Quantum Physics and Cancer


What can science tell us about life, death and disease?

Most people don't understand quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman was a physicist who won a Nobel Prize for his work in developing an understanding of quantum mechanics, who famously said, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics." Those seemingly simple words are, in fact, a testament as to how unimaginable the world — or at least the parts we don't see – really is. Quantum physics, simply put, is the study of very small things in very small places.

There is much debate and a good deal of excitement in the world of medical science that cancer may be cured at a quantum level one day. As an example, Toshio Hirano, chief of the National Institutes for Quantum and Radiological Science and Technology in Japan aims to bring quantum technology to the forefront of contributions to human society, by creating a quantum scalpel to attack tumors without cutting skin, using heavy ions fired through the body. In contrast to radiotherapy's gamma and X-rays, charged particles, such as protons, release most of their energy upon reaching the target tumor. This reduces non-targeted damage and harmful side-effects.

After my wife died of cancer at the age of 47, I spent some time attempting to reorganize my life while searching for meaning in things and places and events and people that no longer had the connection of "us." I was on my own. I wanted to understand how such seemingly "unkind" things can occur in our lives, like a loved one being whisked away in the blink of an eye and removed from our experience like so many other memories that we carry.

I always knew that if I had not chosen to become a professional magician as my life's work that I would have become a scientist. Science has allowed us to experience what I can only describe as real magic in the world around us. The exquisite rhythm of the natural world; the existence of stars and galaxies and black holes; the remarkable complexity of the human immune system; and even the way cancer drives a path into our bodies — all of this is made graspable by science. And so, I turned to science, not to answer questions about why we live and die, but to instill in me a sense of wonder and amazement over the very fact that we are here at all. I make no religious inferences here. I'm not qualified to do so. I speak only from my own observations about how my life is enhanced by what I like to call our "Astonishmentality."

After my wife's death, I had a good deal of time on my hands, and I purchased every book that one of my hero's had written. Carl Sagan, the astronomer and popularizer of all things scientific, had lots of questions about how we live, how we perceive the world around us and how we interpret what we think we see. I found great solace in his wisdom and discovered a good deal of comfort in seeing — or at least sensing – that there is so much that we cannot know. All of these unanswered questions about life and death gave me a sense that my wife's death was very much more about things I could not understand than it was about how I felt about those things. I feel that way about my own cancer diagnosis, too.

I have in innate sense that life, just as it is, with all of the good and the bad and even the cancer that takes lives away, possibly even my own, is somehow perfection beyond what we can imagine. Science has given me hope and optimism and a belief in the flawlessness of this cycle we all experience: the act of existing for a relatively short time (30,000 days on average) and then being rearranged molecule by molecule into quantum form, the measure and magnificence of which even science can't begin to explain.


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