Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Crystal Healing, Pink Unicorns and the Tooth Fairy

How serious do we take the claims of ‘crystal healers’ whose practice and influence in the mineral and gem world has taken on profound proportions? In recent years there has been a proliferation of the metaphysical and esoteric use of minerals and “crystals” supposedly for the enhancement of health and the treatment of disease. Mineral and gem shows are becoming increasingly dominated by “crystals” for healing purposes. Crystal healing practitioners use terms like 'energy' and they use it to cover anything that they can't explain any other way - such as 'energies unknown to science'. Do the claims of ‘crystal healers’ stand up to scientific scrutiny or is ‘crystal healing’ just another fashionable pseudoscience amongst a plethora of New Age hocus-pocus? Skeptics may be puzzled by the ready tendency of human beings to accept claims without sufficient evidence.

The late great Carl Sagan (1995) warned that there are “already many signs that modern culture may be on the verge of abandoning science for mysticism, and thereby sliding back almost without noticing it into superstition and the darkness that engulfed our demon-haunted world for thirteen centuries after the fall of Rome”. There also appears to be accelerated growth in anti-science in modern culture says renowned, skeptic, Paul Kurtz (2010) “It is paradoxical that today, when the sciences are advancing by leaps and bounds and when the earth is being transformed by scientific discovery and technological applications, a strong anti-science counterculture has emerged”

The rise of ‘New Age Science’ in recent years appears to govern the media which is filled with gobbledygook such as: tarot cards, quack medicine, magic waters, palm reading, UFO abduction, crystal healing, telepathy, astrology, conspiracy theories etc.... the list goes on and on. ‘New Age Movement’ literature in bookstores has grown to such an extent that books on the subject(s) outnumber books on science by a ratio of 10:1 (Hawkins, 2010). One possible reason for the proliferation of the ‘New Age Science’ may be that anyone can conjure up yet another madcap theory with absolutely no scientific evidence to support their theory and gets a cult following. In recent years, particularly with the rise of the New Age movement, myths concerning the healing powers of crystals have been introduced to society. Crystal healing practitioners claim to use ‘crystal energy', ignoring the fact that 'energy' has a very precise meaning in science. And they use it in an all-encompassing way to cover anything that they can't explain any other way - such as 'energies unknown to science'. Proponents claim that the healing properties of crystals rely on 'energy' that crystals are supposed to give off and that this energy exerts elusive influences on the body, realigning the body’s 'energy' into more harmonious, natural and healthy patterns (Willis, 2010). Here’s a quote from one of the many ‘Crystal Healing’ web sites [5.] giving an explanation on how to ‘select’ and ‘use’ a crystal for healing. “Crystal therapy involves the use of precious semi precious stones. These stones hold positive energy and act as a conduit for healing from the practitioner to the recipient. The stones also generate a healing vibration that heals on all levels, physical, spiritual, mental, emotional. A stone can be placed on the part of the body you would like to heal. A stone can also be placed on acupressure points. Generally therapists use quartz for physical healing amethyst for spiritual healing and rose quartz for emotional issues. There are many other crystals which carry a very specific healing vibration. They can pin-point complex healing issues & bring about healing & balance”

So, we are lead to believe that crystals allegedly affect the emotions and can be used not only for physical healing, but for emotional problems as well. Moreover, the claim goes further in boldly stating that crystals not only help with self-expression, and if that is not all …… creativity, meditation, AND the immune system! These claims are extraordinary. None of these assertions is backed by any scientific evidence – we just have to have faith and believe it! Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Everything about these claims should be skeptically examined and a demand for validation and verification be sought from the claimant. However, the burden-of-proof lies with those making the claim! Science has not identified any energy that could possibly be the healing energy claimed by crystal healers. Some crystal healers claim that the energy responsible is the piezoelectric effect, which is known to science. The piezoelectric effect can only be generated with a crystal that has been sliced into a thin section at specific orientations to the crystal axes and most types of crystals that crystals healers use cannot generate a piezoelectric effect anyway. Crystal healings may offer some assistance to some ailments, particularly emotional or psychological disturbances, but these healings are achieved as psychosomatic responses rather than through any direct effects from the properties of a crystal (Hawkins, 2010). The ready tendency of human beings to accept claims without sufficient evidence is wholly evident in the ‘New Age Movement’ and this includes ‘crystal healing’. Customers purchasing crystals from crystal healers often completely misunderstand the nature of what 'energy' means. In this way the customers are convinced, because the “effects” of the “energy” sounds good, without actually knowing anything about it and they take the word that the sellers are telling the truth and let’s not forget it’s good for sales. You can hang a tourmaline crystal around your neck, place quartz under your pillow, drink your mercury-laced cinnabar elixir and say it's providing health-giving energies, or 'cleansing energies' - whatever you please. What is being claimed has no scientific basis at all.

Many minerals species are potentially toxic - there are about 200 known radioactive minerals that contain uranium, thorium, or both elements [6.] and a large number are made up of heavy metals such as lead and mercury as in galena and cinnabar, respectively. I was horrified to hear a crystal healer practitioner announce with grand authority that realgar (an arsenic sulphide mineral, typically bright red in colour) can be used as an ‘elixir’ to promote a youthful appearance by boiling the mineral in water and drinking the water afterwards! “The red colour will vibrate with the root chakra!” she pronounced. Well I wonder how many of her customers were pronounced dead after drinking such a concoction!

As a scientist and a collector of minerals, I am unsympathetic to ‘crystal healing’ because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise, more so the disciplines of geology and mineralogy. And, even though all crystal healers and mystics will stand up and shout that “crystal healing works!” is not evidence that it does. Crystal Healing belongs in the same category as pink unicorns, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. As modern culture is seemingly abandoning science and reason and accommodating mysticism there is an even greater need to question the validity of claims by following basic scientific methods of observation, independent testing, rational deduction, and verification by means of abundant evidence. We need to fight the misuse of science and praise the real wonder of science and avoid the ‘New Age’ taking us into a new ‘Dark Age’.

Quartz crystal from Rosh Pinah mine, Namibia. Photograph:A.Fraser

Cluster of clear quartz crystals (7 cm) from Rosh Pinah mine. Photograph:A.Fraser


1. Sagan C. (1995). “The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark” (New York: Random House, 1995).

2. Kurtz P., (2010), “Exuberant Skepticism”, Prometheus Books, page 61

3. Hawkins C., “Crystal healing does it work?” (date accessed: 24 Dec 2010)

4. Willis P., “The Correx Archives” (date accessed: 24 Dec 2010)

5. Donaldson R., (date accessed 29 Dec, 2010)

6. McGraw-Hill Science & Technology Encyclopedia: Radioactive Minerals (accessed 31 Dec, 2010)

Banded-Iron Formations: Clues to Early Earth’s Environment

The Banded-iron formations give us clues to the atmosphere of early Earth. As we look deep into the Earth's past, evidence from old rocks suggests that environmental conditions were once very different. In particular, rocks making up the Banded-iron formations indicate that the early atmosphere contained little or no oxygen.

The picture in figure 2 below shows an excellent example of Banded-iron formation (BIF). Most BIFs are strikingly colourful with the dark layers being made up mainly of the iron oxide minerals, hematite (Fe2O3) and magnetite (Fe3O4) and red layers of jasper, a variety of chalcedony, or very fine-grained quartz (SiO2) (Mathez, 2006). BIFs are rocks of the Proterozoic Era ranging from 1.8 to 2.5 billion years in age and consist of alternating iron-rich and iron-poor layers, typically only millimeters to centimeters thick [2]. Banded iron formations are found throughout the geological record, but the period from 2.5 to 2.0 billion years represents a unique time in Earth history, a time during which 92% of the Earth’s BIFs were laid down (Immenhauser, 2005). For this enormous accumulation of iron oxide to have occurred over such a vast time span meant that something about the chemistry of early earth was very different to what it is today. The chemistry of rocks from the Proterozoic shows that oxygen was a rare gas in the atmosphere. The key to understanding the chemical reactions occurring in the early oceans is in the relationship between the elements oxygen and iron. Iron forms two ionic states, namely, ferrous (Fe+2) and ferric (Fe+3) – the +2 or +3 indicates the extent to which iron is oxidised. Iron will only dissolve in significant quantities in water that contains no oxygen (anoxic water). In anoxic water iron dissolves in the ferrous state as ions of hydrous Fe2+, or FeOH+ (Mathez, 2006). Therefore, in order for iron-rich chemical precipitates to form, the early oceans must have been sufficiently anoxic to dissolve iron. Since the ocean and atmosphere exchange oxygen rapidly, the atmosphere could not have contained much oxygen, either. But oxygen was in the making; photosynthesis from blue-green bacteria dominating the early oceans would have created a net gain of oxygen first in the ocean and later in the atmosphere (Attenborough, 2010). Ferrous iron in oceanic water scavenged oxygen that was a waste product for the photosynthesising bacteria and rained down onto the ocean floors as rust coloured chemical sediment. This was chemistry on a grand scale – the soluble ferrous iron was being oxidised to insoluble ferric iron as the minerals, magnetite and hematite. At the same time, primitive photosynthetic blue-green algae were beginning to proliferate near surface waters. As the algae would produce molecular oxygen (O2) as a waste product of photosynthesis, this free oxygen would combine with the iron in solution to form iron oxides. “As the biomass expanded beyond the capacity for the available iron to combine with waste O2, the oxygen content of the sea water rose to toxic levels for the algae population and resulted in their large-scale die-off, which in turn gave rise to an iron poor layer of silica on the sea floor” [2.]. As time passed and algae populations re-established themselves, a new iron-rich layer began to accumulate on ocean floors. This cycle was repeated and continued for hundreds of millions of years. “Each band in the iron formation is similar to an annual layer of sediment – or varve - to the extent that the banding is assumed to result from cyclic variations in available oxygen” (Kirschvink, 1992). For over 2 billion years this went on, until the iron in earth’s oceans was depleted. Since there was no iron left in solution the excess molecular oxygen bubbled up into the atmosphere and began accumulating from about 1700 million years ago, after two-thirds of Earth history [6.]. The vast layers of iron minerals stayed behind in the Banded-iron formations. The rise in the levels of oxygen after the massive depletion of iron meant that photosynthesising bacteria would face near extinction as oxygen is a reactive and highly toxic gas (Southwood, 2003). Cells would have to adapt to this change in environment and the excess oxygen would ultimately lead to the formation of an ozone layer and the proliferation of new life forms in an oxygenated world during the so-called “Cambrian Explosion”. But that is the subject of another article! Banded-iron formations occur in many parts of the world and constitute the major reserves of iron ore. At Thabazimbi and Sishen these reserves are exploited by major mining operations.

Figure 1: Core sample (8 cm) of Banded iron-formation from Hamersley, Australia. A fault runs through the center of the specimen showing the displacement of the individual layers of banding. Specimen and photograph: A. Fraser

Figure 2: Banded iron-formation (6 cm). Banded iron-formation is composed of alternating layers of iron-rich material and silica (chert), N’chwaning II mine, Kalahari Manganese Field. Each layer is relatively thin, varying in thickness from about a millimetre up to a few centimetres. This is evidence of aerobic life altering the early earth’s atmosphere by the precipitation of iron oxides. Specimen and photograph: A. Fraser

Figure 3: Banded iron-formation (10 cm). Banded iron-formation is composed of alternating layers of iron-rich material, Northern Cape,, South Africa. Specimen and photograph: A. Fraser

Figure 4: Banded iron-formation (14 cm). Banded iron-formation is composed of alternating layers of iron-rich material, Thabazimbi, South Africa. Specimen and photograph: A. Fraser

Figure 5: Mining activity at the Thabazimbi iron ore mine. Photograph by A.Fraser

1. Attenborough. D., (2010). “First Life” Harper Collins publishers, ISBN 978 0007365241. (page 46)
2. “Banded Iron Formation” (accessed Dec 27, 2010)
3. Kirschvink, J. (1992). "Late Proterozoic low-latitude global glaciation: the Snowball Earth", in J. W. Schopf; C. Klein: The Proterozoic Biosphere: A Multidisciplinary Study. Cambridge University Press.
4. Mathez, E. (2006). “How Has the Earth Evolved? Evolution of the Atmosphere”
5. McCarthy, T. 2009. How on Earth? Answers to the puzzles of our planet. Struik Nature, Random House Struik (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town
6. (accessed Dec 27, 2010)
7. Southwood. R., (2003) “The Story of Life” Oxford University Press (Pages 22- 24).