March 18, 2005


13 things that do not make sense (Michael Brooks, 19 March 2005,

1 The placebo effect

DON'T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful. Except it's not quite nothing. When Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.

So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for decades, and the naloxone result seems to show that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don't know.

Benedetti has since shown that a saline placebo can also reduce tremors and muscle stiffness in people with Parkinson's disease (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 587). He and his team measured the activity of neurons in the patients' brains as they administered the saline. They found that individual neurons in the subthalamic nucleus (a common target for surgical attempts to relieve Parkinson's symptoms) began to fire less often when the saline was given, and with fewer "bursts" of firing - another feature associated with Parkinson's. The neuron activity decreased at the same time as the symptoms improved: the saline was definitely doing something.

We have a lot to learn about what is happening here, Benedetti says, but one thing is clear: the mind can affect the body's biochemistry. "The relationship between expectation and therapeutic outcome is a wonderful model to understand mind-body interaction," he says. Researchers now need to identify when and where placebo works. There may be diseases in which it has no effect. There may be a common mechanism in different illnesses. As yet, we just don't know. [...]

12 Not-so-constant constants

IN 1997 astronomer John Webb and his team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney analysed the light reaching Earth from distant quasars. On its 12-billion-year journey, the light had passed through interstellar clouds of metals such as iron, nickel and chromium, and the researchers found these atoms had absorbed some of the photons of quasar light - but not the ones they were expecting.

If the observations are correct, the only vaguely reasonable explanation is that a constant of physics called the fine structure constant, or alpha, had a different value at the time the light passed through the clouds.

But that's heresy. [...]

13 Cold fusion [...]

The basic claim of cold fusion is that dunking palladium electrodes into heavy water - in which oxygen is combined with the hydrogen isotope deuterium - can release a large amount of energy. Placing a voltage across the electrodes supposedly allows deuterium nuclei to move into palladium's molecular lattice, enabling them to overcome their natural repulsion and fuse together, releasing a blast of energy. The snag is that fusion at room temperature is deemed impossible by every accepted scientific theory.

That doesn't matter, according to David Nagel, an engineer at George Washington University in Washington DC. Superconductors took 40 years to explain, he points out, so there's no reason to dismiss cold fusion. "The experimental case is bulletproof," he says. "You can't make it go away."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Seems like you would consider #4 "Belfast homeopathy results" to be heretical.

Posted by: Governor Breck at March 18, 2005 7:53 AM


Sure, but don't want anyone trying it at home.

Posted by: oj at March 18, 2005 8:08 AM

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny...'

- Isaac Asimov

Posted by: Mike Earl at March 18, 2005 10:39 AM

i had this idea for starting a pharmaceutical company (at home) that would only make placebos. there would be a different 'model' placebo for each type of malady; even one for baldness. then i would advertise them as the finest placebos existant. its all about style, baby...

Posted by: cjm at March 18, 2005 12:15 PM

Then there was that 70s comedy bit where Steve Martin mentioned that new recreational drug he's discovered. "It's called a placebo."

Actually, it would be interesting to market over-the-counter drugs which are labeled as containing 20% placebos, as a cost cutting measure. Which would be an improvement for most cold remedies, where all the user wants is to pop a pill and believe he'll fell better, and often will, even if the pill doesn't do anything .

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 18, 2005 12:32 PM