Of succussion and cold fusion - Irfan Husain - January 26, 2011

Source : www.dawn.com

DOES water have a memory? The entire system of homeopathic medicine depends on the answer to this question. Oddly, we still do not have a definitive answer despite the fact that homeopathy has been around for over two hundred years.

Although pooh-poohed by allopathic doctors, scientists and most rational people, clearly the little sugary pills do often have some healing power. After all, around 50,000 people per year are treated in the UK’s homeopathic hospitals run by the National Health Service. In 1999, six million Americans had received some form of homeopathic treatment. And according to Michael Brooks, author of ‘13 Things that don’t make Sense’, the World Health Organisation reported that millions from Mexico to Pakistan frequently used homeopathic remedies.

More importantly, Brooks informs us that 40 per cent of British physicians – and broadly similar numbers of other European doctors – use homeopathy. And yet, an iconoclastic biologist like Richard Dawkins has deplored the expenditure of state funds on what he terms “quackery”. Other sceptics are equally scathing.

The problem proponents of the system face is that the entire science (scientists would question my use of the term) rests on such a shaky premise. Basically, the system is based on the principle of similars where an ailment is treated by minute, virtually non-existent quantities of a substance known to create the illness. This substance, initially diluted to one part to 99 of water or alcohol, is than further diluted up to 30 times. Along the way, the liquid is shaken in a process called succussion. By the time this process of dilution has been repeated thirty times (known as 30 C concentration), not a single molecule of the original substance remains in the resulting remedy.

So how, scientists ask, can homeopathy possibly work? Clinical tests have confused the matter rather than clearing it up. Results have been ambiguous, with some suggesting that homeopathy has a merely placebo effect, while others hint at something at work. Proponents insist that the process of succussion ‘potentizes’ a substance and gives it its healing power.

The battle has raged for over two centuries since Samuel Hahnemann, a German doctor and linguist, introduced his new system in 1792. Sir John Forbes, physician to Queen Victoria’s household, dismissed it as “an outrage to human reason”. This is still more or less the scientific community’s view. In 2005, Lancet, an eminent British medical journal, announced “The end of homeopathy” in an editorial based on a meta-study published in the same issue.

This study was fiercely attacked by scientists (not all of them proponents of homeopathy) as lacking in rigour. Other studies were cited to suggest that some yet unknown process was at work. Indeed, Brooks cites a paper published in 2005 in the Materials Research Innovations journal that could explain what’s going on. A team led by Rustum Roy examined the literature on the subject and suggested that epitaxy might underpin the system. This is a “well-known phenomenon in which structural information is transferred from one material to another without the transfer of material or the involvement of chemical reactions.”

Another study showed a homeopathic solution showing similar effects as an allopathic preparation. And yet the evidence seems ambiguous, giving little comfort to either camp. Nevertheless, millions swear by it. The chapter on homeopathy is one of the 13 scientific puzzles Brooks examines in his book, ranging from the placebo effect to cold fusion.

Dark matter: Just when we think science has explained how the universe functions, a new anomaly pops up, turning our assumptions on their heads. For instance, we know next to nothing about dark matter and dark energy, and yet these mysterious elements constitute some 96 per cent of the universe. Despite the best efforts of teams of physicists and cosmologists around the world (minus, sadly, the Islamic world), we have been unable to actually isolate and observe dark matter and dark energy. But the construction of the multi-billion dollar Cern Large Hadron Collider holds out hope that we might soon unlock some of the universe’s many mysteries.

Like homeopathy, cold fusion is a process that might or might not work. When in 1989, the University of Utah announced that a team of scientists had succeeded in developing a nuclear process in which more heat was created than went into the experiment, many thought an era of cheap energy was about to dawn. Amidst huge media hype, other scientists tried to replicate the experiment conducted by Martin Fleischamann and Stanley Pons, but the results were disappointing. The whole thing was dismissed as a hoax, and the scientists disgraced. So much so that cold fusion remains in bad odour with the scientific community to this day.

And yet researchers have continued to report occasional small bursts of energy produced in similar experiments. Gradually, evidence is building up that it is possible to get an excess of heat over and above the energy that goes into the electrodes. It is this kind of obsessive curiosity that results in incremental increases in our understanding of the world around us.

Out of all the scores of scientists cited by Brooks in his book, there is just a single Muslim name: Dr Abdus Salam. This reflects on the low level of research and scientific education in most of the Islamic world. One explanation lies in our preoccupation with the afterlife: if we are convinced that our present existence is transient, and relevant only as a stepping stone to the next one, we will have little interest in exploring our world to discover how it works. Also, a blind adherence to any dogma reduces our curiosity about the universe whose mysteries, after all, are explained by all the many scriptures around the world.

Older readers will recall that Dr Abdus Salam, the only Pakistani Nobel laureate, who was not allowed to speak at Islamabad University by Jamiat students in 1979, the year he received science’s most prestigious award. Clearly, for those students, science and scientists were irrelevant to their narrow worldview. Unfortunately, our politicians and bureaucrats are little better: to this day, not a single road or park or public building has been named after Dr Salam. This says it all for why the Muslim world remains so backward in every field.

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