A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

2021 Short Takes

Cited Theory To Reject Low-Level EMF Effects

January 6, 2021
Updated January 7, 2021

Robert K. Adair, the former chairman of the physics department at Yale University and a leading critic of any and all claims that weak EMFs can have biological effects, died on September 28. He was 96.

A particle physicist, Adair held one of Yale’s prestigious Sterling professorships. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. To the public, Adair is best known as the author of The Physics of Baseball.

During the 1990s, after retiring from teaching, he took a professional interest in the work of his wife, Eleanor Adair, who studied the physiological effects associated with microwave heating at the John B. Pierce Laboratory, also in New Haven (and later at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas). Over the next decade, Robert Adair published a series of scientific papers and commentaries, in which he maintained that, as he wrote in a 1992 letter to Science magazine, health risks associated with exposure to weak EMFs are an “imaginary problem.”

One of Adair's central arguments was that low-level fields could not affect biological systems because they are so much weaker than the natural thermal fluctuations in living systems (this is known as the “kT problem”). He once compared worrying about EMF health effects with being concerned that a cat will damage a tree by breathing on it during a howling wind storm.

In a letter to Physics Today in 1991, he wrote that “good scientists” consider very weak 60 Hz fields harmless “because their effects on the cellular level are very, very much smaller than thermal noise.” Earlier that same year, he presented his argument in a 10-page paper in the Physical Review under the title, “Constraints on Biological Effects of Weak Extremely-Low-Frequency Electromagnetic Fields.” He also published his views on EMFs in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. See, for instance, this 1994 paper on interactions with magnetite.

Adair had influential allies within the Yale physics community, notably Allan Bromley, who was also a Sterling professor and a chairman of its physics department. Bromley was the science advisor to President George H.W. Bush. In 1990, Bromley delayed the public release of an EPA report that classified power-frequency EMFs as a probable human carcinogen and microwave radiation as a possible carcinogen. Those cancer classifications were removed from the report prior to release and never officially acknowledged or acted on.

Frank Barnes, for one, has publicly disagreed with Adair. In an interview with Microwave News in 2016, Barnes said: “Bob Adair’s calculations are not wrong — they just don’t deal with the situations we are dealing with,” referring to the potential for RF radiation to promote cancer. Barnes is a distinguished professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder and a long-time member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Eleanor Adair died in 2013 at the age of 86.

The Yale Department of Physics has posted an obituary for Robert Adair, under the title, “Explorer of Strange Particles —and Baseballs.” A shorter obit appeared in the New Haven Register.