Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?


I believe that just because everybody thinks standard theory is quite adequate, that is no excuse to reject a non-standard theory. On the other hand, many will argue that there is no need to fill the literature up with nonsense, so where do we draw the line? In my opinion, not in the right place, and part of the reason is that a certain rot in refereeing standards set in following the polywater debacle. Polywater was an embarrassment, and only too many referees did/do not want to be associated with a rerun. That, however, is no reason to adopt the "Dr NO" syndrome, namely that rejection guarantees the absence of a debacle. That policy would certainly have led to the rejection of Einstein's "Electrodynamics of bodies in motion". He was describing the dynamics of bodies without electric charge! And as for common sense, he was abandoning the principles of Galilean relativity and of Newton's laws of motion, both of which were "obviously correct". (Actually, he was abandoning the concept of instant action at a distance, which nobody really believed.)
Anyway, back to polywater. This unfortunate saga began when Nikolai Fedyakin condensed water in or repeatedly forced water through quartz capillaries, following which Boris Deryagin improved production techniques (although he never produced more than very small amounts) and determined a freezing point of – 40 oC, a boiling point of ≈ 150 oC, and a density of 1.1-1.2. This was not water, but what else could it be? Everyone “knew” quartz was inert to water and there was no other explanation than the water had polymerized. Unfortunately, nobody thought to do an analysis for silicon. There followed the collection of considerable amounts of data, and in general these were correct (although the collection of an IR spectrum of sweat was probably not a highlight of science). Meanwhile a vast number of theoretical calculations emerged to “prove” the existence of polywater.
So what went wrong? Apart from the absence of an analysis, not much initially. The referees had to accept that the experimental work was done satisfactorily. The computational work was simply a case of “jump on the bandwagon and verify what was known”. Unfortunately, those data were wrong. Nevertheless, the question might be asked, should the referees have permitted the computational papers? What the papers gave was the assertion that a certain program was applied, and this is what came out. In general, the assumptions were never clearly stated, nor were the consequences of the assumptions being wrong. The major problem with the computations was that, being based on molecular orbital theory, the proposed systems were assumed to be delocalized, and the calculations showed they were. As Aristotle remarked, concluding what you assumed is not exactly a triumph.
The consequences of this unfortunate sequence of events were as follows:
(a)  Experimenter’s careers were wrecked.
(b)  Computationalist’s careers were unaffected. John Pople was relatively prominent in showing why there was considerable stability in water polymers, but that did not hinder his career (although his work on polywater did not feature strongly in his Nobel citation).
(c) When exposed, work ceased. Nobody was ever interested in trying to work out why water in constrained space dissolved silica.
(d)  Little or no genuinely different theoretical work emerged in chemistry following polywater.
(e)  Most importantly, nobody ever stated what went wrong within the computations. In short, we learned nothing, or at least the general chemical community learned nothing.
The question that must be asked regarding (d) is, was this because there is no further scope for theory in chemistry, and all that we can do now is deploy computational programs, have the referees killed any attempts, or have chemists simply lost interest?  Your views?
Posted by Ian Miller on Apr 15, 2013 1:59 AM Europe/London

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