Robert O Becker and Gary Selden. The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the foundation of life. Morrow, 1985.
Note: Gary Selden is basically a visible ghost-writer, and he tells Dr. Becker’s story brilliantly. But the story is entirely Becker’s, and so I refer to Becker as though he is the sole author.
Some fractures just don’t heal — the broken ends of the bones refuse to grow back together. “Non-union” is a disaster for the patient, and a bitter disappointment for physicians. Fascinating and frustrated by this problem, Dr. Robert Becker ultimately devised a widely accepted technique for stimulating bone healing, using electrical stimulation. Along the way, he learned things about healing and biology that could have and should have — but haven’t yet — changed the course of medical science.
Traditionally, scientists are skeptical of any idea that connects electromagnetism with biology, because it smacks of an old, disgraced biology idea called “vitalism.” Vitalism was once a major contender for explaining the nature of life, but it was abandoned as the biochemical perspective on biology advanced and proved itself to be so powerful.
But Dr. Becker discovered that the role of electromagnetism in biology simply cannot be ignored, however out of fashion it may be. Starting his research career with questions about the almost miraculous healing abilities of salamanders, he devised one experiment after another that showed that life does interact with electromagnetic forces. We may not understand it well, and it may not be a subject of study in mainstream medical research, but it’s happening. Healing processes (such as bone union) can be dramatically altered by the application of current, for instance. But that is just the beginning. If even a fraction of the experimental results Becker describes reveal the true nature of organisms, it is clear that we have many really interesting things yet to learn about biology!Life does interact with electromagnetic forces, whether we understand it or not.
The Body Electric chronicles the progress of Becker’s exploration, from salamander experiments all the way to the profound implications about how life works. Much like Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion, the book is both a personal story about doing research, as well as a story about the science itself. It is brilliantly composed for the layperson, but also rigorously scientific in spirit. Becker’s experiments are well-designed, and he steers clear of unjustified speculation. In the second half, he discuss the implications of his research, and I am aware that other readers have complained that he gets a bit eccentric. However, I continued to find him largely credible throughout, and I am not generally tolerant of sloppy logic. I think he responsibly acknowledges his biases, identifies speculation for what it is, and keeps his feet on scientific bedrock, reminding the reader many times that hypotheses must be tested, and results must be replicated. I find it hard to believe that a researcher so determined to remind people of this can be straying too far from sensibility!
The result is a book that is a joy to read, credible and important, that stimulated my sense of wonder throughout, and left me feeling excited about the future of biology. It is also a “must read” for anyone who is interested in a potential scientific basis for Eastern philosophies that have always explained health and biology in terms of “energy” and other metaphors.
As an orthopedic surgeon, I often pondered one particular breakdown of that [healing] energy, my specialty’s major unsolved problem — nonunion of fractures. Normally a broken bone will begin to grow together in a few weeks if the ends are held close together to each other without movement. Occasionally, however, a bone will refuse to knit despite a year or more of casts and surgery. This is a disaster for the patient and a bitter defeat for the doctor, who must amputate the arm or leg and fit a prosthetic substitute.
Throughout this century, most biologists have been sure only chemical processes were involved in growth and healing. As a result, most work on nonunions has concentrated on calcium metabolism and hormone relationships. Surgeons have also “freshened,” or scraped, the fracture surface and devised ever more complicated plates and screws to hold the bone ends rigidly in place. These approaches seemed superficial to me. I doubted that we would ever understand the failure to heal unless we truly understood healing itself.
Scientific results that aren’t reported might as well not exist. They’re like the sound of one hand clapping. For scientists, communication isn’t only a responsibility, it’s our chief pleasure.
To many biologists and physicians, bones are pretty dull. They seem like a bunch of scarecrow sticks in which nothing much happens, plain props for a subtler architecture. Many of my patients were in sad shape because doctors had failed to realize that bone is a living tissue that has to be treated with respect. It’s a common misconception that orthopedic surgery is like carpentry. All you have to do is put a recalcitrant fracture together with screws, plates or nails; if the pieces are firmly fixed after surgery, you’re done. Nothing could be further from the truth. No matter how firmly you hold them together, the pieces will come loose and the limb can’t be used if the bone doesn’t heal.