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I've been reading recently about a mysterious and possibly hokey medical device of the 1930s. It was a variable-frequency radio emitter, invented by a Dr. Rife, which was supposed to kill various types of bacteria and viruses by emitting the resonant frequency of that particular species, like a wine glass being broken by the right musical note.

(N.B. This gadget is not to be confused with various so-called "Rife machines" currently being sold in New Age circles, many of which seem to have been built by people with a shaky grasp of physics and bear very little resemblance to the original ones.)

A paper by the American Cancer Society, mentioning Rife's research, states:

(Note: Although sound waves can produce vibrations that will break glass, radio waves cannot destroy bacteria due to their low energy level.)

That's all it said about that, it was mostly concentrating on the even less credible modern rip-offs and their claims to be able to cure cancer.

This is intriguing. I don't know enough about radio wave physics to answer this question, so I thought I'd put it to you. Theoretically, could radio waves of the right resonant frequency have enough energy to destroy a bacterium? What about a virus, which is usually much smaller?

If it's relevant, the output of the devices was from 50 watts to 500 watts depending on the model, and the power consumption was from 400 watts to 1,000 watts.

The frequencies used ranged from 100,000 to 1,700,000 Hertz.

Some examples of the infections it was alleged to be able to destroy included tuberculosis, tetanus, anthrax, gonorrhoea and typhoid.

The frequencies were determined empirically, according to Dr. Rife, by observing a microbial culture under a powerful microscope and going slowly through a range of frequencies until something happened, rather than by any theoretical calculation, so exactly what part of the microbe "resonated" and how (if indeed it did) is unknown.

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    $\begingroup$ Before any of this you'd have to define what is meant by resonance when referring to pathogens. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 27, 2021 at 5:30
  • $\begingroup$ Fair point. But the paper didn't either. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Sep 27, 2021 at 6:38
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    $\begingroup$ That's exactly my point. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 27, 2021 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ The wavelength of 100 kHz and 1.7 MHz EM emissions are ~3000 m and ~176 m, respectively. A general rule of thumb is that the object with which you expect an interaction be on the same order of magnitude in size as the wavelength (real rough, hand-wavy approximation). Bacterial cells are at least 8 orders of magnitude smaller than this and viruses another 3-4 orders of magnitude smaller. To be fair, the resonant frequency of water is ~22.25 GHz or ~1 mm wavelength, which is ~6 orders of magnitude larger than the molecule so... $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2021 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ I heard radio station and cell tower technicians get dizzy and faint when working close to the towers. Typically UV-C is used for sterilization in the west(people in the east have military reasons for not embracing it). Florescent lights do not filter out all uv radiation and are commonly found in hospitals $\endgroup$
    – ChemEng
    Jul 4, 2022 at 23:51

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Viruses and bacteria, or in general pathogens, are very complex biological organisms with many large molecules with a wide range of structure, each of which will have their own resonant frequencies. Such a device would therefore need to produce an appropriate range of such frequencies to damage each of these molecules.

Is it possible? If you new what all these resonant frequencies are, then in principle such a device could be made. But I'm guessing some of these frequencies may correspond to resonant frequencies of nearby biomolecules and/or tissue thus having more of a destructive, rather than therapeutic affect.

But it will also be a challenge determining what all these frequencies would be to begin with. The mechanism by which electromagnetic frequency emissions affect microorganisms is not fully understood, and there is a lot of ongoing research in this area.

Having said this, it may be sufficient to destroy part of the pathogen rather than all of it. This will require perhaps a handful of resonant frequencies that will destroy part of the pathogen disabling it, rather than killing it outright.

But again, this is unlikely to be successful (with current technology) due to the complexity of microorganisms, the risk to healthy tissue and the fact that the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with microorganisms is not well understood.

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  • $\begingroup$ The frequencies were found empirically, apparently, by observing a microbial culture under a powerful microscope and going through a range of frequencies until something happened. I'll add that to my answer. Working out the resonant frequency of something as irregular as a bacterium mathematically does sound like a hopeless task indeed! $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Sep 27, 2021 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, indeed it's a very complex task. The behavior of electromagnetic radiation with microorganisms, or many other complex biomolecules like DNA, is still not clear too. $\endgroup$
    – joseph h
    Sep 27, 2021 at 7:03
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Royal Rife's approaches have not been recognized as an effective medical treatment by the scientific community - rather they are considered as complimentary and alternative therapy. In other words, it is an electromagnetic equivalent of hydroxycholriquine when used against COVID-19. So I think the question is not really suitable for this forum, as it falls beyond mainstream science.

However, just as with hydroxycholroquine, there are some high profile figures working on electromagnetic interactions in DNA and viruses, notably Luc Montagnier, the Nobel prize winner for the HIV discovery: see here. Needless to say that his DNA teleportation theory is highly controversial.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not sure why that makes it not a suitable question for this forum. The question was just about the physics involved, about whether the physics of "this is impossible because the rays don't have enough energy" makes sense or not. How much energy is required to break something by acoustic resonance very much is "mainstream science". Not asking whether it does work in practice or not - that'd be a Biology.SE matter, anyway. Interesting about Montagnier, but if Wikipedia's description is at all accurate his evidence doesn't seem very impressive so far! $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Sep 27, 2021 at 8:55
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    $\begingroup$ @A.B. Questions outside of the mainstream physics are supposed to be closed. I however gave it a benefit of a doubt and answered, rather than recommending a closure - so do not take my comment too close to heart. I think there is nothing wrong with being interested in things outside of what is written in textbooks - I would even encourage it - as long as you judge them by rigorous scientific standards. But viruses and bacteria are wildly different things, and there is little (or nothing) in their action that involves electromagnetic phenomena (beyond chemical bonds). $\endgroup$
    – Roger V.
    Sep 27, 2021 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, I'm well aware of both those things. But neither has a wine glass. Presumably purely mechanical or thermal effects would still work. As for judging things by rigorous scientific standards, that's my idea, and for instance that's why I asked this question! Thanks for not voting to close. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Sep 28, 2021 at 9:39
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Let me try to answer this question of the perspective of what we actually can do and what the problems would be to translate it to something like the method in question.

Destroying the entire cell

Sonication is a method to destroy cell walls using ultrasound waves (20 kHz to 50 kHz) in vitro. If we could apply the same effect to pathogenic microbes inside a human, that would be indeed helpful. However:

  • The wavelength of those sound waves is at about 7 cm, i.e., much larger than a microbe. It’s not a resonance phenomenon.

  • Bacteria of a given strain have no single resonance frequency because they grow by a factor of two during their life cycle. Anything that catches all of this will almost certainly also destroy human cells or their components. This is somewhat better for virions which always have the same size, but then those are only part of the life cycle of a virus.

  • Sonication generates a lot of heat. To mitigate this, samples are usually put on ice when sonicated, but you cannot do that with a human.

  • Sonication uses, well, sound. While electromagnetically induced acoustic noise is a thing, it uses the conductivity or ferromagnetic properties of a material. Moreover, any mechanical oscillation is sound, so you would get all the problems of sound mentioned above – even if you managed to take a detour via electromagnetism to cause it.

Destroying specific molecules

Photobleaching destroys specific molecules with electromagnetic waves. You might call this resonance, but it’s certainly not comparable to a catastrophic resonance destroying a wine glass. Rather it’s a single photon with the right energy to excite the molecule and the molecule having a certain chance to be destroyed in the excited state rather than to de-excite. Either way, here are the problems:

  • While the photons in question have a specific effect on certain molecules, they are still scattered by matter and do not permeate the body. You need to go to entirely different wavelengths to avoid this.

  • Molecules that are receptive to an exclusive frequency are rare. Sure, every bond is a bit different because it depends on the entire molecule, but if two bonds are sufficiently similar, frequency broadening effects make selective destruction impossible.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's very detailed, thanks! Sounds like resonant frequency is not, in fact, the only possible explanation, but that these other possibilities don't seem very likely either. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Jul 25, 2022 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @A.B.: Explanation for what? If you want to explain the experimental report from the 1930s, the first step would be to reproduce it. If it fails, there is nothing to explain. If it succeeds, you can perform further experiments to see what parts of the conditions are essential, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 25, 2022 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ I mean that resonant frequency's not the only possible way it could theoretically work (if it does work), but that the other suggested methods possibly also aren't likely. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Jul 25, 2022 at 21:04
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In order for electromagnetic waves to effectively destroy the structure of matter, i.e the bonds binding the molecules of the microbes etc to be destroyed, one should look at the energies. In quantum mechanics absorption and iozization happens when the appropriate energy is supplied, and destruction must have higher than that energy.

Found this for numbers:

Bond energies generally vary from about 10 electron volts (eV) to about 0.03 eV. Covalent bonds, where electrons are shared between atoms, tend to be more energetic than hydrogen bonds, where a hydrogen atom is shared between atoms, and hydrogen bonds in turn are more energetic than van der Waals forces, which arise from the attraction of the electrons of one atom for the nucleus of another. Atoms, free or bound, move with an average kinetic energy corresponding to about 0.02 eV. The higher the temperature, the more atoms move with energy sufficient to break a given bond spontaneously.

(italics mine, see below)

Look at the electromagnetic spectrum

Radio waves are of nano electron volt energy per photon, which is orders of magnitude smaller than the 0.02 electron volt needed to break a bond between the molecules that make the bacteria.

Microwaves in the ovens work in the bulk of matter,

This induces polar molecules in the food to rotate and produce thermal energy in a process known as dielectric heating.

even though also of too small an energy per photon can induce a thermodynamic enviroment of high temperature that can kill bacteria etc., and this is the closest one can come in using low energy electromagnetic radiation to destroy microscopic life.

Any resonance, should increase the heat of the medium in which the microbe lives, so the atoms could acquire high enough kinetic energy to be able to destroy the bonds holding the microbe together. This cannot be done with radio wave frequencies.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very detailed answer, but does it have to be bond ionisation? In fact, I was more assuming it would be a mechanical effect, or, as you mention in passing, a thermal effect. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Sep 27, 2021 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ @A.B. thermodynamics does not have the mathematics of resonance. at the level of absorbing radio waves one has to go through the quantum, as with the microwaves, or through increasing the velocity of single atoms that can break what is holding a microbe together through heating. Matter in bulk does not consist of antennas, to be affected by the passing radio waves, it is neutral and to see any possibility of interacting with a rw one has to use the quantized nature, where atoms are composed of negative and positive charges. $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Sep 27, 2021 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ You lost me a little. Physics not my subject. Are you saying that radio waves can't cause acoustic vibrations in a whole object in the same way that, for instance, sound waves do in a wine glass, and therefore it has to be about energy absorbed by individual atoms? $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Sep 28, 2021 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ @A.B. look at the wavelength of radio waves, if you want an analogy with acoustics, it is between one kilometer and 10 kilometers. an acoustic wave with wavelength of a kilometer will not raise a resonance on a wine glass. To get mechanical vibrations from electromagnetic waves is more complex. $\endgroup$
    – anna v
    Sep 28, 2021 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ I see your point. Of course, higher frequency than sound waves, but still longer wavelength (much longer), because speed of light rather than speed of sound. Silly of me. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Sep 28, 2021 at 10:31
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With all due respect to those who believe it is not possible to destroy germs with the use of resonant frequencies please watch the video here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJQLs6kne3k

You are debating whether or not something is possible that has been shown to very real many times over
This video is one of more than a few showing the same effect and these video's been around for years

Please watch the TED talk given by Dr Anthony Holland and his work with cancer cells and resonant radio frequencies before proclaiming what is and is not possible

The device used for this video and Dr Hollands work was a 27Mhz transmitter with a modulation frequency range of about 500 hz to 10khz This effect has nothing to do with RF heating

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