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One important question about vision has to do with the number of photons required for seeing. The question has to be refined, because an immediate problem arises in deciding where these photons must be absorbed. Do they all have to be absorbed in the same rod (cones are neglected, since we know they are used for high light-intensity vision)? Can a single rod effectively absorb more than one photon in any arbitrarily short time interval? Do rods or groups of rods cooperate in vision? Do they cooperate in experiments to determine the minimum number of photons that may be detected?
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The light which is not absorbed is re-emitted in all directions, producing what is called scattering of the light; we mentioned the two extreme cases of total reflection and total transmission. Most cases are intermediate. If electron oscillations are equally possible in all directions, the incident unpolarized light beam will emerge essentially as it entered the suspension—except for the phase shift already mentioned. If, however, the particles or molecules in suspension are not isotropic, i.e., the electrons can oscillate more readily in one direction than in another, an incident unpolarized light beam will be split, because waves oscillating in one direction will have their phases shifted more than those oscillating in another direction. The net result is that so-called anisotropic molecules produce two plane polarized emergent beams. Since these emerge in somewhat different directions, the phenomenon is called double refraction or birefringence.
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Quantum physics teaches us that we may talk about radiant energy as traveling either as waves in space or as discrete packages called either photons or quanta. When radiation impinges on matter, it has a probability of being absorbed which depends on (1) the energy in the photon (or its equivalents in wave terms: the wavelength or the frequency of the light), and (2) the nature of the matter.
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Matter waves are of two types, which differ only in the direction of the vibration relative to the direction of propagation. In transverse waves the vibration is perpendicular to the direction of propagation (a plucked violin string, for example). In longitudinal waves the vibration is parallel to the direction of propagation (the pressure waves from a blast, or in front of a piston, for example). Most of the matter waves which are of interest here are, like water waves, a combination of both.
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Among the analyze of the physical action of radiations on biological systems, there is the subject of the biological effects. We shall discuss the following examples of biological effects: mutation, ultraviolet-light inactivation and reactivation.
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One of the problems which perturb biophysicists is the reason for the size and shape of biological structures. In this category comes the question of why we have a concave retina. In the early 1800's, one Johannes Müller was trying to figure out the answer to this question, and in speculating on the problem he remarked on some interesting aspects.
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Sound can be used as a familiar illustration of waves. Because hearing is one of our most important senses, it is interesting to see how the physical properties of sound correspond to our perceptions of it. Hearing is the perception of sound, just as vision is the perception of visible light. But sound has important applications beyond hearing. Ultrasound, for example, is not heard but can be employed to form medical images and is also used in treatment.
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A host of medical imaging techniques employ nuclear radiation. What makes nuclear radiation so useful? First, γ radiation can easily penetrate tissue; hence, it is a useful probe to monitor conditions inside the body. Second, nuclear radiation depends on the nuclide and not on the chemical compound it is in, so that a radioactive nuclide can be put into a compound designed for specific purposes. The compound is said to be tagged. A tagged compound used for medical purposes is called a radiopharmaceutical. Radiation detectors external to the body can determine the location and concentration of a radiopharmaceutical to yield medically useful information. For example, certain drugs are concentrated in inflamed regions of the body, and this information can aid diagnosis and treatment as seen in Figure 32.4. Another application utilizes a radiopharmaceutical which the body sends to bone cells, particularly those that are most active, to detect cancerous tumors or healing points. Images can then be produced of such bone scans. Radioisotopes are also used to determine the functioning of body organs, such as blood flow, heart muscle activity, and iodine uptake in the thyroid gland.