Issue Date: June 4, 2007
When Vonnegut Met H. G. Wells
Rudy Baum's column on the passing of Kurt Vonnegut (C&EN, April 23, page 3) and in particular on ice-nine brought back memories of the short-lived but actively researched phenomenon of anomalous water or "polywater," which arrived on the scene shortly after the publication of "Cat's Cradle." Polywater was formed when water was drawn through thin capillaries or deposited from the vapor. Since polywater was said to be more stable than liquid water and hence might catalyze the conversion of liquid water to the syrupy, high-boiling polymer, we have "fact" imitating fiction!
Vonnegut reportedly got the idea for ice-nine from a story that Irving Langmuir had "invented" a form of water that was a solid at room temperature. Vonnegut had been asked to entertain H. G. Wells when Wells visited the General Electric plant in Schenectady in the early 1930s. When researchers in the late 1960s were looking for earlier signs of polywater production, they came across the work of J. Leon Shereshefsky (of Johns Hopkins University, later on the faculty of Howard University) who reported that the vapor pressure lowering on very small quartz capillaries was much greater than predicted (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1928, 50, 2966).
Indeed, a conference on anomalous water at Howard in March 1970 honored Shereshefsky as the "father of polywater." Alas, it was not long before both experimentalists and theorists were reversing their beliefs, and within about three years, polywater was history.
With respect to ice-nine, it seems reasonable to assume that Langmuir knew of Shereshefsky's 1928 result and used it as the basis for an idea that was picked up, not by H. G. Wells, but much later by Vonnegut.
Louis J. Kirschenbaum
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