Quantum Snake Oil

Quantum Physics and Homeopathic Medicine

Snake Oil has become a synonym for a false medical remedy.
“…at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes — an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”
- Dr. Carl Sagan
C Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World : Science As a Candle in the Dark. Random House, 1996, p 304

Can Quantum Physics Explain Homeopathic Medicine?

A quick refresher on the history of science up to around 1900: Physicists were feeling that they had conquered the physical world — they had mastered mechanics, thanks to Galileo, Newton, Lagrange and others, thermodynamics was well established in explaining heat processes and transfer, and James Clarke Maxwell had successfully linked electricity and magnetism together and shown that light (and all electromagnetic radiation) could be treated mathematically as a wave.

However, there were a stubborn number of irregularities and anomalous results which could not be explained by this “classical” physics. Investigation of these irregularities lead to two significant new fields: Relativity, where objects were travelling at very high speed, a significant fraction of the speed of light, and Quantum Physics, where interactions at the atomic and molecular level are completely different from those where we have large collections of atoms and molecules.

Neither of these new fields invalidates the “classical” physics of Newton, and indeed one of the cardinal rules of both quantum physics and relativistic physics is that they must revert back to classical behaviour when looking at large enough or slow enough systems respectively.

Quantum physics explains the interaction of light with matter by breaking the wave down into a stream of particles (this is known as wave particle duality). Each of these particles, known as a photon, carries a packet of energy. But these particles also have wavelike properties, (a wavelength) and so when a whole stream of particles acts, it can be through of as a wave. In some branches of physics, such as optics, it is vastly more convenient to describe light as a ray for most of the time, but physicists never overlook the fact that inside that wave description, there is a stream of particles.

So quantum physics is really a description of what happens when a single photon hits a single atom. It can be extended to a few photons hitting a few atoms, but once a large number of atoms are involved, it becomes a “classical” physics system. The rules of quantum physics are known as quantum mechanics. They are mentally challenging to grasp, and to apply, because they are often counterintuitive. However, they work! Our modern world is full of quantum systems which we have built because of our understanding of quantum mechanics. Lasers, solar cells, the transistor and modern silicon chips are all possible because of it.

According to homeopathic postulates, medicine becomes MORE effective, the more it is diluted. That’s clearly counterintuitive. In fact, the levels of dilution used mean that given the small quantities of original substance, there is essentially nothing left after it has been dilute many times. Anyone with some knowledge of chemistry can demonstrate that very handily.

Practitioners of homeopathy then say that the diluted fluid is “retaining a memory” of the space originally occupied by the substance. This actually violates the second law of thermodynamics — Disorder tends to a maximum. No controlled scientific experiment has found evidence of any type of “molecular” memory in solvents such as water. They just do not retain that level of order. In fact, the established scientific model, is that the atoms and molecules in a liquid are moving with essentially random motion. This is known as Brownian motion, and Einstein was the first person to describe this in a mathematical manner.

Quantum Physics as far from homeopathic medicines as you can get — a homeopathic medicine is a liquid, and is just not a suitable candidate system to apply quantum mechanics on. Statistical thermodynamics, which is an offshoot of classical mechanics is the tool of choice for a physicist in those cases. Invoking mysterious “quantum” effects, without any proof of their existence and ignoring the colossal body of scientific evidence against homeopathic effects, is simply not good science. The sceptical and inquiring mind must be satisfied at some point, that they simply will not fit in with established scientific knowledge, which has taken us to the moon, the edge of the solar system and beyond, allows us to peer at the fundament constituents of matter, and extrapolate back to the Big Bang. Any good scientist will acknowledge that there are still large gaps in our knowledge in some areas, such as gravitational waves, dark energy, and dark matter. But we do have a good enough knowledge of the working of the universe to rule out homeopathic medicine as having any effect, other than as a placebo. A “balanced” view is not necessary in this case. The scientific case is utterly overwhelming.

Finally, I will end on a positive note. Quantum physics makes a huge contribution to modern medicine, from the simple X-ray, the CAT scan, to Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Positron Emission Tomography, radiation therapy, and laser therapies. The modern health professional has a huge range of quantum physics-based diagnostic tools and therapies at their disposal. We do understand how to apply quantum physics to medicine, with tangible results.