One of the more curious incidents in science history is ‘polywater’. The existence of polywater was suggested by a Russian scientist Nikolai Fedyakin in the early 1960s and gained ground as other people also seemed to be able to detect physical properties in certain samples of water that were not present in others, suggesting that a new state of water had been created. Of course, we know that water can be in different states such as ice and steam but what was new was that polywater was a different kind of liquid water.
This article explains how the idea gained ground before it was debunked.
Fedyakin was probing an old theory. Back in the 19th century William Thomson, better known today as Lord Kelvin, found that individual water droplets evaporate faster than water in a bowl. Kelvin also noticed water in a glass tube evaporates even more slowly. He surmised that the curvature of the water’s surface affected how quickly it evaporated. To test Kelvin’s theory Fedyakin carefully placed drops of purified water in containers of different shapes. In one experiment he condensed water vapor in a glass tube the diameter of a human hair, sealed it, and stored it upright. When he examined the contents of the tube a few weeks later, he saw something strange. Under the microscope the column of liquid was divided into two parts, separated like vinegar and oil.
Why would water split into two parts, Fedyakin wondered, and did these parts behave in the same way? After repeating his experiments several times under clean laboratory conditions, Fedyakin managed to create a sample size smaller than the equivalent of a drop of dew. His observations were limited by the resolution of his microscope, but he could see enough to realize the liquid at the bottom of the glass tube was denser than ordinary water.
So far, so good. This is how new scientific discoveries are often made, when a researcher notices something odd while looking for something else and then explores further. This is normal science at work. Fedyakin was an unknown scientists working in a remote laboratory but his idea was picked up by Boris Deryagin, the internationally renowned director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry in Moscow, who seemed to be able to confirm the effect.
Deryagin struck up a collaboration with Fedyakin and then steadily absorbed the research of the little-known scientist into his own work. Deryagin’s team confirmed the substance at the bottom of the glass tube was denser and thicker than ordinary water. They also discovered that compared with ordinary water it froze at a far lower temperature (–40°F) and boiled at a much higher one (near 400°F). Using an optical microscope the researchers could also see this new type of water expanded more than ordinary water when heated and bent light differently. With every new observation Deryagin grew more convinced that this “modified water,” as he called it, was the most thermodynamically stable form of water, meaning any water coming into contact with the modified water would eventually become modified as well.
The idea of a new form of water changing all the normal water it comes into contact with caused some alarm. If polywater was the most stable form of water, then all water would eventually become polywater with unpredictable results. Naturally, this being the Cold War, the Russian origins of polywater added to the alarms. A paper published in June 27, 1969 in the journal Science by a group of American scientists seemed to provide definitive spectroscopic proof that this water was arranged in a honeycomb-shaped network.
Scientists—even the most skeptical—took notice. Polywater also caught the attention of the press and public, some of whom were reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s monstrous ice-nine from the novel Cat’s Cradle, published a few years earlier. Ice-nine froze whatever liquid H2O it touched, from lakes and rivers to blood and sweat. Like an infection, might the real-life weird water also change any water it came into contact with? And what if polywater were flushed down the toilet? Could it transform ordinary water in a treatment plant, water people might then drink? Physicist Frank Donahoe was also alarmed and vehement about polywater’s threat. “I regard the polymer as the most dangerous material on earth,” he wrote in Nature in October 1969. “Treat it as the most deadly virus until its safety is established.”
But many scientists were skeptical of the claims so scientists did what scientists usually do with new and puzzling discoveries, they convened a conference to explore the issue more deeply and see how to best test the theory. And this led to one of the skeptics, Denis Rousseau, a 29-year-old postdoctoral scientist at Bell Labs, finally finding out what was causing the strange result. It was microscopic amounts of impurities.
He told the heavyweights around him that in working with chemists skilled in detecting trace amounts of compounds, they found the “polywater samples show the material to be highly contaminated.” Results showed “high concentrations of sodium, potassium, carbon, oxygen, and chloride” as well as other compounds. Rousseau was confident impurities were at play in polywater: in one experiment in which he aimed a laser at a sample of polywater, the polywater burned and turned dark brown, a sign the sample contained more than just H2O molecules in a new configuration. “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to justify a polymer of water,” he said. Deryagin remained unswayed.
Rousseau was determined to prove the nonexistence of polywater, and to make his point he went to the gym, where he believed he could get to the source of the impurities. After an intense game of handball Rousseau wrung out the perspiration from his T-shirt and put a sample of it into his spectrometer. The machine spat out the chemical spectrum, which matched that of an earlier sample of polywater. In January 1971 Science published a paper with Rousseau’s findings. In it he wrote that each person, like the Peanuts character Pigpen, is surrounded by a fog containing a fine mist of that person’s essence. This mist, or aerosol, when it landed on the inside of a glass tube containing a microscopic amount of water, created the fluid with the odd behavior. Polywater turned out to be 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Put another way, polywater was merely dirty water.
This led to scientists giving up on the idea and in 1973 even Deryagin himself conceded that it was not a real effect. The story of how dramatic new ideas gain ground in science and then disappear into the history books is a fascinating one that has been repeated many times, with cold fusion perhaps being the most famous recent example. The rise and fall of polywater was quite rapid, the whole era lasting just about a decade, which may explain why fewer people seem to be aware of it these days.