Raising Awareness

14 June 2007

This week, 14th-21st June 2007, is apparently Homeopathy Awareness Week and so what better time to have a little rant about this particularly ridiculous branch of woo Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).

Homeopathy was invented two hundred years ago by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) and is based around two basic principles: like cures like and potentisation through dilution, neither of which seem to have any basis in science.

The first of these suggests that you can cure an illness using a tincture created from a substance that produces similar symptoms. So for example, a symptom of the common cold might be streaming, rheumy eyes – peeling onions also makes your eyes run – ergo, onions might be suitable homeopathic alternative to Lemsip. Hahnemann documented about 300 such remedies in his Materia Medica, still the basis of homepathic treatments today.

On the surface this sounds a little like vaccination, a scientific principle that we all happily accept (media-driven autism scares aside) but there are crucial differences. Vaccination builds immunity through the introduction of a reduced amount of a virus proven to cause illness; homeopathy uses substances that generate similar symptoms, but otherwise have no direct connection (scientific or otherwise) to the malady being treated.

And anyway, Hahnemann’s second principle of making a treatment more effective by diluting it, does away with any ‘active’ ingredient even if it were shown to be beneficial: Homeopathic remedies are generally prepared by taking the prescribed tincture and diluting it one part in a hundred, a specified number of times. Hahnemann himself suggested that a dilution of 30C was appropriate for most treatments; so the original tincture is diluted one part in a hundred, thirty times, ie.:

30C

That’s a pretty weak solution! In fact, chemists would tell you (with reference to Avogadro’s constant) that the chances of even a single molecule of the original tincture being present in the diluted solution are practically zero. Homeopaths claim that the water has a ‘memory’ of the original substance, but quite how this happens (and why the water should favour the homeopathic tincture rather than all the other substances it has come into contact with throughout its lifetime) remains unexplained.

So to recap: homeopathic remedies are based on using substances that have never been shown to be medically effective, which are then diluted so much that (very literally) none of the so-called ‘active ingredient’ remains.

Of course, maybe none of this would matter if the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies had been proven; the truth is that homeopathy has never been shown to perform any better than a placebo when tested in double-blind, clinical trials. Those that claim otherwise are at best misguided; at worst they’re charlatans and con-artists, fleecing an unknowing public who are desperate to find an alternative treatment to cure their ills.

In fact, all that we can really conclude about homeopathy is that two hundred years ago, doing nothing proved a more effective treatment than bloodletting or sticking leeches up your bum…

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The Great Escape

29 April 2007

With their stunning 22-7 victory over the Saracens yesterday, Worcester have secured their place in next year’s Guinness Premiership.

Four months ago, trailing nine points behind at the bottom of the league, relegation seemed almost inevitable; all credit to John Brain and the team for digging deep and having the strength and courage to fight back.

Well done guys; you did us proud!

DeoxyLEGOnucleic Acid

9 April 2007

Last week I just happened upon the website of professional Lego modeller Eric Harshbarger, and more specifically, this page where he describes a miniature model of DNA built entirely of Lego. Well, I just had to have myself one of those, so I printed out Eric’s photograph and headed off to BrickLink to see if I could get the required bits.

A couple of days later (and many thanks to Simply Bricks and The Brick Shiphouse) I had several bags of brightly coloured bricks waiting for me and a molecular model to make:

Lego DNA

Isn’t it fantastic? Crick and Watson would be proud.

If you want to build your own Lego DNA model (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you) here’s a handy shopping list; total cost for new bricks should be about £6:

DNA Molecule:

Base:

As you can see from the photo, I built the two helices from different coloured bricks which makes them stand out quite nicely, so you’ll need twenty of each colour.

And for the base pairs: I don’t think there’s a universally accepted coding so pick four colours of your choice. Remember though that they only appear in two forms; Adenine only ever bonds with Thymine (A-T) and Guanine only ever bonds with Cytosine (G-C). Again, twenty of each colour is probably a good place to start; you’ll certainly have enough to spell out GATTACA. ;)

Of course, you’re going to need to make about 220 million base pairs if you want to model your own DNA and that’s a whole lot of Lego…

Red Bull, Purple Moose

26 March 2007

Tarw; Coed-y-Brenin

My mate Andy is emigrating to Canada in a couple of months, so by way of a last hurrah, a few of us headed off to North Wales for a weekend of beer drinking and mountain biking. We were staying at Bikers’ Retreat in Dolgellau so after picking up our bikes, we headed off to Coed-y-Brenin bright and early (*cough*) Saturday morning.

Three of our group had never been mountain biking before so we started off on the Temptiwr trail; ‘intermediate’ it may be, but the downhill sections are still fairly technical and the long uphill section in the middle of the ride is draining.

Everyone seemed to manage that okay, so after refilling our water bottles and munching a few energy bars, it was time to up the ante. We headed off on the 20km Tarw (formerly Red Bull) trail for some of the most exhilarating (and knackering) biking to be had in North Wales. Three hours later, with aching legs and sore arses but with all our limbs (if not our bikes) intact, we decided that maybe that the optional second day’s bike hire might not be required after all…

Back at Bikers’ Retreat it was time to sink a few more bottles of the Purple Moose and drink a toast to our soon-to-be absent friend:

“Iechyd Da” Andy; hope all goes well for you and the family in Canada.

Wales 27 – 18 England

18 March 2007

And so it ends, after six weeks of rugby, with perhaps the only match that really matters. I’ve no idea why the Wales – England match is so important; there’s not even a special trophy at stake, but as any Welshman will tell you, this is the one to win.

(Aside: The Kiwis have a similar philosophy and an acronym to go with it; ABA, or Anyone But Australia. In Wales I guess it’s ABE instead – I may get T-shirts made.)

The match itself was nothing if not exciting and Wales flew out of the blocks leaving the English team wondering what had hit them; for the record, it was usually Gareth Thomas or Martin Williams. The first twenty minutes were breathtaking and if they could keep this up, a victory for the Principality was assured; of course, it came as no surprise that by half time we’d thrown that lead away as Shane Williams repeatedly refused to offload. However, the team was desperate for their first win of the Six Nations and with the hugely impressive James Hook showing admirable talent and maturity, they dug deep and fought back for a well deserved victory.

And if that wasn’t enough, on Friday night Worcester fought back from 21-6 down at half time to claim a (somewhat lucky) win over Northampton and lift themselves off the bottom of the Premiership for the first time this year.

What a brilliant weekend of rugby!