In her commentary in the April 2010 edition of P&S regarding the idea that electromagnetic (EM) fields from humans can lead to healing, Eugenie Mielczarek rightly says “Silence on this issue by physicists is a serious compromise of the scientific endeavors of physicists relating to medicine and biology.” She might have mentioned the award of a 1998 Ig Nobel prize in Science Education to Dolores Krieger, Professor Emerita, New York University, for “demonstrating the merits of therapeutic touch, a method by which nurses manipulate the energy fields of ailing patients by carefully avoiding physical contact with those patients.” The associated work (by Rosa et al. [1]) incidentally had one of the youngest authors in a modern paper. Mielczarek also mentions the claims that EM fields and permanent magnets are connected with health. The very same day that I read her Commentary, a local newspaper had a supportive article on magnetic healing. I was the physicist of a duo who wrote an editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on this topic [2]. To my surprise, the editorial was picked up by newspapers (some good) around the world (even by Al Jazeera, who reported it correctly, in English at least), and we were interviewed by radio stations from abroad. BMJ invites “Rapid Responses” to Editorials, to which the original writer replies. All of these are then published [3]. Forum readers are invited to read some of these reader letters, and see (with mingled amusement and horror) that not only laypeople are deceived. I continue to receive items about magnetic healing devices.

We have done experiments, under double-blind conditions, to see if academic physicists could detect magnetic fields at their fingertips, and the results showed no detection [4]. (However, there remains some debate as to whether physicists make a good animal model for humans).

My personal letter to friends, summarizing our BMJ experience, was “don’t invest any money in companies that sell magnetic healing devices”. In light of Mielczarek’s communication, perhaps I should crassly change my advice to “do invest, for profit”.

[1] L Rosa, E Rosa, L Sarner, S Barrett, "A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch," Journal of the American Medical Association, 279, 1005-1010 (1998) ; Emily Rosa, “Science Education Prize Acceptance Speech”, Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) 5(1), (1999).

[2] Leonard Finegold and Bruce L. Flamm, “Magnet Therapy”, BMJ 332, 4 (2006).

[3] Responses to [2]: http://bmj.com/cgi/content/full/332/7532/4#responses

[4] Steven Bogh, “Can humans feel static magnetic fields?”, Senior Honors Thesis, Drexel University (2007).

Leonard Finegold
Department of Physics, Drexel University
(215) 895-2740

I write to point out an error in the Commentary “Magnetic Fields, Health Care, Alternative Medicine and Physics,” by Eugenie Mielczarek on page 16 of the April 2010 edition of P&S. Footnote 5 is referenced at the text “ ... the web sites of prominent clinics nevertheless market [scientifically unsound] claims.” The footnote begins: “Affiliated with Harvard Medical Center is Brigham Young Hospital’s Osher Center,” and then quotes dubious claims made in course offerings at the Center. But the hospital that hosts the Osher Center is the Brigham and Women's Hospital (as Mielczarek’s links make clear); the name “Brigham Young Hospital” appears to be a University. BYU actually has no connection to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the erroneous name in the footnote may unfortunately tend to associate that university with the unsound claims Mielczarek is reporting.

Alan K. Harrison
Los Alamos National Laboratory

Response from Eugenie Mielczarek:

I thank Alan Harrison for pointing out this error; the first sentence of footnote 5 should read: "Affiliated with Harvard Medical Center is Brigham and Women's Hospital Osher Center."

These contributions haven not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.