Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Polywater: lest we forget

Many readers may be unaware of an embarrassing period in the history of physical chemistry and quantum chemistry [and Science, Nature, and DARPA]. (I only know about it because I grew up hearing my father talk about it). For a few heady years around 1970, many scientists sincerely believed that there was a stable polymer form of water. This was even "supported" by quantum chemistry calculations by Allen and Kollman (Princeton University) published in Science.
Eventually, it turned out that the original experimental evidence for polywater resulted from impurities.
This sad episode is recounted in detail in the book Polywater by Felix Franks. There is a very nice review by David Eisenberg, entitled "A Scientific Gold Rush" (published in Science!) of the book. It is worth reading, including the discussion of how the fact that the existence of polywater would have violated the laws of thermodynamics did not deter many true believers...
Here is a quote from the review:

[Franks] is interested in the factors, partly nonscientific, that created the gold rush atmosphere and distorted the normal scientific process. Among the factors blamed by Franks are: 
the willingness of some scientists to submit for publication incomplete or even shoddy work in order to achieve priority; 
a breakdown in normal standards of reviewing, particularly in journals such as Nature and Science that publish short notes on matters perceived to be of wide current interest; 
a concern among administrators in defense-sponsored research agencies that in the post-Sputnik era it would be unfortunate to allow the Soviets the lead in another field; 
a fascination on the part of the public, created in part by exaggerated and inaccurate reports in the popular press, with a new form of water; 
a tendency of investigators to leak results to the press before publication;
It is fascinating and noteworthy that JACS only published one paper on polywater. Somehow some of the factors above remind me of "quantum biology" today...

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