Thursday, June 23, 2005

Homeopathy in Perspective

In today's spam serving, along with the offers to make my breasts larger and penis bigger was an offer for homeopathic growth hormone. This miracle of modern medicine, so the advertisement says, will make me feel younger, give me more energy, "supercharge" my sex drive (should go well with the larger breasts and penis) and cause all sorts of vaguely worded benefits to come my way. They didn't promise me the winning numbers in the Powerball Lottery, but I thought that it might have been implied.

Being the scientific curmudgeon that I am, I thought that a few minutes with a calculator might be in order. The advertised elixer of youth claimed to be a 40C homeopathic dilution, which meant that the original human growth hormone solution had undergone 40 consecutive 100-fold dilutions (take one volume, dilute it to 100 volumes). This is equivalent to a dilution of one volume to 10^80 (10 to the 80th power) volumes - that's a one (1) with 80 zeros following it (to the left of the decimal place). For those who aren't up on their math, that's a REALLY big number.

Let's try and put that in perspective, shall we? To make this dilution of human growth hormone, you would need to take one molecule of growth hormone and drop it into just over 3.5 X 10^53 liters (or kilograms) of water.

How much water is that, I hear you ask? Well, the entire mass of the solar system is only a shade over 2 X 10^30 kilograms, and the high estimate for the mass of the Milky Way galaxy (that's the one we're in) is about 2 X 10^42 kilograms, so this would be roughly the mass of 100 billion galaxies the size of the ours. That's a lot of water! [Note: that much water, if it were collected in one place, would result in the formation of a black hole large enough to collapse the entire Universe - you might want to stand back a bit.]

Remember now, that this vast amount of water still only contains one molecule of growth hormone. Finding a needle in a haystack is infinitely easier that finding that one molecule in all that water. Fortunately, the homeopathic "doctors" tell us that it doesn't matter that our chance of getting a vial or pill with that one molecule of growth hormone is less than our chance of winning the Powerball Lottery....ten times in a row. No, it turns out that water has a "memory" of the growth hormone that was "imprinted" on it by the shaking process that accompanies each dilution.

If anyone thinks I'm pulling their leg, I'm not - at least, I'm not kidding that fully grown adults not currently adjudged insane assert that these crazy stories are true. Personally, I think the "memory of water" thing has some giant holes.

Let's get right past the whole problem of physics and the fluid nature of water and its inability to hold a coherent structure for anything like the amount of time it takes me to read the label on the bottle - with my reading glasses. That alone should be enough to stop the homeopaths, but it doesn't. How about if we take them at their word and agree, for just a minute or two, that water can "remember" things that were in it when it was shaken. What would be the logical consequences of that?

Well, if water can "remember" things that were in it when it was agitated, why doesn't it "remember" the millions of fish that were in it when it spilled over rocks, waterfalls and dam spillways? Am I taking 500C fish slime with my 40C growth hormone? Remember, too, that in the upside-down world of homeopathy, greater dilutions have greater power. So, when I drink tap water, I should be experiencing the opposite of what happens to me when I am exposed to raw fish.......I'm not sure I like where this is going.

The fact is that the proponents of homeopathy have painted themselves into a corner. As long as they simply said "It works, we don't know how.", they were on fairly safe ground. Their claims still had no scientific merit, but they didn't give the real scientists an edge to pry against. Now that they have invested in this "memory of water" fantasy, trying to make it into a "science", they are out from under their rock and scurrying in the daylight.

I hold to no hope that the vast legions of the inilluminati are going to be at all persuaded by my little exercise. Ignorance is still the chief religion of the masses - as it has been since the dawn of time. However, if this can put a little sand in the gears, can cause one person wavering on the edge of the abyss to pull back, then it was worth all the time and effort.



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