A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

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SAPA Bions

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 23-February-2009

SAPA bions are bions formed when sterilized beach sand, rather than the usual coal or dirt or grass, is soaked in a bouillon-KCl solution.  Reich claimed that these bions were much more effective in killing rot bacteria and T-Bacilli than his ordinary PA bions were, and that they glowed a strong blue color which eventually hurt Reich's eyes and gave him a tan.

Reich described his discovery of SAPA bions in The Cancer Biopathy, chapter III, section 2 (p. 82, 1973 trans. — emphasis in the original):

    "In January 1939, one of my assistants was demonstrating the incandescence experiment to a visitor in the laboratory in Oslo.  By mistake, she took the wrong container from the sterilizer and instead of earth she heated ocean sand to incandescence.  After two days a culture had started to form in the bouillon-potassium chloride solution which, when inoculated on egg medium and agar, yielded a yellow growth.  Under the microscope this new kind of culture appeared as large, scarcely motile, packets of energy vesicles glimmering with an intense blue.  The culture was 'pure'; i.e., it consisted of only one kind of particle.  At a magnification of 400x, its formations looked like the sarcinae [a genus of round bacteria] occasionally found in water.  Examination at magnifications of 2000x and 4000x showed strongly refracting formations consisting of packets of six to ten vesicles between 10 and 15 microns in size.  We repeated the experiment eight times over the course of a few months, and five times we obtained the same formations (cf. Figs. 48a and b, Appendix).
    "These bions received the designation SAPA (sand packet)."
Figures 48a and b, in the Appendix to The Cancer Biopathy, are both in black-and-white.  Figure 48a looks roughly like small clusters of ice cubes with thick white fringes around them floating in a darker field, while figure 48b looks more like whole trays full of ice cubes floating in the darker field with little circular spots in the background.  (The "ice cube" analogy is just my idea of their shape; they don't look like photographs of actual ice cubes.  These photographs were obviously taken through a microscope, and I have no reason to doubt their authenticity.)  The caption reads, "The bion culture (SAPA) which disclosed the existence of biological orgone energy, 1939."  There is no indication of what magnification level these pictures were taken at, but I'd guess these were pictures of the 2000x and/or 4000x views Reich was describing in the above paragraph.

I find it odd that Reich referred to these "scarcely motile" packets of vesicles as "bions."  Bions — using whichever of the three definitions for "bion" Reich gives in The Bion Experiments and The Cancer Biopathy — are supposed to be half-way alive.  SAPA "bions," from Reich's photographs and descriptions, seem more like nonliving crystals that happen to have a vesicle-like internal structure.  Reich made no mention of SAPA bions expanding, contracting, or exhibiting and interior movement.  Perhaps Reich called anything that looked like vesicles under a microscope "bions."  Reich did have a tendency to assume that if two things looked similar, they had a common cause, or "common functioning principle" — for instance, he later insisted that hurricanes and galaxies were both formed by converging orgone energy streams because they both looked like two-armed spirals (see my critique of Cosmic Superimposition).

Reich went on to say that these SAPA bions could paralyze and kill a cell at a distance of up to 10 microns:

"At this proximity to SAPA bions, the amoeboid cancer cells would remain rooted on one spot as though paralyzed; then they would spin around frantically and, finally, become motionless.  This process was recorded on film."
"Amoeboid" cancer cells were not cancer cells in the normal sense of the term; they were extraneous cells Reich saw in the blood of cancer patients, and which he assumed were created by the same bion formation process that produced amoebas in his grass and earth cultures.  I describe them in greater detail in my critique of The Cancer Biopathy.  Reich implied that SAPA bions had a similar effect on rot bacteria, protozoa, and his T-Bacilli, but he made no mention of their effect on human tissue cells.  It is entirely possible that SAPA bions would have been just as lethal to normal tissue cells, or to real cancer cells, as they were to "amoeboid cancer cells."

Now, the "intense blue glimmer" of the SAPA bions may have been due to the fact that they were, as Reich himself observed, "strongly refracting," and not because they were emitting any light of their own.  Reich was determined not to believe this, however.  On 27 February 1939, Reich wrote in a letter to the Dutch physicist Dr. W. F. Bon:

"There is no doubt that the radiation can be seen under the microscope.  I distingushed it from light reflexes by removing the reflex mirror as well as the iris diaphragm.  The radiation maintained its directionality and moved with the rhythm of the bion movement.  I observed this at a magnification of 2000x to 3000x with dark-field illumination."
    — from Beyond Psychology, page 192.
A "dark field" in microscopy is not one that is completely dark; it is merely a field that is illuminated indirectly, without light shining straight on it.  Reich never mentioned looking through the microscope in total darkness, which would have settled the matter.  He did, however, mention taking dozens of SAPA cultures into his dark basement and waiting several minutes for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but not once did he mention seeing the cultures themselves glow, for instance.  Even if the SAPA bions did glow, the fact that he had to wait several minutes to see anything at all in the dark would mean that any blue glow the SAPA cultures might have had would be too weak to see in a lighted microscope (bright field or dark field).

Chances are, the SAPA bions' lethal effect on other organisms had nothing whatsoever to do with their blue color.  But Reich thought otherwise.  Several months before the first SAPA bion experiment, Reich received a letter from Dr. Bon, asking Reich if he'd seen any radiation in bions.  Bon was convinced that life is a manifestation of radiation, and had quarrelled with his colleagues about this topic for many years.  This idea doubtlessly struck a chord in Reich now that, months after having received the letter, Reich saw SAPA bions "glimmer" blue and kill other organisms at the great distance (microscopically speaking) of 10 microns.

Reich didn't come out and say so in The Cancer Biopathy, but I'd wager that this physicist's theories, which were at odds with the mainstream scientific community just as Reich's vews often were, combined with these new observations about SAPA bions, were sufficient by themselves to convince Reich that his SAPA bions were exhibiting a radiation phenomenon.  This would certainly have encouraged him to do experiments, make observations, and take notice of anything unusual that supported his idea that SAPA bions emitted some kind of radiation:

"For four weeks, I examined the SAPA bions every day for several hours.  After a few days, my eyes began to smart whenever I looked into the microscope for any length of time.  In order to isolate the basis of this problem, I began to use a monocular tube.  Now it was only the eye I used for looking through the microscope that hurt.  However, after a while, a violent conjunctivitis developed in both eyes; they became very sensitive to light, and I was obliged to see an ophthalmologist.  To him, my account seemed 'fantastic.'"
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. III, sec. 2 (pp. 82-83, 1973 trans.)
I wouldn't call Reich's conjunctivitis "fantastic" so much as "unrelated to the SAPA bions."  Conjunctivitis, more commonly known as Pink Eye, is usually caused by bacterial infection of one eye, in which case it usually spreads rapidly to the other eye.  It can also be caused by allergies, physical irritation (e.g. rubbing your eyes too much), or chemical irritation.  The fact that it afflicted Reich in both eyes suggests a bacterial infection, perhaps from a dirty microscope eyepiece.  Nowadays, such an infection would be treated by antibiotic eye drops, but antibiotics were not available in 1939, and all his ophthalmologist could prescribe were dark glasses and laying off the microscope work for a while.  Since Reich's bion preparations provided excellent breeding grounds for many types of bacteria, it also wouldn't surprise me if Reich had, say, accidentally wiped a finger across one of his eyes after handling a bion preparation and gotten conjunctivitis this way.  Reich, however, was convinced that his conjunctivitis was due to the SAPA bions' radiation, and the fact that he got conjunctivitis in both eyes, even though he'd been restricting his observations to one eye, later implied to him that the SAPA bions' radiation was affecting his eyes even when he wasn't looking at it.

Nevertheless, Reich also discovered that placing some SAPA culture on a quartz slide and sitting the slide on his skin for ten minutes left a whitish spot with a reddish margin directly under where the culture had been.  His students also experienced varying degrees of skin reaction when SAPA-cultures-on-quartz were placed against their skin.  (Reich claimed that the students who were "vegetatively very alive" showed a stronger reaction than those who were "emotionally weaker," but this may have had more to do with their average rate of blood flow than their "character armor.")

Reich then displayed not only his lack of understanding as to just how many vastly different but well-understood phenomena all qualify as "radiation," but also to his own inability (or unwillingness) to search for help outside a very narrow and poorly-chosen pool of sources:

"I sought help from the radium physicist of the Cancer Hospital in Oslo, Dr. Moxnes.  He tested one of the culture tubes with the radium electroscope.  It gave no reaction.  The physicist declared that there was 'no radiation.'  Since his electroscope was equipped for radium only, I objected that the only conclusion that could be fairly drawn from the test was that there was no radium activity, not that there was no radiation of any kind."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. III, sec. 2 (p. 84, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
Given the secrecy that Reich shrouded his work in, I'll bet he just said to Dr. Moxnes, "You're a radium physicist, right?  Here, test this for radiation," without so much as a hint as to what kind of radiation Moxnes should be looking for.  Of course Moxnes, being a radium physicist, would then assume that Reich wouldn't have looked him up if he hadn't been looking for radium radiation, and so naturally would only have tested for the kind of radiation that radium gives off.  Two isotopes of radium, radium-226 and radium-228, are normally encountered in industry, and both of these isotopes are radioactive.  Radium-226 decays by alpha emission, which means it gives off positively-charged helium nuclei; radium-228 decays by beta emission, which involves the release of negatively-charged electrons.  Moxnes would have used an electroscope to detect the emission of these positively or negatively charged particles.  He would not have looked for uncharged emissions such as electromagnetic radiation (light, gamma rays, radio waves, etc.) or neutrons.  Perhaps the bions were emitting uncharged radiation, such as ordinary ultraviolet light.  But the lack of radium radiation alone was enough to make Reich jump to the conclusion that SAPA bion radiation was therefore a "new" kind of radiation, never before detected.  Had any of Reich's colleagues been trained in the natural sciences, they could have pointed out the existence of other radiation tests to him.  Or had Reich told Dr. Moxnes to look for any kind of radiation — or had he levelled with Moxnes about his lack of knowledge of the whole subject of radiation — Moxnes might have subjected the SAPA bions to a broader range of radiation tests and come up with a more conventional explanation, such as, perhaps, that SAPA bions emitted ordinary ultraviolet light.  And had Reich understood the properties of ordinary ultraviolet light, he would not have gone on to write:
"The speed of the skin reaction suggested enormous energies.  X-ray and radium radiation take several days after exposure to produce reddening of the skin, but the SAPA cultures reddened the skin within a few minutes."
Ultraviolet light will redden the skin within a few minutes, too.  We call it a sunburn.  (Not that this would even be necessary; the expectation that one's skin is being exposed to "strange radiation" can cause the skin to redden psychosomatically, even if there is no radiation present.)  And then there's this sentence 3 pages later:
"(I had conducted the experiments during the winter and early spring of 1939, had not been exposed to the sun, yet had a deep tan over my entire body.)"
. . . which also suggests prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light.  (A more likely explanation for his tan is that Reich spent time ourdoors on cloudy days with little or no clothing on; enough ultraviolet light can penetrate clouds at midday to cause tanning or even suburn.)

Even the pain in his eyes he experienced when he first started looking at the SAPA cultures for long periods can be explained by ultraviolet light.  According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, excess exposure to UV radiation can cause a painful burn of the cornea.  The immobilization effect the SAPA bions had on rot bacteria, cancer cells, amoebae, and "T-Bacilli" can also be explained by ultraviolet light.  According to this chart from Ultraviolet Systems and Equipment, Inc., ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 2540 Ångstroms (254 nm) has been proven lethal to bacteria, other microorganisms, and even mold spores.

This link between "mysterious" forms of radiation observed by Reich, and the well-known properties of ultraviolet light, is delved into more deeply in my critique of Orgone Radiation.  In fact, "orgone radiation" was Reich's name for the radiation he first discovered in SAPA bions, and my critique of Orgone Radiation basically continues where this critique of SAPA bions leaves off.

There is one more subject related more to SAPA bions themselves than to orgone radiation that bears mentioning before I end this critique.  In an attempt to verify that the SAPA radiation was indeed an emission phenomenon and not merely a trick of the microscope light, Reich put some test subjects in a darkened room containing some SAPA cultures and asked them to look for anything glowing.  One of his subjects said, "I feel as if I've been staring into the sun for a long time."  This would not be surprising if SAPA radiation did indeed have a strong ultraviolet component.  But Reich, ever a fan of the leap to creative (if bizarre) conclusions, took that statement and ran with it:

"This comment by a layman provided much food for thought.  It seemed especially relevant to the conjunctivitis that many of the subjects developed.  One day the idea 'sun energy' suddenly occurred to me, provding a simple solution which sounded absurd only at first: SAPA bions had originated from ocean sand.  But ocean sand is nothing more than solidified solar energy.  The incandescing and swelling of the sand had released this energy once again from its material state."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. III, sec. 2 (p. 86, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
This solution sounds absurd, all right, but not "only at first."  I have no idea from which metaphysical philosophy or pseudoscientific crackpot Reich got the idea that sand was "solidified solar energy," but you won't find that explanation in any textbook.

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