In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, a central plot element is called ice-nine.
The substance, created in a lab, was made up of familiar H2O molecules, but they were locked in a novel crystalline structure that froze solid at room temperature.
Because ice-nine crystals could spontaneously convert normal water into more ice-nine, the material was dangerous—just licking it would cause all the water in a person’s body to freeze solid. At the end of the book, a piece of ice-nine is accidentally knocked into the ocean, causing all of the Earth’s water to freeze and ending nearly all life on the planet in an instant.
While Vonnegut was working on his book, a pair of Soviet scientists discovered something eerily similar. But their new form of water—which they made by condensing pure water vapor in ultrathin glass tubes—congealed in tiny, viscous beads, like baby oil, and was 40 percent denser than normal water. Instead of freezing at 0 degrees Celsius, it solidified in a brownish glassy state at minus 40 degrees; no matter how high they heated it, it didn’t boil away.
Soon after they announced their find to the world in 1966, American and British scientists scrambled to produce some on their own. The substance, eventually named polywater, seized the imagination of the public (“New Water Doesn’t Freeze,” headlines proclaimed). Engineers speculated about its potential as an anti-freeze or anti-corrosive agent, while some scientists worried about the disastrous possibility that it could escape the lab and seed more polywater on its own.
Until recently, like most people, I’d never heard of polywater. But last year, my father told me he had an uncle, Robert R. Stromberg, who had been a researcher at the National Bureau of Standards in Maryland (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and was involved in the strange scientific episode. I’d never met the man, but I was fascinated by the scant information I could find about polywater and tickled by the idea I had a family member involved with it. I knew I had to dig deeper.
When I called up my great-uncle and went to visit him at his condo in Leisure World, a sprawling complex for seniors in Silver Spring, Md., I found a sharp 88-year-old with a full head of curly gray hair and a grin that distinctly reminded me of my grandfather, his brother, who died years ago.
After lunch in the clubhouse with his wife, Joy, and a tour of their garden plot, we sat next to an outdoor pool to talk. “It’s sort of a long story,” he began, sighing. “But basically, as you know, the material wasn’t what we thought it was.”
For Uncle Bob—and most of the Western world—the story began in 1966, when Boris Deryagin presented his findings at a conference in London. But it really started decades earlier, when a series of obscure papers had hinted that water sometimes behaved weirdly in certain experimental conditions.
In the 1920s, the Johns Hopkins chemist Walter A. Patrick, who invented silica gel, noted that occasionally when he used the gel to soak up water and then tried to evaporate it away, some water inexplicably stayed behind. One of his graduate students, a Russian immigrant named Leon Shershefsky, wrote his dissertation on a related phenomenon:
When he trapped tiny amounts of water in glass tubes, it too was more resistant to evaporation than it should have been. Years later, on the other side of the world, a Soviet researcher named K.M. Chmutov picked up the thread. He repeated Shershefsky’s experiments, then performed similar ones—confining the water between a flat plate and a curved lens to show that the tube itself wasn’t responsible—and published his findings in 1949.
In 1961 another Soviet scientist picked the work up again and isolated for the first time the substance that would eventually be known as polywater. This time, Nicolai Fedyakin, a chemist at the Institute of Light Industry in Kostroma (a scientific hinterland some 400 miles northeast of Moscow), made a key experimental change: Instead of simply trapping water in a tube, he forced it to condense in one, ensuring its purity.
As part of his experiments, he piled hair-thin glass capillary tubes horizontally in a sealed chamber with an inch or two of water at the bottom. With a vacuum pump, he lowered the pressure in the chamber, forcing the water to evaporate, and then allowed it to condense inside the tubes. Over the course of a few hours, at either end of the water inside the tubes grew tiny amounts of a mysterious oily substance.
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