at the entire metal surface is zero, and the pattern of standing-wave antinodes is positioned at least 1/4 wavelength away. Analogy: grab an old telephone handset and wiggle the coil-cord up and down at resonance to produce a fixed number of standing wave antinodes. The unmoving telephone base is the short circuit; the zero-ohm reflector, and your hand is the microwave source. The deflection of the cord is analogous to e-field intensity. There's a node (minimum) at reflector's location. In 3D it's similar: a plane-shaped node exists at the oven's metal surface, and all the maxima are out in the chamber away from the metal.

  13. Erik T Says:

    The obvious way to test this theory would be to spill a little puddle of water on the very floor of the microwave. I just did this. 20sec of microwave-time had the (maybe 3cc) puddle too hot to touch. The puddle was no more than 1.5mm high. The metal immediately underneath the puddle was likewise rather warm, while neighboring metal was cold to the touch.

    I encourage others to try to duplicate this experiment and confirm my results; while I am sympathetic to discussions of standing waves, reflectors etc, the idea of a non-heating zone on the boundaries of the microwave seems quite at odds with my test.

  14. Erik T Says:

    Of course, no responsibility for possible damage if you decide to run the thing empty for ten minutes and then burn your house down etc etc etc...

  15. Simon Says:

    > The obvious way to test this theory would be to spill a little puddle of water on the very floor of the microwave. I just did this.

    The flaw in this being that if your microwave is anything like mine, the floor itself is plastic (and probably pretty much transparent to microwaves); with the actual metal reflector presumably being some few millimetres at least below that.

  16. Erik T Says:

    Hmmm, true. Well, mine's not :)

  17. corinoco Says:

    Post #2 is a perfect example of why I love teh Intarwebs.

  18. tantryl Says:

    Anyone else kind of want Dan to come down with Engineer's Disease when he's older, just to see the kind of elaborately dense conceptual craziness would come out?

  19. arteitle Says:

    Dan, I may be misreading it, but when you say:

    If sinus infections never went away by themselves, then curing one with some gadget would be impressive. When you're dealing with diseases that don't go away by themselves, or even have clear endpoints or objectively measurable symptoms, though...

    don't you mean:

    When you're dealing with diseases that go away by themselves, or don't even have clear endpoints or objectively measurable symptoms, though...

    [Yep - I screwed that one up pretty good :-). Fixed now. Thanks! -Dan]

  20. wbeaty Says:

    > The obvious way to test this theory would be to spill a little puddle of water on the very floor of the microwave.

    And then compare it with bare dry metal, and with a puddle lifted 1cm, 2cm, etc. Perhaps use a very thin plastic tray, so the metal and water are kept separate. In an empty oven, small bits of water can boil explosively.

    Note that in an empty (high-Q) oven chamber, the field strength becomes quite enormous, and the oven walls as well as the glass tray are rapidly heated. Glass and metal start behaving like resistors. A more ideal model would include a small load, where a cup of water is quickly boiled while the oven walls remain fairly cold.

    > non-heating zone

    We'd see how large the effect of resistance of the steel surface might be. Perhaps in an empty oven the ants become quite hot! In the ideal model, the walls have finite surface current, zero e-field, and are infinitely conductive. A thick copper plate would more closely approach this, while thin steel might not!

    Antinode pattern test: find some thermal printer paper which will blacken in boiling water. Lay it on wet card stock, nuke it, and the black patterns of standing waves appear. Compare at different distances from the metal surface. (If your nuker has a permanent plastic tray, then turn 90deg and use the metal walls.)

  21. Alex Whiteside Says:

    Ha, I guess my mental analogy of it being like the particle in the box problem misled me. Thanks, wbeaty.

  22. Popup Says:

    Actually, Alex, it's quite similar to 'particle in a box', in that the Schrodinger equation has roughly the same solutions as Maxwells equations (at least in sufficiently simplified cases - one dimension - infinite walls - friction-free vacuum.)

    And the absorbed power in a microwave is proportional to the square of the E-field, just like the probability-distribution of a particle-in-a-box is the square of Ψ.

    But, as wbeaty points out, this would rely on the microwave oven wall being a perfect conductor. I think it will actually absorb a non-negligible amount of power, and heat up significantly - especially if there's nothing else in there.

  23. TwoHedWlf Says:

    The schroedinger equation says that an ant in a microwave exists both an exploded and unexploded state until you open the door and look in.:P

  24. Major Malfunction Says:

    I'll just stick with my magnifying glass.

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