Sir Peter Mansfield


Interview, December 2003

Interview with 2003 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine Sir Peter Mansfield, 11 December 2003. The interviewer is Peter Sylwan, science writer.

Sir Peter shares his reflections on the Nobel week; talks about problems with the sound of the magnetic resonance imaging camera (1:10); the significance of this new technology (4:10); his thoughts about ‘matter and spin’ (7:43); and possible developments of the imaging technique (9:13).

Interview transcript

Welcome to the Nobel e-museum and to meet one of this year’s laureate’s in medicine and physiology for 2003, Sir Peter Mansfield. Now first of all congratulations once again to the prize.

Sir Peter Mansfield: Thank you.

I suppose you have heard this thousands of times in the past days?

Sir Peter Mansfield: No, not thousands but probably 20 or 30 times.

I would very much like to know of course what will be the strongest memories you will be bringing back home from this event.

Sir Peter Mansfield: I think the last day or two, especially meeting the King and Queen, the actual prize award ceremony, the banquet – it’s all been fabulous and most enjoyable, but very tiring. I just don’t know how the Royalty can keep this up either.

One of my strongest memories will be from your Nobel Lecture on Monday when you described how this terrible sound that is produced by the magnetic resonance imaging camera could be reduced, nearly go extinct.

Sir Peter Mansfield: Yes, it’s something that we’re really working on still, it isn’t a complete working system at the moment, it was just an example such as we have at the moment that shows what is possible in principal.

But your delight when you showed this to the audience, and you also came back to it in your thanks speech at the dinner. Is it very important for you, this?

Sir Peter Mansfield: It’s important to make it quieter because one of the problems of course is that the machines are very noisy. I personally find the noise disturbing at those very very loud levels, so I think anything that one can do which can reduce the noise level and make the safety and comfort of the patient better improve that. I think it is extremely valuable in terms of the usage of the machine. For example, somebody who is extremely sick does not want to be upset or concerned or cowarded by huge levels of noise and if one can make it more pleasant, then so much the better. But there is a serious side to this as well and that is that the noise level is actually at a point where it is dangerous.

But is the driving force here your curiosity about the phenomena behind the science behind it, the phenomena behind it, or is the welfare of the patient?

Sir Peter Mansfield: It started out with the welfare of the patient in the first instance. These machines are very noisy and as one goes to much higher magnetic field strengths, the noise gets louder so there is a serious point to this. It happens also to be of interest to me from the physics point of view, how one can go about reducing the noise level in a way which satisfies the requirements of the patient and does not upset the imaging capability of the machine. You can always turn the machine off, but that doesn’t make any noise at all, do you see what I’m saying. You’ve got to get the balance right. That’s what we’re trying to do, come up with a technique which will not impede or impair the image quality but make the whole process more pleasant for the patient.

Some time has passed now since the first discoveries were made and technology has substantial developed. You can put it in perspective now, I suppose. What is the real significance, what is the big paradigm shift that has come about through this technology?

Sir Peter Mansfield: I think it’s a different type of image that one can produce and an image which carries with it much much more information about the disease state, the disease process and produces this in a very very clear manner, in a manner which is easily recognisable so that to my mind is the major contribution.

When you see it back in the history of science the paradigm shift is very often connected with the development of instruments. If you look on Galileo and the telescope, it changed our world view totally. You had Levenhuk and the microscope, it also changed our world view totally. What about this?

Sir Peter Mansfield: I think this will perhaps not be quite so important on broad spectrum as some of the examples that you’ve given, but I think it’s important for the patient and for the diagnosis to have a really good, clear understanding so that intervention for example can be done in a minimalist way, in a way which doesn’t cause further problems, but solves the immediate medical problem. In that sense I am always thinking I have to say, about the patient and patient comfort.

This is of course fundamentally important but aren’t you a little bit modest when you play it down this way because looking into the brain and see how we think and maybe also could make images out of our most spiritual experiences. Don’t you think that will somewhat change the way we probably look at courses?

Sir Peter Mansfield: I’m going to play it down a bit more I think.


Sir Peter Mansfield: I’m going to say that imaging of the brain for the study of the mechanism and the way in which the brain works has only just started and it’s extremely difficult for me or anyone else for that matter to predict how this will turn out ultimately. But the first core on imaging is to look at the diseased brain in terms of tumours or other problems associated, other medical conditions associated with this and try to bring relief to the patient so again I’m not really being modest, I think that’s what imaging is about. There may be other important applications but at the moment I think they remain to be demonstrated, it’s to the very early stage. I’m not saying it won’t happen, all I’m saying is that at the present level of development, the major, major application of MRI is going to be in treating sick people.

You are both a mathematician and a physicist?

Sir Peter Mansfield: I’m a physicist by training but of course in Britain the course in physics carries a lot of mathematics with it as well, but I’m not a mathematician as such, no.

But you’re using some very extraordinary phenomenon, down to the nuclear level of atoms and to the electron level of atoms. Do this phenomena exist or are they just measures in your instruments? Does spin exist?

Sir Peter Mansfield: That’s a very deep question and I can’t give you an exact answer. All I can say is that matter behaves as though it has a spin and at the very very tiniest level maybe there is no such thing as spin. It may be that nature conspires in such a way to give one the impression but at the end of the day we have to observe nature and interpret it in a sensible way and when one does this mathematically, it turns out that the best description is one where atoms, the nuclear atoms, actually have spin, but whether they are actually spinning I think is something that I can’t answer.

But are there all sorts of phenomena deep down in atoms and the molecules and electrons. Can you foresee other phenomenas in other part of matters of behave that could be used for even more spectacular imaging techniques coming in the future? You just talk about protos, what about all the other atoms?

Sir Peter Mansfield: Again I think we’re limited in the materials that have the right sort of microscopic ‘behaviour’ and there is no response to many many materials which where the nuclear have apparently no spin. We are looking for something which at the nuclear level behaves as though it’s a spinning top, but quantum mechanically of course we know that it’s only a manifestation of some deeper state, a deeper state of matter. Maybe nothing is spinning anywhere.

But when it comes to functional imaging we have seen some spectacular films on moving hearts and intestine moving. How far can this be driven do you think? There are hormones running around in our body, there are nerve impulses going around. Will it ever be possible to make imaging of the way life is functioning in such a detail ever?

Sir Peter Mansfield: I would say not. I don’t want to spoil somebody else’s Nobel Prize for the future but I think the problem with people, ordinary folk and particularly film makers, is that you give them something and they always want more. They are not satisfied with the wonders that can already be achieved, they want to push the science if they can and get people to make comments which you can’t possibly substantiate. That’s the problem, I think, with interviews of this time, you always want that little bit more, you won’t be able to push the topic beyond comfort level and that’s all I can say.

Thanks then for putting the limit and thank you very much for sharing your time and giving your views on things.

Sir Peter Mansfield: Thank you.

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