Have you ever visited a homeopath before? Do you have any homeopathic pills or suspensions in your medicine cabinet? You may think homeopathic is just another word for holistic, organic, or natural. You may think that, but you'd be wrong.
The "ancient art" of homeopathy has only existed for about 200 years. And according to the National Institutes of Health, "there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition." This is most likely because "several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics."
So what exactly are homeopathic remedies? And why are they still found on the shelves of pharmacies today? I spoke with author, physician, and academic Dr. Ben Goldacre to learn more about homeopathy and its dangerous transition from the quackosphere to the halls of academic institutions across the globe.
Watch the video above and read the transcript below to learn more. And don't forget to sound off by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
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The Monkey and the Hunter The <a href="http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=monkey and hunter&source=web&cd=6&ved=0CFsQFjAF&url=http%3A%2F%2Fbuphy.bu.edu%2F~duffy%2Fsemester1%2Fc04_monkeyhunter.html&ei=iB75Tr_HNYfTiAL-ltCFDQ&usg=AFQjCNHrgX0aj5yuH9JxlyPi-xREdluKHg&cad=rja" target="_hplink">Boston University department of Physics website</a> puts it thus: <blockquote>"A hunter spies a monkey in a tree, takes aim, and fires. At the moment the bullet leaves the gun the monkey lets go of the tree branch and drops straight down. How should the hunter aim to hit the monkey? 1. Aim directly at the monkey 2. Aim high (over the monkey's head) 3. Aim low (below the monkey)"</blockquote> The result may be counterintuitive; gravity acts on the monkey and the bullet at the same rate, so no matter how fast the bullet is going (controlling for air resistance, among other things) the hunter should start by aiming at the monkey. In case you're not convinced, try <a href="http://www.waowen.screaming.net/revision/force&motion/mandh.htm" target="_hplink">this simulation</a>. Photo: Flickr: BinaryApe
Newton's Cannonball In this thought experiment, we're meant to imagine a cannon (elevated high enough so that its projectile will avoid hitting anything on Earth) that fires its cannonball at a 90 degree angle to the Earth below it. The diagram above shows several possibilities for the cannonball's flight, depending on how fast it's going at the moment of launch. If it's too slow, it will eventually fall back down to Earth. If it's too fast, it will escape Earth's gravitation entirely and head out into space. If it's somewhere in the middle, it will be sent into orbit. This realization was a landmark in the study of gravitation, and laid the groundwork for satellites and space flight.
<a href="http://analysis.oxfordjournals.org/content/43/1/33.full.pdf" target="_hplink">Kavka's Toxin Puzzle</a>: <blockquote>"An eccentric billionaire places before you a vial of toxin that, if you drink it, will make you painfully ill for a day, but will not threaten your life or have any lasting effects. The billionaire will pay you one million dollars tomorrow morning if, at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the toxin tomorrow afternoon. He emphasizes that you need not drink the toxin to receive the money; in fact, the money will already be in your bank account hours before the time for drinking it arrives, if you succeed. All you have to do is. . . intend at midnight tonight to drink the stuff tomorrow afternoon. You are perfectly free to change your mind after receiving the money and not drink the toxin."</blockquote> Is it possible to intend to drink the toxin? We're not sure. There's an interesting discussion on the puzzle <a href="http://jsomers.net/blog/toxin" target="_hplink">here</a>. Photo: Flickr: The University of Iowa Libraries
<a href="http://web.archive.org/web/20060831124229/http://www.newyorker.com/archive/content/articles/060619fr_archive01" target="_hplink">Molyneux's Problem</a> <blockquote>"Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which is the sphere. Suppose then the cube and the sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see: query, Whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube? To which the acute and judicious proposer answers: 'Not. For though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, and how a cube, affects his touch; yet he has not yet attained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so...'"</blockquote> Philosopher John Locke, who referenced the problem in his 'Essay On Human Understanding,' agreed, but the thought experiment lay essentially unsolved until last year, when MIT Professor of Vision and Computational Neuroscience Pawan Sinha led a study of patients whose blindness had been reversed. The results agreed with Molyneux's original hypothesis.
<a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=Yfo3rnt3bkEC&pg=PA21&lpg=PA21&dq="If+we+placed+a+living+organism+in+a+box"&source=bl&ots=-dbzGJt86Y&sig=TBI9HJi4Ux4uCU5TW0EXowoMQVs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=XYH5TuT6E9LoiALru_inDg&ved=0CGAQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q="If we placed a living organism in a box"&f=false" target="_hplink">Twin Paradox</a> Einstein gave the basic formulation as follows: <blockquote>"If we placed a living organism in a box ... one could arrange that the organism, after any arbitrary lengthy flight, could be returned to its original spot in a scarcely altered condition, while corresponding organisms which had remained in their original positions had already long since given way to new generations. For the moving organism, the lengthy time of the journey was a mere instant, provided the motion took place with approximately the speed of light."</blockquote> But what if the two organisms happened to be twins? This helps us realize that either one could think of the other as the "traveler," but if that's the case then why has one aged normally and one quickly? It's not quite a "paradox" in the traditional sense of a logical contradiction, but in Einstein's time it was pretty odd. It's been resolved (the traveling twin experiences two instances of acceleration with regard to the stationary twin--one on the way out and one on the way back--that justify the asymmetrical aging), but it's still interesting to think about, if only to imagine how the twins must feel when they meet. Photo: Getty
Flat-Land In the video above, the great science educator and astrophysicist Carl Sagan gives a thought experiment meant to illustrate the incomprehensibility of higher dimensions to lower-dimensional beings. We'll let him speak for himself.
Feynman Sprinkler If you were to force water through a sprinkler with spouts angled, say, clockwise, the sprinkler head would rotate counterclockwise. But what happens if you built a "reverse sprinkler," or a device with the same construction that sucked water in instead of shooting it out? This was only a thought experiment until Physicist Richard Feynman sought to test it (he didn't come up with it) during undergrad at Princeton, and before his rig exploded he found that there was no motion in the reversed version. Stumped? There's a discussion of a real—albeit air-driven—Feynman Sprinkler <a href="http://web.mit.edu/Edgerton/www/FeynmanSprinkler.html" target="_hplink">here</a>.
Galileo's Ship This thought experiment envisions a subject performing various actions and observing various creatures in a closed room in a ship, and then performing the same actions and making the same observations when the ship is in motion at a constant velocity. The full version, too long to reproduce here, can be found at <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo's_ship#The_proposal" target="_hplink">this link</a>. Galileo's discovery—that it's not velocity but acceleration that changes the trajectory of a thrown ball, say, or the flight of a bird—was ahead of its time. It wouldn't be fully utilized for centuries, when Einstein used it to help formulate his theory of special relativity.
Quantum Immortality and Quantum Suicide The video above, titled 'Quantum Immortality,' is a basic illustration of one of the more disturbing thought experiments. In the original formulation, the unlucky subject pulls the trigger of a gun, rigged with a subatomic mechanism that has a 50% chance of activating the bullet, and dies if the gun fires. This hypothetical process is known as quantum suicide. In the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there's a world in which the subject lives and one in which he or she dies. A branching point is created at each pull of the trigger; eventually, no matter how many shots are taken, there will be a version of the subject in some world who has survived every shot. He or she is said to have attained quantum immortality.