More from the new issue of comedy journal Homeopathy. Homeopaths continue to pursue research on 'high dilutions' (i.e. dilutions such that there is highly unlikely to be any of the original solute remaining) in search of a vaguely plausible mechanism for homeopathy to work. Since the evidence is that homeopathy doesn't work, this is unlikely to be a fruitful endeavour, but it does provide entertainment for connoiseurs of pseudoscience.
The latest offering is a paper by one R. Assumpção , entitled "Electrical impedance and HV plasma images of high dilutions of sodium chloride" and an acccompanying editorial by Cyril Smith. Two sets of observations are presented: a set of Kirlian photographs and a set of measurements of the impedance of various homeopathic dilutions of NaCl.
What is Kirlian photography? When an object resting on a photographic plate is connected to a source of high voltage, an image is formed on the plate. Semyon Kirlian, whom the technique is named after, thought that such images might be compared to a human 'aura'. You can see how this would be attractive to various kinds of energy medicine fruitcakes. In the paper, Assumpção provides Kirlian photographs of homeopathic dilutions of an NaCl solution (6c, 12c, 24c and 30c) and of succussed (shaken) water without dilution. The images are certainly pretty, but what do they show? Not a lot, as far as I can tell. It isn't clear how such images should be interpreted, and all Assumpção really concludes is that different dilutions look different. This, in itself, is not a particularly exciting finding, in the absence of any hypothesis as to why that is and what it might mean.
What of the impedance data? Assumpção finds that impedance of the samples increases with dilution, up to about 12c (which is the point where Avogadro's constant suggests that there is unlikely to be any of the original NaCl remaining), and then decreases again slightly with further dilution. "This phenomenon is inexplicable in terms of conventional chemical theory" concludes Assumpção, a statement that really should be followed by "OMG!!!!11!1!1!!1!!!!!1".
Well, I think I have a reasonable explanation for the results that causes no problems for conventional chemical theory. As expected, dilution of the NaCl solution causes an increase in impedance as ions are removed from the solution. But there is also a competing increase in the concentration of dissolved ions caused by the succussion (agitation) process, as atmospheric gases and other impurities are dissolved in the water. So the small decrease in impedance beyond 12c could result from this process. I'm more puzzled as to why the impedance of the distilled water increases when it is shaken, suggesting a decrease in the concentration of dissolved ions. However, I suspect that there is a conventional explanation, but Assumpção doesn't seem to be particularly curious about this. Is there a change in the ionic species in the water as it is shaken? Does shaking facilitate outgassing of the dissolved gases that remain in the distilled water? We don't know. This continues the homeopathic water research tradition of publishing things without any thought as to what factors (other than the magic of water) might have led to the results.
Of course, the other thing to note is that the paper only looks at one solute, NaCl. For homeopathy, what would be really interesting is if you could show that there was a difference between two different homeopathic substances at dilutions greater than 12c. Previous attempts to do this have ended in some embarassment, as Smith acknowledges in the accompanying editorial, when he states "in the light of the controversy which has attended previous claims in this field, caution, and independent repetition of these results is required". There seems to be little sign of any such caution so far.
Finally, in Figure 5 of the paper, Assumpção had omitted to label to the impedance curves, showing which curve belongs to which dilution. The solution? Simply write the labels in, with a pen, afterwards. It is truly amateur hour.