Schrodinger's Smartphone
April 28, 2011 5:33 AM   Subscribe

A new paper by William J. Bruno of the Theoretical Biology & Biophysics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory argues that past arguments about the impossibility of biological tissue damage from cellphone signals have failed to consider a quantum effect whereby multiple photons in a small volume can have constructive interference, and that such an effect likely does occur in practice. Synopsis here. (previously)

From the paper:
Many effects have been reported from cellphone level exposures. These include sleep disruption, changes in brain metabolism that persist at least 5 minutes after use, increased risk of tinnitus, and increased risk of brain tumors and salivary gland tumors, in addition to the previously mentioned animal studies finding damage to the blood-brain barrier. For phones worn on the hip, studies finding sperm damage and hip bone density asymmetry have also been published.

Based on the physics and biology described here and elsewhere, it is not implausible that such effects could be real. In fact, it could be argued that the supposed absence of any harmful effects would be a more surprising, though more welcome, outcome
posted by crayz (40 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have the feeling that people who think cell phone radiation is dangerous have already decided what the answer is and are constructing the evidence to fit the results they want.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:46 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't see much in the way of physics in this paper. It would help if he could show us some numbers for damage due to optical tweezers and how they are likely to apply at cell phone frequencies.

The basic argument seems to be this:
Other research on the effects of phone radiations focus on thermal effects and ionising effects. The thermal effects are low and unlikely to be mutagenic, the energy of microwave photons is too low to be ionising. Ergo, there is no known mechanism by which a radiating cell phone could cause damage to human tissue.

He introduces a new damage mechanism based on the physical force caused by E field gradients across diffraction index gradients, which is the same mechanism that allows optical tweezers to operate.

I'm not sure if this would actually happen though, because cellphone emissions are not collimated. I don't see how you can have an mechanical sheer force due to intense EM gradients in the absence of a gradient.
posted by atrazine at 5:53 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


It doesn't matter. The network is more powerful the nicotine or science. even if there was conclusive evidence people wouldn't be able to put them down tomorrow because there would be so many people resisting it. We are simply too dependent upon these devices. Eventually they will kill is all. Besides think of how much more you get to do now in stout short life.
posted by humanfont at 5:56 AM on April 28, 2011


Based on the physics and biology described here and elsewhere, it is not implausible that such effects could be real.

Could be, but what I am missing from all of these theories is any rigorous clinical study of cell-phone users that would prove it. GSM has been live since 1992. There are today some 3bn GSM users on the planet. Hundreds of millions of people have been using cell phones for more than a decade. With this large number of Guinea pigs surely some statistician could prove a clear and unambiguous link between cell phone exposure and harmful biological effects.

on preview:

Ergo, there is no known mechanism by which a radiating cell phone could cause damage to human tissue.

Well there are some studies done here on Sweden which suggest that there may be some effect on the permeability of the blood-brain barrier which appear entirely plausible within the limits of the low thermal energy in the transmitted signal. If large molecules can cross into your brain, it's not cell damage, but it can't be good for you.

We are simply too dependent upon these devices.

Heh. That's what they said about the airplane.
posted by three blind mice at 6:10 AM on April 28, 2011


That's what I say about the bong.
posted by Splunge at 6:16 AM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Last year I lived in an "intentional community" (which was actually a boarding house with creepy invasive landlords, that's another story) run by a couple of old Quakers.
They would lecture everybody about how cell phones give off "Radiation!" (cue waving hands, fluttering of fingers) and forebade anyone from accessing the Internet via wireless due to the same concerns.

My dad came over to give me a ride one day and they latched onto him and gave him a long spiel about how cell towers are "Carcinogenic!". When he suggested that if they were worried they could wrap their house in chicken wire to make a giant Faraday cage (It would work but he was hoping they would make themselves look like nuts) they got all impressed and went "Ooh! Are you a SCIENTIST?!". Because, of course, the only people who know about advanced stuff like that have GOT to be scientists.

The people I've known who have been concerned about cell phone radiation have had so little background in science, they hear the word 'radiation' and immediately get scared, before they even find out what kind it is- they think it's all like what you get from plutonium.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:18 AM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


We are simply too dependent upon these devices

Speak for yourself.

I don't understand why cellphone scare stories always latch onto the theoretical basis (or lack thereof). Before trying to explain something, isn't first necessary to have a something to explain? I've yet to see conclusive evidence that cellphones are even correlated with, let alone causative of, anything medically harmful.
posted by DU at 6:28 AM on April 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Could be, but what I am missing from all of these theories is any rigorous clinical study of cell-phone users that would prove it

Perhaps you didn't look at the paper, but the paragraph directly prior to the one you quoted is full of references to actual clinical research

I have the feeling that people who think cell phone radiation is dangerous have already decided what the answer is and are constructing the evidence to fit the results they want.

You sure you're not projecting?

It might help if we discussed the actual paper in question rather than lolz at dumb people who hold superficially similar opinions
posted by crayz at 6:28 AM on April 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Oh, maybe I'm wrong about the "anything medically harmful":
Many effects have been reported from cellphone level exposures. These include sleep disruption [Lowden et al., 2011], changes in brain metabolism that persist at least 5 minutes after use [Volkow et al., 2011], increased risk of tinnitus [Hutter et al., 2010], and increased risk of brain tumors [e.g., Myong et al., 2009] and salivary gland tumors, in addition to the previously mentioned animal studies finding damage to the blood-brain barrier. For phones worn on the hip, studies finding sperm damage [DeIuliis 2009] and hip bone density asymmetry [Saravi 2011] have also been published. Based on the physics and biology described here and elsewhere [Hyland 2000], it is not implausible that such effects could be real. In fact, it could be argued that the supposed absence of any harmful effects would be a more surprising, though more welcome, outcome. Indeed although the best quality epidemiological studies (reviewed by Myong et al. 2009) see increased tumors, many other studies have failed to observe effects. Thorough analyses of the negative experiments shows that in many cases they are actually compatible with the positive findings [Morgan 2009,
Slesin 2010].
posted by DU at 6:32 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


We're all gonna die.
posted by pashdown at 6:37 AM on April 28, 2011


Before trying to explain something, isn't first necessary to have a something to explain?...

Oh, maybe I'm wrong about the "anything medically harmful"


Yeah I think it was a mistake for me to remove the footnotes from that paragraph (which is quoted in "more inside"). It seems arguable that the actual reality is there's been some fairly serious research showing harmful or at least concerning effects from cell signals, but until now physicists have argued that any such harm is impossible based on the physics of the devices/cell signals, which has led people to believe the effects seen clinically must not be real

This paper is therefore an rebuttal to those physics argument and an attempt at a plausible explanation for symptoms that have been seen clinically and anecdotally
posted by crayz at 6:38 AM on April 28, 2011


Cell phones reverse Alzheimer's

People who made use of their phone at least once a week - appeared to have a lower risk of brain cancer than those who rarely used a phone.
posted by bhnyc at 6:39 AM on April 28, 2011


It might help if we discussed the actual paper in question rather than lolz at dumb people who hold superficially similar opinions

"We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself."
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:41 AM on April 28, 2011


That Saravi paper about femur density mentioned in this one was interesting, but had so few subjects, and had to make such a stretch to find an effect...are all the studies he mentions like that? (I'm also having trouble picturing how the tweezers are making people lose bone...or, rather, I can picture it just fine, I'm just sure it's the wrong picture. Pick pick pick!)
posted by mittens at 6:55 AM on April 28, 2011


I don't hate cell phones because they might cause damage, I hate them because they cause assholes.
posted by bwg at 7:06 AM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


OK, in the paper he's talking about "photon density per cubic wavelength". Is that a good measure of anything? I ask, because my head is maybe 2-4 cubic wavelengths of cell phone photons and roughly a gazillion cubic wavelengths of X ray photons.

Also, why does anyone care about this when they are clearly responsible for numerous deaths and injury via traffic accidents? It's like worried that the eyebrow viper in you living room might carry salmonella.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:15 AM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, why does anyone care about this when they are clearly responsible for numerous deaths and injury via traffic accidents?

Culturally, it seems like we are far more terrified of cancer which can strike anyone at any time for any number of reasons, whereas it is perhaps possible to feel like one has more control over participating in traffic. Even though it is irrational to think that way.
posted by atlatl at 7:24 AM on April 28, 2011


why does anyone care about this when they are clearly responsible for numerous deaths and injury via traffic accidents?

Traffic accidents from cell phone usage are the result of operator error and misjudgement.

Possible cancer from cell phone usage would be an inherent property of using a cell phone no matter how careful or considered the operator is in their use of the device.

Big difference there.
posted by hippybear at 7:24 AM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Possible cancer from cell phone usage would be an inherent property of using a cell phone no matter how careful or considered the operator is in their use of the device.

Well... Use of a wired handsfree device vastly reduces exposure, so not inherent, no.
posted by Chuckles at 8:03 AM on April 28, 2011


Interesting clause from the iPhone manual -

"When using iPhone near your body for voice calls or for wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips, or holders that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) separation between iPhone and the body." Source.

This article may also be germane.
posted by Duug at 8:13 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't hate cell phones because they might cause damage, I hate them because they cause assholes.

Yeah, but you need one of those. Keeps you from being full of shit.
posted by The Bellman at 8:30 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


People who made use of their phone at least once a week - appeared to have a lower risk of brain cancer than those who rarely used a phone.

Perhaps most worrisome, though, are the preliminary results of the multinational Interphone study sponsored by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, in Lyon, France. (Scientists from thirteen countries took part in the study, the United States conspicuously not among them.) Interphone researchers reported in 2008 that after a decade of cell-phone use, the chance of getting a brain tumor—specifically on the side of the head where you use the phone—goes up as much as 40 percent for adults.

You can find data for whatever you want.
posted by Roman Graves at 8:34 AM on April 28, 2011


You sure you're not projecting?

It might help if we discussed the actual paper in question rather than lolz at dumb people who hold superficially similar opinions
posted by crayz at 9:28 AM on 4/28
[3 favorites +] [!]


So says crazy.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:50 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


why does anyone care about this when they are clearly responsible for numerous deaths and injury via traffic accidents?

Traffic accidents from cell phone usage are the result of operator error and misjudgement.

Possible cancer from cell phone usage would be an inherent property of using a cell phone no matter how careful or considered the operator is in their use of the device.

Big difference there.


Not in deciding where our efforts should be placed in reducing injury and death associated with cell phone usage.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:52 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ironmouth: the user's name is crayz, not crazy.

Generally, we consider making fun of people's names to be off-limit with the eponysterical exception.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:14 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


It might take decades before any conclusive research emerges to suggest that small microwave transmitters carried next to the body and used next to the brain can cause damage because the communications industry, which is way above Big Tobacco in profitability due to the very product under discussion, would prefer such things not be done, or if done publicized, or if publicized not be shamed.

You simply cannot have discussions like this and not consider the effects vested interests have on the research and dissemination of health risks.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:20 AM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


I agree that this seems very tenuous, but I also think that all these papers exploring the issue are a Good Thing.

I'm generally a technophile, and I know a reasonably large amount about this issue - that the epidemiology seems to positively prove no damage from cell phones, that the electric field potential differences in your brain are far greater when you're standing, say, near a subway track or electric line, that the physics seems to show (before this result) that there just isn't enough energy in these emissions to affect you at all.

But I think that this is an issue that needs extraordinary caution and extraordinary research. We're flooding our bodies with this very new thing, a constant wash of patterned signals containing a great information density over a wide range of frequencies. And there's only going to be more of it in future - right now it's increasing geometrically, and what happens if we have ubiquitous computing with a million dust-computers phoning home every few milliseconds?

Barring a major or minor technological collapse (which actually seems the most likely thing to me right now, but I digress), a child born today will spend their whole lives in this datawash, and we must be sure what the consequences of this will be. We need to be absolutely sure, beyond just "reasonable doubt", because it affects all humans.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:23 AM on April 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Generally, we consider making fun of people's names to be off-limit with the eponysterical exception.

Moreover, jokes are very strictly regulated.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:23 AM on April 28, 2011


IjonTichy: what I meant is that you shouldn't use people's username choice to undermine their serious arguments.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:29 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you want to know whether something has negative health effects, trust an epidemiologist, not a physicist.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:36 AM on April 28, 2011


Well... Use of a wired handsfree device vastly reduces exposure, so not inherent, no.

True, except for those pesky "worn on the hip" side effects mentioned in the FPP...
posted by hippybear at 9:43 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


We're flooding our bodies with this very new thing, a constant wash of patterned signals containing a great information density over a wide range of frequencies.

It seems you're implying that "patterned" signals are somehow potentially more harmful than "unpatterned" signals. Maybe you're carrying the "natural" metaphor into this domain? I.e., our bodies are "constantly washed" in "natural" signals, but these new "patterned" signals are something unknown, and therefore should be treated with caution. That doesn't seem warranted. Spread spectrum signalling is all about low-power signaling on top of very noisy (i.e., random) environments. It doesn't really make sense to describe these signals as patterned, in the physical sense. Logically they are, but that's after they've been received and decoded according to the algorithm.
posted by odinsdream at 9:58 AM on April 28, 2011


Makes sense to me that microwaves would occasionally sum up to deliver a powerful enough kick to make a difference in a chemical bond or reaction rate. The more sources and reflections, the more overlap and the more chance for a transient spike at an inconvenient location.

Only a few years ago, 'rogue waves' on the ocean surface were mythology; now established science. Link

That work is being extended to optical waves.

"... Freak waves are a tempting target for optical scientists because (a) optics experiments can “shed light” on the physics of the phenomenon in a laboratory setting, something not really possible with actual freak waves, (b) freaks represent a novel nonlinear optical phenomenon.

The first paper investigating the possibility of optical freak waves appeared in 2007 in Nature††, with an emphasis on testing the role of nonlinear effects in their creation. ...

posted by hank at 9:59 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Consider the metaphor of a crowded ballroom. Before spread spectrum, I'd have you stand in the middle and listen to conversation.

After spread spectrum, I'd have you do the same thing with a stopwatch. I'd ask you to write down each word you heard on the 5-second marks, regardless of where it came from. These words would spell out my message.

Each scenario contains the exact same "signal" data, but spread spectrum imposes a logical pattern on the latter without any physical difference.
posted by odinsdream at 10:01 AM on April 28, 2011


A bit more quoted from that first link:

"... Linear theories explain Rogue Waves as the additive sum of two smaller waves.... These are circumstances that occur very rarely, and can not account for the high number of Rogue Waves that have been reported over the years.

Non-linear theories take a very different approach. They try to explain Rogue Waves using equations and ideas taken from quantum mechanics. ... the Non-Linear Schrodinger Equation, is highly effective when used in optics, and - as it turns out- in explaining Rogue Waves. According to this equation, an ocean wave might start to ‘suck’ energy from nearby waves, gaining height at the expense of the surrounding waves. This could account for the ‘hole in the water’ phenomenon reported by sailors who survived encounters with Rogue Waves.

As mentioned above, all Rogue Wave theories are still very much a work in progress...."
posted by hank at 10:03 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you want to know whether something has negative health effects, trust an epidemiologist, not a physicist.

Biophysicist.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:11 AM on April 28, 2011


Makes sense to me that microwaves would occasionally sum up to deliver a powerful enough kick to make a difference in a chemical bond or reaction rate. The more sources and reflections, the more overlap and the more chance for a transient spike at an inconvenient location.

Hank - this may make sense intuitively, but it turns out that light doesn't actually work that way. You can add as many low-energy photons at the same time as you want, but it won't break a chemical bond that a single high-energy photon would. In fact, Albert Einstein received the Nobel prize not for relativity, but rather for explaining that effect.
posted by janewman at 10:53 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Bellman: "I don't hate cell phones because they might cause damage, I hate them because they cause assholes.

Yeah, but you need one of those. Keeps you from being full of shit.
"

If only that were true (everyone is full of shit once in a while; but sadly, some are full of shit all the time).
posted by bwg at 11:18 AM on April 28, 2011


It's important to note that this is emphatically not a "paper" in the academic sense of the word (ie. an article that has undergone peer review, and perhaps significant modifications). It is a pre-print draft, which means it hasn't been subjected to any sort of formal scrutiny. I would therefore be very wary of drawing any conclusions from it.
posted by gene_machine at 3:13 PM on April 28, 2011


Biophysicist.

I wasn't referring to Bruno so much as the possibly fictional physicists who supposedly said that it's impossible for microwave radiation to harm humans in low doses.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:37 PM on April 28, 2011


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