To fully tellthe story of polywater, it is impossible not to mention the role the mediaplayed 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 mediacan 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 alltimes.So how doesthis relate to polywater, you might ask? At its height, polywater was theultimate in sensational, tabloid-esque journalism. It quite literally waspromoted as “the most dangerous material on Earth”. To understand why such anotion was able to take a foothold in the media, some historical context isnecessary.To begin thisstory, you have to go back to 1963.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Cat’s Cradle” waspublished. A popular novel at the time, this novel would go on to plant theseed of polywater in people’s minds. This dystopian science fiction novelrevolves around one central plot device; “ice-nine”. Ice-nine is a strange versionon water concocted in a lab. It is solid at room temperature and when it comesin 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 itcould be used to convert muddy swamp lands into more solid terrain, which wouldmake it easier for the transport of soldiers and vehicles. As this novel waswritten right after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the story is a reflectionof the dangers of man’s pursuit of technological progress with no limits ofmorality. Ice-nine is an allegory for nuclear weapons and how quick anddesperate we were to obtain such destructive power with seemingly no regard forthe dangers they present.
Thankfully,we managed to avoid thermonuclear destruction in reality, but in Vonnegut’snovel, there was no such luck. A display of military might in the version of anair show results in a plane crashing, and in the ensuing carnage, a piece ofice-nine falls into the ocean, freezing the planet over instantly, eventuallyall but ending life on Earth. The novel wasa warning of unethical science, of progress without morality. The similaritiesbetween Vonnegut’s “ice-nine” and the polywater should be self-evident. Bothare strange versions of water, both are made in a lab, and both have unknownpotential. This novel planted the seed of “dangerous water” into the publicconsciousness.This is onlyhalf of the historical context as to why the story of polywater was sogripping. As previously alluded to, the polywater saga occurred during the ColdWar.
There was a very real fear of nuclear Armageddon in the world. TheAmericans and Soviets were embroiled in a war of science and propaganda. Bothwere desperate to one up each other in scientific progress, whilstsimultaneously spreading propaganda about each other. This was the perfectclimate for fear mongering journalism, though understandably so.As previouslymentioned, the first discovery of this “anomalous water” was by a Sovietscientist. It wasn’t until a few years later that the Americans even tooknotice of this discovery. Seeing as the Americans knew next to nothing aboutpolywater, but the Soviets had some semblance of knowledge on it, Americanscientists began a scramble to close the so called “polywater gap”.
It wassimply unacceptable for the Americans to be lagging behind the Soviets in anyshape or form.Aninteresting anecdote that highlights the American government’s polywater paniccomes from Robert R. Stromberg, one of the authors of the original polywaterpaper, from which polywater got its namesake.
In an article published in Slateby his grand-nephew in 2013, Stromberg claims that Deryaguin, one of the Sovietscientists who first published work on what he called “anomalous water”, cameto the States and stayed with him at his house briefly. Presumably, this visitwas one of scientific purpose. After Deryaguin left, Stromberg claims in thisarticle that he was visited by CIA agents who wanted to know all that was discussedbetween the two. The CIA was founded during the Cold War to prevent the spreadof communism and was the propaganda arm of the US government when it came tothe Soviets, as well as the most important governmental body when it came tocollecting information on Soviet Russia. If the CIA decided to take notice, youcan bet that they were taking the threat of polywater very seriously. Thus, thescientific frenzy began. In 1970 alone, over 100 scientific articles werepublished on the topic of polywater.
³¹ This mania, though driven by thescientific community, was exasperated by the media. They were fueled not onlyby the scientific research, but also the ominous warnings the more hyperbolicscientists 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 mostdangerous material on Earth”. This sort of unsubstantiated claim only fueledthe media hysteria. Donahoe, a professor at Wilkes College, goes on to makesome more outlandish claims about polywater. He believed polywater may beresponsible for the desiccated surface of Venus and that if the appropriatemeasures were not taken, our planet could end up as lifeless and barren asVenus.
The similarities between this claim and “Cat’s Cradle” are glaring.If polywatertruly was akin to its fictitious cousin, ice-nine, certain problems arise. Ifit has the ability to convert regular water into polywater, this would implythat polywater is the more thermodynamically stable of the two, i.e. energy isreleased upon the conversion of water to polywater. This conundrum was not loston the scientists of the time, with one claiming that should polywater exist,and have this miraculous conversion ability, an organism would exist somewhereon Earth that would ingest water, convert it into polywater, and then use theenergy released to power its metabolism.
And if such an organism existed, thenpresumably the polywater they excreted would already have desiccated our planetin the way Donahoe described. Seeing as this obviously wasn’t the case, thedangers of polywater were clearly overstated. Unfortunatelythough, these kinds of claims are too irresistible to the more sensationaljournalists. Non-American journalists were not immune to falling ill to thiseither, with the fear of polywater making its way across the Atlantic. TheIrish Times published a story titled”POLYWATER–‘DEADLY DANGER’ WARNING”.³³ In this article, the words of Donahoe are reiterated andthis baseless panic spread.Whilst scouring the articles published on polywater, it iseasy to get sucked into the same trap as the journalists at the time.
The moresensational articles stand out, they are more eye catching and emotionprovoking, no doubt intentionally so. Despite this, it is also imperative tohighlight the fact that many media outlets were not as dramatic as theirtabloid counterparts. In fact, many scientists also showed some healthy andmuch needed scepticismtowards the polywater phenomenon, though unfortunately these voices were oftendrowned out by the more scandalous ones. “Polywater isn’t dangerous” does notsell as many papers as the antithetical headline.One such scientific article published in 1971was one by W. M. Madigosky in “Science” titled”Polywater or Sodium Acetate”.
³? In this article, he highlights thesimilarities between the IR spectrum of polywater and sodium acetate, as seenbelow. 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 discoveredan entirely new molecule.This is an important factor to remember;there was plenty of research that did not support the media narrative ofpolywater being a potential threat to all life on Earth. This research, infact, seemed to show polywater did not even exist as it was thought to, whichof course turned out to be true.As mentioned, a healthy amount of newspaperspublished more sceptic material on the subject of polywater. Indeed, somepublications even changed their tune.
The Irish Times, having in 1969 publishedfear mongering based on the baseless words of F.J. Donahoe, went on to publishan article that was more based in fact than fiction in 1970.³? In this article, they report on the largeamount of scepticism that had begun to grown within the scientific community.
Though this was much better journalism, fear-based sensational journalism oftensticks in the readers’ heads much more than its opposite, therefore the damagehad already been done. Upon the eventual revelation that polywaterwas the same as ice-nine in only one way; they are both fictitious, scientificcommunity 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 theirjournalistic duties. The blame may be levelled largely at the feet of thescientists, but the media were not innocent in this debacle. Between thescientists and the journalists, they had created a positive feedback loop.
Afew scientists would announce a wild hypothesis on the applications or dangersof polywater, the media would amplify this and broadcast it to the world, thusenticing more scientists to conjure up more lavish theories in the hopes ofgetting global recognition for their work. No one is immune to their ego.On reflection, you can empathise with thejournalists.
The story they told, though untrue, was too gripping a story notto tell. Journalists are, after all, story tellers at heart. So what componentsmade this story the perfect storm? As stated, Vonnegut’s novel played a largepart. Was polywater life imitating art or art imitating life? The concept ofscience fiction becoming science fact has always been enticing. Next was the timing of it all. Russianscientists create strange water during the Cold War? Apocalyptic thinking ranrampant at the time, not without good reason.
Let us not forget that therequite literally was a finger on the nuclear button only a few years before thepolywater saga. Journalists could be forgiven for taking even the moreridiculous threats far more serious than they ought to. The world was in aprecarious balance at the time, with total global destruction not an unfeasibleeventuality.
If the Soviets knew something America didn’t, it could spell theend for them. Of course they treated polywater the way they did.Furthermore, the very fact that the centralpart of this story was water cannot be underestimated when trying to understandwhy this narrative was such a compelling one.
Water, with its many uniquechemical properties, is one of the most important commodities on Earth, withpractically all known organisms relying on it to keep them alive. Theassociation of water with life is deeply ingrained in the human consciousness.Many civilisations throughout time have made this symbolic link between waterand life, with the fountain of youth being the one that comes to mind mostpredominantly. The idea of converting this essential life force into a uselessform 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 wasabout our most precious resource, water – that truly created the perfect storm.Journalists are not scientists.
They are not trained with the skills necessaryto appropriately read a scientific article. They are story tellers, and thisstory was too good to pass up on. Though understandable, this is a derelictionof journalistic integrity and responsibility. The boring truth should supersedethe engaging fiction. The next section shall discuss polywater as a classicexample of “pathological science”, but it is fair to say that this was also acut and clear case of “pathological journalism”.
The journalists were driven byego, not by their responsibility to the truth.