Sometimes the products of the human mind can be awe inspiring
while at other times they can be rather depressing. This time of
year brings out the latter. Last Friday I filed my federal income
tax forms electronically using TurboTax, thus enjoying the
technological fruits of the silicon chip and the Internet. On the
other hand, I did not enjoy the many hours spent gathering and
inputting the data to comply with our Federal Tax Code. The
day after filing my tax forms, after our customary morning mall
walk, my wife and I got to see the Tax Code in person. A fellow
mall walker works for the Internal Revenue Service and for some
time had been promising that he would bring in the official
Federal Tax Code. He did so on Saturday.
The paperbound code was, I would guess, about 2.5 to 3 inches
thick and contained 9,490 pages! I don’t recall ever holding a
book with almost 10 thousand very thin pages. But even more
astounding was the print, which on many pages was so small as
to be at the limit of my ability to decipher as letters of the
alphabet! The term “fine print” has a new meaning for me. Our
IRS friend pointed out that, while this was the actual tax code,
there are 4 or 5 additional volumes of “regulations” the IRS uses
to interpret the code! He also noted that Congress, not the IRS,
writes the code. The IRS just enforces it. Nobody in the IRS
could possibly know in detail more than a small fraction of the
code. This explains incidents I’ve heard or read about where
taxpayers have called the IRS and gotten incorrect answers to
their questions. And, since lawyers wrote the code, it takes
lawyers or highly trained CPAs to understand the code.
Some (I don’t know who) might consider our federal tax code an
example of a monumental human “achievement”. After seeing it
in person, I became an instant supporter of a “flat tax.” Last
week also brought to mind an achievement of the awe inspiring
type that was not the work of thousands of legislators laboring
since 1913, when our federal income tax came into being. This
achievement involved only a few very bright and dedicated
scientists. One of them, Paul Lauterbur, died last week at the age
of 77. Lauterbur played a key role in inventing and developing
Magnetic Resonance Imaging, MRI. I’ve written in the past
about a brief contact with Lauterbur and how MRI played an
important role in my life.
In my column of 9/26/2000, I wrote about attending a celebration
of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Chemistry
Department at the University of Pittsburgh, where I did my
graduate work. At the celebratory dinner my research professor,
Ed Wallace, got an alumni award for a distinguished scientific
career and service to the school. At the dinner, I sat next to Paul
Lauterbur, who was a complete nonentity to me. He was a very
pleasant person and I enjoyed chatting with him. When he was
introduced to receive his own alumni award, I was shocked to
hear that he was being honored for his invention of MRI.
Three years later, in 2003, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer,
with MRI providing the defining images that led to my surgery.
Lauterbur, incidentally, died of some sort of kidney disease.
Shortly after my surgery, the news came that Lauterbur had
shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work
on MRI (see column of 10/9/2003). In a following column
(10/16/2003), I wrote about one Raymond Damadian, who made
headlines when he took out newspaper ads complaining that he
should have been included with the other two Nobelists for his
own work on MRI.
As we’ve discussed before, MRI is based on nuclear magnetic
resonance, NMR. A simplified explanation of NMR is that in a
magnetic field certain nuclei, say of hydrogen, line up in the
field. When a beam of radio waves hits these nuclei they are
“knocked” out of alignment. As the nuclei return to align with
the magnetic field, they give off weak radio waves and these
waves are treated electronically to give images of the positions of
the nuclei. It’s more complicated than this but this explanation is
good enough for our purposes. The term “nuclear” was dropped
from the name, not only because some (notably presidents) can’t
pronounce it, but the term engenders fear in some quarters.
Lauterbur’s seminal contribution to MRI came while he was a
professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony
Brook. The idea came to him in a restaurant and he sketched his
Nobel-winning idea on a napkin. Those working on NMR did
their best to achieve highly uniform magnetic fields. Lauterbur’s
idea was just the opposite. His idea was to deliberately introduce
a non-uniform field that would allow the location of the weak
radio signal to be determined precisely.
It took Lauterbur almost a decade to get the funds to complete
his instrument and, in what he termed “not a spectacularly good
decision”, the University decided it wasn’t worth the money to
apply for a patent on his invention! The fellow who shared the
Nobel Prize, Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham
n England, did get a patent on his contributions. Sir Peter
devised ways to obtain the now familiar 2-dimensional image
slices of the body and he also figured out how to cut the time for
imaging from hours to minutes. Anyone who has had an MRI,
with its claustrophobic and noisy aspects, will thank Sir Peter for
the latter! Mansfield became quite wealthy, thanks to his patent.
I first read of Lauterbur’s death in an obituary in the Star-Ledger.
It seemed quite fitting that it appeared on the same day last week
that the news broke that MRI scans should be run on certain
women at high risk of developing or already having had breast
cancer. One thing I found disappointing was that the fairly
lengthy Star-Ledger obituary did not mention Pitt, nor did it refer
to “Dr.” Lauterbur. Wondering if perhaps he never received his
Ph.D. from Pitt, I checked his autobiography taken from the book
“Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2003” and posted on the
Nobel Prize Web site.
After receiving his B.S. degree in 1951 from the Case Institute of
Technology in Cleveland, he went to work at the Mellon Institute
in Pittsburgh. Lauterbur didn’t seem to be particularly fond of
pursuing further academic studies but employees at Mellon could
take courses at Pitt free of charge and he did take advantage of
this opportunity. There were several Mellon employees taking
courses when I was there in 1946-1950. It was in Pittsburgh that
Lauterbur first was attracted to the field of NMR. However, he
was drafted into the Army and ended up at the Army Chemical
Center in Edgewood, Maryland.
One of his tasks there was to weigh animals scheduled for use in
chemical weapons testing. This sometimes involved him
catching goats from an open field! His experience living on a
farm in Ohio as a youth served him well in this endeavor.
Fortunately, he learned of the acquisition of an NMR machine by
the Army and, since he already knew about the field, ended up
working with other draftee scientists and even turned out four
papers on NMR while in the Army.
Finally, after the Army, Lauterbur returned to Mellon and
received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Pitt in 1962. It was on to
Stony Brook and the work on MRI that led to his Nobel Prize.
We can all be thankful that he happened to work in Pittsburgh
and happened to learn there about magnetic resonance.
Pittsburgh isn’t just the home of the Steelers!
Allen F. Bortrum