New (old) forms of water and the scientific method

We’re used to dealing with normal everyday water (H2O). And when we freeze it we get ice. But there are interesting unusual versions of ice. We’re used to the normal version of ice that melts at 0 °C. But there are others. There’s even the horrifying (and fictional) ice-nine.

But what about different versions of water? It turns out that around 1970 the Soviets and the US were working on a new version of water: polywater. They had managed to condense a version of water that looked oily, froze at -40 °C, boiled at 150 °C, and was denser than normal water. More and more scientists got in on making this, and there was a real worry that the US was falling behind the Soviets in learning about polywater.

The only problem was all the scientists were wrong. It turns out that all of the polywater made was contaminated. By sweat. It was just sweaty water. While various scientists were analyzing the stuff, they came up with various theories on what it was and why it behaved the way it did. These theories were quickly tossed aside and other theories proposed. This is how science works. And when someone realize that due to the small sample sizes, everyone had made a similar mistake that gave them a contaminated sample, the whole thing was tossed.

There have been other, more popular, cases where a scientific claim is made and it lives for a while before being discredited: cold fusion, faster than light neutrinos. This kind of science, where the hope for fame may be ahead of rigorous science, is sometimes called pathological science.

I think the one with the faster than light neutrinos doesn’t belong in this list though. The scientists involved got results that even they thought were wrong. They just didn’t know why, and were asking other scientists to vet their work and tell them where they were wrong (a sensor was installed wrong). They didn’t mean for the public to read about it. But when others published about it, the writers made it seem that they thought they had proven Einstein wrong, which wasn’t what was going on.