Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Your Friday Dose of Woo: What’s better than homeopathic plutonium? Homeopathic antimatter, of course!

With Homeopathy Awareness Week rapidly approaching its end, I wondered just what I could do to bring further “awareness” of just how bogus and full of woo the concepts of homeopathy are. True, discussing homeopathic plutonium as a remedy and how homeopaths did “provings” of it the other day was fun, but surely there’s more. What other homeopathic “remedies” (quotation marks used because of a complaint about my having actually used the term “remedy” to describe homeopathy, given that any true homeopathic remedy is diluted so much that there’s nothing left but water–or alcohol, if that is what the diluent used was) have homeopaths tried to dilute and succuss into nonexistence in order to bring their über-woo to the masses?

How about homeopathic antimatter, as a reader pointed out to me?

Yes, it’s really been done. Well, given that the claim is that someone took positronium and did a homeopathic proving on it, I’m guessing that homeopathic positronium is as “real” as homoepathic plutonium (actually, almost certainly much less so, given that, as improbable as it is, it’s still possible for a homeopath to have gotten his hands on some plutonium to dilute and success). Let’s take a look at the claim. It is supposedly the overview of some of the themes that arose from the proving of Positronium by students at The School of Homœopathy in the early months of 1998.”

Of course, in this initial link that was pointed out to me, there’s no explanation about how anyone got Positronium, much less diluted it and succussed it. Positronium is an extremely short-lived “exotic” molecule made up of an electron and its antimatter counterpart the positron that, instead of annihilating each other as antimatter and matter usually do, form a molecule. Indeed, it’s not easy to form positronium. For example, a group from UC Riverside used a silica scaffolding in a vacuum in order to create measurable positronium. If a homeopath could not only make positronium but keep it stable long enough in order to succuss and dilute it, now there’s a physicist. Maybe like Lionel Milgrom.

In any case, what can one expect from homeopathic positronium? Well, let’s take a look at the introduction to the “proving.” Remember, a “proving” in homeopathy is when normal, healthy people take the substance to be made into a homeopathic remedy and report how they feel, complete with dreams and anything else that goes through their mind. The homeopath who claims to have seen the “proving” of positronium, Misha Norland, begins thusly:

The Alpha …

In the Big Bang model of the Universe, Positronium was probably the first substance to be created and it will probably be the last to disappear. Under any model it is a primordial thing, the most basic and simple thing that can be described as a substance.

Several provers found a theme of history and a connection with the past was important to them. One prover in particular found herself connected to a pattern that went back to the beginning of time. She described herself as “The Gnome Woman”.

I felt the idea of heritage and our common ancestry, a sense of my own history going back over the millennia, connection with all those people who have walked the earth. I feel like a mountain standing through all weathers, times and tides rooted deep, deep into the dark earth. (Prover 2)

The restless energy of the proving, the images of great cats and explosions also have a primordial feeling to them.

In Alchemy the first stage of the process of creating the Philosopher’s Stone is to find the Prima Materia, the primal matter from which all other things can be grown. This precious material was described as vilis vilisimus, the vilest of the vile, and was to be found “cast upon the dunghill”. This reflects Christian theology in which “the stone that the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone.”

Theophrastus Paracelsus was one of the greatest scientists and healers of the middle ages. He was also the proto-father of homœopathy, discovering many of the principles that Hahnemann later used to create homœopathy. Paracelsus was notorious for his appreciation of the meaning and power of excrement as a primordial and basic substance. He once gave a medical lecture in which he brought in a large parcel unwrapping it theatrically to reveal a steaming bowl of excrement. His lecture allowed the audience to appreciate the substance in a full and sensual manner. Paracelsus was lampooned as Cacophrastus, which is usually politely glossed as coming form the Greek for bad or evil, however, it almost certainly came from the Latin cacare, to shit. He understood the primal nature of excrement as the beginning of all things and its vital role in the cycle of creation and decay, it is the matter from which all things come and that which everything becomes. These themes appeared strongly in the proving, especially in the dreams of shit that were experienced by almost every prover.

You know, it’s really, really hard not to start to make the obvious jokes that flow from this observation about Paracelsus. it really is. Norland mentions shit and how much power it has. I suppose it’s true. After all, given that the magical thinking known as homeopathy has persisted for so long against all science, reason, logic, clearly bullshit has great power in this world. Actually, clearly that is the case not just in homeopathy. One has only to look at politics and the persistence of some truly nutty political ideas for so long to realize that, arguably, the most powerful substance that the world has ever known is bullshit, which clearly can do most anything.

But back to homeopathy.

One thing I can’t figure out is how the connection is made between an exotic molecule like positronium and excrement. Perhaps Misha can tell us:

Paracelsus’ main contribution to Alchemy was his theory of the threefold nature of things. He referred to these as Salt, Mercury and Sulphur, but they are more commonly seen today, especially in alternative medicine, as Body, Mind, and Spirit.

The threefold potentiality of Positronium, to become Matter, Antimatter or pure Energy, was reflected in the proving in a threefold expression of symptoms. The number 3 came up in many ways for people during the proving.

I had the strangest sensation that there was something going on with the number three. I had a dream of three groups of three swans. I felt sure that we had overtaken two or three cars on three occasions, and then they kept appearing in front of us. Just as this happened we passed the A3313. I got really spooked. (Prover 11)

The most important themes of the proving revolved around the issues:

of Matter: of substance, weight and structure;

of Antimatter: it doesn’t matter, I can’t be bothered, especially about superficialities;

of Energy: exercise, music, doing things, sex and itching.

Well, there you go. It makes perfect sense to me, doesn’t it? Antimatter is the opposite of matter; so obviously antimatter means it doesn’t matter. I like that. As Zathras used to say, “At least there is symmetry.” On the other hand, I hate to be reminded of symmetry. As high as my grades were in college, particularly in my major chemistry, there was one bête noire that always tormented me in physical chemistry: symmetry. For some reason, although I could grasp the concept rapidly I had a hellacious time applying it to actual chemical examples. It was a humbling experience in that I had never had that much problem with a topic before in science. Maybe symmetry between homeopathic matter and antimatter would be the end of me were I to contemplate it too deeply. Not that I see that as a problem, because I don’t think Norland has contemplated anything more deeply than a high school or freshman chemistry textbook. No, strike that. I doubt Norland has contemplated anything more deeply than a Star Trek episode. No, strike that, I doubt that Norland has contemplated anything all that deeply at all about antimattter. Still, after some additional digging, I found that Norland claims to have prepared the remedy thusly:

The homeopathic remedy “Positronium” was prepared using positrons from a Na-22 source, which were passed through a nitrogen gas cell to form postronium by capturing electrons off the nitrogen atoms. The resulting positronium beam then impinged on a metal surface, where the positronium atoms decayed, giving off the characteristic 511 keV radiation. A glass vial filled with 96% ethanol was exposed to this radiation for 24 hours and then potentized to 30C by the Helios Homœopathic Pharmacy. The strength of the positronium beam was approximately 10 million positronium atoms per second. A total of approximately 10^9 ( annihilation events were captured by the glass vial.

Yes! Helios again! The same “pharmacy” that sells homeopathic plutonium! I should have known! So, basically, Norland irradiated some water with positrons from an Na22 source and then diluted the resulting irradiated water by a factor of 1060–with succussion at each of the thirty 100-fold dilution steps, naturally. This reminds me: Never forget the succussion. After all, homeopaths will solemnly and condescendingly tell you that the succussation (vigorous shaking) between each dilution is absolutely, positively essential to “potentize” the homeopathic concoction. Or so I’ve been told by Dana Ullman time and time again. In any case, this sounds like the ultimate expression of the “memory of water,” given that the positronium, by Norland’s own description, has completely decayed even before the dilutions and succussions begin!

Perusing the list of symptoms the “provers” felt after imbibing the homeopathic positronium is indeed a hoot. For instance, there’s a lot of complaints of “dryness” (for which I would recommend imbibing a lot more homeopathic positronium, given that it’s just water); dreams of “seeing inside things” (maybe homeopathic positronium works like a CT scanner!); and, most importantly, a lack of caring, as evidenced by missing trains, being late for meetings, and, well, just not caring. (One has to wonder if we’re talking about pot or homeopathic positronium.) This makes me wonder: If “like cures like,” then would homeopathic positronium cure a friend of mine who’s habitually late, thus eliminating something about our friendship that annoys the hell out of me and preventing me from having to tell him that any movie we want to go to is a half hour earlier than it actually is? Sadly, the time is short, and I can’t delve completely into the full woo that is the report of the homeopathic proving of positronium, but a full listing of the symptoms reported his here So varied is the list of symptoms noted in this “proving” that I really have to marvel that magic water can do so much. I also have to wonder how, even if this “proving” were anything more than pure homeopathic nonsense, anyone could make sense of the huge mish-mash of “symptoms” reported by the “provers.” Oh, wait. “Homeopathic nonsense.” Does that mean that if one dilutes nonsense enough that it becomes a remedy that can restore sense? I doubt it. But I digress. Again.

In any case, I have to wonder if there is anything that homeopaths won’t try for a homeopathic “remedy” and “proving.” Indeed, to visionary homeopaths, homeopathic plutonium and positronium are good, but they are only a start. There have to be more frontiers of science that homeopaths can turn into total woo, all through serial dilution with succussion. Indeed, I have to wonder if, were scientists ever to manage to figure out a way to isolate the substance of a black hole and contain it, even if it was an infinitesimal speck, there would be homeopaths there trying to make a homeopathic remedy for it. Given that the matter in a black hole is so incredibly dense, perhaps the homeopathic remedy made from it would be a weight loss remedy to cure obesity, “like curing like” and all that.

Damn. I hope I didn’t give Dana Ullman an idea.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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