Polywater was a hypothetical polymerized form of water that was the subject of much scientific controversy during the late 1960s. By 1969 the popular press had taken notice, and by 1970 doubts about its authenticity were being circulated. By 1973 it was found to be illusory. Today, it is used as an example of pathological science.
The Soviet physicist Nikolai Fedyakin, working at a small government research lab in Kostroma, Russia, had performed measurements on the properties of water that had been condensed in, or repeatedly forced through, narrow quartz capillary tubes. Some of these experiments resulted in what was seemingly a new form of water with a higher boiling point, lower freezing point, and much higher viscosity than ordinary water, about that of a syrup.
Boris Derjaguin, director of the laboratory for surface physics at the Institute for Physical Chemistry in Moscow, heard about Fedyakin’s experiments. He improved on the method to produce the new water, and though he still produced very small quantities of this mysterious material, he did so substantially faster than Fedyakin did. Investigations of the material properties showed a substantially lower freezing point of −40 °C or less, a boiling point of 150 °C or greater, a density of approx. 1.1 to 1.2 g/cm³, and increased expansion with increasing temperature. The results were published in Soviet science journals, and short summaries were published in Chemical Abstracts in English, but Western scientists took no notice of the work.
In 1966, Derjaguin travelled to England for the “Discussions of the Faraday Society” in Nottingham. There he presented the work again, and this time English scientists took note of what he referred to as anomalous water. English scientists then started researching the effect as well, and by 1968 it was also under study in the United States.
By 1969 the concept had spread to newspapers and magazines. There was fear by the United States military that there was a polywater gap with the Soviet Union.
A scientific furor followed. Some experimentalists were able to reproduce Derjaguin’s findings, while others failed. Several theories were advanced to explain the phenomenon. Some proposed that it was the cause for increasing resistance on trans-Atlantic phone cables, while others predicted that if polywater were to contact ordinary water, it would convert that water into polywater, echoing the doomsday scenario in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. By the 1970s, polywater was well-known in the general population.
During this time several people questioned the authenticity of what had come to be known in the West as polywater. The main concern was contamination of the water, but the papers went to great lengths to note the care taken to avoid this. Denis Rousseau and Sergio Porto of Bell Labs carried out infrared spectrum analysis which showed polywater was made mostly of chlorine and sodium. Denis Rousseau undertook to experiment with his own sweat after playing a handball game at the lab, and found it had identical properties. He then published a paper suggesting that polywater was nothing more than water with small amounts of biological impurities.
Another wave of research followed, this time more tightly controlled. Invariably the polywater could no longer be made. Chemical analysis found that samples of polywater were contaminated with other substances (explaining the changes in melting and boiling points), and examination of polywater via electron microscopy showed that it also contained small particles of various solids from silicon to phospholipids, explaining its greater viscosity.
When the experiments that had produced polywater were repeated with thoroughly cleaned glassware, the anomalous properties of the resulting water vanished, and even the scientists who had originally advanced the case for polywater agreed that it did not exist. This took a few years longer in the Soviet Union, where scientists still clung to the idea.
Denis Rousseau used polywater as a classic example of pathological science, and has since written on other examples as well.
It has been suggested that polywater should have been dismissed on theoretical grounds. The laws of thermodynamics predicted that, since polywater had a higher boiling point than ordinary water, it meant that it was more stable, and the whole column of ordinary water should have turned spontaneously into polywater, instead of just part of it. Richard Feynman remarked that, if such a material existed, then there would exist an animal that would not need food. That animal would just ingest water and excrete polywater, using the energy released on the process to survive.
The story “Polywater Doodle” by Howard L. Myers using the surname Dr. Dolittle appeared in the February, 1971 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It features an animal composed entirely of polywater, with the metabolism described by Richard Feynman.
Polywater is the central idea of the 1972 espionage/thriller novel A Report from Group 17 by Robert C. O’Brien. The story revolves around the use of a type of polywater to make people controllable and incapable of independent thought or action.
The Star Trek episode “The Naked Time” features polywater that is capable of infecting and spreading like a virus. Infected victims start sweating profusely at first, then lose their inhibitions, acting as though as they’re drunk. This plotline was later revisited in the spinoff series Star Trek: The Next Generation in the episode “The Naked Now.”