Posted by: COSI | June 11, 2010

My Heart On Doppler

Astrophysics was one of my early passions fueling my science interest, eventually taking me down a path that included an early degree in Physics.  An amazing tool in astrophysics is the Doppler Effect.  So much of what we know about our universe has been assisted by this relatively simple effect.  You may remember the term from your old science class.  You have at least experienced it.

Doppler Shift

Doppler Shift

The classic example is the changing pitch of the ambulance siren as the ambulance races toward you and then goes past.  We’ve all heard this higher pitch as the ambulance comes at us (shifting the whistle sound to higher frequencies) and then the quick shift to a lower pitch as soon as it passes.

Anything with waves that we can measure, like sound or light, give us the ability to detect whether the originator of those waves (an ambulance, a star) is moving toward us or away from us (or us from it).  The shift in the signature spectral lines of light of stars is how we’ve determined that other stars are moving away from us—the universe is expanding.

So what does this have to do with my heart?

Well, I had this neat, unexpected opportunity just recently to see my old friend the Doppler Effect at play in analyzing my heart—it was way fascinating.

Circumstances and genetics had landed me in the doctor’s office with some concerns that needed checked out.  One answer was having an echocardiogram of my heart.

So I was laid out on a table and an ultrasound based piece of equipment, similar in function as to how the ultrasound images of babies in the womb are created, was hooked up to me.  I was positioned, on my request, in such a fashion that I could see the screen and the cooperating technician was glad to walk me through the images and the test as we explored my heart top to bottom.

When we got to examining my heart chambers and blood flow a setting was changed and lo and behold there was my old friend the Doppler Effect!  With the ultrasound device carefully positioned, and color enhancement turned on, there was my blood flowing into my heart chamber, toward the sensor, showing a bright blue.  And just as fast as the siren pitch switching as the ambulance races by, the next image showed red as the blood surged away and out of the chamber.

I never would have thought that my physics background would have helped me understand how this simple ultrasound was giving such a detailed and informative assessment of my heart!  All blue and then all red looked good to the technician and me—we’ll see what the doctor says 😉 But knowing the physics makes me comfortable in a rudimentary understanding of the results I was seeing realtime.

So there I was tapping into something we all learned in middle school science and using it as an adult many years later in a dramatically different (and very real) setting.

Am I the only one fascinated with the usefulness of this type of knowledge?

With more and more sophisticated equipment probing and analyzing our health using physics principles applied to biological functions, is it helpful for people to have at least a basic understanding?

I’m wondering how, and if, we can provide insights and engagement with these types of important tests using creative technology at COSI?  Should we? Can we?

Would love to hear about your experiences like this and how understanding or not understanding the underlying science influenced how you felt about it.



  1. Although I think it’s possible to change in most ultrasound systems, every doppler sonogram that I have seen (three kids at two different OBs, so a pretty small sample) assigns the blood flowing toward the sensor a red color and the blood flowing away blue — exactly the opposite of what someone with a physics background would expect. It always kind of bothered me…

  2. Craig–I had missed that incongruence with physics principles–but I believe it makes sense when you think of oxygenated blood traditionally being represented as red as opposed to blood returning to the heart being blue. The challenge as different fields start to meld together more in this new, integrated world of science 😉

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