POLYWATER by Felix Franks


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Does polywater ring a bell? About a decade ago the idea that water could exist in nature in an exceptionally stable and viscous form, with a much higher boiling point and lower freezing point than ordinary water, was the talk of several continents. Perhaps this was the ""bound"" water in living cells. In any case the military and industrial establishment began to ponder applications. All came to nought, however, when it turned out that polywater was an artifact--droplets contaminated with impurities from the container or processing method. Felix Franks, an acknowledged expert on the physics and chemistry of water, here examines the rise and fall of polywater as a cautionary tale of how science is done. (He himself was never involved in polywater research.) The story gets underway with reports of ""modified"" water by a Russian group headed by Boris Deryagin. British scientists--among them J. D. Bernal--get excited; and the momentum picks up as a scientist in the US Office of Naval Research begins investigations. A snowballing effect is all but guaranteed when a distinguished spectroscopist reports findings on polywater in Science. Monies are suddenly found to fund research, and the lay press duly pounces on polywater's potential. Franks very capably reports the swelling melodrama and the denouement: the doubters' camp built up, some early believers recanted, and soon it was evident that silica or other contaminants were the culprits responsible for polywater's charms; even the Russians backed down. Franks considers events in the light of the late Sixties when science was riding high, but also when the very idea that the Russians were on to something could spark instant action. Unfortunately, he tends to lay excessive blame on the lay press (and the scientists who talked to them), forgetting that it was the scientists' own dreams of glory that led to the babble. While some reputations suffered, and the events are yet another revelation of the fierce competition and ego-striving that motivates some scientists, the affair ended relatively quickly, without outrageous outlays of funds. It wasn't quite as bad as Franks makes out--but he also makes of it an intriguing, unusual book.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
Publisher: MIT Press