Sep 16 2010

Rustom Roy and Water Memory

Recent the following question appeared in my Topic Suggestion thread:

hi dr novella,

though a little past the time of your debate with homeopaths at the University of Connecticut Health Center: A Debate: Homeopathy – Quackery Or A Key To The Future of Medicine? (2007), i’m wondering why in your response to the actual debate on your blog you respond in the comments section to a post:

“The bottom line is that homeopathy is a tangle of magical thinking, every element of which lacks a theoretical or empirical basis.”

i’m unsure how you can make this statement when Dr. Rustom Roy disproved one of your main arguments, that homeopathic medicines are merely placebos, showed evidence that the structure and thus function of water can be changed for extended periods of time. this evidence presented refutes that the remedies are merely water, the inert substance that we all think it is. your quote above entirely ignores and contradicts the evidence that was shown to you.

this would be an interesting topic of discussion.

thanks.

Rustom Roy

I also recently learned that Rustom Roy died on August 26th, just a few weeks ago at the age of 86. Roy was one of those enigmatic scientists who, on the one hand, had a conventional career as a material scientist. But he also harbored a strong belief in the supernatural and pursued those longings in parallel to material science. Those interests most notably crossed in his claim that water has memory and this can be an explanation for homeopathic effects.

During my one encounter with Roy at the UCONN debate referenced above, at one point Roy declared that the “materialist paradigm is dead.” Clearly he wished it to be so, but in my opinion reports of the death of materialism are premature. Roy’s evidence, at least that he was offering at the time, was John of God.

This is a side issue – but John of God is a self-styled healer in Brazil who has been thoroughly exposed by Joe Nickell and others. He uses a combination of old carnie tricks and faith-healing revival techniques to ply his trade. I found it very enlightening that Roy was completely taken in by a fairly unremarkable charlatan, and thought that sufficient evidence to overturn the materialist paradigm.

This was also not an isolated lapse. Roy founded the Friends of Health, dedicated to promoting a spiritual “holistic” approach to “healing”. Clearly this was a deeply held spiritual belief for Roy, and it is unfortunate that he allowed his religious beliefs to taint his science.

Homeopathy

There are many reasons why homeopathy is pure pseudoscience. First, it was invented rather than discovered – Hahnemann developed his principles of homeopathy from anecdote and superstition, without any chain of scientific research, evidence or reasoning.

Homeopathy’s three laws are also made-up superstition, and two hundred years of subsequent scientific advance has born this out. Scientific knowledge builds on itself, and when someone discovers a fundamental property of nature that leads to further discoveries and a deepening understanding. Homeopathy led to nothing. The law of similars is the notion that “like cures like” – that a small dose of a substance will cure whatever symptoms it causes in a high dose. This, however, is not based upon anything in biology or chemistry. It is often falsely compared to the responses to vaccines, but this is not an apt analogy.

The law of infinitessimals, the notion that substance become more potent when diluted, violates the law of mass action and everything we know about chemistry. Also, many homeopathic remedies are diluted past the point where even a single molecule of original substance is likely to be left behind. Hahnemann believed that the water retained the magical “essence” of the substance (homeopathy is a vitalistic belief system), and this also lead to the more recent attempts to explain homeopathy in terms of water memory, which I will discuss further below.

In addition to the basic principles of homeopathy being superstitious and contradicted by modern science, the clinical evidence also shows that homeopathic remedies do not work. There have been hundreds of clinical studies of homeopathy, and taken as a whole this vast literature shows that homeopathic remedies are indistinguishable from placebos.

This is not even a scientific controversy – the evidence is overwhelming – homeopathy cannot work and does not work. Only ideology, wishful thinking, and scientific illiteracy keeps it alive.

Water Memory

Modern defenders have desperately tried to justify homeopathy with scientific-sounding explanations, but they have failed miserably. The results are often hilarious (at least to those who have the slightest familiarity with actual science). One such attempt is the notion that water is capable of having memory – that it can physically remember the chemical properties of substances that have been diluted in it.

The notion of water memory was first raised by French homeopath Jacques Benveniste in 1988. He was not studying the water structure itself, just trying to demonstrate that water can retain the memory of antibodies or other substances diluted in it. His research, however, has been completely discredited – among the many flaws in his methods, his lab was cherry picking data, using improper statistics, and recounting data points that did not fit their desired results.

Roy, however, was referring to later research which he believed showed that water molecules are like bricks – they can be used to build structures that contain greater complexity and information than the bricks themselves. Specifically, that water molecules could encode in their structure the chemical properties of what was diluted in them.

However, the evidence does not support this claim. What has been demonstrated is that water molecules do form transient bonds with other water molecules, creating a larger ultrastructure – but these water structures are extremely short-lived. They are not permanent.

In fact, research shows that water molecules very efficiently distribute energy from these bonds, making them extremely ephemeral. One such research paper concludes:

Our results highlight the efficiency of energy redistribution within the hydrogen-bonded network, and that liquid water essentially loses the memory of persistent correlations in its structure within 50 fs.

That’s 50 femotoseconds, or 50 quadrillionths (10^-15) of a second. Contrary to Roy’s claims – water does not hold memory. In fact it is characterized by being extremely efficient at not holding a memory. Scientists can argue about whether or not under certain conditions water can display ultrastructure lingering for longer than femtoseconds – but they are arguing over fractions of a second.

There is no evidence that water can retain these structures for a biologically meaningful amount of time. It is amazing that Roy and others so enthusiastically extrapolated from the claim (itself probably bogus) that water can hold structures slightly longer than previously believed to the notion that this can explain the biological effectiveness of homeopathy. Let’s take a close look at the non-trivial steps they glossed over.

If this kind of water memory is an explanation for homeopathy, then these structures would have to survive not only in a sample of water, but through the physical mixing of that water with other water. In fact, they would have to transfer their structure, like a template, to surrounding water molecules. This would need to be reliably repeatable over many dilutions. Then these structures would have to survive transfer to a sugar pill (often homeopathic remedies are prepared by a drop of the water being place onto a sugar pill.

These water structures would then have to be transferred to the sugar molecules, because before long the water will evaporate. This pill will then sit on a shelf for days, months, or years finally to be consumed by the gullible. She sugar pill will be broken down in the stomach, the sugar molecules digested, absorbed into the blood stream, and then distributed through the blood to the tissues of the body.

Presumably – whatever molecules are retaining this alleged ultrastructure are sticking together throughout this process, and finding their way to the target organ where they are able to have their chemical/biological effect.

“Absurd” does not even begin to cover the leaps of logic that are being committed here. In short, invoking water memory as an explanation for homeopathic effects just adds more layers of magical thinking to the notion of homeopathy, it does not offer a plausible explanation (even if water memory were true, which it isn’t.)

Chemical bonds (some chemical bonds) are strong enough to survive this process intact and make it through the body to the target tissue where they can bind to receptors or undergo their chemical reactions. Even most chemicals, however, cannot make it through this biological gauntlet with their chemical activity intact – which is why the bioavailability of many potential drugs is too low for them to be useful as oral agents. They are simply broken down by the digestive process. The ephemeral bonds of this alleged water memory, in other words – if this fiction of water memory even existed, would have a bioavailability of zero.

Conclusion

Rustom Roy had a respectable career as a materials scientist, but likely his name would be unknown to the public were it not for his side interest in magical healing and homeopathy, which is certain to eclipse his more conventional career. His claim that water memory provides a scientific explanation for the action of homeopathic preparations is pure pseudoscience. It does not hold up to a review of the published scientific evidence, or even just thinking through how such water memory could exert a biological effect.

Homeopathy, as the water memory claims demonstrate, has become nothing but a desperate enterprise of piling pseudoscience on top of pseudoscience.

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31 responses so far

31 Responses to “Rustom Roy and Water Memory”

  1. Hubbubon 16 Sep 2010 at 10:52 am

    This is very useful, Steve.

    It is inevitable that pseudoscientists will co-opt the most tenuous of scientific mechanisms to rescue their claims. Often I feel the best response is to underline all of the leaps which are unsupported, or more likely, simply waved away.

  2. CWon 16 Sep 2010 at 11:01 am

    Well when you put it that way, homeopathy does seem to be a little bit woo-ish then.

  3. tmac57on 16 Sep 2010 at 11:41 am

    Considering all the places that water has been in the billions of years that it has been here on Earth, I hope to hell that it ‘forgot’ a few things.

  4. Adam_Yon 16 Sep 2010 at 12:27 pm

    There are many reasons why homeopathy is pure pseudoscience. First, it was invented rather than discovered – Hahnemann developed his principles of homeopathy from anecdote and superstition, without any chain of scientific research, evidence or reasoning.

    Interesting fact but aparently homeopathy was always considered bullshit by the scientific community. There never was a time where it was considered plausible. I was speaking to a chemistry historian at the ACS meeting a few weeks ago.

    I also recently learned that Rustom Roy died on August 26th, just a few weeks ago at the age of 86. Roy was one of those enigmatic scientists who, on the one hand, had a conventional career as a material scientist. But he also harbored a strong belief in the supernatural and pursued those longings in parallel to material science. Those interests most notably crossed in his claim that water has memory and this can be an explanation for homeopathic effects.

    Don’t forget his jaunt into a perpetual motion machine that could possibly cure cancer.

    However, the evidence does not support this claim. What has been demonstrated is that water molecules do form transient bonds with other water molecule, creating a larger ultrastructure – but these water structures are extremely short-lived. They are not permanent.

    Technically, most water ultrastructures that form are fairly permanent but with one caveat that most homeopaths are too dense to figure out. You freaking need something else in the water. Since water is such a polar molecule it will readily hydrogen bond and interact with strong charges. This could ions disolved in the water or even hydronium ions present in acidic solutions.

    Also, your teminology is a bit wonky. Water doesn’t form bonds in the tradititional sense. Its actually just hydrogen bonding which should be compared to covalent bonding.

  5. Draalon 16 Sep 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Ever hear of quantum entanglement? That’s how water does it. ’nuff said.

  6. Adam_Yon 16 Sep 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Ever hear of quantum entanglement? That’s how water does it. ’nuff said.

    I hope you are joking because chemistry is largely based upon quantum mechanics.

  7. Adam_Yon 16 Sep 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Also, your teminology is a bit wonky. Water doesn’t form bonds in the tradititional sense. Its actually just hydrogen bonding which should be compared to covalent bonding.

    Ahhhh… I missed a typo in the end. Hydrogen bonding should not be compared to covalent bonding is what I wanted to say.

  8. Draalon 16 Sep 2010 at 12:53 pm

    what then? A dipole-dipole moment?

  9. Steven Novellaon 16 Sep 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Adam – that was actually my point. The hydrogen bonding that forms water structures is ephemeral and weak, and it is NOT analogous to covalent bonding which are stronger and more stable and can (potentially) survive ingestion.

  10. cwfongon 16 Sep 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Water is inclined to have false memories of where it has been and what it has been through in any case. Like the water claiming to have made Cleopatra’s acquaintance on the Nile when actually it was running with Octavia the Younger on the Tiber.

  11. HHCon 16 Sep 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Rustom Roy was born in Bihar province, India. The water certainly has a “memory” there, the flowing rivers are used as part of India’s public open defecation. It creates disease for the citizens who defecate, bathe, and drink the same source without treatment. He was excited about the salt-water burning project. Could it be that he was thinking of his homeland, and a quick fix for their waterways which are contaminated? Feces have to be burned to avoid health hazards.

  12. Adam_Yon 16 Sep 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Adam – that was actually my point. The hydrogen bonding that forms water structures is ephemeral and weak, and it is NOT analogous to covalent bonding which are stronger and more stable and can (potentially) survive ingestion.

    Sorry about that. After working in a chemistry lab for two years now I’ve sort have had the distinction between the three different types of bonds* hammered into my head.

    Though now that I remember it but there is an interesting fact about water that you did not mention which puts a huge kink at about how stupid the water memory concept is. Pure water is composed of hydronium, hydroxide, and water because of a phenomeon called autodissociation. Essentially, what that means is that water is constantly breaking its covalent bonds and reforming them. So even in this case the covalent bonds are pretty weak also. This whole entire concpet is pretty well known and forms the entire basis of the PH scale with 7 being the concentration of hydronium and hydroxide ions in pure water.

    *Technically, ionic and covalent bonding is really two ends on a spectrum of bond category. There is no such thing as pure ionic and pure covalent bonding.

  13. factsonlyon 16 Sep 2010 at 1:35 pm

    First, thanks for responding to my question.

    re: “There is no evidence that water can retain these structures for a biologically meaningful amount of time.”

    Second, your review of existing literature on the topic is unfortunately limited to but one paper. This citation does not refute the experimental data on huge changes in the structure of water retainable under lab conditions for SEVERAL HOURS. It only serves to add more information to existing data. If you can refute the existing science (and leave the “side issues” off to the side), then you will have refuted…well, the science.

    Here’s a powerpoint presentation that directly addresses your argument, “It’s just water…”

    http://www.rustumroy.com/MST%2008%20Presentation%20WATER%20Roy_Rao_NOVoice.ppsx dachille water thermodynamics

    You can also watch a vid where a response shows you the science that changes can be for extended periods of time, at 22:55 of the video. Specifically, go to the accompanying slide 47 of the presentation.
    http://mediasite.uchc.edu/Mediasite41/Viewer/?peid=407916ea-6301-4ede-b04f-c3650e4073a7#

    Thanks.

  14. ChrisHon 16 Sep 2010 at 1:56 pm

    That presentation is a bad file type.

    Take note that this person has been posting on a couple of old homeopathy articles (plus the one on Doctor’s Data suing Barratt) at Respectful Insolence. This person cannot be reasoned with, and has resorted to changing his ‘nym in ways to mock those who respond to him.

    Proceed with caution.

  15. Adam_Yon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Second, your review of existing literature on the topic is unfortunately limited to but one paper. This citation does not refute the experimental data on huge changes in the structure of water retainable under lab conditions for SEVERAL HOURS. It only serves to add more information to existing data. If you can refute the existing science (and leave the “side issues” off to the side), then you will have refuted…well, the science.

    Bloody dam hell I just refuted your science in my post directly above yours. How the hell do you maintain any semblance of structure when the material that you have is known to be constantly breaking and reforming bonds inside of it?

  16. Steven Novellaon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:27 pm

    factsonly,

    Two points – Roy’s claims are not generally accepted. At best they are controversial.

    But let us take a hypothetical situation in which his claims for metastable structure is water are 100% true. One main point of my article is that, even then, these “metastable” structures are not biological relevant – they do not rescue homeopathy.

    Metastable structures that can persist in undisturbed and thermodynamically stable water does not extrapolate to the very stable structures that would be needed to survive multiple dilutions, absorption onto sucrose, digestion, and distribution in the body. There is also no mechanism by which these metastable structures can derive from diluted substance, nor encode (let alone retain) any chemical properties.

    At best Roy was anomaly hunting. He was making the trivial point that the bonding activity and ultrastructure of water is complex – but this does not add up to a plausible mechanism for homeopathy, not by a mile.

  17. ChrisHon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Okay, I opened the file… but it did not present much.

  18. factsonlyon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:43 pm

    “Roy’s claims are not generally accepted”

    Please explain the flaw in the science.

  19. astrotoolon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Great article Dr. Novella! Maybe they use the Law of Infinitesimals when it comes to reading the literature too haha.

    Fyi, just a few spelling errors. The first time you describe a femtosecond it says “femoto”. Also it says “She sugar pill” instead of ‘the sugar pill’.

  20. ChrisHon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:56 pm

    factsonly:

    Please explain the flaw in the science.

    Explained by Adam_Y here:

    Pure water is composed of hydronium, hydroxide, and water because of a phenomeon called autodissociation. Essentially, what that means is that water is constantly breaking its covalent bonds and reforming them. So even in this case the covalent bonds are pretty weak also. This whole entire concpet is pretty well known and forms the entire basis of the PH scale with 7 being the concentration of hydronium and hydroxide ions in pure water.

    Liquid water is not like glass. Even though both have viscosity, glass has a very high viscosity and the atoms do not move (yeah, I looked at the presentation).

    The molecules in water do move, and they break about apart into hydronium (H3O) and hydroxide (OH-</sup) ions, plus your basic H2O molecules. It is a dynamic process that keeps changing, and the oxygen atoms are always losing and gaining hydrogen atoms.

    There can be no structure to water unless you cool it down so that the molecules reduce their motion. That form of water is called ice.

  21. ChrisHon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Aaagh… all of my HTML “sup” and “sub” tags failed (it also looks like I had a typo). Now instead of looking cool, it looks wonky.

  22. Joeon 16 Sep 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Factsonly,

    I don’t know how many slides were in the PP show; but I suffered through around 50 and nothing pertained to dilution and succussion (i.e., homeopathy). I am reminded of an old saying “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bull****.

    Can you direct us to something concerning homeopathy that I missed? Please, not a particular slide; rather, the refereed publications which should be consulted. (I have noted that Roy gave citations; but they did not relate to homeopathy.)

    Roy’s theories about homeopathy are absurd before there is proof of homeopathy. We have no problem with proof of an effect before the explanation exists. However, lack of proof of an effect renders explanations dubious.

  23. ChrisHon 16 Sep 2010 at 3:30 pm

    It just occurred to me that if liquid water had structure or memory then there would be no Brownian motion. Also if water acted the way Roy said it did it would not be much of a solvent, something is does quite well (and kind of crucial to life as we know it!).

  24. Hubbubon 16 Sep 2010 at 8:25 pm

    factsonly: “Please explain the flaw in the science.”

    The shoe’s on the wrong foot here. Roy (and now his intellectual progeny) have to build a case to convince the community of relevant scientists of their claims. To demand otherwise is to delve into the realm of quackery, where the burden of proof is shirked. To illustrate my point, I challenge you to explain the flaw in the study Steve cited.

    It’s also utterly tangential to Steve’s point. Even granting Roy’s water-structure claims at face value, it cedes no scientific ground to homeopaths.

  25. daijiyobuon 17 Sep 2010 at 12:21 am

    Meanwhile, in the land of North American naturopathy, homeopathy is falsely labeled a “clinical science.”

    -r.c.

  26. xtaldaveon 17 Sep 2010 at 1:55 am

    Great post.

    But I think you’ll find that water memory is soooooo last century. Cutting edge homeopaths *cough* tend to go down one of two routes.

    1) Quantum Entanglement – basically an invokation of the “Quantum” bogey man to confuse and impress those without any understanding of the word Quantum, or a basic understanding of Quantum physics.

    2) Hormesis. A genuinely interesting biological phenomenon when a small dose of something toxic has the opposite effect from something toxic (c.f “like cures like” ). Obviously, Hormesis still requires actual molecules of something – but homeopaths tend to overlook this… Peter Fisher (chief Quack to Queen Liz II) tends to favour this one…

  27. factsonlyon 21 Sep 2010 at 10:44 pm

    as someone asked, relevance of water and roy’s data: a substance used in a homeopathic remedy, i.e., the solute, is diluted beyond Avagadro’s number, hence, the argument by Novella that the remaining solution is “just water.”

    thanks for your opinions on the matter.

    any peer-reviewed articles to refute roy’s work or replications of the experiments published to show results otherwise?

  28. factsonlyon 21 Sep 2010 at 10:47 pm

    your disbelief in homeopathy and the implausibilities you see in the physics and chemistry of it, in reality, have no bearing on its efficacy. i appreciate your comments.

  29. ChrisHon 22 Sep 2010 at 1:48 pm

    I see you used the word “disbelief.” Obviously belief has nothing to do with science, or reality. If you want to show homeopathy works, you have to actually show it works. You have been told the two things that will accomplish that:

    1) Get a well documented from a third party (a real doctor) that a non-self-limiting condition was cured with homeopathy, and nothing else. It has to be a condition that does not get better on its own (flu, cold) or waxes and wains.

    2) Be able to distinguish two homeopathic remedies from one another without a label, and to their solvent (water, alcohol) or lactose pill. If you manage to do that you can win a case prize!

    If you are going to ask questions, be prepared for answers you do not like and open up your mind to the new information. The answers are not going to change just because you keep asking them. Even if you keep asking when the sun will set in the east will not change the direction of the earth’s rotation. Deal with it.

  30. gfb1on 29 Sep 2010 at 2:00 pm

    This article made me very sad.

    Roy was one of the first people I met, when I became a faculty member at dear.old.state nearly 25 years ago. He had a brilliant mind and, contrary to the experiences of many others, he was always collegial with me. Go figure.
    In recent years he spent much less time in the States, but would always stop by my office as he flitted through Happy Valley.

    IMHO, his spiritual beliefs came from a personal wellspring (pun intended) that traditional Western philosophies, taken to an unhealthy extreme, led to unequal treatment of classes and castes. He was always an outspoken champion of the poor and downtrodden.

    This is not to imply that he had no ego. His ego was large enough for most. And as the Amazing Randi (and others) have pointed out, his type of scientist is the easiest to fool. I suspect he was fooled, and unable to reverse field or retract.
    Straight until morning, Captain.

    Regardless, I will always think of him fondly.

  31. dreamking00on 29 Sep 2010 at 5:49 pm

    i appreciate your comments.

    your belief in homeopathy and the plausibilities you see in the physics and chemistry of it, in reality, have no bearing on its efficacy.

    Did you see the part where homeopathy has failed every single time it has been subjected to quality, placebo-controlled trials? Every possible mechanism you’ve suggested is nothing but special pleading and grasping at straws to support something which has been definitively *falsified.*

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