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Someone recently challenged me to try homeopathy so that I can be convinced that it works. I have been given a bottle of tiny pills (called "pillules") which are labelled as a 200C preparation of belladonna, and I am supposed to place one of these things under my tongue every hour until I feel the effect. For those not familiar with homeopathy terminology, 200C means that the preparation has been diluted to 1 part in a hundred, one percent of the resulting solution has been taken and diluted in the same ratio again, and this has been repeated 200 times. The proportion of active ingredient in the final mixture has 400 zeroes to the right of the decimal point, which is equivalent to a single molecule not just in our own universe but in 1 followed by over 300 zeroes universes. Homeopathy is based on the idea that infinite division of a measure of a substance is possible and that there is no limit to dilution. 200C might sound like a joke, but even higher dilutions have been suggested as having effect.
So did homeopathy ever make sense? Well, it probably did when Samuel Hahnemann invented the idea in about 1796. At that time real doctors relied on a lot of people getting better just because diseases ran their course, so doing nothing (which is what homeopathy is) probably did less damage than purging, bloodletting and cauterisation. Even in 1811 when Hahnemann published his Materia Medica it might have still made a sort of sense. But that's when science took over and homeopathy bogged itself in the past.
Let's look at what was going on in real science at this time. While Hahnemann was writing Organon of the Healing Heart and Materia Medica, John Dalton was writing that matter was made up of molecules and that a molecule was the smallest unit of existence of a substance and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac was coming up with the idea that there was a relationship between volumes of gasses at a constant temperature and pressure. In 1811, Amedeo Avogadro suggested that equal volumes of gasses at equal temperatures and pressures contained equal numbers of molecules. What was Robert Brown seeing in 1828 when he observed pollen particles being bumped around by unseen forces? All of these observations and theories directly contradicted any theory which was based on infinite division, and all should have been nails in homeopathy's coffin.
The problem was that it was a very big coffin and, as I said above, once a form of quackery has been invented it is very difficult to uninvent it. You might think that nobody noticed that homeopathy made no sense at the time, but in 1842 Oliver Wendell Holmes presented two lectures to the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge using the title "Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions". Avogadro's theory might have been obscure, but in 1858 Stanislao Cannizaro used it to determine accurate atomic weights. If there are such things as atomic weights then surely those atoms can't be divided. As I said, it is a very large coffin and needs a lot of nails.
Fast forward to 1905, when Einstein published his paper on Brownian Motion. Here was the foremost scientist of his time (and most other times according to some people) and he was showing evidence for the existence of corpuscles of matter. By 1908 the work of Albert Einstein and Paul Langevin had produced not just nails for homeopathy's casket but duct tape, wire ties and a welded outer box.
Or had they?
The Holy Grail of homeopathy is evidence that dilution beyond Avogadro's Number is meaningful. In 1999, Dr Jacques Benveniste wrote to me to inform me of his progress in demonstrating that substances could have an effect even when diluted to extremes. He said "Our experiments have been recently reproduced in a major American University and several labs in France. We should be launching momentarily the international replication by 10-15 other labs worldwide. ... Upon completion of the present replication job, a scientific report will be submitted to a major journal".
Unfortunately, Dr Benveniste died in 2004, and I am still waiting for the results to be published. I hope someone goes through his notes and gets his work into a form where it can be released to overthrow the current paradigms of physics and chemistry. Dr Benveniste is no longer eligible for a Nobel Prize, as these are only awarded to the living, but I am going to suggest to the appropriate authorities that he be immortalised by the concept of Benveniste's Number. This is Avogadro's Number raised to the power of Avogadro's Number, and represents a limit to dilution which could make even the most ardent homeopath start to think about what is possible.
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the July 2006 edition of Australasian Science
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