Between Hahnemann and Higgs: Two men, two eras, and how we understand the world today - Hindustan Times
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Between Hahnemann and Higgs: Two men, two eras, and how we understand the world today

Apr 18, 2024 08:14 PM IST

It is in the disagreements that interrupt plausible explanations of the world that homoeopathy departs from science

April 10 marked the 269th birth anniversary of German physician Samuel Hahnemann, who, in 1796, conceived Homeopathy, a pseudoscientific system of alternative medicine. Barely two days before homoeopaths around the world celebrated Hanhemann’s birthday, physicist and Nobel laureate Peter Higgs, who proposed the existence of the Higgs Boson (aka the God Particle) died at the age of 94 on April 8.

An illustration from Punch magazine dated July 29, 1914, depicting Glossomany, a "science" that was thought to correlate people's characters by the shape and size of their tongues. The above candidate for the position of parlour-maid is in the act of responding to an inquiry as to whether she is honest, industrious, good-tempered, truthful and obliging.(Credit: Wikimedia Commons ) PREMIUM
An illustration from Punch magazine dated July 29, 1914, depicting Glossomany, a "science" that was thought to correlate people's characters by the shape and size of their tongues. The above candidate for the position of parlour-maid is in the act of responding to an inquiry as to whether she is honest, industrious, good-tempered, truthful and obliging.(Credit: Wikimedia Commons )

Between Hanhemann’s birth and Higgs’ death is a story of science’s changing contours.

 

Samuel Hahnemann Memorial - Scott Circle, Washington, DC, USA. ( Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)
Samuel Hahnemann Memorial - Scott Circle, Washington, DC, USA. ( Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

The Nuremberg Salt Trials

This story begins in 1845, two years after Hanhemann’s death, in the town of Nuremberg in the then-kingdom of Bavaria. Outraged by senior public health official Friedrich Wilhelm von Hoven’s scathing criticism of homoeopathy, the sole remaining homoeopath of the town, Johann Jacob Reuter, challenged von Hoven to test the effects of a peculiar saltwater that Reuter claimed could produce “extraordinary effects” in those who consumed it.

To prepare this saltwater, a single grain of salt had to be dissolved in 100 drops of distilled snow water; the resulting solution had to be then diluted 29 times in the ratio of 1 to 100. This produced Reuter’s C30 dilution of salt.

At the heart of homoeopathy is the dictum of “like cures like”, i.e., substances that cause symptoms similar to a disease in healthy people are effective cures for the disease. To generate homoeopathic ‘medicines’, homoeopaths then repeatedly dilute – like in the case of C30 dilution – natural compounds. This repeated dilution, Hahnemann believed, increased the potency of the compound.

(Hahnemann is said to have conceived homoeopathy when he ingested the bark of the Cinchona tree, known to cure malaria. He claimed to have the same symptoms of malaria: fever, joint ache, and shivering. Thus came into being the dictum of like cures like.)

Once the C30 dilution had been prepared, in a public gathering of over 120 citizens, von Hoven and his team numbered 100 vials, shuffled them, and then split them into lots of 50. In one lot, they filled distilled snow water and in another, the C30 dilution of salt. A list of the vials and their corresponding fluids was created and sealed, and the vials were handed to a committee. This committee then proceeded to give the vials at random to 54 members of the audience. Another list with the names and the corresponding vial number was made. Neither von Hoven and his team nor those who participated in the experiment knew what their vial contained.

Three weeks later, participants were asked to report whether they felt something unusual. Fifty of the original 54 responded; of them, only eight reported feeling something “extraordinary”. Of those, five had been given the C30 dilution, and three had been handed out plain distilled snow water. The results were conclusive: the vast majority of participants did not report feeling anything “extraordinary”. Ergo, Reuter was wrong.

This was the first attempt at a double-blind randomized controlled trial (double-blind RCT), now a standard method to test the efficacy of purported medicines. It would take another century for the method’s rigour to be truly realised: in 1948, double-blind RCT was used to demonstrate the efficacy of the antibiotic streptomycin in curing tuberculosis of the lungs.

Modelling Matters

Undergirding the popularity of double-blind RCT now is the belief that an experiment is more robust when its observer and its participants are unaware of the hypothesis being tested.

This was drastically different from what the enlightenment-era (the age following the scientific revolution in the 17th century) considered an ‘objective’ observation of reality; Then, the popular belief was that scientific observation could be objectively valid only when conducted by a well-educated, informed scientist. The birth of double-blinded RCT meant that a ‘blind’ scientist was more objective than a ‘wise’ scientist.

The Middle Ages, the Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), and the Enlightenment era itself marked a major shift in scientific inquiry. Instead of relying on philosophy and mathematics to make sense of the world around us, people like physicist Ibn Al-Haytham (the first person to correctly explain how light travels through mediums) and philosopher Francis Bacon laid a larger emphasis on experimental science.

Experimental science explicates what we understand as the ‘scientific method’: the creation of hypotheses, testing them using carefully controlled experiments, and using meticulous observations from experiments to reject or accept the hypotheses.

Experiments, however, were soon found to be constrained by available technology. Polymaths Galileo and Isaac Newton found a middle ground: an interplay between mathematical explanations (called ‘theory’ or ‘models’) and experiments. When experiments were not possible, theory could still provide reasonable explanations, make predictions, and even suggest experiments to test these predictions.

Peter Higgs, a British theoretical physicist, exemplified this method of knowledge creation.

Something From Nothing

By the early and mid-20th century, particle physics explained much of the mystery of matter in the universe. One question, among others, that continued to bug physicists: why do some particles have mass? Answering this question would nudge scientists a step closer to solving one of the biggest mysteries of physics: how did the Big Bang create the entire universe out of nothing 13.8 billion years ago?

According to historians of science Laurie Brown, Michael Riordan, Max Dresden and Lillian Hoddeson, whose book The Rise of the Standard Model describes the history of particle physics up to 1979, the discipline of particle physics began in the 1930s with an understanding that all matter consisted of “positive and negative electricity” — “protons and electrons, interacting electromagnetically through the exchange of photons”.

Soon after — and until 1964 — new particles were discovered and added to this model. This included the positron, the neutron, and the neutrino, and then, the muons, and pions. Particles in the particle zoo were running amok.

Come 1964. Particle physicists finally attempted to reduce the number of elementary particles required to coherently build what is called the ‘standard model’, which is particle physicists’ best theory of how elementary particles like quarks (that make protons and neutrons), leptons (e.g., electrons), and bosons (particles that carry force) come together to make all the matter in the universe.

That year, Higgs and other scientists suggested that quarks and leptons gain mass when they interact with the Higgs Field, which they theorised was an invisible force field of the universe.

By the latter half of the 1970s, particle physicists “began speaking of the ‘Standard Model’ as the basic theory of matter,” Brown, Riordan, Dresden and Hoddeson write. “Whereas particle physicists of 1964 used many different tongues, those of 1979 spoke a common language,” they add.

In 2012, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson, thus completing the standard model as we know it today. A Higgs Boson is generated when the Higgs Field is excited; the detection of the Higgs Boson, therefore, proved the existence of the Higgs Field.

According to Brown and colleagues, “The rise of the Standard Model completely redefined what it meant to be an elementary particle physicist. The research agenda had changed dramatically from its pre-1970 anarchy.”

In this journey of the standard model, starting at one common language, then finding different tongues, only to arrive at a different common language, one sees the ebbs and flows of science: agreements breached by periods of anarchy, only to reach better agreements.

It is in resistance to these ebbs and flows — disagreements that interrupt our seemingly plausible understanding of the world — homoeopathy and other systems of knowledge depart from science.

Sayantan Datta (they/them) is an assistant professor at the Centre for Writing & Pedagogy, Krea University, and an independent science journalist.

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