Paul Lauterbur: From Pale Puzzle Pieces to Colourful Images

by Tommy Boshkovski and Agâh Karakuzu,
PhD candidates at Polytechnique School of Montreal 

Puzzle piece found, black and white by Willi Heidelbach,: Passt 2

Puzzle piece found, black and white by Willi Heidelbach,: Passt 2

Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat. Feel the fresh volume of air entering through your nose to bring the vitality you need, just like the relief brought by the breeze-drifted water particles caressing your face gently in a warm summer day. Remember that fresh cut grass smell, the green odor, releasing the tension of your body. Do not be judgmental that quickly! Unlike those meditation instructions given in the self-help books, this has not been done in an attempt to give you your money’s worth. The aim was to trigger your associative activation mechanism during the first four sentences. Even if it did not do the trick, it is highly likely that the fifth sentence had stumbled your respiration a bit. This is because, the word evokes memories, which evoke emotions, which in turn ignite bodily reactions without your will. When not based on sound scientific arguments, such statements are nothing but empty talk.

This is why we should be grateful to Paul Christian Lauterbur, the father of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which we use today to diagnose diseases every single day and to better understand complex neuropsychological associations in our brain, and even more. Now, remember first sentences just for the sake of realizing your physical presence in the 3D space, or just simply look into your hands. Length, breath and the height. Dimensions you can perceive with the naked eye. Time has ability to transcend through this space, giving us the fourth dimension. So far, this is what we sure-enough know about the physical dimensions. If you have seen the movie Interstellar, you are given gravity as a sci-fi representation of the 5th physical dimension. That scene literally ‘brought a new dimension’ to the imagination of many people eating their popcorns. Paul Lauterbur, on the other hand, has brought ‘three dimensions’ to our understanding of the human body in the real-world, reaching the epiphany while eating his hamburger! In this article, we will take a glance at his Nobel-winning brilliance with the help of the references from his Nobel Lecture and from the book “Paul Lauterbur and the Invention of MRI”, which has been penned by his wife and scientific partner M. Joan Dowson.

From the beginning of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) to the development of MRI, there resides six Nobel Prizes in different fields, across the globe.  Following the Bloch’s contribution that gave him a Nobel Prize in 1953, basic principles of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance was started to be used to analyse chemical samples. If you imagine these samples as pale puzzle pieces, NMR is a technique that gives information about the chemical make-up of them by generating 1D data, a.k.a. spectroscopy. Any compound can be regarded as a pale puzzle piece, even a biopsy sample from human brain. In the 1970s, scientists have published studies reporting that NMR can tell healthy tissue from pathological ones. This was a major source of motivation for Lauterbur, leading him to the realisation that this tool can be extended to put many pale puzzle pieces together and to give a colour to each of them. So that one can draw the whole picture of the object of interest, yet it is obviously a meaningless attempt unless it is done non-invasively. Taking from here, Lauterbur started his theoretical works with paper and pencil calculations. Next, he translated these mathematical concepts into simple experiments within the bounds of the technology of that time, which eventually yield a 20X20 matrix of numbers, which are printed with a typewriter! His first submission to the journal Nature with these findings was rejected. When he showed this to his colleagues, he received some negative feedbacks such as “if this is correct, you will win the Nobel; but you are not that material”. In the meantime, he faced many problems with grant funders, academic administration etc. regarding patenting of his work. Since many other problems were also ongoing in his life and he did not have the luxury to defy the university for taking up the challenge for doing this personally, he decided to invite people to his lab. Many people were interested in his work including Drs. Peter Mansfield, whom he shared his Nobel Prize and Dr Joan Dowson, whom he shared his life.  

The story of Lauterbur is an epitome of determination, not only for those working in the field of medicine but for all academic scientists. Decades after his first submission got rejected, Nature publicly celebrated the honour of having his articles in their journal. He shared the most prestigious science prize with his colleague Dr Mansfield in 2003. Not all scientists have the opportunity to see their contribution first see the light of the day and get honorary comments from the people regarding the benefits that it has provided. Lauterbur had this exclusive opportunity for many years before he had his name inscribed from the book of life in 2007. However, his name has been continued its existence in the book of science. Today,  MRI is still developing from day to day with the help of the MR researchers from all around the world, bringing exciting tools for better diagnosis and powerful research. Thank you Paul!