Post Tagged with: "homeopathy"

A letter from a chemist to homeopaths


Dear Homeopaths,

Homeopathy awareness week is here again. And I’ve got some questions about this most popular of alternative therapies. The answers to which I’d very much like to be aware of.

Homeopathy, as I understand it (please correct me if I’m wrong), is based on a idea that ‘like cures like’. So if your hayfever causes runny eyes then onions may be be able to help (because onions cause similar symptoms). Or maybe you suffer from insomnia, in which case caffeine may be the solution. However a cup of strong coffee is likely to keep you wide awake. So you get around this through massive dilutions. This way, you claim, the beneficial effects are retained whilst the unpleasant side-effects are removed. 

Now before we go any further let’s make sure I understand the dilution process, again using the caffeine example. You might start with a solution of caffeine that’s about the same concentration as coffee. Then you perform a 1 in 100 dilution. The solution is shaken, often by hitting it against a leather bound surface (a process known as succussion). The result is known as a 1C solution. You perform another dilution, shake etc. resulting in a 2C solution. The process continues often 30 or more times. The net result is a solution that will not contain a single molecule of the original. In fact it might be the equivalent of diluting the cup of coffee in sphere of water the size of the solar system.

So far I hope we can agree. But it seems rather unlikely, to me, that this process might result in an effective remedy. Although you have explanations e.g. ‘water is capable of storing information relating to substances with which it has previously been in contact’. Or to put it another way the water can remember what was diluted in it.

There is no sound scientific evidence that water has any such memory storage capacity. However, homeopaths often tell scientist that we should be more open minded and not to be so wedded to the dogma that we have been taught. So here I am, putting my education and experience in chemistry to one side for a moment.

Nevertheless, even without everything that chemistry might tell me, I’m still left with what seems to be some logical holes in your therapy.  Hence my questions for you, and I really am interested in the answers.

How come the water remembers the starting substance (e.g. the caffeine) but not impurities?

The gold standard for water purity (used by analytical chemists, but not homeopaths) is just 10 parts impurity to 1 billion parts water. The concentration of these impurities is equivalent to a 4C solution. So in dilutions made beyond this point the impurities will outnumber the original substance. How then can the homeopathic solution know which molecules it is supposed to store information about?

How do you make an oxygen based homeopathic remedy?

There appear to be quite a few remedies based on oxygen. But oxygen from the air will continually dissolve in the water you use to dilute your solutions. So how do you actually manage to make a 30C dilution of oxygen, when at every step along the way you are just adding more of it to your remedy?  

How is the power of a remedy transferred from water to a dry pill?

You make pills by dropping a water remedy onto a sugar tablet and then drying it. How is the stored information (supposedly in the water) retained in the pill after the water has evaporated?

Why can’t I find a homeopathic contraceptive?

I looked and you don’t seem to make or sell any.

If the potency of a remedy increases the more it gets diluted why can this never be perceived as a strong taste?

If a remedy is to work then it must interact with our biology. Why does this never manifest to our sense of taste?

Why was homeopathy so ineffectual at combating infectious diseases before the advent of vaccines?

Your theme for this years homeopathy awareness week is infectious disease. Vaccinations have reduced the spread of infectious diseases to a tiny fraction of what they once were. Homeopathy was around long before most vaccinations were commonplace, so why did it fail to reduce the incidents of infectious diseases?

I hope by answering these you might be able to give me a greater awareness of how you believe your therapies work.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Mark Lorch

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By April 14, 2015 55 comments Uncategorized

What if water had memory?

It spent some time in a homeopathSome homeopaths believe water has memory. That is how they explain the “medicinal properties” of their concoctions. Apparently people are treated even though the pill or potion may not contain a single molecule of the medicinal agent. But does water really have memory?

That depends on how you define memory. If for water it is defined as the property to have a stable state for sometime, then it has memory, just not a very good one – 50 femtoseconds is its retention time. That’s about 60 million million times shorter than the mythical goldfish’s three-second memory.

But with that “memory”, water could not retain any useful information. The memory is just its ability to form an ordered group of water molecules that can last for 50 femtoseconds. It is a bit like a crowd of people all milling around in train station – there are pockets of order where people are standing around looking at departure boards or getting a coffee. But these groups will disperse after a while. And so it is with water – there are pockets of order where the water molecules are interacting with each other and with things that are dissolved in it, but these are lost pretty quickly.

Let’s try another question. What if water had an elephant’s memory and never forgot?

In that case all the ordered pockets would hang around forever. But it wouldn’t look much like liquid water anymore. Instead it would be quite different; in fact, you would probably call it ice.

How about we try something a bit more bizarre? What if water could remember the molecules that had been dissolved in it long after the original molecules had been diluted away? And then what if that water could still act like them?

That may sound pretty outlandish, but a paper published, in the journal Nature (no less), suggested just that more than 25 years ago. Not surprisingly it proved rather controversial. Pretty soon after publication the paper was discredited, leaving no sound evidence for water being able to remember what has been in it (for any significant length of time).

But let’s ignore the evidence for a moment: what if water could retain a fond memory of long-departed solutes? In that case we’re in trouble, because, as one of my teachers used to say, “chemistry is the study of the soluble”. She meant that chemistry, mostly, involves dissolving compounds in solvents and then reacting them together to get new and interesting compounds. Water is a favourite solvent because more things dissolve in it than anything else.

However, if water can remember what had been in it then even in its purest form it would behave like it was chock full of impurities, with unpredictable results. No chemical reaction performed in water, from DNA fingerprinting to synthesis of a new drug, would ever work consistently.

But water memory isn’t just bad news for chemists – it would also affect the behaviour of your everyday tap water. One day your glass of water might have a flashback of limonene adding a pleasant hint of citrus fruit, the next it might recall capsaicin giving your water a spicy kick.

No need to worry, things wouldn’t get that far. After all you’re 70% water, life evolved in water and almost all reactions in all living things happen in water. If the primordial soup could have been influenced by non-existent chemicals then there would have been no stable environment for the life to have formed. Thus no life, no evolution and no human beings to dream up homeopathy.


Illustrations are by Martin Parker, chemistry teacher at Ampleforth College.

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This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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By October 3, 2013 6 comments entertainment, fun

Homeopathy: Science or Sympathetic Magic?

As a new contributor to Chemistry Blog, I’ve decided to ‘break myself in’ by tackling the somewhat controversial and thought-provoking topic of homeopathy.  As I write, we find ourselves part way through ‘World Homeopathy Awareness Week’, so the subject is enjoying quite a high profile and twitter seems to be alive with discussion on the matter.

 

Before I go further, I feel I should declare myself to be a sceptic.  I’m doubtful as to whether any other point of view on this subject would be published on Chemistry Blog –so that will come as no surprise.  After completing my chemistry studies, I chose a career in the pharmaceutical industry –to make a difference.  I also rely on daily medication to manage my own condition.  I’m therefore very aware of the difference proven chemistry can make to the quality of people’s lives.  The science of drug development is founded on proven facts; a great deal of money, effort, time and hard evidence is required for just one new drug to reach the market –I will return to this subject in a later article.

 

What are the principles of homeopathy?

 

Homeopathy is an alternative medicine, based on the principle of treating like with like.  Patients are treated with highly dilute preparations believed to cause symptoms in a healthy person, similar to those being experienced in the patient.  Commonly used dilutions are 10C and 30C.

 

To achieve a 30C dilution, the ‘active’ ingredient is diluted 1 part in 100 –and then a drop of this solution would be diluted to 1 part in 100 and so on for 30 repetitions.  The resulting final solution would be 1 part active in 1 followed by 60 zeroes.  To put this number in perspective; one molecule of ‘active’ in a volume the size of the entire observable universe would be 40C.  Homeopaths claim a process called ‘succussion’, the act of striking the vessel containing the solution against an elastic surface 10 times at each stage of the dilution process, activates the ‘vital energy’ of the diluted substance and they talk, not in terms of dilution, but in terms of ‘dynamisation’ or ‘potentisation’.

 

As chemists we know there is a limit to any dilution that can be made without losing the original substance entirely.  This limit is related to Avogadro’s number and in homeopathic terms roughly 1 part in 1024 –equivalent to a 12C preparation.  A 30C preparation would require giving 2 billion doses per second to 6 billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.  It is worth pointing out here that homeopathy dates from a time predating the discovery of atoms and molecules, so it was a widely held belief that a substance could be diluted ‘ad infinitum’.

 

Homeopaths believe the more dilute a preparation is the more effective it is. They believe the diluent used (usually water) has a memory of the active molecule it once contained.  My professional life as an analytical chemist would be a living nightmare if this were the case and carefully prepared diluents were ‘remembering’ the properties of the all the compounds they had contained.  Just imagine what the HPLC chromatograms would look like!  There would simply be no point in trying to keep the equipment free from contamination.  The notion of ‘molecular memory’ is at best implausible; it suggests the shape of a molecule is more important than its chemistry. Putting reason aside for a moment and accepting that water has memory –how would it emulate the chemistry of that molecule?  That very notion would require our current understanding of chemistry to be re-written and that understanding has provided us with thousands of medications which have been proven to be effective.

 

Clearly, if homeopathy achieves a successful clinical outcome, there is something else at work here. There is likely to be a significant ‘placebo effect’ and there is anecdotal evidence to support this idea. Also, the act of consulting the homeopath and the attention and sympathy the practitioner gives the patient –is believed to support the healing process. This, however, can be dangerous when the practitioner advises the patient against engaging with conventional medicine –this can, and has, resulted in tragic consequences.

 

As a complementary therapy, homeopathy appears to benefit some and as such it has its place in modern medicine. It isn’t sensible to use it as the only course of treatment for any condition, especially not a serious disease. The ‘science’ doesn’t stack up -it’s just sympathetic magic.

By April 12, 2012 15 comments general chemistry, opinion

Electroneutrality is dead?

pollack
Gerald Pollack

That is the highly controversial claim made by Kate Ovchinnikova and Gerald Pollack in Langmuir earlier this year.[Langmuir] Electroneutrality is a guiding principal in electrochemistry and is a method to understanding electrolytic cells (Pt electrodes in dilute aqueous NaCl solutions). It stipulates that any charge imbalance across an electrochemical system is quickly (~ns) balanced by the salt present in the water being driven by the electric field in such a way to neutralize that charge imbalance. Thus the need for salt bridges and all that wonderful G-chem stuff we have learned. There is even a cool little applet you can play with electroneutrality by the Harvey Project. When I tried to sit down with electrochemists to discuss the claims by O&P they quickly dismissed them out of hand after reading the beginning of their paper. So the big question is, did O&P stumble across something amazing or did they spectacularly overstate the results of their experiment.

I can summarize their paper succinctly:

electrochem setup
  1. Insert electrodes into electrolytic cell
  2. Turn on power supply
  3. Disconnect the electrodes from the circuit
  4. Remove the bridge between beakers
  5. Reconnect electrodes to measure residual charge in the two beakers.

The design seems thoughtful enough, but before I get into the merits of their results I need to take time to mention a few gems in their paper. Here is a quote from them.

Bubble formation occurred in all experiments (n > 20), although position and growth rate were inconsistent. In most cases, formation began during the charging phase and continued through discharge. Characteristics of bubble formation were not pursued in any detail, but may warrant future study.

But it doesn’t warrant further study,  all chemists know where their bubbles came from.

$$ \text{Cathode: } \text{H}_2\text{O} + 2\text{e}^- \rightarrow 2\text{HO}^- + \text{H}_2$$

$$ \text{Anode: } \text{H}_2\text{O} \rightarrow 2\text{H}^+ + \frac{1}{2} \text{O}_2 + 2\text{e}^-$$

usb-6009

An other eye catcher is that they didn’t use a standard electrochemical setup. They used my trusty NI USB-6009, I know that product well as a chunk of my thesis was acquired with it. It doesn’t make the experiment invalid, but why use crap when you are trying to disprove such a time honored concept as electroneutrality. Maz and I know from experience that the USB-6009 floats if their isn’t a sufficient load on it or if their isn’t an appreciable external voltage.

Here is a quote from them contemplating that HCl solutions have an overall positive charge.

One might speculate, for example, whether ordinary acidic solutions, which have low pH, might contain net positive charge, while ordinary basic solutions might contain net negative charge.

So far everything has been “quirky”, it isn’t until the end when you perceive something really odd.

Water appears able to adopt two structural networks that have mirror symmetry to one another. The fact that these networks are macro phenomena deserves further study.

A second and related issue is the potential for disturbance of these structural networks. It is now established that when water is left standing for long periods, it develops thixotropic properties, implying macrostructure.7 Such macrostructure is expected to be fragile. The fact that removing and inserting electrodes did not apparently ruin the charge-containing structure implies that, once formed, the structural network can re-form rather readily. This is an additional subject requiring further study.

7:Vybiral, B. Water and the Cell; Pollack, G. H., Cameron, I., Wheatley, D., Eds.; Springer: New York, 2006; pp 299-314.

It is with that last statement you say to yourself, “Oh, I get it. This is a homeopathy paper.” Water being able to adopt structures of the solutes that were dissolved in it is a hallmark of the quackery that is homeopathy. O&P’s claim isn’t that bold, but it has hints of the same idea. Claiming macrostructures (~mm) of water that extend past the picosecond domain is absurd.

Although I haven’t discussed the results of their paper, would you really trust it anyways?

Horacio Corti and Agustin Colussi have done an excellent job dissecting the technical irregularities of the paper and I encourage you to read their comments on the article (link below). If you come to a different conclusion or find me in error, please leave a comment and join the discussion.

Links

Mitch

By September 3, 2009 4 comments opinion, physical chemistry