Polywater -- instructive scientific fiasco; Polywater, by Felix Franks. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. $12.50.

By , Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

A little less than two decades ago, reports from the Soviet Union told of discovery of a remarkable form of water. It boiled at twice the temperature required for normal water, froze only at several tens of degrees below zero C. Furthermore, and again unlike ordinary water, it did not become lighter as it neared the freezing temperature. Ice of this strange water would sink rather than float.

Thus was born the saga of polywater -- one of the most intriguing and revealing episodes of "pathological science" in modern times. By the time it had run its course in the early 1970s, a number of leading scientists had put their reputations on the line, endorsing what turned out to be a glorious mistake.

Moreover, the Western press and public had been solemnly warned by one such scientist that experimenters were playing around with a form of water that, if it escaped the laboratory, could extinguish life on earth.

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Here is choice material for the historian of science, and Franks, a distinguished surface chemist and expert on water, has made the most of it in this book, due to be published in May. His book not only recounts an intriguing case history of how scientists fooled themselves; he also gives readers an interesting account of the nature of real water and its importance on this planet, as well as an insight into the sociology of natural science.

As he is careful to explain, the scientists who fell for polywater were fooled, but they were not basically foolish, at least in the beginning. They had reason to believe they were on the trail of a major discovery, the stuff of which Nobel Prizes are made.

The material was hard to prepare and could be studied only in small quantities. Even then, measurements strained the skill of the most careful experimentalists. So it was not immediately obvious that the remarkable properties claimed for this substance were due to contamination, as it turned out. Furthermore, finding such a substance would have been a key discovery.

The properties suggested that this was a polymer (a linking of molecules) -- hence the name polywater -- that would be the most stable form of water. This implied, among other things, that it could convert all other forms of water to itself if released into the environment. Since polywater would be a biological poison, the prospect caused some alarm.

As the polywater episode unfolded, many scientists rushed in to work on it, or sometimes to deride it. There was a scramble for "priority" of discoveries and much unprofessional pushing and shoving. Dr. Frank presents this story in a way that reveals how scientists go about their work "objectively" yet exhibit the normal human frailties, and how they are constrained both by the politics of the scientific community and of the governmental system of research funding.

This is not the definitive last word on the polywater episode. Dr. Franks himself notes that we do not have enough perspective on such a recent event for that. But it is an brightly written, informative book that gives an accurate feeling for the pitfalls and the great stre ngth of the scientific enterprise.

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