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H2OH no

verybody knows what water is like. Of all the substances known to humans, it is surely the most familiar. But what if this colourless liquid were to take on a different form? After all, sulphur can be a yellow solid or a plastic orange gunk, while carbon can show up as graphite or diamonds. So why should water always be the same?

In 1962, a Soviet physicist called Nikolai Fedyakin reported that by forcing steam to condense in quartz capillaries, he had discovered a new form of water. Its freezing point was lower and its boiling point much higher, he said. And it resembled a kind of syrup.

Fedyakin's experiments, conducted in obscurity, might well have gone unnoticed had a "big name" in science not taken up the cause. Boris V Derjaguin was a director at the Institute for Physical Chemistry in Moscow.

And when he visited the Faraday Society in Nottingham, his "anomalous water" made quite a splash.

By 1968, British and American scientists, spurred on by Cold War rivalry, were busy advancing theories to explain the phenomenon. Some believed that unusually strong bonds between hydrogen atoms caused the water molecules to polymerise, or form chains, and they came up with an exciting new name: polywater.

Before long, scientists were blaming polywater for a spate of transatlantic telephone cable failures, while others suggested that, should the stuff ever escape from the lab, there was a possibility that it would polymerise every drop of ordinary water on the planet, thereby bringing life to a sticky end. But in the event, it was polywater itself that came unstuck, thanks to one scientist's curiosity about his own sweat.

After a vigorous game of baseball with colleagues at Bell Laboratories, Denis Rousseau ran some tests on perspiration and found that it had exactly the same properties as polywater. The apparent anomalies in the latter, he suggested, were all down to contamination, and sure enough, subsequent attempts to reproduce Derjaguin's findings using scrupulously cleaned equipment failed every time. Water, it seemed, was condemned to continue its monotonous existence, at least for the foreseeable future.

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