IUBio Biosequences .. Software .. Molbio soft .. Network News .. FTP

Neurobiological revisionism

GREGORY C.O'KELLY gokelly at delphi.com
Sat Mar 26 23:45:21 EST 1994


ELECTROMAGNETISM AND BIOLOGY

	Understanding the difference between AC and DC in terms of electron
behavior was not possible until the electron was first understood as a par-
ticle in the orbit of the nucleus of an atom.  This approach followed from 
the quantum mechanics of Bohr and Rutherford in 1911.  From the first
speculation about atoms of electricity by Helmholtz in 1881, to the quanta 
of Max Planck in 1900 which contributed to speculation about the place of
the electron in the atom, the electron was thought of as a particle.  Planck
was addressing the emission of light, and how it was given off as a form
of energy at discrete energy levels.  This thinking later lead to an under-
standing of heat as infrared light rather than something involving the
kinetic theory of atoms colliding energetically, where energy was another
irreducible given like gravity in the mechanics of Newton.  The kinetic
theory of heat was just an improvement over the earlier superstitions of
heat involving phlogiston or caloric, the underlying principles of combus-
tion and heat generation of earlier centuries.
	Rutherford and Bohr saw the electron as a planet around the solar
nucleus of the atom, unlike a Japanese physicist who saw the electrons
as similar to the rings around Saturn, or the more acceptable model
amongst orthodox physicists who saw the electron as a raisin embedded
in the pudding of the atom. 
	Treating the electron as a particle allowed new ways of considering 
the electron which made possible the understanding of the  piezoelectric 
effect, first noticed in 1880 by Pierre Curie who found that pressure on
certain substances lead to the appearance of an electric current.  In ad-
dition there was the photoelectric effect which involved the freeing of
electrons when light struck certain metals.  And finally there was therm-
ionic emission, when the heating of a metal caused the appearance of
particles, figured to be electrons. This particle approach to the electron
was later helpful in the understanding AC and DC in terms of electron
behavior, and how crystals seemed to have a rectifying effect on AC,
changing it to DC. 
	In 1925 Wolfgang Pauli devised the exclusion principle which said
two electrons with the same quantum numbers could not occupy the same
atom.  This lead to the understanding of the periodic table of the elements
in terms of atomic structure rather than chemical similarity as had been
the practice since the first appearance of the table in 1865 by Mendeleev.
	But the 1920's were perilous times for the notion of the electron
as a particle.  In 1926 Max Born introduced the idea of probability inter-
pretations of quantum mechanics.  The tide of the times amongst the
physicists was turning, and the electron was seen as more of a wave, as
with Paul Dirac's wave functions and Fermi-Dirac statistics (1926), or
Erwin Schrodinger's wave mechanics which treated the electron as a 
wave train, applying Louis de Broglie's theory that electrons behave as
waves, not particles (1926).  In 1927 Werner Heisenberg postulated his
uncertainty principle which in essence held that if the electron were a
particle, its position and momentum could not be known simultaneously.
The house of physics was again in turmoil, of the sort that always pre-
cedes change and progress.  Intellectual tranquility and stability bespeak
ossification.  Yet one physicist, Percy Bridgman argued in his THE LOGIC
OF MODERN PHYSICS (1927) that all physical concepts must be defined in
precise and rigid terms, and that all concepts lacking physical references
should be discarded.  Bridgman was soon forgotten.
	But the terminology of mechanics was still present with regard to
the electron, even in its new guise as a wave.  From Classical mechanics
physics had moved to quantum mechanics, then to wave mechanics.  Only
with the escape of particle metaphor could physics advance not only to
the understanding of the strong force of nature that lead to the creation
of explosive devices that were also beyond metaphor (accept to politicians
and generals who saw these devices as weapons), but to the understanding
of electromagnetism in mathematical, intuitional terms.
	In 1948 there was a meeting in Pocono, New York attended by the
priests of physics from Dirac, Fermi, Einstein, Teller, Bohr and Oppen-
heimer, to the new wave of physicists represented by Julian Schwinger and
Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson.  The meeting was called in order to
do something about the sad state of affairs with regard to quantum 
mechanics and how attempts to see the atom as a particle in which the
mass of the electron, for instance, could not even be determined.  The prob-
lem stemmed in part from the equivalence of mass and energy, a theory
from Einstein earlier in the century.  The result was the development of
quantum electrodynamics, the understanding of electromagnetism as a 
fundamental forces of nature which dealt with light, electricity, and
magnetism.  Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga were to  receive a Nobel
Prize in 1965 as a reward for their work.
	On a more mundane plane, however, Linus Pauling was to publish
in 1939 his THE NATURE OF THE CHEMICAL BOND, AND STRUCTURE OF
MOLECULES AND CRYSTALS.  This book was one for chemists, not
physicists, so, for it, the understanding of the electron as a particle
was adequate since it had already made possible the understanding of
the periodic table of the elements in terms of atomic structure.  In this
view the electron existed only as a particle whose existence outside of
the atom was not considerable.  The same year as the meeting in Pocono, 
however, John Bardeen and William Shockley discovered the transistor, for
which they were to receive a Nobel in 1956.  Again this knowledge was
based on the idea of the electron as a particle.  It elucidated the the idea
of semiconduction, and related the movement of electrons as particles
free of the atom, yet moving along the lattice structure of atoms of certain
substances.
	It was in the early 1950's then that Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgi, an
associate of Linus Pauling who, like him, was now working with x-ray
crystallography to determine the structure of complex, organic molecules
like proteins, observed that the crystalline lattice of certain proteins was
such that they could support the movement of free electrons like those
released in the piezoelectric effect, that is, when pressure was put on a
crystalline substance.  But it was too late for medicine to reconsider the
nature of bioelectricity.  The field had congealed with people the likes of
Percy Bridgman who wanted to suppress controversey and seek tranquility
in the house of science.  These people, in the case of bioelectricity, were
John Eccles, Alan Hodgkin, and Andrew Huxley who received a Nobel in 1963
for their study of the 'mechanism' of transmission of nerve impulses based
upon a 1939 paper by a man named Cole.  The 'mechanism' involved electrons
only as elements of negative charge on ions, that is, only as parts of an
atom.  The mechanism hilariously spoke of the movement of such a charged
molecule as an 'ion current'.  The idea is still taught today and, according
to John Eccles's 1974 THE UNDERSTANDING OF THE BRAIN, this bit of 17th
century speculation about the movement of the vital fluids tried to account
for nerve impulse propagation in up-to-date scientific terms that had
already been discarded by the physicists and left for the chemists, such
as 'ion' and a 'depolarization' that did not involve the annihilation of elec-
trical charge but instead spoke of the numerical balance of positively
and negatively charged ions in the same place.  The result was the per-
petuation of an 'understanding of the brain' that was consonant with the
total clinical ineptitude of the neurologist, an ineptitude that continues
to this day.
	Surprizingly one hears from biologists, biochemists, and physicians
how biology is not only scientific, but compatible with the 'hard sciences',
and that only the 'specialness' of living things exempts biology and medi-
cine from the rigor of the 'hard sciences', that the hard sciences are still
useful in assisting the soft or flaccid sciences in their continued attempt to understand the world and better life by making still better ways of
performing surgery and cutting flesh, or diagnosing problems, e.g. nuclear
magnetic resonance, or providing new and more expensive technologies
that will allow for increased medical costs to accompany the words, 
"I'm sorry, that's all we can do.  There is hope.  There are certain statis-
tical links....Your chances are..."
	If you are interested in hearing more about the story, I can send it to you in a readable ascii format in the paper "Biology, Bioelecricity, and the Nervous System", but with the italics and all underlining deleted - in other words, the same format you 
are now reading.



More information about the Neur-sci mailing list

Send comments to us at biosci-help [At] net.bio.net