The death of Jacques Benveniste
Philip Ballís column on NATURE
taught us valuable lessons
about how to deal with rough and fringe misinformation
We were saddened to learn from the on-line column in the issue of Nature of 8th October 2004 of the death of Jacques Benveniste. His death prompted Nature to publish a strange commemoration of the event by Philip Ball [Wholly attached below.], titled: The memory of water and subtitled: The life and work of Jacques Benveniste taught us valuable lessons about how to deal with fringe science, says Philip Ball.
We find this "commemoration" to be in singularly bad taste. Moreover, it is misinformed and it is this misinformation which has prompted us to write these additional comments.
We note in the first place that Philip Ball is not ill-disposed towards Jacques Benveniste but then how could he be bearing in mind that Benveniste had ca. 300 internationally acknowledged publications? Moreover, he was the senior director of the French medical research organisation INSERM Unit 200 dealing with the immunology of allergy and inflammation. It was Jacques Benvenisteís misfortune that his experiments appeared to confirm that water had a memory (in line with ideas current in homeopathy). Not surprisingly this produced a conflict with the "Scientific Establishment".
However, it also leads to the first lesson which this whole episode (which came to involve Nature) should teach us:
the primacy of experimental observations.
Most scientific research is designed to discover the behaviour of the Natural World which we have to discover by experimentation. Now it may well be that experimental observations in a given field are wrong and it is certainly important to establish their validity. However, they are never "wrong" just because they fly in the face of the prevailing scientific orthodoxy ; one of the functions of theory is to seek explanations in terms of believable models.
We will quote Philip Ball further at this point:
"Biomolecules, he said, communicate with their receptor molecules by sending out low frequency electromagnetic signals, which the receptors pick up like radios tuned to a specific wavelength. Benveniste claimed that he was able to record these signals digitally, and that by playing them back to the cells in the absence of the molecules themselves he could reproduce their biochemical effect, including triggering a defence response in neurophils, which kill invading cells. The questions this raises are, of course, endless. Why, if this is the way biomolecules work, do they bother with shape complementarity at all?"
Now, Dr. Ball should explain to the curious and careful reader if, when and where somebody has ever shown in a reproducible scientific way that biomolecules interact not only in a mechanical way but also thanks to their shape complementarity. Is this "scientific mythology" or something else?
Then with the wonderful image in our mind of the coloured Lego-biomolecules moving around by chance in space and, from time-to-time, matching magically between themselves we will address a further question to Dr. Ball.
Did he ever try to perform a simple order of magnitude calculation to try to begin to understand how much time would be necessary starting from a wish to move his pen and the real act of hand writing if the coloured biomolecules in his body would adhere to the proposed rich imagery?
We note that the epicycle model of planetary motion was at least able to calculate the observed movements without invoking absurd contradictions ; is the coloured lego-biomolecule model able to provide a similar explanation?
We continue by again quoting Dr. Ball:
"Benveniste proposes that transmission of the signal somehow involves the "Quantum coherent domains proposed in a paper ; Del Giudice E., Preparata G. and Vitiello G., Phys. Rev. Lett. 61, 1085-1088 (1988) - that now seems to be invoked whenever waterís Ďweirdnessí is at issue - for example to explain cold fusion".
We see here also the same disregard of the scientific content of the subjects being discussed. Dr. Ball does not criticise the content of the apparently mysterious paper "that now seems to be invoked whenever waterís weirdness is at issue". We do not believe that he is not able to criticise the paper but simply that he does not do so. He is evidently doing something else ; he is connecting the mysterious paper with another topic disliked by Nature, the so-called Cold Fusion. To the best of our knowledge no one has ever proposed that Cold Fusion is to be explained by the properties of water. The only connection is that two of the authors (Del Giudice and Preparata) have also been working to provide a theoretical foundation for the topic. However, Dr. Ballís objective appears to be to imply that Cold Fusion is a further example of fringe science.
We see also that Dr. Ball (the author of the popular science book "H2O - a biography of water") has only quoted one of the oldest theoretical papers on the subject thereby neglecting the extensive physical and chemical evidence demonstrating that water shows something akin to hysteresis. Yes, water shows something like "memory" of itís history exactly like the behaviour of ferromagnetic materials which cannot be attributed to an hypothetical difference in the molecular composition between the magnetised and normal materials. It is for this reason that we append a bibliography of these "forgotten" papers.
We have tried to discern what may have been the real purpose of Dr. Ballís strange "commemoration". As far as we can tell this seems to be the search for a justification for the strange behaviour of Nature in this whole episode. Jacques Benveniste was an experimentalist, not a theoretician. He hoped that the contact with Nature would lead to an exploration of the underlying theory. Instead it produced a visit by the then editor Sir John Maddox, the magician James Randi and the self-styled fraud investigator Walter Stewart which Benveniste described as a "circus act". We do not know whether the results obtained by Jacques Benveniste will stand the test of time but the general thesis, that water has a memory, has been supported by many other investigations. We note here that the next phase of the investigation of the Natural Sciences will certainly prove to be difficult. It appears to us to require some insight into the interaction of magnetic fields with matter, into the prevalent misrepresentations of Quantum Mechanics, some understanding of the vacuum and quantum vacuum, of quantum fluctuations, of relativity especially as it relates to re-normalisation theory all of this leading up to quantum electrodynamics and the study of coherence. Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that QED is badly understood by the scientific public but this is no justification for branding new investigations with the heading of fringe science.
We come to the second lesson which this episode should teach us which is:
if you donít understand a subject,
then say nothing. Above all, donít say that anything you do not understand
must be wrong.
P.Belon, J.Cumps, P.F.Mannaioni, J.Ste-Laudy, M.Roberfroid, F.A.C.Wiegant
"Inhibition of human basophil degranulation by successive histamine dilutions: results of a European multi-centre trial"
Inflammation Research, 48, supplement 1: S17-18 (1999)
V.Elia and M.Niccoli
"Thermodynamics of Extremely Diluted Aqueous Solutions"
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 879, 241 (1999)
V.Elia and M.Niccoli
"New physico-chemical properties of water induced by mechanical treatments. A Calorimetric study at 25°C"
Journal of Thermal Analysis and Calorimetry, 61, 527-537 (2000)
"New Physico-Chemical Properties of Extremely Diluted Aqueous Solutions "
Journal of Thermal Analysis and Calorimetry,75, 815-836 (2004)
V.Elia, E.Napoli, M.Niccoli, L.Nonatelli, A. Ramaglia, E.Ventimiglia
"New Physico-Chemical Properties of Extremely Diluted Aqueous Solutions. A calorimetric and conductivity study at 25°C."
Accepted for publication on Journal of Thermal Analysis and Calorimetry
"Thermoluminescence of ultra-high dilutions of lithium chloride and sodium chloride"
Physica A, 323, 67-74 (2003)
"Polymerization and the low-frequency electromagnetic field"
J. of Pol. Sci., 48, 393 (1960)
"22 year solar cycle and chemical test"
Geof. e Meteor., XX, 104 (1961)
F.De Meyer and C.Capel-Boute,
"Statistical analysis of Piccardi chemical tests"
Int. J. Biometeor., 31, 301-322 (1987)
"Observations on variations in electrical conductivity of pure demineralized water: modification ("activation") of conductivity by low-frequency, low level alternating electric fields"
Int. J. Biometeor., 41, 137-140 (1998)
"QED Coherence in Matter"
World Scientific (1995)
R.Arani, I.Bono, E.Del Giudice and G.Preparata
"QED Coherence and the thermodynamics of water"
Int.J.Mod.Phys.B, 9, 1813 (1995)
E. Del Giudice, G. Preparata
"A new QED picture of water: understanding a few fascinating phenomena"
in the Vol. Macroscopic Quantum Phenomena (ed. E.Sassaroli et al.), World Scientific (1998)
"The charge to mass ICR Signature in weak ELF Bioelectromagnetic effects",
in Advances Electromagnetic Fields in Living Systems, Vol.4, Kluver/Plenum, N.Y., J.LIN Ed. (2003)
M.N.Zhadin, V.V.Novikoff, F.S.Barnes and M.F.Pergola
"Combined Action of static and alternating magnetic fields on ionic current in acqueous glutamic acid solution"
Emilio Del Giudice
Antonella De Ninno
Paolo Aldo Rossi
(This is an open list; it is enough that interested people would send a mail to:
* * * * *
Column Published online: 08 October 2004; | doi:10.1038/news041004-18
The life and work of Jacques Benveniste taught us valuable lessons about how to deal with fringe science, says Philip Ball.
Jacques Benveniste, who gave the world the 'memory of water', died in Paris on 3 October. He will certainly be remembered for the phrase his work inspired, which has become the title of a play and a rock song, as well as a figure of everyday speech.
But his controversial career also highlighted the tricky issue of how to deal with research on the fringes of science, a question with which Nature itself became intimately entangled.
In France, Benveniste was a celebrity, and it is not hard to see why. He was a charismatic showman who knew how to wield a rhetorical foil. His talk of witch-hunts, scientific priesthoods, heresies and 'Galileo-style prosecutions' played well with those inclined to regard science as an arrogant, modern-day Inquisition.
He conjured up images of a conservative orthodoxy, whose acolytes were scandalized by a ground-breaking discovery that demolished their dogmatic certainties. He was, he suggested, a Newton challenging a petty-minded, mechanistic cartesianism.
Back in 1988, however, Benveniste was very much part of the establishment. He was the senior director of the French medical research organization INSERM's Unit 200, in Clamart, which studied the immunology of allergy and inflammation.
That was when he sent his notorious paper to Nature1. In it, he reported that white blood cells called basophils, which control the body's reaction to allergens, can be activated to produce an immune response by solutions of antibodies that have been diluted so far that they contain none of these biomolecules at all.
It was as though the water molecules somehow retained a memory of the antibodies that they had previously been in contact with, so that a biological effect remained when the antibodies were no longer present. This, it seemed, validated the claims made for highly diluted homeopathic medicines.
After a lengthy review process, in which the referees insisted on seeing evidence that the effect could be duplicated in three other independent laboratories, Nature published the paper. The editor, John Maddox, prefaced it with an editorial comment entitled 'When to believe the unbelievable', which admitted: "There is no objective explanation of these observations."
Naturally, the paper caused a sensation. "Homeopathy finds scientific support," claimed Newsweek. But no one, including Benveniste, gave much attention to the critical question of how such a 'memory' effect could be produced.
The paper itself offered only the suggestion, at face value almost meaningless, that "Water could act as a 'template' for the [antibody] molecule, for example by an infinite hydrogen-bonded network, or electric and magnetic fields."
The idea that water molecules, connected by hydrogen bonds that last for only about a picosecond (10-12 seconds) before breaking and reforming, could somehow cluster into long-lived mimics of the antibody seemed absurd.
Other teams were subsequently unable to repeat the effect, and the independent results that the reviewers had asked for were never published. Further experiments carried out by Benveniste's team, in double-blind conditions overseen by Maddox, magician and pseudo-science debunker James Randi and fraud investigator Walter Stewart, failed to verify the original results.
The Nature paper was never retracted, but Maddox subsequently commented, "My own conviction is that it remains to be shown there is a phenomenon to be explained" (see "Waves caused by extreme dilution").
Benveniste was unmoved by the wave of scepticism, even derision, that greeted his claims. At DigiBio, the Paris-based company he set up in the wake of the controversy, he devised another explanation for his strange results. Biomolecules, he said, communicate with their receptor molecules by sending out low-frequency electromagnetic signals, which the receptors pick up like radios tuned to a specific wavelength.
Benveniste claimed that he was able to record these signals digitally, and that by playing them back to cells in the absence of the molecules themselves he could reproduce their biochemical effect, including triggering a defence response in neutrophils, which kill invading cells2.
The questions this raises are, of course, endless. Why, if this is the way biomolecules work, do they bother with shape complementarity at all? (When I asked Benveniste this, he said something about audio earpieces being shaped to fit the ear.)
How could a molecule act as an antenna for electromagnetic wavelengths of several kilometres? And how does the memory of water fit into all of this? Benveniste proposes that transmission of the signal somehow involves the 'quantum-coherent domains' proposed in a paper3 that now seems to be invoked whenever water's 'weirdness' is at issue - for example, to explain cold fusion.
Blinded by science
The details were not, Benveniste said, his responsibility. He was an immunologist, not a physicist.
But his failure to simplify his experimental system so that he could clarify the precise nature of the effects he claimed to see, or the mechanisms behind them, fell short of rigorous science. Benveniste could surely have tested his radio-transmission theory at the level of simple, cell-free molecular systems.
I have found no evidence that he ever devised such experiments: he stayed at the level of cells, tissues or whole organisms, where direct cause-and-effect is hard to track and statistical tests are needed to cope with the significant responses from control samples. The talk that I saw he and his co-workers deliver last June was a blinding blizzard of histograms.
There can be no doubt that Benveniste was genuinely convinced he had chanced upon something revolutionary. It is a shame that he became isolated (he may have played a part in that), which meant that genuine enquiry into his curious findings was hampered by posturing on all sides.
But the fact that it is the 'memory of water',
not 'digital biology', that he will be remembered for illustrates a point
that I think Jacques failed to appreciate: his work tapped into a potent
and persistent cultural myth about the miraculous properties of water.
And under the influence of myth, it can be hard to keep a level head.
1 - Davenas E., et al. Nature, 338. 816 - 818 (1988).
2 - Thomas Y., et al. Medical Hypotheses, 54. 33 - 39 (2000).
3 - Del Giudice E., Preparata G. & Vitiello G. Phys. Rev. Lett., 61. 1085 - 1088 (1988).