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The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular? David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s

13. HOMEOPATHY Previous | Next

It’s patently absurd, so why won’t it go away?

SIR John Forbes, the physician to Queen Victoria’s household, called it “an outrage to human reason.” Homeopathy’s claim is that you can take a substance of dubious properties, dilute it to the point where there are no molecules of the original substance left in the sample you have, and your sample will nevertheless have retained healing properties related to the original compound. There is no justification in all of science for this idea -- and yet there remains some slim evidence that homeopathy works.

The key word here is slim. But even the slimmest of evidence makes this scientifically tantalising. Are we missing something about the properties of water? Could there be ways to heal that involve ultra-dilution – possibly avoiding the nasty side-effects of certain drugs?

After months of investigation, my conclusion is a sour and muttered “probably not”. But even after a long journey into the heart of homeopathy, where I saw, among other things, a pharmacy whose shelves contained homeopathic remedies made from flapjack and musical harmonies, I still cannot be 100 per cent sure homeopathy is all bunkum. Part of the reason for that came as I sat in the botany library of the Natural History Museum reading a rigorous scientific analysis of the roots and efficacy of homeopathy, an analysis that might even be able to rescue homeopathy from the clutches of the cranks who currently run the show.

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Location:Lewes, UK

#1 - Posted: 25/07/2008 06:25

Water is weird. It is the second most abundant molecule in the universe and the most studied material on Earth, yet its properties still defy explanation. Basically, those properties are something to do with quantum effects. How do we know? Because it behaves differently when we have different numbers of quantum particles in the nucleus of the hydrogen atom.


Normal (light) water has just one proton. But hydrogen can have a neutron (making it deuterium) or two neutrons (tritium) in there as well – making the water “heavy”. And heavy water is very different from light water.


Changing the hydrogen in the world’s oceans to deuterium, for example, would elevate the freezing point by nearly 4 degrees, drastically increasing the amount of liquid water on the planet and radically altering the biosphere.


Living stuff (whatever that is – see the chapter on Life for that little conundrum) would be different too. Water made with deuterium or tritium is poisonous to most of the organisms on Earth. That’s because water is central to the processes of life, playing a vital role in DNA information processing and protein folding.


Some of this is in the book, and I’ve written about other bits here: But there’s also a new paper on this coming out in Physical Review Letters by Alan Soper of the Rutherford Appleton physics Laboratory in the UK (you can find the summary here for now that talks about this subject.


Much of the strangeness of water is down to the “hydrogen bonds”: weak attractions between the hydrogen atoms in different water molecules. They are quantum at heart, resulting from uncertainties in the position of the hydrogen atoms relative to their host oxygen. The uncertainty allows the hydrogen atoms more freedom to move closer to other hydrogen atoms, strengthening what would otherwise be an insignificant bond.


The new paper says that the oxygen to hydrogen bond length in normal water is around 3% longer than the oxygen to deuterium bond length. The result is that the hydrogen bond in light water is ~ 4% shorter than in heavy water. What does all this mean for homeopathy? Dunno. Maybe nothing. Or maybe it’s got implications for cold fusion – that involves doing weird things with deuterium. But we can’t now pretend that water is just water. That’s not science: that’s just stupid. There was a story in New Scientist a couple of years ago in which Martin Chaplin, the world's water research king, said that it was hard for people to study water properly because of all the stigma attached to homeopathy. That's a ridiculous situation.

If you want to know more about water, visit Martin Chaplin’s pages at - they’re brilliant.


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