While it has been stunningly predictive and useful, quantum mechanics, because of its inherent peculiarity, has been a gold mine for new age hucksters such as Deepak Chopra. Albert Einstein himself couldn’t accept the theory which allowed for particles to take all possible paths from point A to point B and for cats to be both dead and alive at the same time. His aversion to this theory was immortalized in the quote, “God doesn’t play dice,” alluding to the strange universe ruled by random events that quantum mechanics was describing. To quote the physicist Richard Feynman, who made great strides in the field of quantum mechanics, “If you think you understand quantum theory, then you don’t understand quantum theory.”
Feynman’s fellow Nobel laureate, Luc Montagnier, who won the prize for establishing that AIDS was caused by HIV, recently published a paper, entitled “DNA waves and water,” which claims that through the use of electromagnetic fields, DNA molecules, the stuff of life, can “teleport” from one test tube to another. The mechanism this takes is, according to the paper, within the “framework of quantum field theory.”
Montagnier’s experimental setup included two test tubes, one containing pure water, and the other containing a highly diluted sample of a fragment of DNA from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). After applying a 7 Hz electromagnetic field for 18 hours to both the tube that contained pure water, and the other tube that contained DNA, the tubes were then subjected to a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This procedure takes DNA molecules present in a sample and copies them continuously, based on a particular defined DNA sequence. Their results showed that the pure water miraculously produced DNA, when there should have been none.
This is a stunning result—so stunning that it seems rather dubious. The claim posited here is that dilute quantities of DNA can somehow emit “DNA waves” via its natural electromagnetic field and that this signal mimics the exact DNA sequence of the source in water. This signal can supposedly imprint itself into water. Such an outlandish declaration just cannot avoid comparisons to homeopathy. The paper’s conclusion also favors a rather convoluted solution (DNA waves) over a much more simple explanation: contamination. The retention of an electromagnetic field in the absence of the signal source is, however, entirely possible within quantum mechanics, though only in the order of picoseconds (one trillionth of a second)—certainly not enough time for a PCR reaction to take place (which usually takes about an hour).
The nature of PCR is that it is so effective at making copies of DNA that even just one molecule of DNA can be amplified. Imagine thousands of photocopiers that randomly take any page in their vicinity and copy them. Even if you just had one page to be copied, such a sheet containing the letter “X”, you could create millions of copies of this letter in no time since the copies of that page will be used by the other photocopiers to make even more copies—a chain reaction. Now, let’s say that just one stray sheet with the letter “Y” accidentally flew into the copier room. By the end of your copying, you’d have yourself billions of sheets with either “X” or “Y”. That’s how even one tiny splatter of contaminating DNA (from instruments used or even one’s own hands) can ruin an experiment.
Messing up a PCR experiment is so easy that Montagnier’s observation has to be reproduced by other scientists before it can even be taken seriously. The only reason it seems to be grabbing headlines is that Montagnier is a Nobel laureate. But, Nobel laureates are vulnerable to the dreaded “Nobel disease,” when noted scientists who have won the prize later support pseudoscientific ideas.
The originator of PCR, Kary Mullis, also won the Nobel prize, only to go on to deny the link between HIV and AIDS. Another laureate, Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel prizes, promoted the quackery that vitamin C treated cancers and prevented colds, late in his career.
However, regardless of accusations of Nobel disease, Montagnier’s ideas shouldn’t be dismissed offhand. If his observations can be consistently replicated by other researchers (and contamination is ruled out), then a revolution will occur in biology and all of science. It’s a prospect one can’t help but be excited about, but wonder should always be coupled with skepticism.