\Franks, Felix. Polywater. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1982.\

 

\Franks, Felix. Polywater. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1982.\

Here is a concise history of a scientific debacle of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The history
concerns so-called anomalous water, or polywater, or cylclimetric water, a substance
"discovered" by an obscure Russian chemist, Nikolai Fedyakin, working in an obscure outpost of
science in Kostroma, USSR. His "discovery" was taken over by the Big Name, Boris V.
Deryagin, of Moscow, who then set about to promote what was to be the most important
breakthrough in chemistry in the past 50 years. The original discovery was made in 1962; what
with the usual delays, it was not until 1968 or so that the substance became important here in the
U.S. The farce came to an end in 1972 with the admission that the data were contaminated.

The author of this book is a British expert on water. He did not get personally involved in the
polywater dispute. He was neutral in the scientific controversy and he is aware that his telling the
whole story here involves some risk: old wounds reopened, science made a laughingstock,
scandals best forgotten. He also sees some payoffs: can we see the social processes at work
which led these otherwise sane and sensible scientists down the primrose path?

It should be noted that if polywater had been real, it would have been of tremendous importance.
The American government, particularly the Navy, was willing to invest in research. And, if
someone were looking for money, polywater research was a guaranteed funding. Further,
American scientists were keenly aware that the Russians had beaten us to space; they did not
want to be second to the Russians in polywater. Then, too, there were several scientists who
"took sides" early in the dispute and, having committed themselves, behaved in ways which were
predictable using dissonance theory. There were some Big Name American scientists who lent
their names to work in this field. Their involvement brought in some of the younger men. (The
biggest name involved was Ellis R. Lippencott, who published an article in Science which
attracted a lot of attention.) Then, Science and Nature, too, made much of polywater, a sort of
weekly "gee-whiz science."

Why wasn't the contamination recognized earlier? There were, in fact, several suggestions that
contamination might have been the source of the oddity. But the tiny amounts of the substance
were such that adequate testing was almost impossible. (This was pathological science - in
Langmuir's sense.)