Human Gamma Rays

Victor J. Stenger
For Reality Check in Skeptical Briefs December, 1999
Draft of October 7, 1999 3:31 pm

A recent article called "Gamma Radiation Fluctuations During Alternative Healing Therapy" (M. Sue Benford, Joseph Talnagi, Deborah Burr Doss, Shane Boosey, and Larry E. Arnold, Alternative Therapies, Vol. 5. No. 4, July 1999) could have been good science. The experimenters simply needed to know more about what they were doing.

The empirical claim is made in this paper that various kinds of "energy therapies" such as therapeutic touch, Polarity therapy, Reiki, and others can be empirically shown to reduce the amount of gamma radiation from a human body. This is purported to represent a clue as to how these therapies may work, by "redirecting" energy flows.

In the reported experiment, a single Sodium Iodide gamma ray detector registered counts as it was moved from a point in space near the patient's head to the pelvic area. Ten standing-observer, ten sham therapy, and ten active therapy sessions were conducted. "Polarity therapy" was used in which the therapist attempts to realign the "vital energy . . . that is innate to all living beings." The detector was attached to a recording device. The authors claim a consistent and dramatic decrease in the number of gamma rays
measured in a subject's electromagnetic field during Polarity therapy

Now, the experiment did not demonstrate that the human body emits gamma rays in any significant amount. This, by itself, would have been a result that defies known physics and worthy of headlines. Actually, if such a phenomenon existed, it would have been discovered long ago. For decades, physicists, who are nominally humans, have been standing next to gamma ray detectors far more sensitive than the one used here.

Gamma rays are photons, quanta of electromagnetic radiation, with energies of a hundred thousand electron volts or more. Only nuclear reactions are known to produce particles with such energies. The human body contains some radioactive material, but the level of radiation is so small that it is very difficult to detect. Even so, that radioactivity is essentially no different than what can be found in a rock or seawater and has nothing to do with the fundamental biological processes of living matter. These are chemical in nature and involve much lower energies, in the range of a few electron volts. Furthermore, no evidence exists for any special vital energy and no reason to associate any such hypothesis with gamma rays (see my column "The Energy Field of Life." SB Vol. 8, No. 2, June 1998 and my article "Bioenergetic Fields," Sci. Rev. Alt. Med. Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring/Summer 1999).

In any case, the experiment reported in Alternative Therapies was far too crude and insensitive to measure nuclear gamma radiation from anything. Any nearby physics professor or graduate student would have recommended, first of all, that the experiment be conducted under a shield, say in a sub-basement but more preferably underground in a mine or tunnel under a mountain. This is necessary to eliminate cosmic ray background, which is most likely what they were measuring with their setup.

To assure that they were measuring high energy particles, the physicist would have recommended that the experimenters perform pulse-height analysis on the signal. The authors claim to have used a radioactive source to calibrate their apparatus, but they do not present any data on what the detector read in the absence of this source.

The experimenters would also have been advised that using a single detector channel was hopeless. Two detectors operated in time coincidence is a bare minimum for any nuclear counting experiment. Other provisions, such as a magnetic field to deflect away charged particles (gamma rays are electrically neutral) and some kind of directional information, which can be done with a multiple-counter arrangement, would be highly recommended. Otherwise the detector will be overwhelmed by the far greater number of low energy cosmic ray particles passing through.

The intensity of cosmic rays falls very steeply with energy, and any number of small effects such as temperature or moisture changes in the lab will cause the signal in a single detector to fluctuate widely, far more than expected from the normal statistics that was assumed in the analysis of the data in this experiment. Their claim of a statistically significant result is unjustified. All this stuff is well known, but you have to take a lot of physics and math courses to learn it.

In short, the experiment may be feasible. But the way it was done was too crude, too lacking in the most rudimentary controls, to be taken seriously. The authors appear to have succumbed to the fatal temptation of seeing what they wanted to see.

Thanks to Dr. John E. Dodes for alerting me to the paper and commenting on a earlier draft of this column. Thanks also to Professor David Yount for his comments.