The Invisible Rainbow

The Invisible Rainbow, by Arthur Firstenberg.

Over Christmas break, I read The Invisible Rainbow: A History of Electricity and Life, by Arthur Firstenberg. What can I say about such a book? First, if the conclusions in my own book — Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? How Electricity and Magnetism Affect Our Healthare true, then everything Firstenberg writes about in his book is false. We disagree about the health risks posed by electromagnetic fields.

Firstenberg covers a wide range of issues in The Invisible Rainbow and let me begin by admitting that I’m not an expert in all of these subjects. For instance, I don’t know much about infectious diseases, such as influenza, and I’m not particularly knowledgeable about viruses in general. However, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention gathers input from authorities on these topics and here is what it says about the causes of the flu.

Firstenberg, on the other hand, claims that the flu is an electrical disease not caused by a virus spread from person to person. He writes

No mechanism is offered to explain how electromagnetic fields might cause a flu pandemic. No distinction is made between power line frequency (60 Hz) and radio frequency (MHz) radiation, although their physical effects are distinct. No estimation of “dose” (the distribution and magnitude of electric and magnetic field exposure) is provided. No randomized, controlled, double-blind studies are cited. He merely lists anecdotal evidence and coincidences.

Perhaps we could just ignore such dubious claims, except that The Invisible Rainbow is often quoted as evidence supporting the assertion that the Covid pandemic is somehow related to 5G cell phone radiation. Why would anyone get a Covid vaccine if they erroneously believe that the disease is caused by electromagnetic radiation? Such misinformation is dangerous to us all.

Firstenberg describes old studies without critical analysis. For instance, on page 73 he writes

One hundred picoamperes is 10^−10 amperes. We aren’t told what the crops were, but let’s assume they consist of a thin stalk that I’ll estimate has a cross-sectional area of one square centimeter (10^−4 m^2). That means the current density would be 10^−6 A/m^2. Furthermore, let’s assume an electrical conductivity on the order of saline, 1 S/m. The resulting electric field is 10^−6 V/m, or one microvolt per meter. This is far less than the electric field that always surrounds us and is caused by thermal fluctuations. The proposition that one milliamp per acre has such an effect defies credulity.

Previously in this blog I have written about Robert Becker — author of The Body Electricwhere I dismiss his assertions that nerve axons are semiconductors and that the myelin surrounding some nerve axons carries steady currents. Firstenberg quotes Becker to support these ideas.

Firstenberg believes cell phones cause many health hazards. On page 176, he writes

In Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? I discuss a recent review by Anne Perrin and collaborators, which considered many articles about electromagnetic fields and the blood-brain barrier, and concluded that the literature provides “no convincing proof of deleterious effects of [radio frequency radiation] on the integrity of the [blood-brain barrier]” (Comptes Rendus Physique, Volume 11, Pages 602–612, 2010).

On Page 255, Firstenberg discusses an epidemiological study that found no relationship between cell phones and cancer.

Firstenberg claims he could not follow up on his suspicions because the authors would not share their data. Recently Martin Röösli and coworkers performed a meta-analysis of many epidemiological studies (including the Danish one), and concluded that they “do not suggest increased brain or salivary gland tumor risk with [ mobile phone] use” (Annual Review of Public Health, Volume 40, Pages 221–238, 2019).

I could go on. Firstenberg believes electromagnetic fields are responsible for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. His views on the mechanism of hearing are at odds with what most researchers believe. He thinks the “ qi” that supposedly underlies acupuncture is electric in nature (similar to Becker’s view).

Readers of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will find little physics in The Invisible Rainbow. One skill that Russ Hobbie and I stress is the ability to make order-of-magnitude estimations of effects, and I don’t see Firstenberg doing that.

I do have some sympathy for Firstenberg. He’s been plagued by a variety of symptoms that he associates with electromagnetic hypersensitivity. I have no doubt his suffering is real. Yet, the evidence from controlled, double-blind experiments does not support his claim that electromagnetic radiation causes his illness. Rubin et al. reviewed many experiments and concluded that “at present, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that people with [idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields] experience unusual physiological reactions as a result of exposure to [electromagnetic fields]. This supports suggestions that [electromagnetic fields are] not the main cause of their ill health” (Bioelectromagnetics, Volume 32, Pages 593–609, 2011). The World Health Organization concludes

I put Arthur Firstenberg in the same category as Martin Pall, Robert Becker, Paul Brodeur, and Devra Davis: well-meaning scientific mavericks whose hypotheses have not been confirmed. The Invisible Rainbow is an interesting read, but beware: as science it is flawed.

Listen to Arthur Firstenberg, author of The Invisible Rainbow, answer questions about the hidden dangers of wireless and cellular phone radiation (I post this video so you can hear his side of the story, not because I agree with him).

Originally published at



Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

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Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.