Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for proving cell phones can't cause cancer.

In 1905, an obscure patent clerk in Switzerland wrote four scientific papers, any one of which would have guaranteed his future fame. The clerk’s name was Albert Einstein. His four papers:

  • proposed that energy exists in discrete levels called quanta (the photoelectric effect),
  • demonstrated that the microscopic quiverings of small particles (Brownian motion) could be explained by the atomic theory,
  • proposed changes in the laws of mechanics for bodies traveling close to the speed of light (special relativity), and
  • demonstrated the equivalence of mass and energy (E = mc^2).

When the Nobel Prize committee chose to honor Einstein in 1921, they selected his work on the photo-electric effect – work that effectively demonstrates why cell phone signals cannot cause cancer. Einstein argued that electromagnetic waves come in discrete packets of energy called quanta or photons. The energy associated with each quantum or photon  is E = h f where “f ” is the frequency and “h” is Planck’s constant. The higher the frequency, the higher the energy associated with the photon.

Some electromagnetic waves with high enough frequencies – ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma rays – have photons with high enough energies to rip through and disrupt molecules. This “ionizing” radiation can potentially rearrange your DNA – causing a mutation that makes cells cancerous. We’re all bathed in low levels of ionizing radiation all the time, but the body can usually cope  with and repair the damage. Too much damage can overwhelm the body’s natural repair mechanisms. That’s why we should all minimize our exposure to sunlight (ultraviolet), X-rays, and Gamma rays. The energy of cell phone photons, however, is too low to induce molecular changes of the kind that might cause cancer.

An example might help. If someone drops a ten pound bowling ball on your skull from a height of ten feet, the impact will probably kill you. The energy is concentrated in a single impact that does lots of damage. Take the same ten pounds in the form of plastic BB’s. Drop individual little BB’s one-by-one from the same ten foot height. By spreading out the energy of the impact you avoid any harm. You might find it annoying, but it won’t hurt you. Cell phone photons are like those BB’s – too small to do any damage.

It’s also important to understand the relative power involved. A typical cell phone has a total transmit power of 0.6 W. Assume all of that goes into heating up your brain. A typical person who eats 2000 food calories a day is generating about 100 W of power. Of that amount, about 20 W of power are being generated continuously by your brain. Take a run or engage in vigorous exercise and that number can go as high as 1 kW for a trained athlete in a short burst. The body has no trouble coping with and dissipating thermal energy at these levels. Compare that 0.6 W cellphone to standing in the sunshine. Sunshine has a power density of about 1300W/m^2. An iPhone is 11.5 x 6.1 cm in area. You’re exposed to about 9 W of sun power through every iPhone-sized patch of sun-exposed skin. And some of that sun power is made of ultraviolet photons that really can cause skin cancer.

Bernard Leiken’s “Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?” does a brilliant job comparing the energy of cell phone photons to biological energy levels.  Leiken argues persuasively that there can be no mechanism based on the currently understood laws of science that can account for any causal mechanism between cell phone signals and cancer.

Elsewhere on ÆtherCzar, I’ve discussed:

  • Antennaphobia – the irrational fear of cell phone towers (Hint: they have even lower RF power exposure than the phone you put to your head).
  • Nineteenth Century Antennaphobia – an early incident of RF paranoia from the memoirs of a Marconi associate, and
  • SAR Labels for Cell Phones? my take on the complete irrationality of requiring specific absorption rate (SAR) labels for cell phones.

Hans

Hans Schantz is CTO of The Q-Track Corporation, and a co-inventor of NFER® technology. His prior work experience includes stints with IBM, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, The ElectroScience Lab of the Ohio State University, and Time Domain Corporation. Author of The Art and Science of Ultra-wideband Antennas (Artech House, 2005), his forty U.S. patents include antennas, RF systems, RF-based location systems, and related inventions. He is a Senior Member of the IEEE, a member of the Institute of Navigation, and an amateur radio operator [KC5VLD]. Schantz earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He also holds degrees in Industrial Engineering and Physics from Purdue University. Dr. Schantz blogs at ÆtherCzar and is @ÆtherCzar on Twitter. His wife, Barbara, invented The Baby Dipper® Bowl. Hans and Barbara have two sets of twins: girls aged nine, and boys six years old. The views expressed are the author's and are not necessarily the views of his employer, clients, investors, sponsors, or customers.

  5 Responses to “Einstein’s Nobel Prize: Proving Cell Phones Can’t Cause Cancer”

  1. Nice explanation, Hans. My favorite one is when people say that cell phones use microwave radiation, and we all know that microwaves boil water….we’re basically cooking our brains by using a cell phone! Um…yea, right.

  2. There are thousands of studies by the Russian & US military dating back to the 1930′s that prove Einstein wrong– Or at least prove you wrong–
    More information about the biological effects of non-ionizing radiation from wireless technology is coming out every day. Enough is not being done by cities, counties, states and the Federal Government to protect us from the potentially devastating health and environmental effects. Through the 1996 telecommunications act the telecoms are shielded from liability and oversight. Initially cell phones were released with no pre-market safety testing despite the fact the Government and the Military have known for over 50 years that radio frequency is harmful to all biological systems (inthesenewtimes dot com/2009/05/02/6458/.). Health studies were suppressed and the 4 trillion dollar a year industry was given what amounts to a license to kill.
    On it’s face, the 1996 telecommunications act is unconstitutional and a cover-up. Within the fine print city governments are not allowed to consider “environmental” effects from cell towers. They should anyway! It is the moral and legal obligation of our government to protect our health and welfare? Or is it? When did this become an obsolete concept? A cell tower is a microwave weapon capable of causing cancer, genetic damage & other biological problems. Bees, bats, humans, plants and trees are all affected by RF & EMF. Communities fight to keep cell towers away from schools yet they allow the school boards to install wi fi in all of our schools thereby irradiating our kids for 6-7 hours each day. Kids go home and the genetic assault continues with DECT portable phones, cell phones, wi fi and Wii’s. A tsunami of cancers and early alzheimer’s await our kids. Young people under the age of 20 are 420% more at risk of forming brain tumors (Swedish study, Dr. Lennart Hardell) because of their soft skulls, brain size and cell turn over time. Instead of teaching “safer” cell phone use and the dangers of wireless technology our schools mindlessly rush to wireless bending to industry pressure rather than informed decision making. We teach about alcohol, tobacco, drugs and safe sex but not about “safer” cell phone use. We are in a wireless trance, scientists are panicking while young brains, ovaries and sperm burns.

  3. Nice article. One thing about your statement that “The energy of cell phone photons, however, is too low to induce molecular changes of the kind that might cause cancer.” Lately the case is being made that the cancer is not being caused by molecular changes to DNA. See for example:

    http://www.sott.net/articles/show/202641-Warning-Your-Cell-Phone-May-Be-Hazardous-to-Your-Health

    There was a nice discussion on Slashdot taking this apart and showing why it also doesn’t make any sense, here:

    http://mobile.slashdot.org/story/10/02/06/2238247/Studies-Find-Harm-From-Cellular-and-Wi-Fi-Signals

    and in particular here:

    http://mobile.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1540200&cid=31048696

    • I’d heard of the microwave auditory effect, and Wikipedia has a good article on it. But again – that appears to be a thermal effect. The Slashdot links you provided had a great discussion of the physics of how electromagnetic waves could impact protein folding, along with reasons why that is unlikely. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Did Einstein know that people can hear microwaves? I’ve wondered what he would have discovered if he had only known.
    Lab rat speaking; microwave auditory effect is more than thermal heating to acoustic pressure wave – some kind of energy is being initialized. I don’t know if it causes cancer but it does hurt.

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