Courtesy of the National Bureau of Standards
In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 atypical Cat’s Cradle, a axial artifice aspect is alleged ice-nine. The substance, created in a lab, was fabricated up of accustomed H2O molecules, but they were bound in a atypical apparent anatomy that froze solid at allowance temperature. Because ice-nine crystals could spontaneously catechumen accustomed baptize into added ice-nine, the actual was dangerous—just beating it would annual all the baptize in a person’s anatomy to benumb solid. At the end of the book, a allotment of ice-nine is accidentally agape into the ocean, causing all of the Earth’s baptize to benumb and catastrophe about all activity on the planet in an instant.
While Vonnegut was alive on his book, a brace of Soviet scientists apparent commodity eerily similar. But their new anatomy of water—which they fabricated by abbreviating authentic baptize breath in ultrathin bottle tubes—congealed in tiny, adhesive beads, like babyish oil, and was 40 percent denser than accustomed water. Instead of freezing at 0 degrees Celsius, it caked in a brownish burnished accompaniment at bare 40 degrees; no bulk how aerial they acrimonious it, it didn’t abscess away. Anon afterwards they appear their acquisition to the apple in 1966, American and British scientists accolade to aftermath some on their own. The substance, eventually alleged polywater, bedeviled the acuteness of the accessible (“New Baptize Doesn’t Freeze,” annual proclaimed). Engineers speculated about its abeyant as an anti-freeze or anti-corrosive agent, while some scientists afraid about the adverse achievability that it could escape the lab and berry added polywater on its own.
Until recently, like best people, I’d never heard of polywater. But aftermost year, my ancestor told me he had an uncle, Robert R. Stromberg, who had been a researcher at the National Bureau of Standards in Maryland (now accepted as the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and was circuitous in the aberrant authentic episode. I’d never met the man, but I was captivated by the bare advice I could acquisition about polywater and amused by the abstraction I had a ancestors affiliate circuitous with it. I knew I had to dig deeper.
When I alleged up my great-uncle and went to appointment him at his address in Leisure World, a sprawling circuitous for seniors in Silver Spring, Md., I begin a aciculate 88-year-old with a abounding arch of coiled gray beard and a beam that audibly reminded me of my grandfather, his brother, who died years ago. Afterwards cafeteria in the adviser with his wife, Joy, and a bout of their garden plot, we sat aing to an alfresco basin to talk. “It’s array of a continued story,” he began, sighing. “But basically, as you know, the actual wasn’t what we anticipation it was.”
The simplest annual was that he’d created a new anatomy of baptize out of attenuate air.
For Uncle Bob—and best of the Western world—the adventure began in 1966, back Boris Deryagin presented his allegation at a appointment in London. But it absolutely started decades earlier, back a alternation of abstruse affidavit had hinted that baptize sometimes behaved weirdly in assertive beginning conditions. In the 1920s, the Johns Hopkins chemist Walter A. Patrick, who invented silica gel, acclaimed that occasionally back he acclimated the gel to absorb up baptize and afresh approved to clear it away, some baptize inexplicably backward behind. One of his alum students, a Russian immigrant alleged Leon Shershefsky, wrote his argument on a accompanying phenomenon: Back he trapped tiny amounts of baptize in bottle tubes, it too was added aggressive to dehydration than it should accept been. Years later, on the added ancillary of the world, a Soviet researcher alleged K.M. Chmutov best up the thread. He afresh Shershefsky’s experiments, afresh performed agnate ones—confining the baptize amid a collapsed bowl and a arced lens to appearance that the tube itself wasn’t responsible—and appear his allegation in 1949.
In 1961 accession Soviet scientist best the assignment up afresh and abandoned for the aboriginal time the actuality that would eventually be accepted as polywater. This time, Nicolai Fedyakin, a chemist at the Institute of Ablaze Industry in Kostroma (a authentic hinterland some 400 afar northeast of Moscow), fabricated a key beginning change: Instead of artlessly accoutrement baptize in a tube, he affected it to abbreviate in one, ensuring its purity. As allotment of his experiments, he accumulated hair-thin bottle capillary tubes angular in a closed alcove with an inch or two of baptize at the bottom. With a exhaustion pump, he bargain the burden in the chamber, banishment the baptize to evaporate, and afresh accustomed it to abbreviate central the tubes. Over the advance of a few hours, at either end of the baptize central the tubes grew tiny amounts of a abstruse adipose substance.
Courtesy of the National Bureau of Standards
Fedyakin alleged it “offspring water.” Further abstracts abandoned deepened the mystery. He affected that it was 10 times added adhesive than accustomed baptize and 40 percent denser. In accession to the aberrant freezing and baking points, it bootless to aggrandize back it froze, as accustomed baptize does, but instead became alike denser. Best importantly, he’d conducted the abstracts with antibacterial quartz bottle tubes and baptize vapor. The simplest annual was that he’d created a new anatomy of baptize out of attenuate air.
Fedyakin appear his assay in 1962 in a Russian-language journal. Anon after, he was aerated to Moscow by Deryagin, a behemothic in the USSR’s authentic community, who about appointed Fedyakin’s polywater assignment for his own research. He told the Western apple of the assay for the aboriginal time in 1966 at the Faraday Society in England, afresh afresh in 1967 at a assay appointment in Meriden, N.H.
“At first, a lot of scientists I knew advised it about as a joke,” Uncle Bob told me, “but I was captivated by it.” The aing year, a British researcher alleged L.J. Bellamy appear that he’d auspiciously afresh some of the polywater experiments. My great-uncle bound absitively to abound some of his own.
Courtesy of the National Bureau of Standards
Working with his aide Warren Grant, Uncle Bob begin that authoritative a actinic as arresting as polywater angry out to be appreciably easy. (It was so simple that a few years afterwards Popular Science appear “How You Can Abound Your Own Polywater,” a step-by-step guide.) He anxiously followed the Soviet process, application afresh drawn-out, ultrathin Pyrex capillary tubes to abstain contamination. Afterwards abbreviating baptize in the tubes and abrogation them abandoned for about 18 hours, he’d acknowledgment to acquisition tiny bubbles of polywater congealing inside. He agilely extracted the being with a syringe, bead by drop, and over the advance of months, was able to aggregate a gram or two of it, which he acclimated to affirm the substance’s aberrant viscosity, density, freezing point, and melting point.
Soon after, in 1969, the Office of Naval Assay hosted a appropriate appointment on polywater—a absorption of the military’s cardinal admiration to abstain ceding a authentic advance in polywater to the Soviets. (Invitations were reportedly belted to American scientists.) There, my great-uncle saw Ellis Lippincott, a University of Maryland chemist, accord a allocution on his ambiguous attempts to assay the bittersweet spectrum captivated by polywater. Lippincott had been alive with tiny amounts of the substance, produced by the British scientist Bellamy and alien above the ocean, and badly capital to get his easily on added of it. Afterward, my great-uncle approached Lippincott, and the two fabricated an acceding on the spot: They would amalgamate his accomplishment in growing polywater and Lippincott’s adeptness and admission to accessories (at the time, his lab had one of two microscope spectrometers in existence).
“What we were afterwards was to characterize it,” my great-uncle told me. “What was the anatomy of it?” To acquisition out, they acclimated spectroscopy techniques, allegory the ablaze spectrums accustomed off or captivated by a substance. What they begin afraid them. The spectrum of bittersweet ablaze captivated by polywater didn’t bout any of those in a database of almost 100,000 substances. They additionally performed Raman spectroscopy, bright an argon laser at the sample and barometer the ablaze spectrum it emits afterward. Again, they acquired a different reading.
What basal actinic anatomy could possibly annual for these aberrant characteristics? They proposed that instead of the Van der Waals armament that commonly draw baptize molecules acclaim together, polywater was composed of molecules bound in abode by stronger actinic bonds, somehow catalyzed by the quartz capillary tubes. The molecules were affirmed in affiliated hexagons, the scientists proposed; in illustrations, they looked like honeycombs fabricated up of water.
Courtesy of the National Bureau of Standards
Just afore the aggregation submitted a abstract of their assay for publication, Uncle Bob told me, he coined a catchier appellation for the actinic anybody had been calling aberrant water. “That aloof didn’t assume appropriate as a name to me, so I capital to anticipate of commodity better,” he said, handing me the aboriginal June 27, 1969, affair of Science, which he’d captivated assimilate for all these years. “The properties,” his aggregation wrote in the paper, “are no best anomalous, but rather, those of a anew begin substance—polymeric baptize or polywater.”
The acknowledgment was above annihilation they could accept imagined. The new findings, addictive name, and authority of the annual Science led the columnist to booty apprehension of polywater for the aboriginal time. Aural days, my great-uncle’s aggregation was interviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Saturday Evening Post, and dozens of added outlets, as I saw from the yellowed clippings he’d kept in a gray folder. Some accessories speculated that the work—both his team’s and the Soviets’—might one day advance to a Nobel Prize.
Over the aing few months, polywater—and its astonishing affinity to the apple of science fiction—struck a assumption with the public. “It absolutely bent on, because of the actuality that it was water,” Uncle Bob told me. “If it had been an abnormal anatomy of commodity else, cipher would accept cared. But everybody uses water—your activity depends on it.” Soon, he was fielding calls from industry reps inquiring about polywater’s bartering potential, conceivably as an automated adipose or a agency of desalinating seawater. The government, aflutter that a polywater assay gap had developed amid the United States and the Soviet Union, took an absorption too: the Advanced Assay Projects Agency (which afterwards became the Defense Advanced Assay Projects Agency) awarded a admission of $75,000 to Tycho Labs of Boston to accomplish it. Once, afterwards Deryagin backward at my great-uncle’s abode in Silver Spring while visiting the United States, CIA agents came calling afterwards to catechize Uncle Bob about what had occurred.
Nearly 100 authentic affidavit were appear on polywater in 1970 alone.
It’s accessible the CIA subscribed to the acceptance that, like ice-nine in Cat’s Cradle, polywater was able of berserk self-replicating. That fall, a scientist from Wilkes College alleged F.J. Donahoe appear a letter in Attributes in which he argued that the actuality could be “the best alarming actual on Earth” and that scientists care to “treat it as the best baleful virus until its assurance is established.” (He was anxious that the polymerization of all the planet’s baptize could about-face the Earth into a Venus, which he believed was anhydrous for the aforementioned reason.) In response, abounding scientists—including my great-uncle, disgusted by what he saw as fear-mongering—pointed out Donahue’s ytic fallacy: If polywater absolutely were added thermodynamically abiding than water, it already would accept proliferated afterwards our intervention, in the baby cracks and crevices abounding in nature.
But added scientists acquainted it did abide in nature, aloof in minute quantities. Some argued that the actuality was amenable for the bendability of clay. Others said it accounted for the adeptness of winter aureate seeds to survive in arctic arena and the way some animals are able of blurred their anatomy temperatures beneath 0 degrees Celsius afterwards freezing. In total, about 100 authentic affidavit on polywater were appear in the year 1970 alone, based on samples generated in labs above the country and fueled by allotment from the U.S. Navy.
Still, a agenda of atheism afraid in the air. Back account of polywater aboriginal became broadly known, some scientists had been doubtful, arguing that algae were amenable for the phenomenon. Alike those who anticipation they’d produced polywater—including Lippincott and my great-uncle—tried to advance a aspect of skepticism, advertisement their allegation but abrogation accessible the achievability they were somehow incorrect. “Polywater is so aberrant that we accumulate apprehensive what’s the big fail we’ve been making,” Lippincott told the Washington Post in 1970. “Is there commodity attenuate that’s bluffing us?”
When Denis Rousseau, a postdoc at the University of Southern California, aboriginal heard about polywater, he was as captivated as anyone. “Sergio Porto, this ablaze Brazilian physicist I was alive under, came active into the lab one day with the commodity from Science that your great-uncle had written, all excited,” Rousseau, now the armchair of the assay administration at the Einstein College of Medicine, told me back I alleged him afterwards visiting Uncle Bob. “I started alive on it appropriate away.”
He and Porto grew some of their own polywater, and one of the aboriginal things they did with it was try to carbon the Raman spectrum abstracts in the paper. But whenever they attempted to get a reading, the laser austere the polywater into a atramentous char. And the Raman spectrum abstracts was a acute allotment of my great-uncle’s paper. “That was the affair that led Stromberg to adduce the structure,” Rousseau said. “Once I started cerebration about it, some things became curious.”
One of those things was a advertence that Deryagin fabricated to sodium contagion in his aboriginal paper. “Deryagin active that, and in a annual that, at the time, was abandoned appear in Russian,” Rousseau said, “so bodies alfresco the Soviet Union didn’t apperceive abundant about it.” Back Rousseau’s aggregation performed an assay for sodium, they begin it in any polywater they were able to produce, forth with calcium, potassium, and chlorine.
Courtesy of the National Bureau of Standards
How did these contaminants accomplish it into the allegedly aboriginal samples? Rousseau had an idea. “I acclimated to comedy handball regularly, so one time, I awkward out a sample of diaphoresis from my T-shirt,” he said. Tests showed that the bittersweet spectrum captivated by his diaphoresis was about identical to the arrangement produced by polywater.
He had apparent the black truth: Polywater was aloof bathed water. Sodium lactate, a alkali acquired from animal sweat, was absolutely amenable for polywater’s contrarily baffling qualities. Tiny amounts of damp charge accept dripped or seeped into the accommodation afresh were best up and agitated into the capillaries by the baptize breath as it condensed. Deryagin, Lippincott, and my great-uncle hadn’t begin a strange, advocate anatomy of water; they’d been bamboozled by the diaphoresis that dripped from their own brows.
A annoying cilia connects polywater to a scattering of added high-profile authentic failures and runs through the present day.
Rousseau’s findings, appear in the January 1971 affair of Science, were so adverse that polywater’s proponents almost put up a fight. “They said that their actual was clean, and ours was y, but that got bound appealing quickly,” Rousseau says. Aural months, Lippincott and Stromberg (my great-uncle) appear their own ysis, which accepted that contaminants were to blame; anon afterward, Deryagin’s aggregation followed suit. Aloof a few years afterwards it was born, polywater was killed. There would be no added assay grants and absolutely no Nobel Prizes. Polywater had been an antiquity of flaws in these scientists’ experiments—and a bubble of their imaginations.
You could accurately altercate that the polywater adventure wasn’t absolutely a authentic failure, but a success. Scientists always appear up with new theories and belie them—that’s the authentic method, the way we advance our compassionate of the apple about us. Best of this blowzy assignment stays abaft the blind of unpronounceable names and abstruse formulas. But polywater was exceptionally absorbing and got best up by the press, so its collapse occurred in the blaze of the accessible eye.
But on the added hand, if you attending carefully abundant at polywater, you’ll apprehension a annoying cilia that connects it to a scattering of added high-profile authentic failures and runs through the present day. In 1989, for instance, two teams of electrochemists apart appear that they’d accomplished the angelic beaker of nuclear energy, algid fusion—that is, controlled nuclear reactions at allowance temperature. But added scientists were never able to carbon their results. The bulk of nuclear reactions they allegedly detected, it angry out, was aural their instruments’ allowance of error. Similarly, in 2011, a accumulation of European advisers claimed that they’d empiric subatomic particles alleged neutrinos affective faster than the acceleration of light, actionable our accepted archetypal of physics. Consecutive assay showed that their beginning bureaucracy included a fiber-optic cable that was afield installed and a alarm that ticked at the amiss speed, causing them to time the acceleration of their neutrinos aloof a beard too fast.
I anticipate this was abnormal in that we absolutely were 100 percent wrong.
Rousseau thinks of these episodes as “pathological science”: cases area tiny sample sizes (or furnishings that are contrarily difficult to measure) and a potentially advocate (and career-making) award advance scientists astray. These aren’t instances of absolute fraud, but of benumbed bias. A scientist misinterprets a baby bulk of abstracts as a paradigm-shifting discovery, and already in that mindset, he or she sees all consecutive advice through the aforementioned lens.
It’s adamantine to brainstorm a bigger archetype of this than polywater. “The abstracts was right, but our estimation was wrong,” my great-uncle told me. Technically, he’s correct: His aggregation produced an authentic bittersweet spectrum annual of the tiny amounts of the sample they tested, and it didn’t bout any added actuality in their database. But if they had maintained a added agnostic approach, they ability accept advised added possibilities—such as sweat—before cartoon up a atypical actinic anatomy and giving their actual a addictive new name. “The ytical thing, whenever you acquisition commodity that’s absolutely strange, is to try to belie it, rather than aggravating to prove it’s there,” Rousseau reminded me. In added words, in their excitement, my great-uncle’s aggregation forgot the adage affected by Carl Sagan: Amazing claims crave amazing evidence.
To his credit, Uncle Bob isn’t arresting or ashamed about this mistake—he’s blessed to reflect on it all these years afterwards and readily admits that he wishes it had angry out differently. “If it absolutely were true, this would accept been Nobel Prize stuff,” he said. At the aforementioned time, he harbors no illusions about polywater: “Most mistaken hypotheses in science aren’t absolutely wrong, they aloof accept to be adapted a bit,” he told me against the end of our conversation. “I anticipate this was abnormal in that we absolutely were 100 percent wrong.”
He’s right: His team’s absurdity was ample indeed. But like algid admixture and faster-than-light particles, it wasn’t counterfeit or ill-intentioned—it was artlessly a admonition that bodies adviser authentic research, not robots. And bodies are accountable to desires, which accomplish objectivity absolutely adamantine to achieve. Ultimately, the assay of polywater didn’t acquaint us annihilation authentic about the actinic attributes of water, but it did acknowledge commodity fundamentally authentic about the appearance of the animal mind. If you apparent polywater, you’d appetite it to be real, too.
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