When doctors thought it was smart to drink radioactive water

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A flyer for radium-enriched vessels to dispense radon-infused water, once believed to cure a wide range of ailments, circa 1900.

Suffering from “perverted” metabolism? High blood pressure? Rheumatism? Try a cool glass of radioactive water.

Actually, please don’t. But as recently as the 1920s, some physicians did indeed prescribe draughts of water from a radium “emanator,” a container that glowed from the column of radioactive material inside.

The dangerous misuse of radiation is one of five examples of debunked science on the agenda Monday at a panel session entitled "Scientific Malarkey", from 6 to 8 p.m. at National Mechanics bar and restaurant in Old City. The event is one of more than 80 during the nine-day Philadelphia Science Festival, which starts Friday evening and runs through next Saturday, April 29.

While the five examples of "malarkey" are from long ago, an unrelated, high-profile event Saturday demonstrates that exposing anti-scientific beliefs remains a hot topic today. To coincide with Earth Day, Philadelphia is one of more than 500 sites to host a March for Science, all of them satellite versions of a larger one in Washington.

Philadelphia's march begins at City Hall at 11 a.m., heading east on Market Street to Front Street and then Chestnut Street. There's a rally at Penn's Landing from noon to 2 p.m.

The science festival, meanwhile, gets underway at 7 p.m. Friday, with an adults-only "prom" at the Franklin Institute (reservations required; tickets are $20, or $15 for museum members).

Activities later in the week include stargazing parties, a "cookie lab" at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and behind-the-scenes looks at medical careers from audiology to surgical nursing. The festival culminates next Saturday with a carnival at Penn's Landing. 

As for Monday's "Scientific Malarkey" panel: Jeffrey Womack, a science historian who teaches at the Mütter Museum, Drexel University, and Philadelphia University, is presenting the radiation segment. Other topics include physiognomy, the old idea that the appearance of a person’s face could yield insight into character; and rejected theories of evolution, such as the concept that living things could acquire new traits through adaptation, then pass them on to their offspring.

The panel discussion is free, and no registration is required.

If that's not enough bogus science for you, stop by the Chemical Heritage Foundation on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. for “Fake Out: The Science of Deception,” to learn about artificial sweeteners, animal mimicry, and artistic forgeries. That event requires a reservation; tickets are $5 in advance and $10 at the door.