Science in Society Archive

I-SIS miniseries "Fields of Influence"

Electromagnetic radiations are increasingly flooding our environment, as evidence of health risks is mounting, suggesting that organisms are sensitive to very weak electromagnetic fields.

This requires a new biology that understands organisms that has been systematically ignored and excluded from mainstream discourse, to our peril. This miniseries is in four parts:

  1. Electromagnetic Fields Double Leukemia Risks
  2. Mobile Phones & Cancer
  3. Non-Thermal Effects
  4. The Excluded Biology

Also see our next fields of influence series

The Excluded Biology

Successive reports have confirmed that electromagnetic fields too weak to cause burns and heating are linked to cancers and other illnesses. But these are still dismissed because of the presumed absence of "possible biological mechanisms" that could account for the effects. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reveals a biology that can explain the effects, but has been ignored and excluded from mainstream discourse.

There has been very little funding on research into the biological effects of weak electromagnetic fields. Investigations that are carried out encounter both methodological and conceptual hurdles. The laboratory findings have been conflicting. It is difficult to reproduce the same conditions, as ambient fields can vary from place to place and even in the same location at different times. It is difficult to control for the physiological conditions of the organisms, even if the same cell lines, the same strain of mice are used. But above all, the effects are difficult to explain in terms of known biological mechanisms.

It is true that there is nothing in mainstream mechanistic biology that would enable us to understand how electromagnetic fields below the "thermal threshold" could have any effects. That, despite the fact that consistent changes in gene expression and DNA breakages - considered to the 'most solid' evidence - have now been obtained (see "Mobile phones & cancer", this series).

The "thermal threshold" is usually taken to mean the level at which burning or heating occurs. But there is a more important meaning that comes from classical thermodynamics, a subject area that deals with energy transformation. Here, the "thermal threshold" refers to the small fluctuation in energy that occurs at random in a population of molecules at thermodynamic equilibrium.

Some biological effects are indeed associated with electromagnetic fields so weak that the energies in those fields are below the energy of random thermal fluctuations, and thus, according to classical physics, cannot possibly have any effect [1].

The big fallacy is to assume that living systems are at thermodynamic equilibrium, which they are not. Systems at thermodynamic equilibrium are devoid of organised activities or structures, such as the mixture of gases in a closed airtight container that one finds only in textbooks.

Organisms, in contrast, are open systems maintained far away from thermodynamic equilibrium by virtue of their ability to capture and store energy [2-4].

Systems full of non-equilibrium energy are excitable, ie, they need only the slightest provocation to give, at times, disproportionately large effects. Unlike typical mechanical processes where effects are proportional to, and determined by the magnitude of the force, living processes are highly non-linear and unpredictable.

The weather is an example of non-equilibrium, non-linear process. It is predictable locally in the very short-term, but not in the medium and long-term, as typical of systems exhibiting deterministic chaos [5]. Edward Lorenz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered deterministic chaos in the 1960s while trying to write down mathematical equations that could predict the weather; only to discover that his equations said predictions are impossible.

The weather is 'deterministic' because one can write down equations that describe the process; but the equations give unpredictable, chaotic behaviour. The equations cannot be solved mathematically, but they can be simulated on a computer. Computer simulations clearly show that a slight perturbation, or the tiniest difference in starting conditions, and there is no telling where the system will go. This is the 'butterfly' effect: a proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest could affect the weather in London.

Living processes are the same. The healthy heartbeat [6], the electrical activities of the brain, the behaviour of ant colonies, ecosystems, and a host of other living functions, all exhibit chaotic dynamical behaviour [7]. They tend to be quasi (almost but not quite)-periodic, the periodicities are a complex of many periods, and they can swing between different quasi-periodic states. But they are not at all random.

One can plot a 'phase-space' diagram of the dynamical behaviour and get weird and wonderful shapes called appropriately, 'strange attractors' which show there is method in the madness. The Lorenz attractor is like a pair of goggles.

We already have examples of living organisms being sensitive to very weak signals in the environment. Pesticides and other industrial poisons are associated with cancers at concentrations of parts per billion (see "Atrazine poisoning worse than suspected", I-SIS Report, October 2002).

The upshot is that many of the standard statistical tools are inadequate to cope with biological behaviour. And special statistical techniques have already been borrowed from non-linear physics in order to describe and analyse biological activities. An emerging discipline of 'dynamic diseases' is based on detecting deviations from the chaotic dynamics of healthy biological rhythms. Heartbeat and other biological rhythms can be read in rather the way that traditional Chinese practitioners read an individual's status of health from the person's pulse.

Andrew Marino, a pioneer investigator of the non-thermal effects of electromagnetic fields (see "Non-thermal effects of electromagnetic field", this series), also initiated the use of statistical methods to analyse his experiments on the basis that the biological phenomena under investigation are non-linear [8].

The reliability of the procedure was tested using pairs of untreated controls, and by sampling a known non-linear system, such as data obtained by computer simulation of the Lorenz equations for a weather system at two different temperatures.

Marino's team found that the untreated pairs of controls gave little or no statistical differences when analysed according to either the linear or the non-linear model. The data from the Lorenz equations, on the other hand, gave no statistically significant difference when analysed with conventional linear statistics, but gave a highly significant difference on the non-linear model.

In replicate experiments, male and female mice were exposed continuously to very weak, 60 Hz electromagnetic field for certain periods of time, and the effect on 20 immune parameters measured. They found that in all the experiment, exposure to the electromagnetic field resulted in statistically significant changes - in four to ten of the parameters - when and only when the response of the animals to the fields was analysed as if it were governed by non-linear dynamics.

Non-linear chaotic dynamics is not the only reason why weak electromagnetic fields should affect living systems.

Robert Becker, Marino's supervisor, had done a series of experiments beginning in the 1950s showing that the body of all organisms has a Direct Current (DC) field, and that electric currents produced all over the body are involved in controlling growth and regeneration. By the 1960s, Becker had already proposed that an electrical communication system exists within all living things, and demonstrated that externally applied fields could influence the processes of growth and regeneration [9].

The fields and currents identified by Becker were actually found much earlier by another US biologist Harold Saxton Burr [10]. He had proposed in the 1930s that all living things, from men to mice, from trees to seeds, are moulded and controlled by electro-dynamical fields, which he had measured and mapped extensively.

These fields are in addition to the now well-known and accepted electrical activities of the brain that can be measured as electroencephalograms (EEG) and in the pace-maker of the heart as electrocardiograms (ECG).

Electrical activities and ionic currents have also been measured in cultured cells and tissues. And the weak magnetic fields generated by current flows all over the body can now be measured non-invasively with the extremely sensitive Super Quantum Interference Device (SQUID) magnetometer. The evidence is overwhelming that electro-dynamical fields and currents are involved in intercommunication within the body [11]. These fields and currents are connected to and correlated with the EEG and ECG that are a routine part of conventional biomedicine.

The body uses electromagnetic signals of different frequencies and extents to intercommunicate. Hence it would be surprising if external electromagnetic fields did not have an effect. As Gerard Hyland points out [12], electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones and computers are well known to interfere with electronic medical devices such as pace-makers and telecommunication systems of airplanes. To deny that these radiation could influence the body's own electro-dynamical intercommunication system is irrational to say the least. He is particularly worried about the similarity of mobile phone frequencies to the major EEG frequencies such as alpha and delta waves, and frequencies that could trigger epileptic fits in people suffering from epilepsy.

Ten years ago in my laboratory, we found we could dramatically transform the global body pattern of the fruitfly larva simply by exposing the embryos within the first three hours of development for 30 min to very weak static magnetic fields [13]. The transformation is unique and striking: the normal segmental pattern became twisted towards a helical pattern. In one instance, a completely helical larva was obtained.

These experiments were significant for the following reasons. First, they involved static magnetic fields, so only moving charges or liquid crystals in a high degree of dynamic order could have been affected. Second, the energy in the fields were well below the threshold of random thermal fluctuations, and the only way they could have an effect is if the embryos were in an excitable, non-equilibrium state. Third, the global transformations indicate that the embryos must be coherent to a high degree. It means that all the molecules in the body of the embryo must be moving together in a correlated way, which incidentally also increased its sensitivity to weak fields.

We have repeated and extended these experiments, which suggested that the effects of weak electromagnetic fields on body pattern formation is non-classical. In other words, it suggested that the embryo is quantum coherent [14].

We have since obtained further evidence of the global coherence that exists in living organisms. The molecules are moving together so perfectly that the entire body appears liquid crystalline (see "What Barrier?" I-SIS Report November 2002).

This new biology that I have sketched out, that enables us to understand, not only the sensitivity of organisms to weak electromagnetic fields, but also the holistic health practices of many cultural traditions [15], is being systematically ignored and excluded from mainstream discourse, while we continue to be poisoned with a range of environmental pollutants and by the 'side-effects' of drugs from conventional reductionist mechanistic medicine.

Article first published 14/12/02


  1. Repacholi MH. Health risks from the use of mobile phones. Toxicology Letters 2001, 120, 323-31.
  2. Ho MW. The Rainbow and The Worm, The Physics of Organisms, World Scientific, Singapore, 1993, 1998 (2nd ed.)
  3. Ho MW. The biology of free will. J. Consciousness Studies 1996, 3, 231-44.
  4. Ho MW. Bioenergetics, S327 Living Processes Book 2, Science: a third level course, Open University, Milton Keynes, 1995.
  5. Stewart I. Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989.
  6. Ivanov P Ch, Rosenblum MG, Peng CK, Mietus J, Javlin S, Stanley HE and Goldberger AL. Scaling behaviour of hearbeat intervals obtained by wavelet-based time-series analysis. Nature 1996, 38, 323-7.
  7. Solé R and Goodwin B. Signs of Life. How Complexity Pervades Biology, Basic Books, New York, 2000.
  8. Marino AA, Wolcott RM, Chervenak R, Jourd'heuil F, Nilsen E and Frilot II C. Nonlinear dynamical law governs magnetic field induced changes in lymphoid phenotype. Bioelectromagnetics 2001, 22, 529-46.
  9. Becker RO. Cross Currents: The Promise of Electromedicine, the Perils of Electropollution. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1990.
  10. Burr HS. Blueprint for Immortality. The Electric Patterns of Life, The C.W. Daniel Company Ltd, Saffron Walden, 1972.
  11. Ho MW, Popp F-A and Warnke U. eds. Bioelectrodynamics and Biocommunication, World Scientific, Singapore, 1994.
  12. Hyland GJ. On the inadequacy of existing safety guidelines. EMFacts Consultancy, 2001.
  13. Ho MW, Stone TA, Jermin I, Bolton J, Bolton H. Goodwin GC, Saunders PT and Robertson F. Brief exposure to weak static magnetic fields during early embryogenesis cause cuticular pattern abnormalities in Drosophila larvae. Physics in Medicne and Biology 1992, 37, 1171-9.
  14. Ho MW, French A, Haffegee J and Saunders PT. Can weak magnetic fields (or potentials) affect pattern formation? In Bioelectrodynamics and Biocommunication, (Ho MW, Popp F-A and Warnke U. eds.) pp. 195-212, World Scientific, Singapore, 1994.
  15. Ho MW and Knight DM. Liquid crystalline meridians. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine 26, 251-263, 1998.

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