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'There is no such thing as polywater because if there were, there would also be an animal which didn't need to eat food. It would just drink water and excrete polywater' - Richard Feynman
April 29, 2008 10:34 PM   Subscribe

If you were doing research in the 60s, You might've heard of Polywater, A form of water that exhibited wide variety of interesting characteristics and existed under identical conditions to that of normal water. Eventually debunked, none the less is a fascinating story. Naturally one draws parallels to Vonnegut's ice nine, but did you know there actually is an ice nine? In fact, there's twelve to sixteen types of ice, depending on your opinion. More recently, computer simulations have indicated water may structure itself into icosahedra, which, incredibly, is the platonic solid (described over 2000 years ago!) representing the element water! And if you don't know what an icosahedron is, I bet you've used one before. One of the most ubiquitous, and arguably most important, substances in our lives, our understanding of water is far from complete.
posted by Large Marge (38 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
We must protect our precious bodily fluids.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:43 PM on April 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


Also, be aware there are a lot of scam products and treatments involving pseudoscientific claims about water these days.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:46 PM on April 29, 2008


yay water
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:53 PM on April 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Richard Feynman expressed this frustration when he aligned himself with the skeptics: ''There is no such thing as polywater because if there were, there would also be an animal which didn't need to eat food. It would just drink water and excrete polywater'' (using the energy gained in conversion to the more stable form to fuel its metabolism).

What do you think fuel grey goo?
posted by Tube at 10:57 PM on April 29, 2008


Previously
posted by Artw at 11:26 PM on April 29, 2008


Ken Libbrecht's site at Caltech about the physics of snow is also worth a look. It's got a lot of depth to it, as well as interesting galleries.
posted by Upton O'Good at 11:33 PM on April 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


OK, so internets: I would like to order a clear twenty-sided die filled with ES structure icosahedral water clusters. Preferably, twenty of them.
posted by ignignokt at 2:27 AM on April 30, 2008


Polywater, a form of water that exhibited wide variety of interesting characteristics and existed under identical conditions to that of normal water.
Hey! Cool! That is a precise description of the water comes out of the tap at my house!
Polywater was not a new and more stable form of pure H2O, but merely dirty water, exhibiting its strange properties as a result of impurities.
At first I was being facetious, but on further reading that really is a precise description of the water that comes out of the tap at my house. Bummer.
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 4:24 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Science isn't supposed to be right all the time; it is only supposed to be able to test its claims.

Applause!
posted by dmd at 5:55 AM on April 30, 2008


OMG:
polywater could pose a threat to all life. Once it is let loose, the stuff might propagate itself, feeding on natural water. The proliferation of such a dense, inert liquid, warns Donahoe, could stop all life processes, turning the earth into a "reasonable facsimile of Venus."
posted by caddis at 6:58 AM on April 30, 2008


And as human beings, you and I need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids.
posted by Poolio at 7:20 AM on April 30, 2008


Yeah, the grey goo wankery was my initial thought when I read about polywater.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:20 AM on April 30, 2008


I used to be good friends with another scientist who was slowly losing his grip on reality. At some point he got fascinated by polywater and spent weeks obsessively researching it. He'd confide in me how important the research was, and how dangerous, because he was close to discovering a secret about water that could destroy our very world. It sounded a bit crazy at the time but he was known for doing interesting slightly crazy research, so I just watched it play out. A few weeks later he went entirely off the rails and almost succeeding in killing himself. In retrospect, I wonder if more rational discourse about polywater would have helped him.

Time Cube makes depressing sense to me.
posted by Nelson at 7:48 AM on April 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


From this link:
Each line represents a phase boundary and gives the conditions when two phases coexist. Here, a change in temperature or pressure may cause the phases to abruptly change from one to the other. Where three lines join, there is a 'triple point' when three phases coexist but may abruptly and totally change into each other given a change in temperature or pressure. At the liquid, gas, hexagonal ice triple point both the boiling point of water and melting point of ice are equal. Four lines cannot meet at a single point.
Why?
posted by Flunkie at 8:11 AM on April 30, 2008


Oh hey, Ice-nine. That story gave me nightmares as a kid.

Thanks for reviving them. Cheers!
posted by unixrat at 8:31 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Although actually worries about polywater seem more reasonable than grey goo. Polywater seemed to be mostly a debate among informed chemists, while grey goo seems to be argued by people with naive misunderstandings of biochemistry and microbiology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:42 AM on April 30, 2008


Four lines cannot meet at a single point due to Gibb's Phase Rule.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:59 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


is it wet?
posted by Grod at 9:01 AM on April 30, 2008


Although actually worries about polywater seem more reasonable than grey goo. Polywater seemed to be mostly a debate among informed chemists, while grey goo seems to be argued by people with naive misunderstandings of biochemistry and microbiology.

Well, no. I would argue against this statement. Because, as pointed out if polywater was naturally possible, it would exist already. Everything I see about it says it isn't naturally occuring or stable in the normal range of Earth temperatures and pressures.

Grey goo is rooted in the concept of a von Neumann probe, just much smaller. A machine doesn't inherently depend on environmental conditions the way polywater would, nor is it a crystal or polymer. It's a machine. It can be designed to operate in many different ranges of conditions.

While the physics of nano scale is suprisingly wooly, a "grey goo" scenario is neither inherently nano-scale nor biological.

It just has to be a machine or machines capable of making more of themselves from raw materials, and then left to run amok. It could be giant killer smelting robots or something.

I've never imagined a "grey goo" scenario ending with 100% of the matter of a planet converted to machines - there would have to be some wastage or "slag" in the process. Even with nano and pico-scale technologies, the conversion wouldn't be 100% efficient. So, you'd end up with a ratio of finished machines to rejected, unusable matter, along with whatever fraction remainder of useable matter that's left that isn't enough to build the next machine.

The only way that there could be 100% efficiency is if there was some kind of *waves hands* sub-pico (femto?, yocto?) scale technology capable of reordering atomic structures at will. Which while not impossible, is decidedly a high energy action and exceedingly unlikely - and there would be a lot of waste in the form of heat (spent, escaping energy).

Having seen and played with robotics in general, knowing how difficult it is to make anything at all self-organizing or even reliable in the field, out in the wild, wooly world - even the von Neumann probe scenario is unlikely.

But things sometimes change. Discoveries are made. Assumptions are challenged. Knowledge is reordered.

Aren't you glad I don't work in robotics, nanotech or biology? I'd rather just leave all that well enough alone.
posted by loquacious at 10:06 AM on April 30, 2008


loquacious: Well, no. I would argue against this statement. Because, as pointed out if polywater was naturally possible, it would exist already. Everything I see about it says it isn't naturally occuring or stable in the normal range of Earth temperatures and pressures.

What. Argue against the statement that grey goo advocates are naively ignorant about biochemistry? The author of the hypothesis (who has since disowned it) compared photosynthesis to photovoltaic systems, a pretty silly mistake because energy is a byproduct of photosynthesis.

But the same, "if it was possible, it would exist already" argument applies to grey goo. We already have mechanical systems that self-replicate by harvesting organic and inorganic components from the surface of the Earth, given that evolutionary processes should favor a super-bug that could eat everything maximizing its reproductive success, why has this not happened? The reasons why are the same reasons why a grey goo scenario is little more than science fantasy:

1: just about everything out there has an activation energy. You can reduce that activation energy by using catalysts, but the catalysts needed are highly specific, highly sensitive to variations in temperature, pH and salinity, and are easily locked by other substances.

2: just having potential energy isn't enough if you don't have a process for siphoning it off in tiny little increments just the right size for whatever transfer mechanism you have. There is a lot of potential energy in a quart of nitroglycerin, but it makes for a very poor automotive fuel.

3: the mechanisms for 1 & 2 only work if you have an efficient way of getting rid of waste products that poison the system.

4: the whole shebang is dependent on trace elements that are extremely rare in a usable form. If it's a mm away, it might as well not exist.

At the molecular level, evolution all comes down to energy. The energy costs of maintaining metabolic pathways for every contingency is prohibitively expensive. Generalists get clobbered by niche specialists.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:41 AM on April 30, 2008


The only way that there could be 100% efficiency is if there was some kind of *waves hands* sub-pico (femto?, yocto?) scale technology capable of reordering atomic structures at will.

Recent advances in science fictional research have yielded at least femtotech in print-published work and down to plancktech in some weird collaborative fictional universe wiki.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:43 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Generalists get clobbered by niche specialists.

I would imagine the possibility that an intelligent or intelligently designed generalist may clobber a non-intelligently evolved specialist. Unintelligent evolution certainly hasn't discovered everything.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:51 AM on April 30, 2008


It was once popularly believed that quartz was very hard water.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:21 AM on April 30, 2008


Generalists get clobbered by niche specialists.
Are humans not generalists (at least relative to the typical species)? Are rats not as well?

We and the rats have been doing a lot of clobbering of specialists; vice-versa, not so much.
posted by Flunkie at 11:48 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


TheOnlyCoolTim: I would imagine the possibility that an intelligent or intelligently designed generalist may clobber a non-intelligently evolved specialist. Unintelligent evolution certainly hasn't discovered everything.

It's doubtful because evolution over multi-generational timescales (which on the microbial level, can be a few weeks, or even a few hours) is a very good method for optimizing these kinds of systems. Metabolic pathways are expensive. Not only do you have a bunch of enzymes that are needed to crack a specific molecule, you have detection and signaling mechanisms that trigger transcription, and the cost of replicating the gene generation after generation. The first strain that doesn't have to pay these costs will dominate the population in a competition for limited resources.

Flunkie: Are humans not generalists (at least relative to the typical species)? Are rats not as well?

We and the rats have been doing a lot of clobbering of specialists; vice-versa, not so much.


Ohh, why does every discussion of biology end up into some ignorant vertebrate-centric myopia?

The answer is no, humans are not generalists. We, along with rest of the multi-cellular animals that are just one branch on the tree of life, are complex-molecule heterotrophs who live on a fairly limited molecular diet. We can digest only the simplest of polysaccharides without the aid of symbiotic species. Endotherms are further isolated in a niche by their high energy requirements. Even among the animal kingdom we have a niche diet focused on fruits and small quantities of meat, limiting us to a small fraction of the rich biomass that surrounds us, (and for that matter, a fraction of the biomass we eat.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:26 PM on April 30, 2008


And for that matter, from some molecular biology views, eukaryotes are limited to a fairly lean lactic-acid fermentation without the aid of endosymbiots.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:35 PM on April 30, 2008



Thank you Nelson. I like to collect weird ideas and conspiracy theories, and that "time cube" link was great. A must read for all.

Quoting from the site:
A Queer God is Damnation for it desecrates My Mother. Know that ONE causes Hell. I am a Knower of 4 corner simultaneous 24 hour Days that occur within a single 4 quadrant rotation of Earth.
posted by Avelwood at 12:52 PM on April 30, 2008


Yes, yes, I'm aware that we don't eat bark. Nonetheless, we, and rats, are able to thrive in a wide variety of terrestrial environments distinctly different than the one we evolved in.
posted by Flunkie at 1:09 PM on April 30, 2008


Flunkie, biochemically speaking, humans are the height of specialization. We can't even synthesize vitamin C, unlike virtually all other multicellular life. We're at the top of the food chain. That means we are utterly dependent of everything below us for survival. Humans and rats are specialized eaters of that which other organisms of more capable biochemistry have synthesized.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:26 PM on April 30, 2008


Flunkie, biochemically speaking, humans are the height of specialization. We can't even synthesize vitamin C
And goats can't thrive in the Arctic.
posted by Flunkie at 2:31 PM on April 30, 2008




Flunkie: Yes, yes, I'm aware that we don't eat bark. Nonetheless, we, and rats, are able to thrive in a wide variety of terrestrial environments distinctly different than the one we evolved in.

There are HUNDREDS of ecological niches that exist in the few cubic meters of space that you currently inhabit, supporting as many as a thousand species. Many of them are known only by unique DNA sequences and are uncultivated in the lab. You inhabit ONE.

Come back when humans can metabolize lignin and cellulose, and perhaps a bit of collagen and any of a hundred other food sources. Can humans thrive under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions? Well gee, E. coli lives just about everywhere there are mammals and thrives in anaerobic conditions as well.

Flunkie: And goats can't thrive in the Arctic.

In the big picture, humans and goats might as well be siblings. There is certainly less evolutionary distance between us than among reptiles or insects. All mammals have a specialized lifestyle centered around endothermic gluttonous consumption of concentrated energy in relatively simple forms. The rest is trivia and not relevant to discussion of grey goo.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:57 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, yeah, no kidding. I said "goats" in direct response to someone claiming that we are not "generalists" because we "can't even synthesize vitamin C", as if that's what makes a "generalist".

Goats can synthesize vitamin C. We are better than them at thriving in environments that we didn't evolve in. We are more generalist than they are, and we are also more dominant than they are. Goats are not clobbering us.

And, what, now you're saying E. coli are superdupergeneralists, being able to thrive in anaerobic and aerobic conditions, and everywhere that mammals live? Bully for them. I'm not going to debate that. But I'm not sure how that backs up your original claim that generalists (like you now seem to be saying E. coli is) get "clobbered by niche specialists". Why are they thriving everywhere when they should, apparently, be clobbered?
posted by Flunkie at 5:59 PM on April 30, 2008


There are HUNDREDS of ecological niches that exist in the few cubic meters of space that you currently inhabit

Damn, you are a big, big fellow.

I'm 0.7m3 at the most. Average-sized.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:51 PM on April 30, 2008


Flunkie: Goats can synthesize vitamin C. We are better than them at thriving in environments that we didn't evolve in. We are more generalist than they are, and we are also more dominant than they are. Goats are not clobbering us.

"More dominant?" Evolution doesn't work that way. And, as I pointed out above, if you just want to look at mammals, humans are niche specialists who live on fruits, nuts and meats with high energy concentrations. Looking at the bigger picture (of which mammals are only a cluster of pixels in the corner) complex-molecule heterotrophy is a niche of its own. And I would argue that goats are doing quite well having evolved into a niche along side Homo, and it wouldn't surprise me if there are more goats alive now than at any other point in evolutionary history.

The point is that if we are going to talk about a self-replicating something that can lock up most or all the potential energy and organic matter on the Earth, it needs to out-compete existing species across a wide range of conditions: anaerobic, micro-aerobic, and aerobic; pH from acid to basic; salinity from almost distilled water to super-saturated saltwater; pressures from Everest to deep sea trenches; temperatures from below freezing to over boiling. It will need to be able to digest a few hundred hundred common chemicals that animals can't without microbial help. And it needs to do all that better than existing flora and fauna.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:10 AM on May 1, 2008


I'm 0.7m3 at the most. Average-sized.

Of course, I wasn't just talking about the space bounded by a person's intact epidermis.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:13 AM on May 1, 2008


Of course. And I didn't really think you were the size of an SUV.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:39 PM on May 1, 2008


It's also silly to say that humans "clobber" goats because they occupy two different ecological niches. They don't compete with each other, they actually compliment each other, and in many cases make for a nice example of mutualism. Humans don't even "clobber" other omnivores such as rats, and raccoons who thrive in the midst of human habitation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:26 AM on May 2, 2008


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