French biomedical researcher Jacques Benveniste is set to become the first person to win two ‘Ig Nobel’ prizes when this year's awards are announced at a ceremony due to take place at Harvard University tonight (8 October).
Benveniste won his first ‘Ig’ — awarded annually by Marc Abrahams, editor of The Annals of Improbable Research, and a group of scientists — in 1991 for his work claiming to show that antibody solutions retain their biological effectiveness, even when diluted to the point where no trace of the antibody is detectable (E. Davenas et al. Nature 333, 816–818; 1998). The water, Benveniste argues, preserves a ‘memory’ of the substance after it is gone.
The second Ig Nobel prize will be awarded for an extension of this work. Benveniste now claims that a solution's biological activity can be digitally recorded, stored on a computer hard drive, sent over the Internet as an attached document and transferred to a different water sample at the receiving end (see www.digibio.com).
“We've demonstrated that you can transmit the biological effect by e-mail between Chicago and Paris,” says Benveniste, who heads the Digital Biology Laboratory in Clamart, near Paris, which is financed by the private company DigiBio SA. “With this approach, you could transfer the activity of a drug by means of standard telecommunications technology.”
“French science has not risen to such giddy heights since N-rays were invented by Blondlot early this century,” says magician and sceptic James Randi, author of the forthcoming book A Magician in the Laboratory, based partly on his involvement in an investigation of Benveniste's laboratory practices carried out in 1988.
Benveniste argues that the science establishment is inherently resistant to new ideas. “Orthodox people are determined to block anything new in biology,” he says.
He compares the conventional view that “you need a molecule to have a biological effect” to the debate between Descartes and Newton four centuries ago over whether action at a distance was possible. “I say the effect comes not from the molecule itself but from the signal it imparts.”
Benveniste says he is “happy to receive a second Ig Nobel prize, because it shows that those making the awards don't understand anything. People don't give out Nobel prizes without first trying to find out what the recipients are doing. But the people who give out Ig Nobels don't even bother to inquire about the work.”
Harvard chemist Dudley Herschbach, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, finds Benveniste's claims “hard to reconcile with what we know about molecules”. Herschbach considers the prize “very well deserved. And he just might win a third one if he keeps going in this way.”