Tag: physics

Cool Gus Science Guy, Dr Craig Cavanaugh, weighs in on a reader’s question: Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

Dr. Cavanaugh:

Hello again. Given the events since the last post… it looks like we are about to have a very radical viewpoint pushed onto the country. So… I’m thinking that whole open-mindedness portion of the previous post (Critical Thinking) is going to get tested in a major way; especially the point regarding not being required to like another person’s point-of-view. Ultimately, I believe this will stamp out our collective social apathy and lead to some really positive change… mainly realizing that people are people and that we are all on the same rock hurtling through space… why not at least try to get along? I just hope there is a country/planet worth inhabiting by the end of the next administration. Which, climate change will be the subject of a future post… but for today, I’d like to address a reader question!

Dear Resident Scientist, 
What I want to know – do phone calls from cell phones pass through our bodies? Do microwaves send waves through our bodies if one stand too close? What things – out there in the world- pass through our bodies without our awareness? What damage, if any, occurs? Cancer? 
Thank you,
Uninformed Resident

Thanks for the awesome question Uninformed Resident (though… I doubt you are uninformed… just differently informed!). When I saw this question… the first thing it made me think of was Johnny Mnemonic. The second is that this same thought occurred to me a few years back, when I started listening to audiobooks to fall asleep (via my phone and sleep headphones). While the official verdict (research science) is still out on this one, it is leaning towards NO (which I agree with). Cell phones transmissions are not carcinogenic (and neither are microwave ovens). Honestly, I am far more concerned about a battery explosion in any of my portable devices (again… a post for another day).

This question is awesome because it touches on so many topics that people know of but probably have not had time to really understand… hence the fear of cell phone ‘signals’ and cancer. My goal here is to help you to gain some understanding of these topics, in order to draw your own informed conclusions. As such… there needs to be some explanation of why & how in order to understand the reasoning. I tried like hell to write this up as a single post, but it was just too damn long. So… today, we’ll talk a bit about cancer because it is the scary part. Then… I’ll hit up the physics to show why you shouldn’t be worried about your cell phone.

But first… Johnny Mnemonic! I have to admit, that I have yet to read the short story this movie is based upon, but William Gibson is a great writer (if you are into the whole cyberpunk genre). Anyways… long story short (warning… spoilers), Keanu Reeves dumps his long term childhood memories to make enough storage space in his wet-wired brain to smuggle a giant hunk of data for a client. Of course… something goes wrong, the data gets stuck in his head, mercenary‑preacher Dolph Lundgren tries to kill him a few times, and finally a dolphin and Ice‑T download the data, saving Reeves from permanent brain damage while also restoring his childhood memories. Happy ending!

So… what the hell does this have to do with cell phone signals? Well, the data turned out to be the cure for a disease called ‘The Black Shakes,’ an insidious plague responsible for countless deaths and widespread fear/turmoil/rioting due to a lack of knowledge regarding its origin and as well as a cure. Henry Rollins (the ER doctor!) reveals that it’s caused by technology… specifically the ‘transmissions and waves’ coming from all the equipment, gear, cybernetic implants, etc. that the world had become dependent upon. Queue the dramatic music. One thing to keep in mind… is that Gibson envisioned this well before cell phones and wireless internet had become ubiquitous. So… I would venture that in our current state, humans are bombarded with more electromagnetic radiation than those inhabiting Johnny’s world. Luckily, nothing remotely similar to the ‘Black Shakes’ has arisen in our world. But, the lack of a fictional disease in the real world isn’t reassuring (or for that matter a valid argument). What about real world fears like cancer? Can the electromagnetic (EM) waves we are steeped in increase the likelihood of cancer? Well… it depends on the wave. (Precisely the sort of answer you expect from a scientist, right!)

But, before we explore the physics, there is an important question to ask… Do you know what cancer is? I’m guessing you have a great deal of knowledge regarding the many causes of cancer but are a little fuzzy as to what happens between too much sun too often and the appearance of an ill-tempered mole on your back. If we take the time to explore this a bit, then we’ll have a solid foundation to evaluate the potential risks of cell phones and microwave ovens. Granted, I’m no expert in oncology/biochemistry/etc, but in my readings, I’ve come to the very broad conclusion that:

Cancer comes down to how your cells talk to one another.

Cells are remarkable. They are tiny factories for manipulating matter at the atomic scale according to the blueprints encoded in DNA – a truly astounding feat, really… go google some of the simulations that researchers have developed to visualize the action occurring at the molecular level. These aren’t just animations… they are simulations relying upon cutting edge physics, chemistry, math, and structural biology to ‘see’ molecular reactions in action.

Back to the topic… cells are tiny nanofactories for building the proteins and enzymes necessary for our bodies to function – an amazing feat all alone – however, there is another layer to their awesomeness. Each cell in your body contains a complete copy of your DNA… thus each one is capable of producing every protein (chemical) present inside your body. However, it would make for a bad day if your liver cells suddenly decided that making liver enzymes was lame and instead started producing keratin (a component of hair and finger nails). These sort of bad days are prevented by a phenomenon known as cell differentiation, which is the process by which cells learn to read the portion of DNA required for their job. This specialization is a result of two factors. First, the surrounding environment: is it warm? is it moist? is it bright? And second, cell signaling… a complex, chemical language cells use to talk to one another.

The first factor is basically cellular natural selection – cells must live in their environment and do their job or they die and probably so do the other cells which are dependent upon them. For example, liver cells live in a warm, dark, moist place. This place is constantly flooded with high concentrations of chemicals (such as sugar, fat, alcohol, etc), and liver cells must do one of the following: process these chemicals for other cells to use; store them for future use; or package them for waste disposal. Skin cells on the other hand must thrive in a bright place while dealing with temperature changes, constant bacterial assault, and cuts/scrapes. You can imagine that liver and skin cells each need a different set of tools (proteins and enzymes) to survive… which naturally affects the portions of your DNA they access.

This differentiation via natural selection is then reinforced by cell signaling. Cells ‘talk’ to one another using concentrations of ions, proteins, enzymes, and hormones. The result is a torrent of information exchanged between adjacent cells as well as throughout your body. This communication is vital, because an individual cell cannot accomplish much on its own… the downside of playing at the molecular level. Each cell is capable of amazing feats in terms of generating complex chemicals/proteins, but the process is low volume. Thus, cells ‘want’ to have friends around because ‘many hands make light work.’ Thus, part of the communication between cells controls the rate at which they divide (reproduce). And, this is where cancer comes into play and your body becomes a Thunderdome. (just think… this all started with EM waves J… I promise we’ll get there!)

In short… cancer cells do not play well with others. They’ve lost their ability to communicate effectively and act selfishly. Cancer cells multiply and use up the surrounding resources (oxygen, energy, etc.) while ignoring their healthy, neighbors’ frantic signals, “Cut it out before everyone dies!” Cancerous cells are essentially invaders to your body. Normally, your immune system identifies an invader (think bacteria/virus/fungus) and wipes it out (another remarkable feat), but cancer cells share enough common traits with healthy cells that your immune system cannot distinguish between them. Thus, they have a free pass to run rampant.

How does this happen? It’s because as remarkable as cells are… they have no capacity for critical thinking. (kinda like a person who drives into a lake on the advice of their in-car navigation). Cells follow the strictest interpretation of the instructions contained in their DNA – no questions asked. If something happens that alters the DNA, such as missing a portion of DNA or a typo (made during DNA replication), then your DNA is considered damaged. The changes are random, and often a cell that has damaged DNA just dies because its instructions tell it to drive off a cliff (in a metabolic sense). This is no problem – the surrounding cells have procedures to handle dead neighbors. However, there is a remote possibility that the DNA damage results in an ill-tempered cell, one that is viable, can multiply (propagating its defective DNA), and no longer plays well with other cells, thus cancer blooms.

Please keep in mind that this is a very generalized view of cancer… there is a reason why we haven’t beat it yet despite all the research funding that has gone into fighting it. But, this overview gives us an idea of what cancer is (a lack of communication between cells) and what causes it (damaged DNA). Which means we are in a much better place to think about carcinogens (things that can damage DNA). The next post(s) will talk a bit more about how DNA gets damaged and how radio waves interact with your body in order to explain why you shouldn’t fear catching cancer from your cell phone (though, I can’t say the same for the Black Shakes… Henry Rollins might have been right!). Thanks for reading!


Dr. Craig Cavanaugh has a PhD in Applied Physical Sciences from the University of North Carolina. His wife, the other Dr. Cavanaugh, has a PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Colorado. Their sons, Haydn and Riley, the future leaders of the Resistance Against the Machines, read a lot.

His previous posts:  Cool Gus’ Resident Scientist Checks in with his first post

Dr Cavanaugh weighs in on Critical Thinking

Dr. Cavanaugh, our resident scientist at Cool Gus, weighs in on Critical Thinking

By Craig Cavanaugh.

I was told the first post wasn’t a complete disaster, and nobody was enraged enough about my brief foray into traffic lights to firebomb my apartment. So, let’s give this another shot.

Today, rather than picking a specific topic, I’d like to write about something a bit more general. Mainly… critical thinking. Mostly because I like to (attempt to) wield it whenever possible, but also, there appears to be a great scarcity of it in this modern world… especially in relation to the shit show that our elections have devolved into. While, I’m not old enough to appreciate some of the messes that the government and political leaders have created in the past, I’m told they were pretty much just as bad then as they are now. And, it’s possible that they were worse (and no one knew it) because nobody had a pocket-sized spying device with instantaneous access to most of the world’s population. Hell… think of the shit that still gets stirred up by Hoover and all he did was wiretap.

Anyways, back to the topic… the scary part is that a lack of critical thinking has extended well beyond politics. I have seen examples (personally and publically) where people can’t discern between fact and opinion or between reality and beliefs. Jon Oliver aired a few choice moments from the Republican National Convention. One I remember in particular was Newt Gingrich flat out denying a report by the FBI stating that on average, crime has been going down since the mid-90’s. It was almost too much… first, he said, “well, where is that report from?” And, the reporter replied, “the FBI.” Then, he says, “well, obviously they have not been to inner-city Chicago or Baltimore.” And, the reporter (a bit flummoxed) said, “there are areas that have seen a rise in crime, but we are referring to the average.” Finally, Newt retorts, “I don’t accept it.” I believe this is the adult version of sticking your fingers in your earholes and closing your eyes while shouting, “I’m not listening” at your adversary.

This behavior is excruciating to watch, because I know there are a lot of people sitting out there watching it and feeling as though Newt just used critical thinking to ‘win’ (or at least ‘tie’) a disputed point. The Newt-argument has three tactics. First, he asked for the source of the information. Second, he cherry picked data points that disagree with the trend. Third, he basically said, to hell with math and statistics, my anecdotes trump your data, therefore it is fine for me to continue spewing them as the truth. Ugh.

People feel like this is a worthy argument, because he performed a bit of mental judo. First, he questions the validity of the source, which is actually an important thing to do, because bias is actually difficult to eliminate from studies. So… he begins with what appears to be a critical argument. But, in this case… the source is the FBI, and I’m pretty sure the size of their budget is proportional to the crime rate, so… they don’t have a lot of incentive to say that crime has gone down. The issue I have with Newt’s question though… is that rather than being step one of an open minded argument it is more of a legal approach intended to distract and/or cast doubt on the real point of the discussion (though granted… if it had been a study of the crime rate in Mrs. Alexander’s first grade class, then that should indeed be the end of the argument or the start to a much more interesting conversation…). Second, he cherry picks data. This is also a distraction. We are talking about an average… of course there are data points that are above… incidentally, there are also quite a few below the average too, should they talk about those as well? Third, he finishes up by slamming the door shut on his mindhole. There is no truth outside of what he thinks. Case (mind) closed.

critical-thinking-2And, I’m not just talking about conservative politicians… I just picked a memorable instance off the top of my head. I can reach into my own anecdotal bag and talk about plenty of scientists that do the exact same thing. Out on the cutting edge of research, there is a lot of unknown. (shocking statement, right?) And, scientists constantly have meetings to devise theories of why they see a certain behaviors in a system and how to design an experiment to show one theory is more plausible than another. They have to have meetings because science is big and scary and there is a hell of a lot of data and theories in it. No one person is an expert in everything… and it really does take a village to do it properly. But, a lot of scientists use this exact same Newt-argument in place of critical thinking. When presented with something new which challenges their mental models… they ask where it’s from (who published it, what journal, etc), and if it doesn’t fall into their categories of ‘acceptable’ they ignore it and go back to gazing at their belly buttons (or building mass spectrometers or particle colliders or what-have-you). If it passes test one… they look at an equation or the data set and project it out to some extreme value that was not accounted for in the original study and state, “look it falls apart” or “this needs more work” and then go back to gazing at their belly button. If it somehow doesn’t fail the second test… then they will just say, “I don’t agree because it violates the <insert obscure theory they are the only expert in>” or (non-ironically state) “the lead author is a jerk and does bad science. Again… this is not critical thinking. This is more of what I’d call, close-minded thinking. This is the line of reasoning employed when the mind has already decided an opinion/outcome and figures out ‘a way’ to get there.

Bringing things back around… how do we actually get our thinking to be critical? Well… there is one very simple rule. If you follow it… then everything else is natural. And, the rule is to approach conversations/arguments/debates/etc with an OPEN MIND. Now, don’t confuse this with agreement or god forbid… weakness. An open mind simply allows you to look at a topic or situation from multiple points of view. Of course, you have your opinion on a topic. You even have reasons for that opinion. But, whoever you are talking to is also a person with an opinion backed by their very own reasons. An open mind allows you to acknowledge and attempt to understand their ideas through their eyes. If you practice this… then you can get really good at it and even bring in hypothetical people’s points-of-view or play devil’s advocate. The point is… this is where critical thinking lies. This is where you will develop logical counter-arguments to help support your ideas rather than burying your head in the sand and pretending like everyone else is wrong all the time. And… it’s tough. It takes effort to step away from your thoughts and try to look at a topic from a different point of view. Hell… you may even find out that your argument sucks and that you are wrong. But it’s worth it if you want to have productive interactions with people whether it is at home or work or in politics. And, I know it sounds weird. But, admitting your wrong is actually a good thing. There’s a reason why ‘the bigger man’ admits when they’re wrong. It buys you credit and trust… which in turn helps open the mind of those around you. And… then it might help sway people to your point of view when it turns out your right and they are not.

CGApprovedA great place to start developing an open mind is driving. Weird, right? How’d we go from politics and crazy scientists to driving? Well… think about the last time you got cut off so some other guy could get to the next stop light a little faster. What was your first thought? Depending on my mood… I have two responses. First is… “what an asshole (or ‘jerk’ if my kids are in the car).” This is not very helpful, and often ends up with me getting angry or in a worse mood. The second is, “he must be late for something important… maybe the interview of his life or the birth of his child.” This second one usually ends up with me thinking about what sorts of situations I might find myself in that would lead to me driving like that… which in turn cuts the other person some slack and ends with hoping that they don’t cause an accident or hurt anybody. Note… you don’t have to agree with that person’s reasoning or actions. But, the simple act of acknowledging that they have their own reasons for those actions that might be different than, “I’m a self-important prick that is going to drive like nobody else matters,” naturally opens your mind to other possibilities. Do it often enough… and you’ll find that this sort of open mindedness will creep into other facets of your life, and you might just start to have more productive interactions with other people. I’ll admit… this last sentence is not a fact. But, I can say anecdotally (from my personal experiences) that it works. Additionally, there is a growing body of studies employing fMRI which suggest the brain has a remarkable amount of ‘neuroplasticity.’ This is just a fancy way of saying that the structure of your brain can change to suit your thought practices… or in other words it is possible to change your cognitive habits if you practice. If you are interested in learning more about these summaries… check out ‘Search Inside Yourself’ which extends well beyond bringing an open mind to a gun fight.

Wow… that went on for a hell of a lot longer than I anticipated. Thanks again for reading… Next up will be something a little more concrete and interesting (hopefully).

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