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f you’ve ever been stuck in an MRI scanner, anxiously wondering what it will reveal, you probably didn’t spend much time admiring the machine itself. Yet magnetic resonance imaging is a triumphant mix of physics and medicine.

When you lie in an MRI scanner, it creates a wobbling magnetic field. The water molecules in your body briefly rotate, and their movement causes them to release faint radio waves. Detectors built into the scanner are tuned to pick up the waves and translate their signals into a three-dimensional image of your insides.

But MRIs aren’t perfect. They require a gigantic magnet that can weigh several tons. The magnetic field produced by the device is so powerful it can throw a metal chair across a room. And the whole apparatus can cost several million dollars.

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Matthew Rosen and his colleagues at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Boston want liberate the MRI. They’re hacking a new kind of scanner that’s fast, small, and cheap. Using clever algorithms, they can use a weak magnetic field to get good images of our brains and other organs. Someday, people may not have to go to hospital for an MRI. The scanners may show up in sports arenas, battlefields, and even the backs of ambulances.

In this episode of “Science Happens!” we visit Rosen’s lab to watch this technology break out of its old confines.

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