Still zero time to blog, and my co-bloggers are equally silent, so here's another blast from the past, about an awesome potential application for free electron lasers: replacing liposuction as the procedure of choice for discriminating folks desiring to rid themselves of excess baggage. Literally.
In a perfect world, bad things wouldn't happen to good people. There would be no pain, no suffering, no sickness -- and no calories. Those obnoxious little units, first introduced in the nutritional, food-related sense in the 1890s, have caused more grief for the human waistline over the ages than, say, girdles or whalebone corsets (although the latter were known to sometimes damage internal organs). Most women and -- let's be honest, now -- many men waste a fairly considerable amount of time worrying about unwanted stores of fat globules. It's no coincidence that one of the most popular features of Judgment City -- a sort of waiting room for the afterlife in the 1991 Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life -- is the fact that during your stay there, you can eat whatever you like without gaining an ounce. (That's where Jen-Luc Piquant is going for her next vacation: hello, Judgment City!)
I'm happy to report that there may be new hope for expanding waistlines and flabby thighs. Scientists at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (known affectionately as "JLab") have demonstrated that a laser can heat (read, "burn away") fat in the body without scorching the over-lying skin. This in turn could lead to revolutionary new laser therapies to treat such chronic bugbears as severe acne, artery plaque, and -- you guessed it -- unwanted cellulite. These very exciting results were presented this morning in Boston at the 26th annual meeting of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery (ASLMS). I was not actually there, alas, to witness this historic announcement in person, but I was among the many proud recipients of the JLab press release last Thursday, and have only been prevented from sharing the news with you all until now because of a compulsory media embargo. (We try to always respect the embargo here at Cocktail Party Physics. It'd just be rude to do otherwise.)
First, a few words about lasers. The question of who actually invented this useful little device is a thorny one, and the subject of many nasty lawsuits over several decades, but most would agree that the underlying fundamental physics comes to us courtesy of good ol' Albert Einstein. It was just a little idea he was developing on the side for a lark to take a break from the rigors of general relativity -- a side project that ended up spawning a multi-billion-dollar industry. In 1917 he published a paper that broached the possibility of something called "stimulated emission." (Yes, I know: it's an unfortunate choice of words. But that's what it's called, so try to keep the snickering to a minimum, 'kay?)
At the heart of a laser is a "lasing medium" -- usually a crystal of some sort, like ruby -- and if you pump the atoms in that material (oh, stop it!) with intense flashes of light or electricity, it will eventually emit the excess energy as photons. I won't go into all the complicated details here; you can find more details here and here. But the end result is a tightly focused beam of light in which all the photons are traveling in the same direction, rather than diffusing outward all willy-nilly, in every direction at once. So "laser" is short for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." (We're offering a brand new physics cocktail, called the Laser Beam, in its honor. See sidebar.)
The problem with conventional lasers is that by their very nature, they only emit light at one given frequency, which is determined by whatever material one is using as the lasing medium. JLab pioneered free electron lasers (FELs), which emit intense, powerful beams of laser light that can be tuned to whatever wavelength (color) of the electromagnetic spectrum one needs for the purpose at hand. This makes an FEL incredibly flexible and therefore useful for a broad range of applications, including processing plastics, synthetic fibers, electronics components, and all kinds of cutting-edge materials with unique properties. And it can do so far more cheaply than more traditional manufacturing tools. That tunability also means the instrument can be tailored to three infrared wavelengths where -- the researchers found -- fat heats up more efficiently than water, making it possible to selectively heat fat tissue with infrared laser light. They tested this capability first on actual human fat (obtained from "surgically discarded normal tissue"), and then on skin-and-fat tissue samples taken from pigs.
Jen-Luc Piquant, for one, is delighted that the good folks at JLab finally got around to addressing the dire need for new ways to get thinner thighs in 30 days -- preferably ones that don't involve any actual effort. It's about time we brought out the big guns. Just look at the size of that thing! And that's only one of the system's many components... This country may or may not be facing an "obesity epidemic," depending on which conflicting study one chooses to believe, but a quick look around the average suburban mall would offer quite a bit of anecdotal evidence in favor of the "pro"-epidemic view. Of course, excess flab isn't a new problem for the human race. Far from it. Among other notable historical figures, the English poet Lord Byron struggled mightily with his weight, despite being the quintessential ladies' man (club foot and all), and routinely went on "slimming" regimens like liquid diets.
So fad diets predate Dr. Atkins. In the early 20th century, Horace Fletcher -- a.k.a. "the chew-chew man" -- advocated controlling food consumption by chewing one's food until it was liquid. Shortly before he died in 1919, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published the first bestselling diet book, Diet and Health, which was also the first to promote the idea of counting calories to control weight -- then quite a new concept. It had only been 20 years or so since the chemists Wilbur Atwater and Russell Chittenden came up with the notion of measuring food as units of heat that could be produced by burning it. That's all a "calorie" really is: the amount of heat energy produced when the food is burned to ashes, under controlled laboratory conditions. It's not something that's actually "in" food.
The success of Peters' book spawned an entire industry. Think the Atkins and South Beach Diets were innovative and original? Think again. The emphasis on "food combinations" dates back to the 1920s and 1930s. William H. Hay, for example, believed proteins, starches and fruits should be eaten separately to avoid "acidosis." It's unclear to me what this is, but apparently it "drained vitality and led to fat." (Jen-Luc reminds me -- somewhat unkindly, I think -- that I have had boyfriends who could be considered the human embodiment of acidosis.) He also recommended a daily enema to "flush out the poisons" -- an approach that can still be seen today in the popularity (in certain elite circles) of "colonics."
With his book, Look Younger, Live Longer, Gaylord Hauser drew the admiration of the likes of Greta Garbo and Paulette Goddard with his emphasis on Vitamin-B rich foods like brewers yeast, yogurt, wheat germ and blackstrap molasses. He was also one of the first to develop his own line of special foods and supplements in accordance with that diet plan. Then there was the so-called "magic pairs" diet, extolling the supposedly increased fat-burning properties of certain food combinations, like (we kid you not) lamb chops and pineapple. Plus ca change.... We're still looking for that "magic bullet." When it comes to fad diets, there is truly nothing new under the sun. And they aren't any more or less effective than they were back then.
We bandy about the word quite promiscuously, but a "calorie" is not as tangible as one might think. In the realm of science (specifically, thermodynamics), calories apply to anything that contains energy, such as a gallon of gasoline. The calories in food are technically "kilocalories," according to how the units are strictly defined in science. For scientists, a calorie is simply the amount of energy (heat) required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), and 1000 calories is equivalent to 1 kilocalorie. So that Power Bar I just consumed for breakfast contained 270 food calories, which translates into 270,000 regular calories. And that four miles I'll be running this afternoon should burn 400 "food calories"; it sounds like a much more impressive amount when transposed into 400,000 regular calories.
For weight management purposes, it's sufficient just to burn up the calories. But all that energy released when calories are burned can also be harnessed to do some kind of useful task. For instance, prisoners in 19th century New York prisons were forced to walk on treadmills as punishment, and that energy was used to grind grain for the inmates' daily bread. I found an interesting comparison chart at How Stuff Works. It turns out that the calories contained in five pounds of spaghetti would yield enough energy to brew a pot of coffee, while those in a single slice of cherry cheesecake would operate a light bulb for an hour and a half. And if you need to drive 88 miles to visit friends or relatives, you'd need to burn the calories contained in 217 Big Macs. (Talk about carb-loading. Better start chowing down the night before.)
Back in February, I stumbled upon a fascinating short article in Wired about creative ways to harness the energy from gym exercise to perform useful functions. An artist named Laurie Palmer began musing about all the wasted energy being produced in gyms all across the country, by Americans on stationary bikes, elliptical machines, or treadmills. So she set up the online "Notions of Expenditure" project a year ago, in which people can contribute their ideas for turning exercisers into generators of energy. Unfortunately, unless you're Lance Armstrong, it's not a lot of energy: most people on a stationary bike only produce between 75 and 150 watts.
It all seems like a great deal of work, for very little payoff, doesn't it? Hence the appeal of the JLab approach: no muss, no fuss, no obsessively writing down every morsel that passes one's lips in a little "food diary." No special meals or supplements, elaborately orchestrated food combinations, or those telltale minute surgical scars from conventional liposuction -- just one really big free electron laser facility that hunts down fat and zaps it away without damaging one's outer layer of skin. Needless to say, Jen-Luc Piquant is ecstatic at the prospect, and is preparing to indulge in large bowls of her favorite virtual penang curry over coconut sticky rice, among other rich and calorie-laden delicacies. It's almost as it JLab's FEL has turned our world into one giant Judgment City where we can eat whatever we want with no dietary consequences. "Go ahead," she exhorts, a bit irresponsibly. "Indulge in that over sized blueberry scone. Why bother watching what you eat when you can just zap that fat away whenever you feel like it?"
As usual, Jen-Luc is letting her enthusiasm over-ride her common sense. Operating an FEL isn't cheap, nor is scheduling time at the facility as easy as scheduling a doctor's appointment -- or a visit to one's local Liposuctor. And let's not forget that for now, at least, it's just proof of principle. Commercial development of any application takes a lot more time. And money. So tempting though it may be to throw dietary caution to the wind, I think I'll stick with my tried and true Thermodynamics Diet: you know, that one where you have to burn more calories than you consume to lose weight. Sure, it lacks the guilt-free ease and panache of those flashier fad diets, and requires far more actual effort. On the other hand, it has withstood the test of time.