#1 By: Maggie Koerth-Baker, November 12th, 2013 09:04
#2 By: Jonas Eggeater, November 12th, 2013 09:42
Awesome! That's a really interesting story. I guess that, in part at least, explains why our sterile techniques in labs nowadays are so heavily stressed upon. It's incredible that so many professional scientists could be fooled by the same simple mistake.
#3 By: gilbert wham, November 12th, 2013 09:50
Gloves, people. Gloves...
#4 By: mikelipino, November 12th, 2013 10:54
Not to be contrarian, but isn't peer review the point of most scientific research? Scientists should be free to make mistakes to be uncovered by other scientists who can't reproduce the results. I think the real story here is that when third parties, whether they be the "mainstream" media (meaning non-scientific journals), the government, or the military take research out of context, that's where science can become pathological.
On another note, that ball and stick diagram of the polywater crystal gives me high-school-chem heeby jeebies. Triple-bonded oxygen? Double-bonded hydrogen?? Not in MY molecules!
#5 By: Jonas Eggeater, November 12th, 2013 11:02
I still think the story shows the success of peer review in scientific communities, I was just surprised by how many scientists all made the same mistake before somebody caught it.
#6 By: edthehippie, November 12th, 2013 11:55
' cold fusion ' , now called ' lenr ' for ' low energy nuclear reaction ' is still around , although not yet ready for prime time , and perhaps never as exploitable as one might hope , SOMEThing happens !! hehehehe !!
#7 By: Chris Reeve, November 12th, 2013 12:13
This might be the best online review of the historical episode I've seen of polywater. I have to nevertheless take issue with the lesson we are supposed to have learned from this story. After all, there exists an ongoing peer-reviewed line of investigation by Gerald Pollack at the University of Washington which we'd all be very wise to learn about and pay some attention to. Gerald's research adds a new and unexpected twist to this old debate, insofar as he's able to conclusively demonstrate that water's properties change in proximity to certain types of (aka hydrophilic, or "water-loving") surfaces. Dr. Pollack has demonstrated this in enough ways by now that were people actually paying close attention, there wouldn't be any actual controversy here …
The impact of surfaces on the contiguous aqueous phase is generally thought to extend no more than a few water-molecule layers. We find, however, that colloidal and molecular solutes are profoundly excluded from the vicinity of hydrophilic surfaces, to distances up to several hundred micrometers. Such large zones of exclusion have been observed next to many different hydrophilic surfaces, and many diverse solutes are excluded. Hence, the exclusion phenomenon appears to be quite general.
To test whether the physical properties of the exclusion zone differ from those of bulk water, several methods have been applied so far. NMR, infrared, and birefringence imaging, as well as measurements of electrical potential, viscosity, and UV-VIS and infrared-absorption spectra, collectively reveal that the solute-free zone is a physically distinct, more ordered phase of water. It is much like a liquid crystal. It can co-exist essentially indefinitely with the contiguous solute-containing phase. Indeed, this unexpectedly extensive zone may be a candidate for the long-postulated “fourth phase” of water considered by earlier scientists.
The energy responsible for building this charged, low entropy zone comes from light. We found that incident radiant energy including UV, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths induce exclusion-zone growth in a spectrally sensitive manner. IR is particularly effective. Five-minute exposure to radiation at 3.1 µm (corresponding to OH stretch) causes exclusion-zone-width increase up to three times. Apparently, incident photons cause some change in bulk water that predisposes constituent molecules to reorganize and build the charged, ordered exclusion zone. How this occurs is under study.
Photons from ordinary sunlight, then, may have an unexpectedly powerful effect that goes beyond mere heating. It may be that solar energy builds order and separates charge between the near-surface exclusion zone and the bulk water beyond — the separation effectively creating a battery. This light-induced charge separation resembles the first steps of photosynthesis. Indeed, this light-induced action would seem relevant not only for photosynthetic processes, but also for all realms of nature involving water and interfaces.
To make his point, Gerald demonstrates that it is possible to actually extract electricity from the placement of two electrodes into the same glass of water, so long as one of the electrodes is placed within the water's bulk, and the other is placed within this "exclusion zone" near the hydrophilic surface. The electrons come from light which is cast upon the water.
We'd be very, very wise to pay close attention to how this debate unfolds, for it would seem to introduce a new unexpected direction for climate science. After all, it would plainly appear to support the notion that we should pay more heed to the inference of electric joule heating in the Earth's heating -- a phenomenon which is not currently modeled in the dominant climate models, and which we've yet to accurately even measure with any instrumentation.
The debate is also incredibly relevant to discussions about the origins of life and the operation of the cell, as evidenced by the very understandable presentation Gerald delivers in his book, Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life. It should be easy to see that if water can exist in two separate states under the same temperature and pressure conditions that the phase transition which connects them can be used like a transistor to solve all sorts of problems which living organisms face. Gerald proposes in his book that this idea could be used to explain many important longstanding debates in biology, and even cast light upon what it means to be "alive".
It's important to note that Gerald's theories would appear to upend many established theories in biology, and that reception in that community has accordingly been muted. Given the empirical nature of his research, we should expect more of a discussion of the implications of his findings, and we should not permit the polywater debacle to color these new unexpected developments.
#8 By: Cormacolinde, November 12th, 2013 13:14
not yet ready for primetime
You mean "made-up of measurement errors". If the "phenomenon" you're measuring only exists within the confines of the precision of your instruments, then it probably doesn't exist.
#9 By: edthehippie, November 12th, 2013 13:40
ahhhhh , not quite !! despite the flaws in the original over-hyped experiment , serious researchers continue to investigate " something " !! although it may yet turn out to be " sweat " , it SEEMS to maybe be real , and , at least , still worth serious time and effort
#10 By: Anthony Vicari, November 12th, 2013 13:52
Hah. Well, all the rules you learned in high school chem are approximations anyway. Doubled-bonded hydrogen doesn't happen (please correct me if there is some obscure exception, though physically I don't see how), but for a triple bonded oxygen, try carbon monoxide.
However, that's not what that diagram shows. There are both solid lines (bonds) and dotted lines (intermolecular forces about 1/20 times as strong but confusingly called "hydrogen bonds"). Those dotted lines are what hold liquid water together, and explain water's unusually high heat capacity, boiling point, and surface tension.
#11 By: chenille, November 12th, 2013 14:06
It doesn't, but there is a very neat case of what are called three-center bonds in boron hydrides. The simplest combination is actually B2H6, which is held together by two single bonds each forming a triangle between two boron and one hydrogen atom. The others have more and end up as strange combinations like B4H10 and B5H9 - wikipedia has some models.
None of this is relevant, I just thought it might be interesting. Certainly more so than repeating to Hannes yet again why one unknown or another doesn't somehow overturn well-validated results, right?
#12 By: Chris Reeve, November 12th, 2013 14:18
You might try actually engaging the subject matter. Vague suggestions that there is no debate -- in light of concrete explanations for why there is -- is actually anti-innovation. It's a very short path from these observations to the claim that the sodium pump hypothesis is completely unnecessary. That is certainly a controversial view.
Keep in mind that our textbooks do not always teach debates which might upend dominant theories -- so the inclination is for students to interpret that there is no debate. This would be wrong in this particular instance. There actually is a debate, and two competing worldviews here.
Note that there are multiple levels of scientific discourse: We can talk within the confines of a particular model or worldview, or we might choose to adopt the context of competing worldviews. Neither is more "interesting" than the other; in fact, the worldview-level of discourse is a necessary component of critical thinking (note the "critical" half of "critical thinking" …).
#13 By: chenille, November 12th, 2013 14:24
My understanding was sodium pumps are confirmed and important to some swings in concentration, but the idea that they might not have to be running to maintain the normal cellular gradient is an interesting one. I suspect Pollack is probably greatly overstating the significance, but I'm not especially informed on the details, and I certainly wouldn't fault anyone who wants to investigate the possibility further.
I don't recall you mentioning the topic before, so as my links show, that obviously isn't the repeated conversation (and derail, in this case) I was complaining about.
#14 By: Chris Reeve, November 12th, 2013 14:45
It currently takes an extraordinary amount of effort to properly size up ongoing scientific debates. It can also be hazardous to a science journalist's career. What we tend to see is journalism which strays away from these hot topics, for they can evoke visceral responses within the scientists with whom our science journalists are trying to work with (it can be a bit like calling somebody's baby ugly, or suggesting that somebody's life is premised upon a false notion). There are important ramifications for the reporting we see on controversial science which the public misinterprets as strength in consensus.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The systems we currently use to discuss science are inadequate tools for judging such a complex subject matter. The reason that I focus upon controversy in science is because I'm trying to build a better system for communicating about science.
From last Thursday's New Yorker ...
It is absolutely correct for onlookers to call for increased skepticism and clearer thinking in science writing. I’ve sometimes heard it said, with a certain amount of condescension, that this or that field of science “needs its popularizers.” But what science really needs is greater enthusiasm for those people who are willing to invest the time to try to sort the truth from hype and bring that to the public. Academic science does far too little to encourage such voices.
That said, I do fully understand how it can be annoying when people who think in terms of worldviews interject into a conversation about models. But, we might want to think very deeply about a culture which insists upon labeling the whole lot of people questioning mainstream science as "cranks" or "crackpots". What we should be doing is creating an infrastructure which has a place for those sorts of conversations which is distinct from the model-oriented conversations. And we should be creating systems which help the public to better discern the critical thinkers from the pseudoscientific thinkers.
I've been thinking about this problem for a number of years now, and I can tell you that there is much that can be done to improve our scientific discourse. I promise I'm not crazy. It's just very, very hard to communicate new ideas -- whether they are innovations in scientific theory or new social networks.
#15 By: mikelipino, November 12th, 2013 15:07
Thanks for reminding me about carbon monoxide, I totally forgot that had a triple bond! And it must be my laptop resolution, but I didn't see any dotted lines on the polywater crystal diagram. It definitely makes more sense chemically, but then I don't see what the difference would be from regular H-bonded water. But HS chemistry was a loooong time ago...
chenille, you shouldn't have shown me those borane models. My brain just won't process them. I'm going to take a brain vacation from work today to figure them out.
#16 By: chenille, November 12th, 2013 15:30
Despite how they're describing it, it isn't really a different chemical compound, but a different phase. The hydrogen bonding means water molecules are pretty flexible in how they attach to each other, and so for instance there are a dozen or so phases of ice. The surprise here is an alternate liquid phase.
Somebody should also probably point out that polymerized water causes all sorts of problems for space travelers - making Vulcans cry, Sulu run around with no shirt, and so on.
#17 By: mikelipino, November 12th, 2013 15:33
It also got Data some space tail, so let's call it a draw
#18 By: Ocker3, November 12th, 2013 18:49
Daft Punk is way ahead of you, according to their experimental guidelines: Sweat, Sweat, Lose yourself to dance!
#19 By: PrometheanSky, November 13th, 2013 06:21
The chemist in me (not by trade, mostly self taught, somewhat experienced in analytic chemistry) was cringing as I read this article. Especially when they got a 'black char' and apparently never checked it out. That screamed DEAD GIVEAWAY FOR CONTAMINANTS to me.
#20 By: Chris Reeve, November 13th, 2013 14:00
Perhaps so, but there is no sense to just pursuing one explanation here. This is basically called free induction, and it is what animals do. Humans use science as a means of forcing the induction of all possibilities, for nature does not seem to appreciate our own human fascination with worldviews, which creates biases towards particular "simplest" explanations. The inherent problem is that "simple" is a function of worldview, which necessarily derives from perception, and that in turn, survival.
Animal induction is indeed highly accurate, but it takes forever to get to where you want to go. Forcing induction by trying everything to see what works makes fast progress with lots of mistakes.
The point is that when we rely entirely upon our existing worldviews to decide our focus, we basically ignore the risk of being wrong. Good science which relies upon forced induction necessarily checks for all possibilities, rather than just the perceived "simplest" one. It's a form of hedging our bets, and we do it because we are smarter than animals.
The scientific community would be wise to watch the business world on this point. Successful businesses generally don't attack problems in a sequential manner, simplest explanation first. Successful startups figure out all of the possibilities at the start, and proceed in parallel. The ones that don't eventually run out of money.
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