Saturday, November 09, 2013

Joseph Stromberg on the Polywater Fiasco

Slate has a wonderful contribution to narrative history of a key episode in "pathological science" (a term used by Denis Rousseau in his paper; Rousseau himself was involved the work that led to the quick death of the polywater myth) -- The Curious Case of Polywater: In the 1960s, scientists discovered a new form of water. How did they get it so wrong?. It's filled with insights into hidden biases in research, bandwagon effect, and competitive international politics. Towards the end, it makes the right connections to similar episodes, including cold fusion. Great stuff!

Here's an excerpt on some of the sociological and political factors that fed the polywater frenzy:

Just before the team submitted a draft of their analysis for publication, Uncle Bob told me, he coined a catchier term for the chemical everyone had been calling anomalous water. “That just didn’t seem right as a name to me, so I wanted to think of something better,” he said, handing me the original June 27, 1969, issue of Science, which he’d held onto for all these years. “The properties,” his team wrote in the paper, “are no longer anomalous, but rather, those of a newly found substance—polymeric water or polywater.”

The response was beyond anything they could have imagined. The new findings, catchy name, and prestige of the journal Science led the press to take notice of polywater for the first time. Within days, my great-uncle’s team was interviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Saturday Evening Post, and dozens of other outlets, as I saw from the yellowed clippings he’d kept in a gray folder. Some articles speculated that the work—both his team’s and the Soviets’—might one day lead to a Nobel Prize.

Over the next few months, polywater—and its uncanny resemblance to the world of science fiction—struck a nerve with the public. “It really caught on, because of the fact that it was water,” Uncle Bob told me. “If it had been an unusual structure of something else, nobody would have cared. But everybody uses water—your life depends on it.” Soon, he was fielding calls from industry reps inquiring about polywater’s commercial potential, perhaps as an industrial lubricant or a means of desalinating seawater. The government, fearful that a polywater research gap had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union, took an interest too: the Advanced Research Projects Agency (which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded a grant of $75,000 to Tycho Labs of Boston to mass-produce it. Once, after Deryagin stayed at my great-uncle’s house in Silver Spring while visiting the United States, CIA agents came calling afterward to debrief Uncle Bob about what had occurred.


  1. Anonymous said...

    1. Hmmm... So JSTOR now allows you to view without charge one paper every 14/3 days (at most).

    2. >> "He calculated that it was 10 times more viscous than normal water and 40 percent denser,"


    >> "no matter how high they heated it, it didn’t boil away."

    So, Slate isn't talking about homoeopathy here, is it?