FROM THE ARCHIVES: zap that fat!

Still zero time to blog, and my co-bloggers are equally silent, so here's another blast from the past, about an awesome potential application for free electron lasers: replacing liposuction as the procedure of choice for discriminating folks desiring to rid themselves of excess baggage. Literally.

In a perfect world, bad things wouldn't happen to good people. There would be no pain, no suffering, no sickness — and no calories. Those obnoxious little units, first introduced in the nutritional, food-related sense in the 1890s, have caused more grief for the human waistline over the ages than, say, girdles or whalebone corsets (although the latter were known to sometimes damage internal organs). Most women and — let's be honest, now — many men waste a fairly considerable amount of time worrying about unwanted stores of fat globules. It's no coincidence that one of the most popular features of Judgment City — a sort of waiting room for the afterlife in the 1991 Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life — is the fact that during your stay there, you can eat whatever you like without gaining an ounce. (That's where Jen-Luc Piquant is going for her next vacation: hello, Judgment City!)

I'm happy to report that there may be new hope for expanding waistlines and flabby thighs. Scientists at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (known affectionately as "JLab") have demonstrated that a laser can heat (read, "burn away") fat in the body without scorching the over-lying skin. This in turn could lead to revolutionary new laser therapies to treat such chronic bugbears as severe acne, artery plaque, and — you guessed it — unwanted cellulite. These very exciting results were presented this morning in Boston at the 26th annual meeting of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery (ASLMS). I was not actually there, alas, to witness this historic announcement in person, but I was among the many proud recipients of the JLab press release last Thursday, and have only been prevented from sharing the news with you all until now because of a compulsory media embargo. (We try to always respect the embargo here at Cocktail Party Physics. It'd just be rude to do otherwise.)

First, a few words about lasers. The question of who actually invented this useful little device is a thorny one, and the subject of many nasty lawsuits over several decades, but most would agree that the underlying fundamental physics comes to us courtesy of good ol' Albert Einstein. It was just a little idea he was developing on the side for a lark to take a break from the rigors of general relativity — a side project that ended up spawning a multi-billion-dollar industry. In 1917 he published a paper that broached the possibility of something called "stimulated emission." (Yes, I know: it's an unfortunate choice of words. But that's what it's called, so try to keep the snickering to a minimum, 'kay?)

At the heart of a laser is a "lasing medium" — usually a crystal of some sort, like ruby — and if you pump the atoms in that material (oh, stop it!) with intense flashes of light or electricity, it will eventually emit the excess energy as photons. I won't go into all the complicated details here; you can find more details here and here. But the end result is a tightly focused beam of light in which all the photons are traveling in the same direction, rather than diffusing outward all willy-nilly, in every direction at once. So "laser" is short for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." (We're offering a brand new physics cocktail, called the Laser Beam, in its honor. See sidebar.)

The problem with conventional lasers is that by their very nature, they only emit light at one given frequency, which is determined by whatever material one is using as the lasing medium. JLab  pioneered  free electron lasers (FELs), which emit intense, powerful beams of laser light that can be tuned to whatever wavelength (color) of the electromagnetic spectrum one needs for the purpose at hand.  This makes an FEL incredibly flexible and therefore useful for a broad range of applications, including processing plastics, synthetic fibers, electronics components, and all kinds of cutting-edge materials with unique properties. And it can do so far more cheaply than more traditional manufacturing tools. That tunability also means the instrument can be tailored to three infrared wavelengths where — the researchers found — fat heats up more efficiently than water, making it possible to selectively heat fat tissue with infrared laser light. They tested this capability first on actual human fat (obtained from "surgically discarded normal tissue"), and then on skin-and-fat tissue samples taken from pigs. Fel_cryo_sm_1

Jen-Luc Piquant, for one, is delighted that the good folks at JLab finally got around to addressing the dire need for new ways to get thinner thighs in 30 days — preferably ones that don't involve any actual effort. It's about time we brought out the big guns. Just look at the size of that thing! And that's only one of the system's many components… This country may or may not be facing an "obesity epidemic," depending
on which conflicting study one chooses to believe, but a quick look
around  the average suburban mall would offer quite a bit of anecdotal
evidence in favor of the "pro"-epidemic view. Of course, excess flab isn't a new problem for the human race. Far from it. Among other notable historical figures, the English poet Lord Byron struggled mightily with his weight, despite being the quintessential ladies' man (club foot and all), and routinely went on "slimming" regimens like liquid diets.

So fad diets predate Dr. Atkins. In the early 20th century, Horace Fletcher — a.k.a. "the chew-chew man" — advocated controlling food consumption by chewing one's food until it was liquid. Shortly before he died in 1919, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published the first bestselling diet book, Diet and Health, which was also the first to promote the idea of counting calories to control weight — then quite a new concept. It had only been 20 years or so since the chemists Wilbur Atwater and Russell Chittenden came up with the notion of measuring food as units of heat that could be produced by burning it. That's all a "calorie" really is: the amount of heat energy produced when the food is burned to ashes, under controlled laboratory conditions. It's not something that's actually "in" food.

The success of Peters' book spawned an entire industry. Think the Atkins and South Beach Diets were innovative and original? Think again. The emphasis on "food combinations" dates back to the 1920s and 1930s. William H. Hay, for example, believed proteins, starches and fruits should be eaten separately to avoid "acidosis." It's unclear to me what this is, but apparently it "drained vitality and led to fat." (Jen-Luc reminds me — somewhat unkindly, I think — that I have had boyfriends who could be considered the human embodiment of acidosis.) He also recommended a daily enema to "flush out the poisons" — an approach that can still be seen today in the popularity (in certain elite circles) of "colonics."

With his book, Look Younger, Live Longer, Gaylord Hauser drew the admiration of the likes of Greta Garbo and Paulette Goddard with his emphasis on Vitamin-B rich foods like brewers yeast, yogurt, wheat germ and blackstrap molasses. He was also one of the first to develop his own line of special foods and supplements in accordance with that diet plan. Then there was the so-called "magic pairs" diet, extolling the supposedly increased fat-burning properties of certain food combinations, like (we kid you not) lamb chops and pineapple. Plus ca change…. We're still looking for that "magic bullet."  When it comes to fad diets, there is truly nothing new under the sun. And they aren't any more or less effective than they were back then.

We bandy about the word quite promiscuously, but a "calorie" is not as tangible as one might think. In the realm of science (specifically, thermodynamics), calories apply to anything that contains energy, such as a
gallon of gasoline. The calories in food are technically
"kilocalories," according to how the units are strictly defined in
science. For scientists, a calorie is simply the amount of energy
(heat) required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1
degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), and 1000 calories is
equivalent to 1 kilocalorie. So that Power Bar I just consumed for breakfast contained 270 food calories, which translates into 270,000 regular calories. And that four miles I'll be running this afternoon should burn 400 "food calories"; it sounds like a much more impressive amount when transposed into 400,000 regular calories.

For weight management purposes, it's sufficient just to burn up the calories. But all that energy released when calories are burned can also be harnessed to do
some kind of useful task. For instance, prisoners in
19th century New York prisons were forced to walk on treadmills as
punishment, and that energy was used to grind grain for the inmates'
daily bread. I found an interesting comparison chart
at How Stuff Works. It turns out that the calories contained in five
pounds of spaghetti would yield enough energy to brew a pot of coffee,
while those in a single slice of cherry cheesecake would operate a
light bulb for an hour and a half. And if you need to drive 88 miles to
visit friends or relatives, you'd need to burn the calories contained
in 217 Big Macs. (Talk about carb-loading. Better start chowing down the night before.)

Back in February, I stumbled upon a fascinating short article in Wired
about creative ways to harness the energy from gym exercise to perform useful functions. An artist named
Laurie Palmer began musing about all the wasted energy being produced
in gyms all across the country, by Americans on stationary bikes,
elliptical machines, or treadmills. So she set up the online "Notions
of Expenditure" project a year ago, in which people can contribute their
ideas for turning exercisers into generators of energy. Unfortunately, unless you're Lance Armstrong, it's not a lot of energy: most people on a stationary bike
only produce between 75 and 150 watts.

It all seems like a great deal of work, for very little payoff, doesn't it? Hence the appeal of the JLab approach: no muss, no fuss, no obsessively writing down every morsel that passes one's lips in a little "food diary." No special meals or supplements, elaborately orchestrated food combinations, or those telltale minute surgical scars from conventional liposuction — just one really big free electron laser facility that hunts down fat and zaps it away without damaging one's outer layer of skin. Needless to say, Jen-Luc Piquant is ecstatic at the prospect, and is preparing to indulge in large bowls of her favorite virtual penang curry over coconut sticky rice, among other rich and calorie-laden delicacies. It's almost as it JLab's FEL has turned our world into one giant Judgment City where we can eat whatever we want with no dietary consequences. "Go ahead," she exhorts, a bit irresponsibly. "Indulge in that over sized blueberry scone. Why bother watching what you eat when you can just zap that fat away whenever you feel like it?"

As usual, Jen-Luc is letting her enthusiasm over-ride her common sense. Operating an FEL isn't cheap, nor is scheduling time at the facility as easy as scheduling a doctor's appointment — or a visit to one's local Liposuctor. And let's not forget that for now, at least, it's just proof of principle. Commercial development of any application takes a lot more time. And money. So tempting though it may be to throw dietary caution to the wind, I think I'll stick with my tried and true Thermodynamics Diet: you know, that one where you have to burn more calories than you consume to lose weight. Sure, it lacks the guilt-free ease and panache of those flashier fad diets, and requires far more actual effort. On the other hand, it has withstood the test of time.

14 thoughts on “FROM THE ARCHIVES: zap that fat!”

  1. I have a new diet I just tried. It’s Bananas & coconuts.
    I did not loose much weight, but you should see me climb trees !!

  2. FYI–by convention, energy content in food is measured in Calories, where 1 Calorie = 1000 calories or 1 kilocalorie. Note the capitalization.

  3. Do not despair–there are ways to make the Thermodynamics Diet easier to adhere to! According to the Incredibly Picky Eater’s Diet, most manufactured and processed food makes one feel nauseous because one is all too aware of how much sodium, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and other unsavory additives go into the packaged food sold in the center of the supermarket. The upside to this diet is that one eats high-quality homecooked food; the downside is that the diet demands more effort in terms of shopping for whole foods and then cooking them.
    A subset of the Incredibly Picky Eater’s Diet is the Chocolate Snob Diet. If one is not much of a chocolate addict, this will be less effective. But if you are, here’s how it works: buy a box of extremely high quality chocolates (La Maison du Chocolat, Michael Recchiuti, and Vosges are three recommended brands). Eat a single chocolate. When you’re back in your office the next day passing by the candy bowl in the kitchen filled with Hershey’s miniatures, taste one. Discover that it’s got the texture and flavor of plastic and spit it out. This may require several iterations to train the neural circuitry properly. Eventually one should be completely weaned off of rubbishy chocolate, and the prohibitive cost of purchasing fine chocolates frequently will prevent one from overdosing on the good stuff. Instead, one will properly appreciate quality chocolate less frequently (and therefore less calorically) but more mindfully and joyfully than the Hershey’s experience can ever be.
    A final option is the Make Your Food Unappetizing Diet. My husband discovered this one by accident one day when he was at a local hamburger restaurant and knocked his Coke over into his french fries. He wound up consuming fewer calories at that meal as a result.

  4. I’m not sure the Chocolate Snob Diet would work for me. Deanna Troi and I have very few things in common, but one of them is that neither of us has met a chocolate we didn’t like. (insert wistful sigh here)
    Just to vent my personal frustrations for a moment: having two units whose names differ only by capitalization and sound exactly alike when said aloud is the stupidest thing imaginable. “Calorie” and “calorie”? No wonder the world is full of misery, human institutions are collapsing and thousands of species are going extinct! Can’t we at least grow up a little and adopt a prefix, saying “kilocalorie” instead of the capital-C “food Calorie”? Computers got people used to the “kilo-” prefix, and those of us with slow Internet connections still use it (there’s that pesky difference between 1000 and 1024, but never mind!). I know the United States will never go metric, but the rest of the world might have more respect for the U.S. if it took this baby step in the right direction.
    I just made a quick check over the groceries on my shelf, here in sunny Lyon, France, the erstwhile capital of Roman Gaul and birthplace of the Emperor Claudius. Here, an “americain” is either a bumbling tourist or a sandwich made with ground beef and fried potatoes (a perfect symbiosis of hamburger and french fries, with all sorts of linguistic irony). The energy content of all my foods are given in “kcal” and some strange unit called “kJ”. According to my dijon mustard, 612 “kJ” is 146.5 kcal (or “food Calories”). Hmmm, what could this “kJ” be?
    The completely artificial, incredibly toxic but mm-mm tasty sodas one gets out of the vending machines here are made with sugar, incidentally, and not high fructose corn syrup. I suppose this is due to the absence of a powerful corn lobby. You can taste the difference. It’s something I’ll miss.
    And when they say “spicy mustard”, boy, they don’t lie. Whew. . . .

  5. I was going to rant about the stupidity of the calorie vs Calorie designation, but you did it for me. kcals make so much more sense. (I’ll take a guess and say a kJ is a kiloJoule. I don’t actually know, but it seems likely.)
    I confess, I am a Chocolate Snob. Specifically, I prefer high-end, all-organic, very dark varieties, precisely because (as Kristin pointed out) it is so tasty and rich that one really can’t eat more than a couple of small squares without starting to feel a little icky from the sugar overload. 🙂

  6. David Thalenberg

    Yep, I can confirm that kJ is kilojoule. I have no idea what the relationship between those and kilocalories might be, but let’s see: the 58gram Twix bar that I just ate (see kirstin’s resemblance to Deanna Troi above – couldn’t agree more!) has 143 kcal per 29 grams. That’s pretty misleading right there; I’m not going to stop at one Twick, I definitely ate both Twix. It also has 601 kJ per 29 grams (1 Twick). It appears that one kJ is equal to 0.2388459 kcals, or 0.9478134 British Thermal Units or 0.0002168224 kilos of TNT
    According to this calculator thingie, I would need 45 minutes of brisk walking to burn that off. It’s a good thing I didn’t have the Snickers bar.

  7. Careful! Do you mean the work necessary to hoist half a pint up from the bar against gravity (weight times height), or the energy gained by breaking down the beer inside one’s body? If the latter were less than the former, one could drink without consequence. (-:

  8. David Thalenberg

    Ah, if only that were true, and included all the many consequences of drinking beer. It only applies to the work done lifting the half pint, I think, and only in a purely hypothetical sense.

  9. I saw the press release from JLab over at, and wondered what happens to the byproducts after you “burn” the subcutaneous fat. Does the body expel it, or does it just sit there? It seems to me that small deposits like acne or perhaps in the arteries might be successfully handled by this technique, but pot bellies probably not.

  10. In the days of global warming I was thinking about the same idea of harnessing the energy being wasted by human beings at GYM and use it for some purpose. Even though the amount of energy is small it would be real good contribution from the individuals who have consumed excess calories !
    Also I suggest people who walk on the thread mill and waste energy to walk down to your office instead of using ur cars when ever it is possible

  11. so, eat 2 big macs, wait a week and go to the ‘lab’ and have a laser burn off the fat, hey? somehow that seems to fit in our “want-it-now-and-want-it-FAST” society but what are we robbing oueselves of by not doing it the old fashion way? we simply don’t want to work for what we want anymore.

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