Homeopathic E-Mail

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Nobel laureate Brian Josephson was incensed. He had just read a column by physicist Robert Park poking fun at the work of a French biologist who maintains that the benefits of homeopathic medicine can be transmitted electronically. Josephson, who since winning the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics has developed an interest in fringe sciences, fired off an e-mail challenge to Park, who promptly responded. Their exchange could lead to the first rigorous test of one of the world's most widely practiced alternative therapies.

Homeopathy, simply defined, is a system for treating diseases with highly diluted solutions of substances that in large doses would produce the same symptoms. Although a few contested studies have shown a slight benefit over the placebo effect, most scientists scoff at current homeopathic practices, pointing out that some "remedies" are so diluted that no active substance remains.

If so, how can they possibly do any good? Advocates suggest that during the dilution process, the characteristics of the active substance are transferred to the water molecules. Indeed, the French biologist, Jacques Benveniste, claimed in a 1988 report to Nature that he had proof that a homeopathic solution without a single molecule of a biologically active substance was still active. Attempts to reproduce his results were unsuccessful.

Did that discourage Benveniste? Apparently not. His latest theory, and the cause of the current flap, is that the "memory" of water in a homeopathic solution has an electromagnetic "signature." This signature, he says, can be captured by a copper coil, digitized and transmitted by wire--or, for extra flourish, over the Internet--to a container of ordinary water, converting it to a homeopathic solution.

In his challenge, Josephson suggested a randomized double-blind test. Park, a longtime critic of homeopathy, was delighted to accept and is now close to agreeing with Josephson on a protocol. In one proposal, samples of water, some of which have been given the Benveniste treatment, would be examined by the biologist himself, who would then attempt to identify which, if any, had been rendered homeopathic. Yet Benveniste seems hesitant. Some "variables," as he puts it, including financing, remain to be discussed.

Until now, neither the effectiveness nor the putative mechanism of homeopathy has ever been subjected to what nonbelievers would call a scientifically valid test. Indeed, the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which has $50 million to spend this year for just this kind of trial, has yet to sponsor even preliminary tests. Now it may be upstaged by a laureate and a skeptic.