To fully tell
the story of polywater, it is impossible not to mention the role the media
played in propagating the story. The term “fake news” is a relatively new term,
but an old idea. Polywater is a great example the media pushing a narrative,
instead of searching for the truth. We are all aware of how dangerous the media
can be; be it “vaccines cause autism”²? or “burnt toast gives you cancer”³?,
sensational journalism has always existed and one must be cautious of it at all
So how does
this relate to polywater, you might ask? At its height, polywater was the
ultimate in sensational, tabloid-esque journalism. It quite literally was
promoted as “the most dangerous material on Earth”. To understand why such a
notion was able to take a foothold in the media, some historical context is
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To begin this
story, you have to go back to 1963. Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Cat’s Cradle” was
published. A popular novel at the time, this novel would go on to plant the
seed of polywater in people’s minds. This dystopian science fiction novel
revolves around one central plot device; “ice-nine”. Ice-nine is a strange version
on water concocted in a lab. It is solid at room temperature and when it comes
in contact with regular water, it instantaneously converts it into ice-nine.
In the story,
this “ice-nine” was invented with military applications, the idea being that it
could be used to convert muddy swamp lands into more solid terrain, which would
make it easier for the transport of soldiers and vehicles. As this novel was
written right after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the story is a reflection
of the dangers of man’s pursuit of technological progress with no limits of
morality. Ice-nine is an allegory for nuclear weapons and how quick and
desperate we were to obtain such destructive power with seemingly no regard for
the dangers they present.
we managed to avoid thermonuclear destruction in reality, but in Vonnegut’s
novel, there was no such luck. A display of military might in the version of an
air show results in a plane crashing, and in the ensuing carnage, a piece of
ice-nine falls into the ocean, freezing the planet over instantly, eventually
all but ending life on Earth.
The novel was
a warning of unethical science, of progress without morality. The similarities
between Vonnegut’s “ice-nine” and the polywater should be self-evident. Both
are strange versions of water, both are made in a lab, and both have unknown
potential. This novel planted the seed of “dangerous water” into the public
This is only
half of the historical context as to why the story of polywater was so
gripping. As previously alluded to, the polywater saga occurred during the Cold
War. There was a very real fear of nuclear Armageddon in the world. The
Americans and Soviets were embroiled in a war of science and propaganda. Both
were desperate to one up each other in scientific progress, whilst
simultaneously spreading propaganda about each other. This was the perfect
climate for fear mongering journalism, though understandably so.
mentioned, the first discovery of this “anomalous water” was by a Soviet
scientist. It wasn’t until a few years later that the Americans even took
notice of this discovery. Seeing as the Americans knew next to nothing about
polywater, but the Soviets had some semblance of knowledge on it, American
scientists began a scramble to close the so called “polywater gap”. It was
simply unacceptable for the Americans to be lagging behind the Soviets in any
shape or form.
interesting anecdote that highlights the American government’s polywater panic
comes from Robert R. Stromberg, one of the authors of the original polywater
paper, from which polywater got its namesake. In an article published in Slate
by his grand-nephew in 2013, Stromberg claims that Deryaguin, one of the Soviet
scientists who first published work on what he called “anomalous water”, came
to the States and stayed with him at his house briefly. Presumably, this visit
was one of scientific purpose. After Deryaguin left, Stromberg claims in this
article that he was visited by CIA agents who wanted to know all that was discussed
between the two. The CIA was founded during the Cold War to prevent the spread
of communism and was the propaganda arm of the US government when it came to
the Soviets, as well as the most important governmental body when it came to
collecting information on Soviet Russia. If the CIA decided to take notice, you
can bet that they were taking the threat of polywater very seriously.
scientific frenzy began. In 1970 alone, over 100 scientific articles were
published on the topic of polywater.³¹ This mania, though driven by the
scientific community, was exasperated by the media. They were fueled not only
by the scientific research, but also the ominous warnings the more hyperbolic
scientists were promoting. One infamous such case was in a letter to “Nature”
by F.J Donahoe.³² In this letter, he referred to polywater as “the most
dangerous material on Earth”. This sort of unsubstantiated claim only fueled
the media hysteria. Donahoe, a professor at Wilkes College, goes on to make
some more outlandish claims about polywater. He believed polywater may be
responsible for the desiccated surface of Venus and that if the appropriate
measures were not taken, our planet could end up as lifeless and barren as
Venus. The similarities between this claim and “Cat’s Cradle” are glaring.
truly was akin to its fictitious cousin, ice-nine, certain problems arise. If
it has the ability to convert regular water into polywater, this would imply
that polywater is the more thermodynamically stable of the two, i.e. energy is
released upon the conversion of water to polywater. This conundrum was not lost
on the scientists of the time, with one claiming that should polywater exist,
and have this miraculous conversion ability, an organism would exist somewhere
on Earth that would ingest water, convert it into polywater, and then use the
energy released to power its metabolism. And if such an organism existed, then
presumably the polywater they excreted would already have desiccated our planet
in the way Donahoe described. Seeing as this obviously wasn’t the case, the
dangers of polywater were clearly overstated.
though, these kinds of claims are too irresistible to the more sensational
journalists. Non-American journalists were not immune to falling ill to this
either, with the fear of polywater making its way across the Atlantic. The
Irish Times published a story titled”POLYWATER–‘DEADLY DANGER’ WARNING”.³³ In this article, the words of Donahoe are reiterated and
this baseless panic spread.
Whilst scouring the articles published on polywater, it is
easy to get sucked into the same trap as the journalists at the time. The more
sensational articles stand out, they are more eye catching and emotion
provoking, no doubt intentionally so. Despite this, it is also imperative to
highlight the fact that many media outlets were not as dramatic as their
tabloid counterparts. In fact, many scientists also showed some healthy and
much needed scepticism
towards the polywater phenomenon, though unfortunately these voices were often
drowned out by the more scandalous ones. “Polywater isn’t dangerous” does not
sell as many papers as the antithetical headline.
One such scientific article published in 1971
was one by W. M. Madigosky in “Science” titled
“Polywater or Sodium Acetate”.³? In this article, he highlights the
similarities between the IR spectrum of polywater and sodium acetate, as seen
below. This is important as in the original polywater paper it was the supposed
“unique” IR spectra of polywater that lead them to assume they had discovered
an entirely new molecule.
This is an important factor to remember;
there was plenty of research that did not support the media narrative of
polywater being a potential threat to all life on Earth. This research, in
fact, seemed to show polywater did not even exist as it was thought to, which
of course turned out to be true.
As mentioned, a healthy amount of newspapers
published more sceptic material on the subject of polywater. Indeed, some
publications even changed their tune. The Irish Times, having in 1969 published
fear mongering based on the baseless words of F.J. Donahoe, went on to publish
an article that was more based in fact than fiction in 1970.³? In this article, they report on the large
amount of scepticism that had begun to grown within the scientific community.
Though this was much better journalism, fear-based sensational journalism often
sticks in the readers’ heads much more than its opposite, therefore the damage
had already been done.
Upon the eventual revelation that polywater
was the same as ice-nine in only one way; they are both fictitious, scientific
community was left embarrassed and in need of some time for self-reflection.
The media were no different. They had bought into the hype and abandoned their
journalistic duties. The blame may be levelled largely at the feet of the
scientists, but the media were not innocent in this debacle. Between the
scientists and the journalists, they had created a positive feedback loop. A
few scientists would announce a wild hypothesis on the applications or dangers
of polywater, the media would amplify this and broadcast it to the world, thus
enticing more scientists to conjure up more lavish theories in the hopes of
getting global recognition for their work. No one is immune to their ego.
On reflection, you can empathise with the
journalists. The story they told, though untrue, was too gripping a story not
to tell. Journalists are, after all, story tellers at heart. So what components
made this story the perfect storm? As stated, Vonnegut’s novel played a large
part. Was polywater life imitating art or art imitating life? The concept of
science fiction becoming science fact has always been enticing.
Next was the timing of it all. Russian
scientists create strange water during the Cold War? Apocalyptic thinking ran
rampant at the time, not without good reason. Let us not forget that there
quite literally was a finger on the nuclear button only a few years before the
polywater saga. Journalists could be forgiven for taking even the more
ridiculous threats far more serious than they ought to. The world was in a
precarious balance at the time, with total global destruction not an unfeasible
eventuality. If the Soviets knew something America didn’t, it could spell the
end for them. Of course they treated polywater the way they did.
Furthermore, the very fact that the central
part of this story was water cannot be underestimated when trying to understand
why this narrative was such a compelling one. Water, with its many unique
chemical properties, is one of the most important commodities on Earth, with
practically all known organisms relying on it to keep them alive. The
association of water with life is deeply ingrained in the human consciousness.
Many civilisations throughout time have made this symbolic link between water
and life, with the fountain of youth being the one that comes to mind most
predominantly. The idea of converting this essential life force into a useless
form creates a fear that can shake us to our very core.
It is these three factors – Vonnegut’s novel,
“Cat’s Cradle”, the occurrence of this during the Cold War, and that it was
about our most precious resource, water – that truly created the perfect storm.
Journalists are not scientists. They are not trained with the skills necessary
to appropriately read a scientific article. They are story tellers, and this
story was too good to pass up on. Though understandable, this is a dereliction
of journalistic integrity and responsibility. The boring truth should supersede
the engaging fiction. The next section shall discuss polywater as a classic
example of “pathological science”, but it is fair to say that this was also a
cut and clear case of “pathological journalism”. The journalists were driven by
ego, not by their responsibility to the truth.