Homeopaths are quick to evoke physics in their defense. I’m guessing they actually believe there is a connection and there is an added bonus of using words like “Newtonian” and “quantum” to add an air of science and respect.
Recently a homeopath taught Anthropology students at the University of Toronto that quantum physics could explain homeopathy. I decided to ask Andrew Robinson, PhD, CPhys, MinstP to address this. He is a spectroscopist, nanoscale scientist, instrumentation developer and teaches physics at Carleton University – so yeah, he’s got this.
This is what Dr. Robinson had to say:
Around 1900 physicists felt they had conquered the physical world – they had mastered mechanics, thermodynamics was well established, and electricity and magnetism had been successfully linked together showing that light (and all electromagnetic radiation) could be treated mathematically as a wave. However, there were a stubborn number of irregularities and anomalous results which could not be explained by this “classical” physics. Investigation of these irregularities lead to two significant new fields:
Relativity, where objects travel at very high speed, a significant fraction of the speed of light.
Quantum Physics, where interactions at the atomic and molecular level are completely different from those where we have large collections of atoms and molecules.
It is important to know that neither of these new fields invalidates the “classical” physics of Newton. One of the cardinal rules of both quantum physics and relativistic physics is that they must revert back to classical behaviour when looking at large enough or slow enough systems respectively.
Quantum physics explains the interaction of light with matter by breaking the wave down into a stream of particles (this is known as wave particle duality). Each of these particles, known as a photon, carries a packet of energy. But these particles also have wavelike properties, (a wavelength) and so when a whole stream of particles acts, it can be through of as a wave. In some branches of physics, such as optics, it is vastly more convenient to describe light as a ray for most of the time, but physicists never overlook the fact that inside that wave description, there is a stream of particles.
Quantum physics or quantum mechanics?
Quantum physics is really a description of what happens when a single photon hits a single atom. It can be extended to a few photons hitting a few atoms, but once a large number of atoms are involved, it becomes a “classical” physics system. The rules of quantum physics are known as quantum mechanics. They are mentally challenging to grasp, and to apply, because they are often counterintuitive. However, they work! Our modern world is full of quantum systems which we have built because of our understanding of quantum mechanics. Lasers, solar cells, the transistor and modern silicon chips are all possible because of it.
So what about homeopathy?
According to homeopathic postulates medicine becomes MORE effective the more it is diluted. That’s clearly counterintuitive. In fact, the levels of dilution used in homeopathy mean that given the small quantities of original substance, there is essentially nothing left after it has been diluted many times. Anyone with some basic knowledge of chemistry can demonstrate that very handily.
Practitioners of homeopathy then say that the diluted fluid is “retaining a memory” of the space originally occupied by the substance. This violates the third law of thermodynamics – Disorder tends to a maximum. No controlled scientific experiment has found evidence of any type of “molecular” memory in solvents such as water. They just do not retain that level of order. In fact, the established scientific model, is that the atoms and molecules in a liquid are moving with essentially random motion. This is known as Brownian motion, and Einstein was the first person to describe this in a mathematical manner.
Quantum physics as far from homeopathic medicines as you can get – a homeopathic medicine is a liquid, and not a suitable candidate system for the application of quantum mechanics.
Statistical thermodynamics, which is an offshoot of classical mechanics is the tool of choice for a physicist in those cases. Invoking mysterious “quantum” effects, without any proof of their existence and ignoring the colossal body of scientific evidence against homeopathic effects, is simply not good science. The sceptical and inquiring mind must be satisfied at some point, that they simply will not fit in with established scientific knowledge.
Any good scientist will acknowledge that there are still large gaps in our knowledge in some areas, such as gravitational waves, dark energy, and dark matter. But we do have a good enough knowledge of the working of the universe to rule out homeopathic medicine as having any effect, other than as a placebo. A “balanced” view is not necessary in this case. The scientific case is utterly overwhelming.
Ok, back to me.
So there you have it. Homeopathy is quantum snake oil. The foundation of homeopathy violates the third law of thermodynamics. By evoking quantum mechanics homeopaths are actually demonstrating how little they know.
This knowledge deficit is not surprising given the small amount of physics homeopaths must learn (and no, that clearly doesn’t make their knowledge stronger). In Ontario, Canada homeopaths spend 4 days a month in class and their diploma takes three years. In my first year of university (undergraduate) I spent 4.5 days a week in classes. In addition, every one of my professors had a PhD.
When a homeopath uses quantum mechanics incorrectly – when that information actually exists in a syllabus in a University level course – it is embarrassing and insulting to the Department of Physics as well as the entire faculty and student body. Failure of the University of Toronto to address this concern only compounds these issues.
The President, Vice President and Provost should care that they paid someone to incorrectly teach the laws of physics, unless of course they really wanted to add some balance to the second law of thermodynamics.
An earlier version incorrectly stated that homeopathy violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics, it actually violates the 3rd. The fact that only a PhD in physics caught that typo is further proof that only those with degrees in the field really understand it!