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Why Water "Clumping" Does Not
Support Homeopathic Theory

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

On November 7, 2001, with the teaser, "homeopathy isn't all hokum," New Scientist magazine's Web site published an article that began:

It is a chance discovery so unexpected it defies belief and threatens to reignite debate about whether there is a scientific basis for thinking homeopathic medicines really work.

A team in South Korea has discovered a whole new dimension to just about the simplest chemical reaction in the book -- what happens when you dissolve a substance in water and then add more water.

Conventional wisdom says that the dissolved molecules simply spread further and further apart as a solution is diluted. But two chemists have found that some do the opposite: they clump together, first as clusters of molecules, then as bigger aggregates of those clusters. Far from drifting apart from their neighbours, they got closer together.

The discovery has stunned chemists, and could provide the first scientific insight into how some homeopathic remedies work. Homeopaths repeatedly dilute medications, believing that the higher the dilution, the more potent the remedy becomes.

Some dilute to "infinity" until no molecules of the remedy remain. They believe that water holds a memory, or "imprint" of the active ingredient which is more potent than the ingredient itself. But others use less dilute solutions. . . . The Korean findings might at last go some way to reconciling the potency of these less dilute solutions with orthodox science [1].

The article to which this referred was published in Chemical Communications, the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry [2]. Since the article does not mention homeopathy, I asked one of its authors (Kurt E. Geckeler, M.D., Ph.D.) whether the study implied anything about it. He replied:

As you stated correctly, the word homeopathy is not mentioned in the original paper and the study itself has nothing to do with it. It only states that on dilution (up to mM conc.) of a number of substances in water, an increase of particle size was observed. It was a laboratory study -- everything beyond that is speculation at this point. What journalists make out of our publication is beyond our control. Nevertheless, if confirmed, it might have implications in many different areas [3].

Homeopathic products are prepared by repeatedly diluting the original substance so that the each dilution is 1/10th or 1/100th as concentrated as the previous one. The clumping of molecules simply means that instead of each dilution taking a random sample of the molecules in a solution, it might take more-- or less -- than would be expected with an even distribution. (In other words, if molecules of a substance clumps in one place, there will be fewer molecules in other places.) With repeated dilution, the ultimate number of "active ingredient" molecules would approach zero whether clumping occurs or not. Clumping would not increase the number of molecules as the "active ingredient" is repeatedly diluted, so the remedy cannot grow stronger as the solution becomes more dilute. Nor does Dr. Geckeler's experiment support homeopathy's absurd notion that water can "remember" molecules that are no longer there.

References

  1. Coghlin A. Bizarre chemical discovery gives homeopathic hint. New Scientist, Nov 10, 2001, pp 4-5.
  2. Samal A, Geckeler KE. Unexpected solute aggregation in water on dilution. Chemical Communications 2224-2225, 2001.
  3. E-mail message from Dr. Geckler to Dr. Barrett, November 12, 2001.

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This article was revised on December 10, 2001.