Polywater was a hypothetical polymerized form of water that was the subject of much scientific controversy during the late 1960s. By 1969 the popular press had taken notice, to the point that it was used as a plot device in Star Trek (see also TNG: The Naked Now where the connection is clarified), and sparked fears of a "polywater gap" in the USA.
Increased press attention also brought with it increased scientific attention, and as early as 1970 doubts about its authenticity were being circulated. By 1973 it was found to be illusory, being just water with any number of common organic compounds contaminating it.
The Soviet physicist Nikolai Fedyakin, working at a small government research lab in Kostroma, Russia, had performed measurements on the properties of water that had been condensed in, or repeatedly forced through, narrow quartz capillary tubes. Some of these experiments resulted in what was seemingly a new form of water with a higher boiling point, lower freezing point, and much higher viscosity than ordinary water, about that of a syrup.
Boris Derjaguin, director of the laboratory for surface physics at the Institute for Physical Chemistry in Moscow, heard about Fedyakin's experiments. He improved on the method to produce the new water, and though he still produced very small quantities of this mysterious material, he did so substantially faster than Fedyakin did. Investigations of the material properties showed a substantially lower freezing point of −40 °C or less, a boiling point of 150 °C or greater, a density of approx. 1.1 to 1.2 g/cm³, and increased expansion with increasing temperature. The results were published in Soviet science journals, and short summaries were published in Chemical Abstracts in English, but Western scientists took no notice of the work.
In 1966, Derjaguin travelled to England for the "Discussions of the Faraday Society" in Nottingham. There he presented the work again, and this time English scientists took note of what he referred to as anomalous water. English scientists then started researching the effect as well, and by 1968 it was also under study in the United States.
A scientific furor followed. Some experimentalists were able to reproduce Derjaguin's findings, while others failed. Several theories were advanced to explain the phenomenon. Some proposed that it was the cause for increasing resistance on trans-Atlantic phone cables, while others predicted that if polywater were to contact ordinary water, it would convert that water into polywater, echoing the doomsday scenario in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle. By the 1970s, polywater was well known in the general population.
During this time several people questioned the authenticity of what had come to be known in the West as polywater. The main concern was contamination of the water, but the papers went to great lengths to note the care taken to avoid this. Denis Rousseau and Sergio Porto of Bell Labs carried out infrared spectrum analysis which showed polywater was made mostly of chlorine and sodium. Denis Rousseau undertook to experiment with his own sweat after playing a handball game at the lab, and found it had identical properties. He then published a paper suggesting that polywater was nothing more than water with small amounts of biological impurities.
Another wave of research followed, this time more tightly controlled. Invariably the polywater could no longer be made. Chemical analysis found that samples of polywater were contaminated with other substances (explaining the changes in melting and boiling points), and examination of polywater via electron microscopy showed that it also contained small particles of various solids from silica to phospholipids, explaining its greater viscosity.
When the experiments that had produced polywater were repeated with thoroughly cleaned glassware, the anomalous properties of the resulting water vanished, and even the scientists who had originally advanced the case for polywater agreed that it did not exist. This took a few years longer in the Soviet Union, where scientists still clung to the idea.
In August, 1973, Derjaguin and N. V. Churaev published a letter in the journal Nature in which they write that, "these [anomalous] properties should be attributed to impurities rather than to the existence of polymeric water molecules."
It has been suggested that polywater should have been dismissed on theoretical grounds. The laws of thermodynamics predicted that, since polywater had a higher boiling point than ordinary water, it meant that it was more stable, and the whole column of ordinary water should have turned spontaneously into polywater, instead of just part of it. Richard Feynman remarked that, if such a material existed, then there would exist an animal that would not need food. That animal would just ingest water and excrete polywater, using the energy released on the process to survive.
The story "Polywater Doodle" by Howard L. Myers (writing under the pseudonym "Dr. Dolittle") appeared in the February 1971 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It features an animal composed entirely of polywater, with the metabolism described by Richard Feynman. (The title of the story is a pun.)
Polywater is the central idea of the 1972 espionage/thriller novel A Report from Group 17 by Robert C. O'Brien. The story revolves around the use of a type of polywater to make people controllable and incapable of independent thought or action.
The Star Trek episode "The Naked Time" features a contagion that is capable of infecting and spreading like a virus, collecting carbon from bloodstreams and affecting the brain similarly to ingested ethanol. That this was polywater was not stated in that episode. Infected victims start sweating profusely at first, then lose their inhibitions, acting as though as they have been intoxicated. This plotline was later revisited in the spinoff series Star Trek: The Next Generation in the episode "The Naked Now." The treatment worked out in "The Naked Time" proved to be ineffective in "The Naked Now," forcing a reformulation.
- "Unnatural Water". Time magazine. December 19, 1969. Retrieved 2010-12-24. "Western scientists were frankly skeptical. Russian Chemists N. Fedyakin and Boris Deryagin claimed to have produced a mysterious new substance, a form of water that was so stable it boiled only at about 1,000°F., or five times the boiling temperature of natural water. It did not evaporate. It did not freeze—though at —40°F., with little or no expansion, it hardened into a glassy substance quite unlike ice."
- "Polywater". New York Times. September 22, 1969. Retrieved 2010-12-24. "Water is so essential, so abundant, so simple in composition and so intensively studied over the centuries that it seems a most unlikely substance to provide a major scientific surprise. Nevertheless, this is precisely what has recently occurred. American chemists have confirmed that there is a form of water with properties quite different from that of the fluid everyone takes for granted. Polywater as this substance has been named is an organized aggregate or polymer of ordinary water molecules but it has very different properties from its ..."
- "Doubts about Polywater". Time magazine. October 19, 1970. Retrieved 2010-12-24. "Challenged by critics to let impartial scientists analyze his polywater, Deryagin had turned over 25 tiny samples of the substance to investigators of the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of Chemical Physics. The results, which were published in the journal, showed that Deryagin's polywater was badly contaminated by organic compounds, including lipids and phospholipids, which are ingredients of human perspiration."
- S. T. Butler (September 17, 1973). "Polywater Debate Fizzles Out". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2010-12-24.
- Arthur Greenberg (1 January 2009). Chemistry. Infobase Publishing. pp. 287–. ISBN 978-1-4381-0978-7. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
- "U.S. Begins Efforts To Exceed the USSR In Polywater Science. Pentagon Picks Firm to Study Water-Like Fluid That Boils At 400, Was Isolated in 1961". Wall Street Journal. June 30, 1969. Retrieved 2010-12-24. "Good news The U.S. has apparently closed the polywater gap and the Pentagon is bankrolling efforts to push this country's polywater technology ahead of the ..."
- Christian, P. A.; Berka, L. H. (June 1973). "How You Can Grow Your Own Polywater". Popular Science. pp. 105–107.
- Rousseau, Denis L.; Porto, Sergio P. S. (March 27, 1970). "Polywater: Polymer or Artifact?". Science 167 (3926): 1715–1719. Bibcode:1970Sci...167.1715R. doi:10.1126/science.167.3926.1715. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
- Rousseau, Denis L. (January 15, 1971). ""Polywater" and Sweat: Similarities between the Infrared Spectra". Science 171 (3967): 170–172. Bibcode:1971Sci...171..170R. doi:10.1126/science.171.3967.170. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
- Franks, Felix (1981). Polywater. The MIT Press. p. 140. ISBN 0-262-06073-6.
- Rousseau, Denis L. (January–February 19921992). "Case Studies in Pathological Science". American Scientist 80 (1): 54–63. Bibcode:1992AmSci..80...54R.
- Henry H. Bauer. "'Pathological Science' is not Scientific Misconduct (nor is it pathological)". HYLE - International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry International 8 (1): 5–20. The above paper cites this review from Eisenberg: David Eisenberg (September 1981). "A Scientific Gold Rush. (Book Reviews: Polywater)". Science 213 (4512): 1104–1105. Bibcode:1981Sci...213.1104F. doi:10.1126/science.213.4512.1104. PMID 17741096.