Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Nuclear magnetic resonance

(a) A compass needle vibrates about its equilibrium position under the influence of the earth's magnetic forces.
(b) The orientation of a proton's spin vibrates about its equilibrium direction under the influence of the magnetic forces coming from the surrounding electrons and nuclei.

If you have ever played with a magnetic compass, you have undoubtedly noticed that if you shake it, it takes some time to settle down. As it settles down, it acts like a damped oscillator of the type we have been discussing. The compass needle is simply a small magnet, and the planet earth is a big magnet. The magnetic forces between them tend to bring the needle to an equilibrium position in which it lines up with the planet-earth-magnet.

Essentially the same physics lies behind the technique called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). NMR is a technique used to deduce the molecular structure of unknown chemical substances, and it is also used for making medical images of the inside of people's bodies. If you ever have an NMR scan, they will actually tell you you are undergoing "magnetic resonance imaging" or "MRI," because people are scared of the word "nuclear." In fact, the nuclei being referred to are simply the nonradioactive nuclei of atoms found naturally in your body. Here's how NMR works. Your body contains large numbers of hydrogen atoms, each consisting of a small, lightweight electron orbiting around a large, heavy proton. That is, the nucleus of a hydrogen atom is just one proton. A proton is always spinning on its own axis, and the combination of its spin and its electrical charge cause it to behave like a tiny magnet. The principle identical to that of an electromagnet, which consists of a coil of wire through which electrical charges pass; the circling motion of the charges in the coil of wire makes it magnetic, and in the same way, the circling motion of the proton's charge makes it magnetic.

Now a proton in one of your body's hydrogen atoms finds itself surrounded by many other whirling, electrically charged particles: its own electron, plus the electrons and nuclei of the other nearby atoms. These neighbors act like magnets, and exert magnetic forces on the proton. The k of the vibrating proton is simply a measure of the total strength of these magnetic forces. Depending on the structure of the molecule in which the hydrogen atom finds itself, there will be a particular set of magnetic forces acting on the proton and a particular value of k. The NMR apparatus bombards the sample with radio waves, and if the frequency of the radio waves matches the resonant frequency of the proton, the proton will absorb radio-wave energy strongly and oscillate wildly. Its vibrations are damped not by friction, because there is no friction inside an atom, but by the reemission of radio waves.

A member of the author's family, who turned out to be healthy. A three-dimensional computer reconstruction of the shape of a human brain, based on magnetic resonance data. R. Malladi, LBNL.

By working backward through this chain of reasoning, one can determine the geometric arrangement of the hydrogen atom's neighboring atoms. It is also possible to locate atoms in space, allowing medical images to be made.

Finally, it should be noted that the behavior of the proton cannot be described entirely correctly by Newtonian physics. Its vibrations are of the strange and spooky kind described by the laws of quantum mechanics. It is impressive, however, that the few simple ideas we have learned about resonance can still be applied successfully to describe many aspects of this exotic system.

Last Update: 2009-06-21