A friend handed me a business card for a holistic health & beauty practitioner. On the back of the card were an appointment reminder, a note about the practitioner’s cancellation policy and a list of the areas in which she was certified: heart forgiveness, core health, and a subspecialty of the holistic medical arts that had somehow previously escaped my attention, biophoton therapy. This is a thing, apparently (and a thing in which you can be certified). But what exactly is it? I found scads of information on the Internet: informational websites, technology briefs, masters’ theses about the effects of the therapy on red blood cells and isolated rat cortical neurons. Turns out there’s a whole world — more to the point, an entire industry — surrounding the therapy. Before we get into all this, though, let’s take a look at biophotons themselves, the “life-light” — literally — that makes the technique possible. Early roots, so to speak Proponents of biophoton therapy trace its origins to the Russian and Soviet scientist Alexander Gurwitsch. In 1923, Gurwitsch observed ultra-weak emissions of light coming from an onion root (there’s more to it than that, but for the sake of the present argument this much will suffice). Believing these to be the product of a morphogenetic field governing biological development, he called the phenomenon mitogenetic radiation. His publication of the findings created quite a stir, and eventually led to several European lecture tours. But subsequent attempts to reproduce the findings proved largely unsuccessful. “Although more than 600 papers on the problem of mitogenetic radiation have been published,” wrote Hans Barth and Otto Glasser in a 1939 study in Radiology, “no uniform conclusions have been reached, even in regard to the fundamental question of the existence of this type of radiation.” “Man, essentially, is a being of light” Interest in Gurwitsch’s work faded. That is, until German biophysicist Fritz-Albert Popp revived it in the early 1970s. In the course of his work with cancer, Popp observed unusual optical properties of a substance found in coal tar and cigarette smoke — 3,4 benzypyrene — which led him to question whether the properties could be the direct cause of the substance’s carcinogenicity. This in turn led him to Gurwitsch’s work with mitogenetic radiation and the possibility of ultra-weak emissions of light triggering significant changes in cells’ behavior (Popp coined the term “biophotons” to describe these emissions). In the decades since, Popp has written extensively about his theories of biophotons and coherence systems in biology, arguing that “the function of our entire metabolism is dependent on light.” He has also founded the International Institute of Biophysics in Neuss, Germany, and a company called Biophotonics (no relation). Near as I can tell, his work only occasionally intersects with the established, straight-laced biophysics and optics research communities. The people’s biophoton While Popp’s ideas remain controversial in academic circles, others have fully embraced them. In 1982, Johan Boswinkel — who was at the time working in the finance industry — was asked to translate Popp’s work into English. While doing so, Boswinkel was struck by the suggestion that the weakly emitted light from our body is in fact responsible for our mental, physical and emotional health. From there he made what I can only describe as a remarkable leap: “If all the information required to control the body’s biochemical processes is in the light that the body emits, and if disturbances in that light disrupt biochemical processes and cause disease — as Popp claimed — then it must be possible to ‘examine’ the light and remove the disease. Then you return the ‘repaired’ light to the body. If it works, it will have enormous consequences for everything.” Boswinkel developed a device that uses fiber-optic technology to conduct biophotons to and from the body, continually improving the quality of the light through its biofeedback system. Or something like that. He also founded the Institute for Applied Biophoton Sciences, which conducts research and offers training in biophoton therapy — even offering degrees in partnership with the Inter-University College in Graz, Austria (four weekend seminars a year over two and a half years and a distance learning component for a cost of 12,000 Euro). So here we see — in our own backyard, so to speak — the evolution of a strain of pseudoscience, its growth from an un-replicated experiment in the 1920s to a worldwide industry today. I’m not questioning the claims of those who have benefited from biophoton therapy, or even the efficacy of holistic medicine generally. But I’m struck here by the desire to validate the therapy with what has been described as “fringe science” (for an interesting discussion, see the talk page of the Wikipedia entry for “biophoton”). Seems to me that, in doing so, you risk crossing over from alternative or complementary medicine to the realm of straight-up quackery.