Thomas Jefferson said in letter to his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, “besides the comfort of knowledge, every science is auxiliary to every other.” So basically what an entomologist learns about bee behavior can help computer scientists and what a chemist learns can help biologists and yes, what a nuclear physicist learns can help cancer researchers. And I will give a few examples.
I see over and over again the accuracy of our 3rd president’s words. I see it as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) here at Jefferson Lab (JLab) where I work to make sure that the new methods and technologies we develop for nuclear physics research have opportunities to make our lives better in ways unrelated to their original purpose. I also experience it first hand as a research scientist.
Who could have guessed that work I did as a physicist could relate to the work of my wife, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator? Certainly not Jill, my wife, who rarely shows the excitement over my work that I think it deserves. But a few years ago, I developed a nuclear medicine imaging-based detector that my colleagues at the College of William and Mary used in ways that added to our understanding of diabetes – a connection.
Let’s Talk About Nuclear Physics in Medicine
So what does nuclear physics have to do with medicine and health care? Nuclear physics researchers have gained important knowledge and developed cool tools that have led to life-changing diagnostic and treatment methods. Everyday doctors and hospitals apply these methods to help keep you and your loved ones healthy.
Looking inside of you. New nuclear physics detectors have led to improved imaging systems, including 3-dimensional diagnostic methods that peer into your body to detect cancer and other diseases. Chances are very good that either you or someone you care a lot about has benefited from these methods: X-ray computed tomography (X-ray CT), positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). In future posts, I’ll discuss these powerful imaging tools that were put into the hands of doctors thanks to physicists.
Treating cancer. The technology developed to do nuclear physics research and which makes the JLab electron accelerator possible can also be used to treat cancer. The precision needed to direct beams of electrons can also be used to produce beams of gamma rays, electrons, protons or ions that can be very effective for zapping many types of cancer. This is particularly true for cancers that are very difficult to remove surgically.
Now Dig This
Nuclear physics has been connected with archeology for a long time. Most people have heard about carbon-14 dating (not to be confused with online dating). Carbon-14 dating, which is related to radioactive decay of the nucleus of an atom, helps archeologists determine the age of certain artifacts. But have you heard that nuclear physics has been used to search for unknown chambers in pyramids? Physicists are using cosmic rays that rain down on the earth and produce high energy particles called muons to make an “x-ray” of the Khufu pyramid in Egypt. The technique is called cosmic-ray muon radiography. This pyramid is the last remaining “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” and we still don’t understand fully how the Egyptians built it. So by using the “great accelerator in the sky” and nuclear physics to search for hidden rooms in pyramids, archeologists are getting closer to understanding how ancient peoples were able to build such incredible structures over 4000 years ago.
Connections and More Connections
There are many other examples of how nuclear physics is connected to other sciences; from understanding photosynthesis to developing new environmental waste treatment methods. The list goes on and on. I will touch on more of these surprising connections in future posts.