Monday, 4 June 2012

Mixing sciences badly

Publicised today on Richard Dawkins.net, was an account of a Nobel laureate, Luc Montagnier, who has turned his interest to pseudo-science, specifically low frequency resonances in DNA and the memory of water, and thus is gaining interest from the homoeopathy community.  There are quite a few skeptical comments there already, but having a background in the physical sciences I though I would post a comment with that slant.  I have also blogged previously about Schumann Resonances, which the authors claim to be relevant to the subject.

The original article by Steven Salzberg was published by Forbes (here) and the self-published paper by Luc Montagnier can be found at arXiv by following this link.  My comment (number 18) was as follows.  It is rare for anyone to read and respond to my comments on RD.net so I don't do it often and I reproduce it here in the hope that someone will bother to read it!  

Don't get me wrong - I think that the best chance of making discoveries in science is through inter-disciplinary co-operation.  But the question is,"is this a good example of that co-operation?"

There are several interesting aspects in the physics of the measurement. Most importantly, it is actually rather difficult to transmit and measure these low frequencies, and indeed on this scale it is doubtful whether the measurements are even physically meaningful. Part of the problem is that 7Hz electromagnetic waves have a wavelength of around 42,000 km. Normally, in order to transmit any frequency you might aim for an antenna of quarter of a wavelength, or in this case 10,000km in length. Even strands of DNA are not this long, and anyway they are somewhat folded and therefore self cancelling.

Detection of low frequencies can be managed with small coils as long as they have enough turns, (e.g. 5000 to 10,000) so in principle their equipment might be able to make the measurement, if the DNA had a mechanism to transmit it - which it doesn't.

On top of that, there is very little detail about the equipment used, except a kindergarten-level sketch of a coil, an amplifier and a computer to measure something inside a test tube.

Risible physics!

They do happen to mention the impedance of the coil, which is a start. However, unless that impedance is well matched to the amplifier it means nothing. The connecting cable is incredibly important too. How well is it shielded and what is its impedance and does it match? Then the bandwidth of the amplifier matters. Does it work at all in the frequency range in question, and what is its gain? After that we have to ask how the analogue to digital conversion is carried out. What type of D/A converter is used? What frequency range does it cover? How many bits deep are the data?

But of course the controls that they adopt make all this inconvenient physics irrelevant don't they. It must be true after all! This measurement is not at all like the famous measurement of the faster-than-light neutrinos is it? The two are comparable in the surprising nature of their results, but it has taken many months of professional research for the neutrino problem to have something close to an explanation.

The sentence that I liked best in the paper was "At this point the most critical step was undertaken, namely to investigate the specificity of the induced water nanostructures by recreating from them the DNA sequence".
I can't help but crack a smile!

They make a big thing of Schumann Resonances. They, at least, are a real phenomenon. The lowest frequency Schumann resonance is 7.83Hz, and its wavelength corresponds to the circumference of the earth.  (See first paragraph.) For interest, this link shows the sort of equipment that might be used to measure Schumann frequencies. This paper also demonstrates the measurement difficulties. On page 1 there is a graph of the Schumann frequency peaks.

Schumann resonances - the problems of interference (from here)


They are dwarfed by an interference signal from the Deutsche Bahn (railway). The nearest railway is 30km from the place where the measurement was made!

Case not proven!  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence don't they.

5 comments:

Dr. Nancy Malik said...

This is what Nobel Laureates said on Homeopathy http://drnancymalik.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/nobel-prize-winners-on-homeopathy/

Plasma Engineer said...

Dr Nancy's page is very much pro-homeopathy, as you would expect from anyone who makes her living purveying alternative medicine. Quoting nobel laureates (some of whom lived a century ago and some of whom should simply have known better)is a line of argument that I can't possibly agree to have any validity.

Whatever these four men and Mother Teresa think about the concept is not as relevant as the consistent findings of double-blinded studies. As far as I know, there is not a single properly run study that shows homeopathy to work at all. This is hardly surprising in the circumstances, but that is not the point. In any scientific endeavour it is very important to base scientific theories on facts and empirical measurements, rather than what we would like to be true, and what our limited cognitive abilities persuade us.

Plasma Engineer said...

Reading a bit more of Dr Nancy's extensive web site, in particular the FAQ&A page, I see a few of the classic warning signs.
'Quantum states' in our bodies.
'Wholistic' [sic] approaches to treatment.
Homeopathic preventative measures - even implying that it is a prevention for cancer.

If her business was based in UK I think she would be straying into the territory that would allow her to be prosecuted under the 1939 Cancer Act.

One interesting thing I read was

"The reason for avoiding strong odour food just prior and post medication is to play safe as there’s not enough research showing the effect or no-effect of strong odour foods"

That implies that there actually IS strong evidence for the effect of the treatments in the absence of these foods. That's a surprise!

Martin Leonard said...

You also missed Dr Malik's often used tag line that homeopathy is "nanomedicine". I also think you are being a little unkind I believe that homeopathy has been shown to be as effective as placebo in studies - for what that's worth. However there's nothing in it. You might be interested to read the research behind the nanomedicine claim linked at her site , it's been many years since my material science degree but there seems to be many holes in the methodology such as the use of commercial solutions with no control over impurities and no comment about what other "nanoparticles" were present in the samples. http://nanotechno.org/2012/04/25/homoeopathy-is-scientific-nanomedicine-study-science-based/

Plasma Engineer said...

Since I now seem to be blocked from her site (demonstrating open-mindedness of exactly the kind we expect from homeopaths) I will have to continue the topic here. I have a draft ready for posting in a day or two. Your continued comments will be appreciated greatly - and unmoderated.