The Memory of Water
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', ... 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...
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.
Incredible resultIt was as though the water molecules somehow retained a memory of the antibodies that they had previously been in contact with,.... 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 [Nature Editor Sir John] Maddox, magician and pseudo-science debunker James Randi and fraud investigator Walter Stewart, failed to verify the original results.... The talk that I saw [Benveniste] and his co-workers deliver last June was a blinding blizzard of histograms