The Art of Making Ice Cream and the Power of Prayer
July 5, 2006
Jacob Schor, ND
The Mpemba Effect and Retroactive Prayer
There are two seemingly unrelated bits of scientific trivia that have
been rattling around in my brain begging for attention. The first
is the recent solution to the Mpemba Effect and the second is the research
on the power of intercessional prayer on disease.
Jonathan Katz, a professor at George Washington University in St. Louis
recently published an explanation for the Mpemba Effect and in doing so
answered a question that has plagued scientists since the time of Aristotle.
It has long been observed that water which has first been heated will
freeze faster than water that hasn't been heated. Apparently this
effect can be to the point that heated water can freeze first even though
starting out warmer. Or at least this happens some of the time.
The phenomenon varies depending on where and when the experiment is performed.
Erasto B. Mpemba noticed the effect in 1963 when he learned to make ice
cream in a cooking class as a student in Tanzania. He went on to
publish an account of his observations in 1967 and since then his name
has been associated with and used to describe the phenomenon.
Intuitively the Mpemba Effect makes no sense. The explanations that
have been put forward to explain it, starting with Aristotle's, have been
lame; Aristotle invented a physical property he called antiperistasis,
which I won't attempt to explain here. It would appear that the Mpemba
Effect simply defies the rules of thermodynamics that explain how things
in our world are supposed to behave.
That is until the good Jonathan Katz worked out his explanation and restored
our world to order. According to Katz it's all about solutes.
"You have to ask yourself: what does heating do to water that makes it
easier to freeze?" he says. "The answer is that it precipitates out solutes."
The solutes are calcium and magnesium bicarbonate, which make lots of
drinking water "hard". You have probably noticed and been annoyed by these
precipitates; they often form the scale that coats the inside of cooking
pots or tea kettles.
Water that has never been heated still contains these solutes. As this
water freezes and ice crystals form, the concentration of solutes in the
remaining water becomes even higher - up to 50 times as high as normal.
This lowers the freezing point of the water even further, just like the
salts spread on winter roads to stop ice from forming.
There is a second, related effect that hampers the freezing of water that
has never been heated. Lowering the freezing point reduces the temperature
difference between the liquid and its surroundings. "Since the rate at
which heat is lost from the water depends on this temperature difference,
water that has not been heated has greater difficulty losing heat," Katz
Katz claims that these two effects explain why water that has been heated
freezes more quickly than water that hasn't. And he makes a prediction
that the Mpemba Effect will be 'stronger' the "harder" the water. "This
may explain why not everyone sees it," he says. "Some people are using
The value of prayer in helping sick people recover has been the subject
of a decent number of studies. In most it has little effect; occasionally
it provides some benefit and, sometimes, as in the case of a recent Harvard
study it appears to do the patient harm.
One study on prayer stands out though for its seeming implausibility.
The study, conducted in Petah-Tiqva, Israel, was published in the British
Medical Journal in 2001 and produced statistically significant benefit.
This study was significant because it measured the effect of retroactive
prayer. The study was conducted in the year 2,000 on patients who
had presented at a university hospital with blood infections over a six
year period, from 1990-1996. I need to repeat myself here;
the study was conducted in 2,000; a full four years after the last patient
presented and ten years after the first patients arrived at the hospital.
Following classic double blind randomized protocols 1691 of the total
3,393 patients were put into an intervention group. Actually the
patients weren't there; only their names and charts were. They were
prayed for retroactively. Catch that last word, retroactively. The patients
had already come and gone from the hospital. When the codes were
and the data analyzed those prayed for had a statistically significant
lower mortality rate, 28% vs. 30%. Length of hospital stay and duration
of fever were also significantly shorter. In other words prayers
for a group of people conducted in the present positively improved health
outcomes as much as a decade earlier.
This is the kind of information most would prefer to discount. It doesn't
fit into our intuitive sense of the world. Not anymore than the
Mpemba Effect did before we heard an explanation. And that's just
the thing. Things that don't make sense are difficult to believe
until we have an explanation. Once we have an explanation, it's quickly,
"Well, of course.."
Publication of this study by the British Medical Journal caused quite
the flurry of letters to the editor. Some pointed out errors in
interpreting the statistics; others relied on Star Trek dialogue to explain
why you can't and shouldn't attempt to change the past. The most
interesting letter to me questioned what would happen if the researchers
then prayed for the control group? Whether the study results were true
or not, I find the whole thing interesting.
Long ago I gave name to a behavior pattern I'd occasionally see in patients,
calling it Arnica Delusional Syndrome. These people had experienced the
benefit of using homeopathic arnica despite the logical assumption that
it shouldn't do a thing. It was too diluted. Their world view
was so badly shaken by the experience that they abandoned all attempts
at rational judgment. From then on they assumed, "If Arnica works
and it doesn't make sense that it does, then anything that doesn't make
sense also must work."
Of course this is lousy logic. At the same time I like to keep in mind
that not everything that is true will make sense, at least not until we
find an explanation. In the case of the Mpemba Effect, it took several
thousand years to explain what some people noticed. For many, until
the effect was explained, it didn't exist.
But the power of retroactive prayer, can it work? Was this study
just one of those aberrations of double blind placebo controlled science
that we should ignore? Or are the implications and lack of logical explanation
just a little too much for us to live with?
I've talked to a number of patients about this study. Those deeply
religious sorts take it in stride, easily accepting that the Eternal,
by definition is not bound by time. Thus the effects of prayer aren't
limited to time and space. I get a similar reaction from those new
age types who read thick books on modern physics and spirituality; they
apparently don't see a contradiction to this study. They talk about
quantum field theory and quickly lose me.
For those of us who still live in this world, where tomorrow comes after
today, where the future is the future and the past the past, and my thoughts,
wishes and prayers are inside my head and even if they touch others, do
so now, in the present, and not in the past, well, this prayer study is
still a bit of a stretch. A stretch that is not unlike saying that
hot water freezes faster than cold.
Sometimes, though it's good for one's health to try and stretch a bit.
Marcus Chown Why water freezes faster after heating 03 June 2006 NewScientist.com
Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer
on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled
Department of Medicine, Beilinson Campus, Rabin Medical Center , Petah-Tiqva
49100 , Israel . email@example.com
OBJECTIVE: To determine whether remote, retroactive intercessory prayer,
said for a group of patients with a bloodstream infection, has an effect
on outcomes. DESIGN: Double blind, parallel group, randomised controlled
trial of a retroactive intervention. SETTING: University hospital. SUBJECTS:
All 3393 adult patients whose bloodstream infection was detected at the
hospital in 1990-6. INTERVENTION: In July 2000 patients were randomised
to a control group and an intervention group. A remote, retroactive intercessory
prayer was said for the well being and full recovery of the intervention
group. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Mortality in hospital, length of stay in
hospital, and duration of fever. RESULTS: Mortality was 28.1% (475/1691)
in the intervention group and 30.2% (514/1702) in the control group (P
for difference=0.4). Length of stay in hospital and duration of fever
were significantly shorter in the intervention group than in the control
group (P=0.01 and P=0.04, respectively). CONCLUSION: Remote, retroactive
intercessory prayer said for a group is associated with a shorter stay
in hospital and shorter duration of fever in patients with a bloodstream
infection and should be considered for use in clinical practice .
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