The mole, or why homeopathy cannot work.

It’s your friendly neighbourhood chemist here with another rabble-rousing post. Today I’m going to discuss the SI unit: the mole, and in doing so why homeopathy cannot work.

So what is it?

The mole is a unit used in chemistry to express an amount of stuff. This stuff can be any elementary particle, that is atoms, electrons, ions, etc., and one mole contains the same number of particles as there is in 12 grams of pure carbon. Essentially, it’s a number, and that number happens to be 6.022 x1023.

That’s a 6, followed by 23 zeroes. And, yes, that’s a lot of stuff. Elementary particles are really tiny after all. Wondering how they worked that out? Well, it’s complicated, but if you’re interested let me know.

It’s used when chemists need to compare similar amounts; weight isn’t a good indicator of the amount of anything, as one gram of one something won’t always react with one gram of another. A good example is the creation of water from hydrogen and oxygen – 2 moles of hydrogen will react with one mole of oxygen to give one mole of water.

2H + O = H2O

Doing this reaction with grams will result in a lop-sided reaction with stuff left over. By taking moles, you can make sure your reaction is balanced.

So, as you can tell, for a given amount of stuff, there are a limited number of particles involved. Take 12 grams of carbon, for example, and drop it into a litre of water and although the volume has gone from a little pile of black dust to a jug of water, there’s still only 6.022 x1023 atoms of carbon in there. Pour half a litre of that away and you’ve just halved the number of atoms of carbon you’ve got.

What’s this got to do with homeopathy?

Good question! Homeopathy works by taking a substance that causes symptoms similar to that of a particular ailment and diluting it down. Once dilute, and given to a client, the idea of ‘like cures like’ will then cure the ailment. Homeopaths will claim the procedure is more complex and holistic, but that’s the essential nature of it. So because caffeine keeps you awake, a heavily diluted solution of caffeine will help you sleep. As poultry causes bird flu, duck hearts and liver diluted down will cure influenza (I’m not making that up, it’s called Oscillococcinum).

It’s the dilution we’re interested in here; remedies go through a process of succussion where 1 part of the ingredient is added to 99 parts water (sometimes alcohol is added). This would be termed a 1C remedy. If 1 part of this 1C remedy is taken with 99 parts water you then have a 2C remedy. Get it? The originator of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, recommended a 30C dilution, the succussion of one in a hundred, performed 30 times.

Now, going back to the mole, if a homeopath decided to create a remedy containing, for example, arsenic (which some do), and followed Hahnemann’s guidelines, the original solution would contain 6.022 x1023 atoms of arsenic. Each succussion would reduce the little number (called the exponential) by 2. After 10 succussions you would approximately 20 atoms of arsenic in your remedy. If you performed another succussion then you’d be dividing that by 100… but wait! You can’t get 0.2 of an atom, unless you’re a really clever nuclear physicist with a Large Hadron Collider. Anything past this 10C succussion can be proven, simply using maths, to contain not one atom of the original substance. Calculating the container size necessary for a homeopathic solution to contain just one molecule of active ingredient can be an entertaining and illustrative exercise. A 30C dilution is the equivalent of having one molecule present in a sphere of water with a diameter just short of the distance between the Earth and the sun – and higher dilutions become even more difficult to conceptualize.

But wait! What about…

Water memory? Some homeopaths like to claim that the succussion ritual, which involves striking the solution on a leather pad or shaking in a specific manner, gives the water a memory of the substance that it originally contained. Despite the fact that this goes against every known fact about the way atoms and molecules interact, consider this; if water were to retain a memory of the chemicals it has been exposed to and this memory was able to cause pharmacological effects, then drinking water would be deadly (or a miracle cure if the Principle of Similars were also correct). It would contain the memories of all the unsavory places that it had passed through — guts, swamps, sewers, and so on. Even assuming that it is the succussion process that imparts memory to the water, at the dilutions that homeopathic remedies work at, any impurities, such as salts which are found in all water, would also have their presence imprinted on the water. Even distilled and deionized water and high purity alcohol used by chemists aren’t pure to these parts per nonillion levels.

Anything else?

You need more? Well, despite claims to the contrary, not one properly performed trial has ever shown that homeopathic remedies do anything at all. If they were shown to work, then pharmaceutical companies would be falling over themselves to market this stuff – the raw ingredients are cheap and go a long, long way. Given the track record of Big Pharma to take cheap medicinals and over-charge them, it seems inconceivable they’d miss this earner.

So what’s the harm?

If it were just put across as a complementary therapy, with no claims of efficacy or validity, then the only harm is to the purses of people ill-informed about the science and happy to spend money on bottles of water. However, there’s more than a few homeopaths out there willing to cash in on peoples unease about the ethical and moral actions of the big drug companies and on the perceived failures of the established medical community, and use that feeling to convince people that only homeopathy is valid or even, in some particulary odius cases, that conventional medicines will stop homeopathic remedies from working at all. When people are convinced that procedures proven to work are to be abandoned in favour of ideas with no rational basis – that’s where the harm lies.


Useful links:

The only one you’ll ever need: the 1023 campaign

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