On a cold morning in Minneapolis last December, a man walked into a research centre to venture where only pigs had gone before: into the strongest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine built to scan the human body.

First, he changed into a hospital gown, and researchers made sure he had no metal on his body: no piercings, rings, metal implants or pacemakers. Any metal could be ripped out by the immensely powerful, 10.5-tesla magnet — weighing almost 3 times more than a Boeing 737 aeroplane and a full 50% more powerful than the strongest magnets approved for clinical use. Days earlier, he had passed a check-up that included a baseline test of his sense of balance to make sure that any dizziness from exposure to the magnets could be assessed properly. In the MRI room at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, he lay down inside a 4-metre-long tube, surrounded by 110 tonnes of magnet and 600 tonnes of iron shielding, for an hour’s worth of imaging of his hips, whose thin cartilage would test the limits of the machine’s resolution.

The centre’s director, Kamil Ugurbil, had been waiting for years for this day. The magnet faced long delays because the liquid helium needed to fill it was in short supply. After the machine was finally delivered, on a below-freezing day in 2013, it took four years of animal testing and ramping up the field strength before Ugurbil and his colleagues were comfortable sending in the first human. Even then, they didn’t quite know what they’d see. But it was worth the wait: when the scan materialized on screen, the fine resolution revealed intricate details of the wafer-thin cartilage that protects the hip socket. “It was extremely exciting and very rewarding,” Ugurbil says.

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