The story begins a few decades back, we are at the climax of the Cold War, 1962.
Nicolai Fedyakin, a scientist working at a small government research lab in Kostroma (Russia), made some experiments based on previous observation condensing water in hair-thin glass capillary tubes. His experimental set up consisted in a sealed chamber with a few ml of water at the bottom, a vacuum pump to lower the pressure in the chamber and thin glass capillary to entrap the condensed water (Fig.1).
From these experiments Fedyakin could isolate a new state of the water that he called “offspring water”. It had lower freezing point of about −40 °C, a boiling point of about 150 °C, a density of approx. 1.1 to 1.2 g/cm³. Fedyakin published his results in the 1962 in a Russian scientific journal that went unobserved by western scientists. Soon enough, another Russian scientist Boris Deryagin saw potential in Fedyakin studies. He could improve the production method and decided to open the findings to the western world.
In 1966, Deryagin showed to the western world the “anomalous” water at the “Discussions of the Faraday Society” in Nottingham. This time, scientist from all over the world took notice and started to try to replicate Deryagin experiments, in 1969 the U.S. Bureau of Standards determined that the samples analyzed were indeed a new form of water.
The excitement was beyond imagination, also thanks to the catchy name given to it in the Science issue of 1969, the “polywater” was born. The same year, a special symposium was held because was of primary importance to not lose the scientific lead on “polywater” to the Soviets. Next big goal was to determine the molecular structure and to do so they used spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy obtaining a unique reading. It was unclear how the water could somehow polymerize in the new form, but a few structures were hypothesized (Fig. 2). The hype was so big that it was even speculated that the atmosphere on Venus could be the results of “polywater” formation leading to the different destinies of Earth and Venus atmospheres and if enough “polywater” was released on the earth it could also turn to a venus-like planet. In Nature, the “polywater” was addressed as “potentially” the most dangerous material on Earth.
The Plot twist
As usual in science, some researchers became doubtful, in fact some characteristics of the polywater were close to the ones of the sea water. Some scientists started to look for contaminants in their self-produced “polywater” while some others were firmly convinced that they took all the precaution to be as sterile and clean as possible. In 1970, first proofs that “polywater” might have been the results of contamination emerged, in fact Denis Rousseau and Sergio Porto of Bell Labs found sodium, chlorine, calcium and potassium contamination in every sample of “polywater” they have produced. Moreover, Rousseau had the idea to analyze the infrared spectrum of his own sweat showing that it was identical to the one of “polywater”. Well the ugly truth emerged eventually, Rousseau published his findings in 1971 (Fig.3) proving that the extraordinary features of “polywater” were the result of minimum amounts of human perspiration. In about the 8 years and around 2000 paper published “polywater” disappeared as it was created by the scientific community.
What this whole story taught us? Is science not reliable? Do scientists know what they do? The real point of telling this story is actually to encourage you, scientists or not, that making mistakes is important. Because “polywater” is an extreme example where the theory was 100% wrong, while in most case a theory is only partially wrong. Every single mistake is a step forward to success, it is not a casualty that one of the fundamental methods of solving problems is called “trial and error”. To make errors is extremely important, without mistakes there is no science therefore scientists go out there and do not be afraid to make mistakes, eventually in the end you will get to the results you hope for. And if my word is not enough, after all I am also a human that makes mistakes, I will add some quotes from very successful people which by chance are also human that make mistakes.
• “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” (Thomas A. Edison)
• “Results! Because, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won`t work.” (Thomas A. Edison)
• “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” (Albert Einstein)
• “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” (Jules Verne)
• “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” (Niels Bohr)
• “Every great improvement has come after ten repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes right in the first time.” (Charles F. Kettering)
• “Successes teach you nothing. Failures teach you everything. Making mistakes is the most important thing you can do.” (James Dyson)
- “Anomalous” water could transform the Earth in Venus - September 26, 2016