(de)Romanticising energy

I once heard a careerist biologist opine, in a brief aside whilst delivering a seminar, that the ‘secret of life’ is (cue drum roll…) … the generation of ATP ! Whether original posit or not, I don’t know (though I doubt it), but having never before heard it so put, I thought it an interesting take. Though if it is, and we know it – once we know anything – then it has ceased to be secret, hasn’t it? Such absolutist statement might be taken as reductionist declaration that there is nothing more to it; or unscientific encroachment into the metaphysical, tapping into the (yawn) ‘big questions’. Whatever, it kind of provides a neat circularity:

What is life for?

– The generation of ATP.

What is ATP for?

– Life.

Weak philosophy, maybe. Though spare me some of the lengthy treatises which, though abounding with esoteric ‘wisdom’, ultimately provide no firmer conclusion. Some people just work too hard at (and build careers on) keeping things over-complicated.

Adenosine triphosphate is an organic (ie characteristic of living organisms) molecule generated by the mitochondria symbiotically present in our cells. Hydrolysis of ATP releases phosphate, liberating energy which is thus free to drive the reactions of biosynthesis and cell function. It is not catalytic enzymes which provide this large quantity of energy – they merely serve to sterically facilitate reactions which would otherwise be hopelessly slow – it is the covalent bonds which link phosphate to adenosine. This coordinated coupling of thermodynamically favourable ATP hydrolysis to thermodynamically unfavourable sequential reactions generates and maintains order in an otherwise disordered enclosed system (the cell). The energy to re-generate the ATP supply comes from the oxidation (‘burning’) of digested food fuel ingested during our three squares a day. It is continuously generated and consumed in our cells at phenomenally high turnover rate. As we age and our mitochondria clap out, we make less of it (or make it less efficiently) and hence our capacity for metabolically-reliant processes, such as muscle contraction, and repair, deteriorates. If the science interests you beyond this over-simplified summarisation, any good undergraduate cell biology or biochemistry text is worth consulting. If the science doesn’t interest you, then at least content yourself with the important knowledge that ATP is fundamental (vital!) to life.

Anyhows, this was recently brought back to mind when (for reasons that don’t matter here) I was considering the applicability of the laws of thermodynamics to biomolecular science. And re-reminded of my perennial confusion at the term ‘energy medicine’, as freely resorted to by the CAM-ites, in particular those who claim to be all things to all people – the homeopaths. What exactly is it, this energy, that its proponents so enthusiastically espouse without explaining what it is they mean? Is definition deemed superfluous? Because arming the pseudoscientifically gullible with the mere terminology is enough to satisfy not only their limited critical faculties, but also those of potential converts? Because for the advocates/disciples/apostles of homeopathy et al, no further information or explanation is necessary? Particularly when delivered up in the modern world via the promotional honking of gaggles of celebrity geese; and/or by those actually medically qualified but who, whether cognitively dissonant, or over-panderers to the worried well, put on hold their scientific, evidence-based training. Or is it just unexplainable; ultimately unknowable?

Where was I going with this? Oh yes. Is perhaps ATP, then, the source carrier of the vis vitalis (‘vital force’), as co-opted from ancient/eastern medical philosophies a couple of centuries ago by homeopathy’s guru, Samuel Hahnemann? And if it is, and considering homeopathy’s propensity for clutching at scientific straws in reaching effort to authenticate a phenomenon that actually doesn’t exist, we might wonder why they don’t bring it up in their oft resort to ‘energy’ and/or ‘energy medicine’. Rather than irritating sceptics with their nonsensical babble about potentisation, ‘Law of Infinitesimals’, memory of water, etc, why not (invalidly) rope in some scientifically valid ATP? Well, someone here does, though confusedly crediting Hahnemann with prescience subsequently borne out in the 1940s when the details of ATP’s role in living systems began to be determined.

I’ve yet to come across a homeopath, or homeopathy information resource, mentioning the work of the pioneering organic chemist, Friedrich Wöhler. It seems to be conveniently ignored that, during Hahnemann’s own lifetime, Wöhler had demonstrated that the laboratory preparation of organic compounds from inorganic ones was practically possible, thus kicking into touch any explanatory postulation of vis vitalis in living systems. There is no need to invoke vis vitalis, or Qi, or chakras … or any other intangibly appealing / appealingly intangible concept. Regardless, it is clung onto religiously, battily; and makes for quite surreal marketing/promotional fodder.

ATP is the harnesser of free energy driving biological processes; and has also long been utilised routinely in manifold applications in laboratories around the world. It thus is not some invisible ‘life force’ that can be invoked to uphold a dualist notion of separate but interdependent spirit and body. Why the ‘energy medicine’ community apparently doesn’t embrace its well-characterised biochemistry, I don’t know. But I can speculate. Is it because, being a rock-solid physical explanation, it doesn’t permit the metaphysical? Is it perhaps because knowledge of ATP and organic chemistry and thermodynamics is too well defined; too chemical; too physical; too solid; too prosaic? unRomantic.

Still, give the ‘energy medicine’ practitioners/advocates credit for striving to stay ahead of the game. Why move on from the appeal of an antiquated concept term as long as there remains available some vaguer science with which to combine and impress with? Invoke some quantum physics, and drop in some ‘vibration’, and ‘resonance’, and ‘energy’ nebulousness. Because nobody really understands that, do they? Well, I certainly don’t. And neither do they. But it does usefully deflect from the pertinent big question – how do you know it works?

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