Posts Tagged Knowledge

Where do we live? Part 2

In Part 1 we tried to imagine just how huge our galaxy is, to show where we live in this universe of ours. To accurately describe the universe beyond our galaxy we’re going to have to shrink the scale we used last time a hell of a lot more. Let’s take our already shrunk 6 million kilometre wide Milky way and pull it all the way down to 1 metre across. At this scale the Sun is 1.5 billionths of a metre across (half the width of DNA) and the Earth is 13.5 trillionths of a metre across (half the size of the smallest atom!). The entire galaxy now comfortably fits between your outstretched hands; hundreds of billions of stars, perhaps trillions of planets all between your fingertips.

The Large Magellanic Cloud

But our galaxy doesn’t sail through the universe alone, dotted around us are a number of satellite galaxies, there are around 25 smaller galaxies clustered around our own! The largest is called the Large Magellanic Cloud, on our scale it is a metre and a half from our galaxy (off to the side and slightly below). Home to billions of stars this 14 thousand lightyear wide galaxy would be the size of a pineapple on our little scale. The other galaxies surround ours in all directions with the closest 1 foot from our model and the furthest over 13 metres away, a real-world distance of over 1 million light years!

Even the Milky Way and her satellites are not alone, they are part of what we call the Local Group. Comprised of three major galaxies and dozens of satellites on our scale the local group is the size of a football pitch. Within these 10 millions lightyears lie trillions of stars, the largest galaxy is our nearest neighbour called Andromeda which itself contains well over 1 trillion stars. I always think fondly of Andromeda, as a child I had a book about the universe and I remember becoming upset because it told me that in 4 to 5 billion years the Milky Way and Andromeda are going to crash. Count to five……I’ll give you time to do it……we are now 600 kilometres closer! We are on a collision course with each other, on our scale Andromeda is 25 metres from us (2 and a bit buses) and its racing towards us at a rate of 5 billionths of a metre every year. Granted that doesnt scare me any more, but it’s going to be a titanic display!

In billions of years to come somebody will be voiding their no claims bonus...

Our Local Group may seem huge but it is tiny compared to some of the other groups nearby. 65 million light years away the Virgo Cluster is home to over 1 thousand galaxies! When we look at the Virgo Cluster now we’re seeing it as it was when the dinosaurs were walking the Earth, from the entirety of that point until now those photons have been serenely flying through space until one day after aeons of travel they land in our telescopes to tell us a tale from the deep past. The Virgo Cluster is so huge that we use it to name our local supercluster. Yes our Local Group is just a small part of a bigger group. The Virgo Supercluster contains at least 100 galaxy clusters and on our scale where the Milky way is a metre across and the Earth just half an atom wide it is over a kilometre wide. That’s about the same scale as an ant standing next to a car

Now I know this is beginning to sound repetitive but even our supercluster is just a tiny dot. When we look out beyond our supercluster we see that there are many, many more. Superclusters litter our universe forming truly colossal structures. They bunch together forming filaments (chains billions of lightyears long) and Great Walls formed from giant webs. This is our home. This is our universe. At this size our scale collapses again, with the Milky Way 1 metre wide some of these filaments would be tens of kilometres long!

One of the universe's 'Great Walls' made from filaments of superclusters

This is the observable universe, countless stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies. We are but a tiny part of this but it’s all out there! The numbers are horrible and the distances incomprehensible but I hope my analogy has helped. I was planning on taking this further and explaining just how small things in our universe can be but I found this brilliant animation that paints a picture worth a thousand blog posts. Its awesome, its unimaginably big, and its where we live.

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How best to revise I wonder?

At the moment I find myself caught in that horrible time where all my days are spent locked in a room (windows optional) pouring over old notes trying to revise for an exam. This isn’t a new feeling for me, like most people in my generation who continued with higher education our whole experience of learning has involved study for a set period of months followed by a test that your life itself depends on. Traditionally when faced with such tests we revise, a process that is meant to refresh us of all those things we have learnt throughout our time….yeah….about that.

Typical day in the life of revision

In my experience revision is never a comfortable stroll down memory lane. Its a backbreaking experience whereby 1/3rd of it is refreshing my memory, 1/3rd learning things I have forgot and 1/3rd learning the things I never understood in the first place. I don’t remember much of how I revised for my early life exams but I do distinctly remember Sixth Form being the place where I learnt to loathe revision. It’s not that I don’t like learning, I wouldn’t have chosen to be a scientist if that was the case, I just get sick of spending hour after hour, day after day reading endless notes! Especially when this reading is accompanied by the dread thought that at the end of it I am going to have to sit in a dark room and suffer a Gestapo-like interrogation with a light in my face and bamboo under my finger nails! Not really, but that’s how it feels sometimes.

In actuality what I find annoying is how hard it is to convince the brain to remember something. In Sixth Form I had a tutor who would run revision sessions wherein the whole class would contribute to make a colour coded mindmap using the class’s digital white board (space age or what?). The tutor in question told us that specific colours help remember things when placed in order, I tried this out in other subjects but to be honest it never really worked. Perhaps I wasn’t associating Kant strongly enough with red, or was using the wrong shade of blue to recall how many people died in the Kobe earthquake. Another tutor once told me (with slightly more science behind her assertion) that the area of the brain associated with the sense of smell is next door to the area responsible for laying down long term memories. You may notice that walking into a room with a particular scent sends you flying into the deepest recesses of your mind to re-enact a summer picnic when you were nine. The idea being that if you were to revise with a scented candle for each subject and then take a hanky with a drop of that scent into the exam you could shove it up your nose when you forgot something. Needless to say, this didn’t work.

So I find myself once again wondering what exactly is the best way to revise? I’ve used many different methods in my life and have yet to find a winning combination. I’ve tried remembering things by rote, just repeating them either out loud or in my head, sometimes by writing them down over and over (like some semi-sadistic detention from middle school). This is OK to an extent but it’s hard to remember a thousand pages of work this way. Often I imagine all the elements of what I’m revising dancing around my room, trying to force my brain into remembering it visually. Sometimes I’ll even use my hands to move around these imaginary objects in an attempt to learn kinesthetically. A good trick I’ve picked up recently is creating a story to use as an aide mémoire for instance; “Dr Jell was telling me the other day how he used to be into horse racing. That was until in the 2003 derby he fell from his horse and had to have a hip replacement. He said it’s good but a bit flaky”. This is to jog my memory that Jell et al 2003 is a paper discussing the effects of wear debris from orthopaedic hip replacements.

Cyborg stickman with his load bearing leg

When faced with many things to learn at once (like the dozen or so ideal properties of a tissue scaffold) I find doodling pictures around my notes helps. Especially if I can give these doodles a little story in my head; “cyborg stickman is a body builder, recently he broke his leg lifting weights and had to get a new bone implant”. This is to remind me that load bearing implants should provide mechanical support. It is very silly (and quite geeky) but because of that I’m definitely going to remember it. In my last exam I was struggling to remember who wrote all the papers I had to learn, when they wrote them and what they said. I ended up making a story about a Chinese takeaway with a trance night club in the basement and an Indian restaurant on top. There’s more to the story than that but I still remember Wu 2001 (cantilever biosensors), Chang 2005 (Quantum dot fluorescent imaging) and Rajnicek 1997 (neurite growth on nanopattern surfaces).

In no way have I found a suite of methods that turn revision from a slow slog through treacle into a laid-back holiday. All the tricks I’ve assembled over the years have helped but it’s still a bit of a chore. I always thought that Neo didn’t realise how good he had it; if I had a chair that could teach me kung-fu in minutes I wouldn’t have to write this blog post complaining about revising. Indeed you would have to drag me kicking and screaming from the chair (which would be hard as I now know kung-fu) to go to the exam because I would be too busy downloading the British library, facebook, Pubmed, facebook, wikipedia and facebook straight into my skull. In the spirit of attempting to assemble a toolkit of revision tricks (whilst we wait for the chair) I’d be interested to know how you revise? What’s your best tricks, do you like working in groups or solo, is there anything that you avoid like the plague? Feel free to leave a message in the comments.

Right, I’ve now spent half an hour bashing this out and it’s got my brain nice and warmed up for what you all know I should be doing. Back to the books!

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Where do we live?

The answer to that question quite obviously relies on the reader, I’m in London for example. You could be in a town nearby, or across the country or for all I know thousands of miles away. But we can group together where we live, if you are reading this in Brighton or Dunstable then we could say we both live in the south of England. If you’re reading this in York or Leicester we could stretch it and say we both live in England. We can play this game for a little while before we inevitably come to the conclusion “we all live on Earth”, but where exactly is that?

Everyone you've ever known is somewhere down there

Our pale blue dot is flinging itself around the campfire we call the Sun at around 30km per second (London to New York in 3 minutes). We share this Sun with seven other planets; Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune along with five dwarf planets; Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Along with a few score moons, a couple of asteroid belts and a sprinkling of comets we all make up the solar system together. It’s hard to get round just how big the solar system is, there isn’t even a definitive boundary with clouds of asteroids extending for trillions of kilometres around our Sun. But that number “trillions of kilometres” is meaningless, let’s face it, I could have said billions or zillions for all the connection it has with our lives. In light of this I’d like to share an analogy I often use…

Imagine the distance between the Earth and the Sun (some 150 million kilometres) and shrink it right down to just one metre. At this scale the Earth is just 80 millionths of a metre wide (about the size of ten red blood cells side by side). The Sun is little bigger than a marble at 9 thousandths of a metre. 40cm from the Sun we find Mercury and just 30cm beyond that we have Venus. Within our metre sized orbit the Moon is nearly 2mm from our bacteria sized Earth, about the size of two grains of sand. This is the furthest mankind has ever gone in our universe. It took years for thousands of geniuses and billions of dollars to take us just 2mm on our scale. With the solar system shrunk down like this Neptune, the furthest planet, is just 30 metres away from our marble sized Sun. Eris, the furthest dwarf planet doubles that distance at 62 metres. Taking this orbit as the boundary of our system on our scale a football pitch would fit within our entire solar system with a few metres either side to spare. This is our solar system, over 120 metres wide and the furthest we have travelled is just two measly millimetres. But our home doesn’t stop there.

Our Galaxy viewed from Earth

Our solar system is just one of hundreds of billions inside the galaxy we call the Milky Way. If you live in a place with low light pollution you can look up at night and see the disk of our galaxy cutting straight across the dark. Our spiral galaxy is so large that we have to measure it in lightyears, that’s the distance that light (the fastest possible thing, it travels at 299,792.4 kilometres every second) travels in an entire year! In kilometres that’s 9,450,000,000,000,000! In our scale one lightyear is 61km, nearly twice the length of the English channel at it’s smallest width. The nearest star system to us is four times that again! On our little scale where the Sun is a marble and the Earth just a collection of cells wide the Milky Way is 6 million kilometres wide. Even with our horrendously shrunk down scale the length of the Milky Way is equivalent to circling the equator 200 times. This is our home; our town, our country, Earth, every planet we’ve ever seen all of them are there in this galaxy. But if we are being honest, it’s not really our home. Oh no, we’ve barely begun to talk about that…to be continued.

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The Relativity of Wrong

Earlier today I stumbled across a blog that explicitly stated that it had proof for the existence of souls. You don’t really have to look far on the internet to find similar claims, YouTube for instance is full of videos claiming a variety of extraordinary claims, but such claims require extraordinary evidence and they never, ever do.

The thing that made me particularly irate about this soul blog was that it portrayed a long argument that went something like this

“You are starving and poor. You meet a horrible millionaire (no one likes him and he likes no one, he wouldn’t lift a finger to save his own mother)…”

The argument goes on for a while outlining (in a long winded way) that this bad millionaire isn’t evil he just contributes nothing to society and no one would be sad to see him dead. The crux of the argument is “would you kill and rob him if there were no legal consequences and you forgot what you did an hour later (leaving you guilt free). No one would ever find any evidence of it”. The blogger goes on to claim that every one he ever asked would say they would not kill the man. The conclusion from this is what I had a problem with, the blogger concluded that because of this we can rationally conclude that humans have souls and that these souls represent a shared moral compass. This is absolutely wrong.

Now I hope that by the end of this you will realise that I’m not making the claim that there is definitively no such thing as a soul, rather I am making the claim because this person has provided no evidence for his assertion. Firstly he has not shown that every single human has the same response but secondly (and far more importantly) he ignores all other explanations and jumps straight to the idea of a soul.

If we have an observation i.e. all humans presented with this argument have the same response we then seek an explanation. We never assume one however, we list all the logical explanations and then go on to look for evidence for them. The explanation with the strongest evidence is the correct one. This may seem a bit odd because using this method we can arrive at a conclusion that is factually incorrect (perhaps there really are souls but we lack the means to detect them and therefore come to the wrong conclusion). But an answer is rarely wrong simply because it is objectively incorrect, arguably in most walks of life we can never know if something is absolutely right. Answers are wrong if our working out is flawed.

Why is this right to do? If we do not accept the answer with the strongest evidence then we are free to accept any answer. Why stop at souls? Perhaps the reason everybody gave the same answer is because all humans have invisible mind controlling slugs in their brains or because we are all possessed by millionaire worshipping space ghosts. Both of these answers have as much evidence as souls. But even if there was no evidence for any explanation, if we had absolutely no natural explanation for why people all choose the same answer then the answer is unknown! We shouldn’t be afraid to state that things are an unknown, we should embrace it because it gives our knowledge room to grow. Simply slapping a supernatural explanation is a route to intellectual suicide,

“Why do people behave in moral ways? = Souls”

“What makes humans sentient? = Magic”

“Where did life come from? = Ghost party trick gone wrong”

When we forsake the unknown for an answer that has no evidence we are simply performing a lazy exercise to trick ourselves into feeling more knowledgeable than we really are. Replacing the unknown with a supernatural answer just pushes the problem one step back,

“Why do people behave in moral ways? = Souls” should then lead to “Why do souls make people behave in moral ways?”

We’ve simply replaced one question with another, worse than that we’ve replaced a good question with a bad one (bad because it relies on an unproven assumption).

The title of this post refers to a letter written by Isaac Asimov to the Skeptical Enquirer magazine in 1989. You can read it yourself here but the basic message is that not all wrong answers are equally wrong. In ancient times people may have believed the Earth to be flat, this is because to the best of their measurements the curvature of the Earth was zero. If someone had made the claim that the Earth was spheroid back then they would have had no evidence and thus would have arrived at the correct answer but for the wrong reasons. As measurements were done people surmised the Earth to be a sphere. This is wrong as well (its an oblate spheroid) but to the best of their knowledge it was the right answer. Both answers are technically wrong but the first is more wrong than the last, each time the answer gets closer and closer to the truth.

This matters because whilst being correct is nice having a method by which to decide what is right is far better. It is no use to anyone to simply say something that has no evidence, even if we find out later that it is correct the method that they used to come to that conclusion is useless. We cannot use it to determine anything else, however if we take what is right to be that which we have the strongest evidence for then we can accomplish a great deal. Indeed our civilisation has been built on the back of this idea, we take the answer with the best evidence and use it to great effect. Later through a continual beating of study this answer may be shown to have an anomaly and from that one loose thread the entire edifice of that theory can be pulled apart and made anew. This is what allows us to march onwards, not slapping the supernatural on everything, not cherry picking evidence to support our superstitions but accepting that which has strong evidence and using it to better our lives.

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Who am I, who are you and who the hell is the guy I was?


We all use it, we all have a name and we all identify ourselves by some means. The question of “who am I” is multifaceted. Am “I” the meaty object standing in front of you? Am “I” the emergent property of a squidgy organ in the head of that meaty object? Am “I” the sum of all of the perceptions of me?

We tend to use all three (with an emphasis on the first two) but I propose that we can’t really pinpoint what is “us”. I’ve always been really fascinated with identity, practically it’s very useful. You can call me Ryan and point to somebody else and call them Brian and we would know who you were talking about, the interesting thing for me is that you can point to a picture I have from five years ago and call that “Ryan”. You could do it to a ten year old picture; you could even do it to a picture of my mother holding a baby that’s just been named “Ryan”. Therein lies the dilemma for me, I accept that “I” am this body in front of you (a body whose physical functions result in the expression of a mind) but am “I” the boy in those pictures?

To show why this is an issue I’m going to borrow an old question in philosophy called the Ship of Theseus (I may not relay the story faithfully but the premise is the same). Theseus goes off sailing in his ship; his ship is made from a set number of wooden components. Over time these wooden parts rot one by one. Every time they rot they are removed and replaced with a new peace made from fresh wood. Let’s posit that there are one thousand parts that make up the ship and by the time he comes home every component of the ship has had to have been replaced. In other words there is no part of that ship that was technically there the day the ship left. The big question is “is it still the same ship?”

Repaired piece by piece is this still Theseus's ship?

This is a hard question. Often the first response is that it isn’t the exact same ship, that the act of replacing bits of it over time has made the ship different. I have another version of this thought experiment, what happens if every time a wooden component is replaced it is replaced with a completely different part? Imagine a ship made from one thousand wooden planks and every time they rot they are replaced with metal, when the sail tears and the mast rots they are replaced with a propeller and when the navigator drinks too much and falls overboard he’s replaced with GPS. Is that the same ship? In this example I imagine most people would say it is not and there are justifiable reasons for believing that. But this is more than just a fun thought game.

Every second of every day we are dying, tens of thousands of cells die and are recycled or shed from our skin (a lot of house dust is dead skin). This is no big problem because we replace all these dying parts. We do this by eating food, digesting it and using it to rebuild parts of us. Over a large enough span of time all things in our body are replaced, cells die and are replaced and importantly every component in those cells are replaced too. I’ve heard various numbers of how long this takes but it doesn’t really matter exactly how long it is merely that at some point in your life there are no atoms in your body that were there at the start of your life. This is the Ship of Theseus acting in real life and it’s a very interesting thing to think about, the body that people identified as “Ryan” at the beginning of this identity has nothing left in the body that is now identified as “Ryan”.

This phenomenon applies to our personality too, over time we develop new behaviours and loose old ones to the point where if we were to place Ryan at ten years next to Ryan at twenty years next to Ryan at one hundred years and you will struggle to see that they used to be the same person. Am I really the same “Ryan” if I share no matter nor mind with this past Ryan? Are we not strangers? And am I accountable for this strangers actions? The point I am trying to press is what is “I”?

An Evil Genius stealing your atoms, one by one

Lastly there is one more thought experiment I would like to propose; imagine there are three identical hotel rooms next to each other (left, middle and right). You go to bed in the middle room and at some point in the night some Evil Genius sneaks in and freezes your body. Then he or she takes you apart atom by atom. They start by taking one atom from the bottom of your foot and take it from the middle room to the room on the left. In this identical room they place this atom in the corresponding place in the bed that it was in the middle room. This Evil Genius then does this again but this time places the second atom in the room on the right. This act continues with you being dismantled atom by atom with each atom going to the left or the right room until finally there are no atoms left in the middle room and exactly 50% in both the left and right. Where there is a gap between atoms in the left room there is an atom to be found in the right room and vice versa. As one last act the Evil Genius fills in the gaps of both these two bodies with atoms from stock and warms both bodies up before fleeing the scene.

As the alarm clock goes off in both rooms the two bodies wake up and stumble out of the room only to see another them down the corridor. Which one is you?

I’ve asked a lot of questions here and not provided any answers but I hope they are all questions that have got you thinking.

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YouTube channels of worthy note

Recently I’ve been quiet busy and haven’t had as much time to think about or write long and detailed blog posts, they tend to take a lot of energy. So in the mean time I’m going to point out some very good channels on YouTube dedicated to the debunking of pseudo-science and the promotion of science. Cutting to the chase;


Dedicated to Science and Education this channel was made famous for its “Why do people laugh at creationists” series. Over 30 videos are in this series (about ten minutes long each) and they really are great at explaining both how to recognise pseudo-science and educating on matters like the history of life and the Earth. Other stuff on the channel ranges from O.K to a bit irrelevant but I can’t recommend WDPLAC highly enough, I advise watching the first episode at least just to get a feel.


A long-time British journalist writing for private eye, the Sunday times and Newscientist magazine (amongst many). A brilliant and thorough series of climate science can be found on this channel complete with references to scientific publications (a thing to be quite valued in this age of cut-and-pasting of internet opinions). Check out his playlists to see the various works, his style and consistency is a very rare thing, there’s pretty much no myth surrounding climate change that hasn’t been addressed so if you’d like to learn more about this very pressing issue visit potholer54.


Channels like this are part of what inspire me to blog, dedicated to debunking fringe ideas such as anti-vaccine, raw-food and germ theory denialists (to name but a few) this channel gives concise information with references to check for oneself. I’ve highlighted before that in the times we live in there are more accepted (even high-street) pseudo-sciences than ever before. It’s important to learn about things like this so we can make an informed decision about how to live our lives with or without these things. This channel addresses some of the most controversial issues of recent years such as the MMR vaccine and GM crops, it’s well worth a visit.

That’s all for now, I don’t want to go on and on listing videos or channels to watch. I hope you find these channels enlightening and interesting. They’ve educated me more than I can measure over the years on issues I would have never come in contact with or indeed never have thought count have existed (who would have thought there would be germ-denialists in 2011?). Enjoy.

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A comprehensive debunking of Homeopathy

I’ve stated it before on this blog but these days we are surrounded by people peddling “alternative medicines” and the like in an attempt to gain funding for what ultimately, has either not been proved to work or proved not to work. One of the biggest perpetrators of this is homeopathy also called homeopathic medicine. Homeopathy was concocted by Samuel Hahnmann a little over two hundred years ago. He disliked the philosophies of the then current medicine and instead attempted to develop a field of medicine based on the principle of “like-cures-like”. Hahnmann believed that if something was to cause a set of symptoms in one amount then in a much lower amount it would surely cure the same symptoms, specifically if that substance was massively diluted in water and repeatedly shook it would release its ‘healing energy’ into the mixture which is then called a remedy. He went on to test many different substances by getting people to take them and record every symptom they then suffered. This practice is called “homeopathic proving” and the records of the symptoms from each substance are then stored in books known as “repertoires”. Using all of this the practice of homeopathy goes a little like this…

Patient: I have aches in my feet, a swollen neck and am feeling nauseous.

Homeopath: let me consult my repertoire……Ah I see, a teaspoon of X causes those symptoms. Ill prepare a remedy of diluted X and you will be better before you know it.

There is a wealth of evidence showing that homeopathy does not work as a medicine. Aside from the notion of like-cures-like not having any basis in anything other than wishful thinking the dilutions that homeopaths use ought to demonstrate to anyone that this is at best, an outrageous scam and at worse, a dangerous idea. (As a side note like-cures-like does not apply to vaccination which relies on the exposure of antigens to the immune system. I’m not going to go into immunology right now because it is a huge field but if you are interested wikipedia, contrary to popular belief, is quite a good start). To accurately describe how diluted homeopathic ‘remedies’ are I’m going to have to go over a little bit of chemistry…

All matter is formed of atoms; these atoms can bind together in groups to form molecules. Due to the different masses of different elements (for example; a single oxygen atom masses more than a carbon atom) if we have a gram of one element and a gram of another they will not have the same amount of atoms in them. This is a bit like having a tonne of bowling balls and a tonne of tennis balls; bowling balls are bigger and weigh more so there will be less of them, tennis balls are smaller and weigh less so we need far more than bowling balls to make up a tonne.

If we want to have a sample with one atom of substance A for every one atom of substance B we have to do a bit of working out. There’s a useful unit in chemistry known as a mole (not to be confused with a mole), one mole is roughly 6 billion trillion molecules or atoms (depending if the fundamental unit of the substance is a molecule [e.g. water] or an atom [e.g. iron]). To know how many grams of a substance you need to make one mole you need to find out its atomic weight, simply looking at a periodic table will tell you this (I’m not going to get into how we weigh atoms!). The atomic weight of oxygen and carbon are 16 and 12 respectively, therefore 16 grams of oxygen has the same number of atoms as 12 grams of carbon.

So how does this little chemistry lesson apply to homeopathy? I’m going to go through step by step how to make a homeopathic remedy of salt. The first thing a homeopath does is make a 1 in 10 dilution (homeopaths call this a “1X”); salt is made from the molecule NaCl (a molecule of one sodium and one chloride atom). One mole of NaCl is 58 grams; one mole of water (H2O) is 18 grams. To make a 1 in 10 dilution where we have one NaCl molecule to one H2O molecule we can put 5.8 grams of salt into 18 grams of water. Shake the sample to make sure it’s evenly mixed and voila! Now we have a 1X solution.

Ten molecules of H2O with one molecule of NaCl, in homeopathy this is known as 1x

The next step is to do the same thing again, diluting one part of this solution into ten parts water. Now for every NaCl molecule there are 100 molecules of H2O and it doesn’t stop there. Homeopaths repeat this shaking and 1 in 10 diluting dozens of times. Remember the number of molecules in a mole? It’s 6 billion trillion (or 6×1023), at the beginning when we had an equal amount of salt to water we had this many NaCl molecules, with every dilution we’ve got 10x less so after twenty-three dilutions there will likely now only be six NaCl molecules in the entire solution. Beyond this limit of only there are only two options; the first is that every time a sample of the solution is taken to dilute in more water some of these six molecules goes with it. This would mean that the 24th dilution was not dilute 10x more than the 23rd. Secondly (and far more likely) these six molecules wont be picked up and all that will be transferred is water, in that case the sample is no longer a dilution but a pure solution of water. From then on any more 1 in 10 mixing is not diluting but merely mixing water on its own. Unfortunately the story gets worse…

Most people could probably see that half a dozen molecules of something is not going to have a great effect on your body but twenty-three dilutions only creates what’s called a 12C remedy. Apparently this isn’t good enough and this solution is then diluted further, the problem with this is that if the solution only has one molecule of a substance in it then diluting it a further ten times in water means that to maintain just one molecule you need ten times more water. After twenty-three dilutions the sample will contain only water but homeopaths advocate remedies to be diluted sixty times! This is called a 60x solution. It’s difficult to understand just how dilute this would be if it still contained just one NaCl molecule;

Globes, teams, groups and companies

The Earth is nearly 8000 miles wide. Imagine a globe the size of the Earth but made entirely of water, that’s 1 billion trillion litres of water. Now make that globe a member of a team containing 100 globes. Make that team a member of a group containing 100 teams. Make that group a member of a company containing 100 groups. Make that company a member of a cohort containing 100 companies. Finally make that cohort a member of a system containing 100 cohorts. In one system there are 10 billion globes. Add to that just one molecule of NaCl and that’s how dilute a 60x salt solution is.

At his point it should be obvious that homeopathic remedies are just water and aren’t worth the tap they came out of. But homeopaths in light of this evidence still stick to their guns. When homeopathy was being concocted by Hahnmann it was not known if matter was made of fundamental units or if it could be divided infinitely. Since the discovery of atoms we have known that this is untrue and this leads to preposterous scenarios needed in the dilutions as mentioned above. But homeopaths today try to get round this by arguing that water has memory. Yes they claim that pure water when mixed with a substance and shook repeatedly remembers what was in it and takes on the properties of this substance, purportedly by forming a network of water molecules around the substance to mimic it. But this last attempt at saving their ideology is by far the easiest to prove wrong. To start with if water has memory that doesn’t bode to well for our recycling of toilet water into drinking water (hence the expression “homeopathy is full of shit”), secondly this would mean that the water’s healing properties are due to it replicating the effect of the substance in it. If this were true it would violate the idea that a dilution is stronger because instead of having just the substance in water the entire water now acts as the substance! Lastly the time in which water molecules change places and orientation to form new networks is on the order of picoseconds (meaning it happens nearly a trillion times per second), far too short a time for any memory.

Water memory theory applied to an antibody

In spite of having no evidence for like-cures-like, remedies so far diluted they are just water and no evidence for claims of a memory system in water homeopathy is still a huge and active movement in the western world. The matter is only complicated by figures such as Prince Charles (a man with no scientific or medical credentials) stating that homeopathy should be considered. Homeopathy should be considered as much as any unproven or disproven field in medicine, it is not fair if homeopathy get’s to sidestep the stringent drug testing that any proper medicine must undergo purely on the basis of people’s choice or popular figures ideas. The issue is far worse though, a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee revealed that the NHS is spending money on homeopathic treatments. Worryingly there is no exact data on how much is being spent and on what, however it is estimated that homeopathic remedies cost the NHS over £150,000 a year (outrageous when A, it’s water from a tap and B, in an earlier post I talked about how some people feel £100,000 a year for Paul Mason was not deserved) and the cost of running the four homeopathic NHS hospitals we have in the UK is quoted as being near £12 million.

The only shred of justification modern homeopathy has is that it can act as a placebo. A placebo is a substance administered to a patient that does nothing biochemically relevant to their condition but due to the patient believing they have taken medicine they show improvement. The placebo effect is controversial as it may only work by making the patient less aware of their discomfort whilst their body heals naturally, it cannot heal beyond what the body can heal unassisted anyway and there is an ethical dilemma in lying to a patient about their treatment. But if homeopathic remedies are an effective placebo then there is no reason why they could not just be replaced, very easily, very cheaply by a nice, refreshing bottle of evian.

I hope this post has enlightened you a little on what exactly homeopathy is and how it claims to work. I hope I have stimulated a curiosity to learn about these things and how we can know if something has evidence or not. In the modern world the veracity of any medicine (and indeed any science) is only confirmed through repeated, demonstrable experiments by different parties. The data from these experiments can then be published (providing the research was logically and methodologically sound) for other scientists to examine, repeat and have their results also published. Through this long meticulous process we can ascertain what works and what does not. Now more than ever we can ill afford to allow untested, unproven medicines and sciences to gain funding at the expense of that that has fairly passed the best tests known to man.

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