Another cat among the pigeons, perhaps… here is my latest Crucible column for Chemistry World.
It has to rate as one of the most astonishing discoveries of this century, and it came from a Nobel laureate. Yet it was almost entirely ignored. In 2011 Luc Montagnier, who three years earlier was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his co-discovery of the AIDS virus HIV, reported that he and his coworkers could use the polymerase chain reaction (PCR, the conventional method of amplifying strands of DNA) to synthesize DNA sequences of more than 100 base pairs, without any of the target strands present to template the process . All they needed was water. Water, that is, first subjected to very-low-frequency electromagnetic waves emitted and recorded from solutions of DNA encoding the target sequence. In other words, the information in a DNA strand could be transmitted by its electromagnetic emissions and imprinted on water itself.
Maybe you’re now thinking this work was ignored for good reason, namely that it’s utterly implausible. I agree: it doesn’t even begin to make sense given what we know about the molecular ingredients. But the claims were unambiguous. The authors say they took a 104-base-pair fragment of DNA from HIV (and who knows about that better than Montagnier?) and copied it, reproducibly and with at least 98% fidelity, by adding the PCR ingredients to the irradiated water. If you choose to ignore this, are you saying Montagnier is lying?
What you’re actually saying is that science doesn’t always work as it is ‘supposed’ to, by claims being tested and then accepted or rejected depending on the result. Of course, many trivial claims never get replicated (that’s another story), but really big ones – and they don’t come much bigger than this – are immediately interrogated by other labs, right? That’s what happened with cold fusion, however implausible it seemed. True, some results can’t be replicated without highly specialized kit and expertise – no one has rushed to verify the Higgs boson sighting. But Montagnier and colleagues used nothing more than you’d find in most molecular biology labs worldwide.
So what’s going on? What we’re really seeing tested here are the unwritten social codes of science. Montagnier has long been seen as something of a maverick, but in recent years some have accused him of descending into quackery. Since claiming in 2009 that some DNA emits EM signals , he has suggested that such signals can be detected in the blood of children with autism and that this justifies treating autism with antibiotics. He has seemed to suggest that HIV can be defeated with diet and supplements, and commended the notorious ‘memory of water’ proposed by French immunologist Jacques Benveniste . Although he is currently the head of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention in Paris, his unorthodox views have prompted some leading researchers to question his suitability to lead such projects.
But science judges the results, not the person, right? So let’s look at the paper. At face value making a simple claim, it is in fact so peppered with oddness that other researchers probably imagine any attempt at replication will be deeply unrewarding. There are hints that the EM emissions come from a baffling and bloody-minded universe: their strength doesn’t correlate with concentration, they seem to appear in some ranges of dilution and then vanish in others, and there is no rhyme or reason to which organisms or sequences produce them and which don’t. That the authors show the signals not as ordinary graphs but as a screenshot adds to the misgivings.
Then there’s the ‘explanation’. Montagnier has teamed up with Italian physicist Emilio Del Giudice and his colleagues, who in 1988 published a “theory of liquid water based on quantum field theory”  which proposed that water molecules can form “coherent domains” about 100 nm in size containing “almost free electrons” that can absorb electromagnetic energy and use it to create self-organized dissipative structures. These coherent domains are, however, a quantum putty to be shaped to order, not a theory to be tested. They haven’t yet been clearly detected, nor have they convincingly explained a single problem in chemical physics, but they have been invoked to account for Benveniste’s results and cold fusion, and now they can explain Montagnier’s findings on the basis that the EM signals from DNA can somehow shape the domains to stand in for the DNA itself in the PCR process.
Make of this what you will; the real issue here is that it all looks puzzling, even prejudiced, to outsiders, who understandably cannot fathom why a startling claim by a distinguished scientist is apparently just being brushed aside. Perhaps it might help to stop pretending that science works as the books say it does. Perhaps also, given that Montagnier says his findings are motivating clinical trials to “test new therapeutics” for HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, it might be wise to subject them to more scrutiny after all.
1. L. Montagnier et al., J. Phys. Conf. Ser. 306, 012007 (2011).
2. L. Montagnier et al., Interdiscip. Sci. Comput. Life Sci. 1, 81 (2009).
3. E. Davenas et al., Nature 338, 816 (1988).
4. E. Del Giudice, G. Preparata & G. Vitiello, Phys. Rev. Lett. 61, 1085 (1988).