Physics + Math

08
Nov

Polywater—Oily, Mysterious, and Ultimately Nonexistent

Last year, writer Joseph Stromberg discovered his great-uncle Robert R. Stromberg was involved in a then-famous, now-forgotten scientific incident. Uncle Bob, as Stromberg calls him, was a researcher at the National Bureau of Standards who helped the Americans and British produce and study polywater, a mysterious form of water that, compared with normal water, was oily, incredibly dense, and remained a liquid down to -40˚ F. A Soviet scientist named Boris Deryagin announced the discovery of this curious substance in 1966, and American and British scientists were racing to close what was called the “polywater gap.” Researchers, companies, and even the CIA were desperate to know more about polywater.

suspended-water-droplet
Both normal water and polywater have surface tension—but polywater clung to itself with more tenacity.

Polywater could be created by allowing regular water to evaporate in an enclosed chamber and condense inside thin glass capillary tubes. Stromberg’s great uncle and his colleague Warren Grant were particularly adept at producing the stuff, and they teamed up with Ellis Lippincott, a scientists at the University of Maryland, who was working to characterize polywater. Lippincott was using spectroscopy techniques—he would bombard polywater with various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and analyze the returns. By 1969, Stromberg, Warren, and Lippincott were able to confirm what the Soviets had discovered. Polywater, it appeared, was both real and bizarre. The race was on.

Stromberg, writing for Slate:

Over the next few months, polywater—and its uncanny resemblance to the world of science fiction—struck a nerve with the public. “It really caught on, because of the fact that it was water,” Uncle Bob told me. “If it had been an unusual structure of something else, nobody would have cared. But everybody uses water—your life depends on it.” Soon, he was fielding calls from industry reps inquiring about polywater’s commercial potential, perhaps as an industrial lubricant or a means of desalinating seawater. The government, fearful that a polywater research gap had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union, took an interest too: the Advanced Research Projects Agency (which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded a grant of $75,000 to Tycho Labs of Boston to mass-produce it. Once, after Deryagin stayed at my great-uncle’s house in Silver Spring while visiting the United States, CIA agents came calling afterward to debrief Uncle Bob about what had occurred.

Speculation about polywater, its uses, and its prevalence was rampant. What held it together, some unknown form of chemical bond? What could it be used for? And did it occur in nature, however scarcely?

Less than two years later, we had an answer. A January 1971 paper in Science revealed the truth about polywater—it didn’t exist. At least, not in the form scientists thought. Uncle Bob and his collaborators hadn’t tried fooling anyone—if anything, they had been duped by their own data. So what was polywater? Head over to Stromberg’s article to find out. It’s a tale that’s well worth a read.