Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Magic water

In the domain of magic, maybe the most celebrated liquid of all time was mercury.

Medieval alchemists looked upon this weird substance as primeval matter—in the spirit of Aristotle—out of which all metals evolved. As a schoolboy at Grafton High School, I remember well my first encounter with this amazing but dangerous metal, under the guidance of our aging chemistry teacher Jerry Spring. Once upon a time, it was used by dentists: a bit like installing a toxic battery in the patient's mouth.

Questing after miracles, modern believers in the supernatural seem to be placing their trust in a far more humble liquid: ordinary water.

Jacques Benveniste was a distinguished French specialist in immunology. In 1971, he discovered an organic chemical substance known as PAF [platelet-activating factor], which plays a basic role in the process of hemostasis (the stopping of bleeding) and other vital physiological functions. Benveniste—maybe with a Nobel Prize in the pocket of his lab gown—might have gone down in medical history as a result of this discovery. Alas, the curiosity of Jacques Benveniste led him into an esoteric field of research, inspired by the beliefs of homeopathy. Working under contract for the French pharmaceutical company Boiron [click here to see my article entitled Herbal and homeopathic products], Beneveniste published a controversial article in a 1988 issue of Nature in which he put forward the hallucinating idea that molecules of plain water might possess a mysterious "memory".

If so, then it would be quite normal (!) that the functions of an active ingredient within an enormously-diluted homeopathic preparation might in fact be "remembered". Quod erat demonstrandum. When shit of this superior nature hit the science media fan, it provoked a huge scandal that I won't attempt to summarize here. [See the Wikipedia article on Jacques Beneviste.] The discoverer of "water memory" retired from the French INSERM medical research organization, and the scientific community wondered whether their prestigious colleague might not have been led astray... into ridicule. Today, few serious scientists believe that Beneveniste's speculations incorporate the slightest grain of objective truth.

Whereas Jacques Benveniste obtained nothing more than an ignominious pair of Ig Nobel Prizes in Chemistry in 1991 and 1998, the French biologist Luc Montagnier was awarded a genuine (shared) Nobel in 2008 for his discovery of the Aids virus, HIV. Since then, at the height of his scientific glory, Montagnier has made astonishing claims that homeopathy works, and that Benveniste might have hit the nail on the head. Once again, I leave my blog readers to follow up this affair through Google and Wikipedia.

Let us move from "water memory" to the equally-exciting theme of "water fuel".

Agha Waqar Ahmad is a 40-year-old Pakistani engineer who operates normally in fields that are far removed from the Nobel domain. This employee of the police department claims to have invented an automobile that runs on ordinary water. Ahmad's scientific credentials: a degree in mechanical engineering from a technical college in Khairpur, in the southern province of Sindh. Water is water, universal and ubiquitous, and it knows no geographical, intellectual or cultural barriers. So, it is tempting to to draw parallels between the magic homeopathic memory of Benveniste's water and the magic power of water as the unique fuel in Ahmad's experimental cars. In both cases, we are faced with phenomena that modern science refuses to accept.

In Pakistan, there was intense excitement after the release of demonstrations of Ahmad's water-fueled automobile. TV journalists presented him as a savior of Pakistan, stricken gravely by the energy crisis. Once again, I invite my readers to use Google to learn more about Ahmad's miraculous invention.

Meanwhile, I remain an old-fashioned adept of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which I once learned in 1957, as a student at Sydney University, in the celebrated textbook of Mark Zemansky, which has accompanied several generations of science enthusiasts. I therefore refuse to believe that you can obtain an energy advantage by attempting simply to extract the oxygen and the hydrogen that compose water. The challenge is real, but Ahmad's alleged solution is surely chimeric.

An amusing detail of the Pakistani affair was the high-level support given by the Pakistani Minister of Religious Affairs, Khurshid Shah, who drove the engineer’s car during his demonstration and said he was amazed by the performance of the water kit.

It's unlikely that that the inventor Ahmad might have been aware of, let alone inspired by, our Judeo-Christian beliefs, but there's a strong case for alleging a possible infringement of Roman Catholic patent rights concerning the power of water. After all, we've been using this powerful stuff for ages in baptisms, and we continue to sprinkle so-called Holy Water upon the coffins of our deceased.

In a nutshell, if ever Vatican lawyers were smart enough to demonstrate convincingly that the sacred Popemobile runs purely (as we all believe) on Holy Water, then this Pakistani heathen will be well and truly screwed. Here at home, in Pont-en-Royans, we are proud (?) of our Water Museum, imagined by the mayor Yves Pillet.

Don't ask me, though, what on earth this local museum is supposed to exhibit. Homeopathic health-impregnated water? Pakistani energy-impregnated water? Exotic shark-infested waters from afar? Maybe simply the water of the Bourne? Or the wind upon the waters...

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