A major component of acid rain, an accelerator
of corrosion and the rusting of metals, found in the tumors of cancer patients, a contributor
to the greenhouse effect, fatal if inhaled, and capable of causing serious burns in the
right circumstances, colorless, odorless and tasteless dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) is responsible
for thousands of deaths each year. An exercise in perspective, by focusing simply
on the negative, we can easily be tricked into thinking just about anything is bad,
even something as necessary to life as water, made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen
atom, hence dihydrogen monoxide. And thanks to a few precocious people, at different times
over the last few decades, that is precisely what happened.
One of the earliest dihydrogen monoxide hoaxes was printed on April 1, 1983, in the Durand
Express, a weekly newspaper in Shiawassee County, Michigan. The article warned the populace
that inhaling the chemical “nearly always results in death,” and its “vapors … cause
severe blistering of the skin which can be fatal if extensive.” By the end of the article,
however, it was revealed that the dangerous chemical was, in fact, just water.
With the dawn of the internet, the chemically savvy continued to prey on the ignorant, and
by 1994, internet jokers pretended to have serious conversations about the dangers of
dihydrogen monoxide. One of the earliest fake organizations, eventually called the Coalition
to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide, was formed by students at the University of California,
Santa Cruz, in 1989. Early claims included: “Millions of gallons
of the stuff are sprayed on fruits and vegetables. Do you want your children eating that stuff?”
It was an “invisible killer” that was “found in almost every stream, lake and reservoir
in America,” and that the U.S. Navy was “designing multi-billion dollar devices to control and
utilize it during warfare situations [and even that] research facilities receive tons
of it through a highly sophisticated underground distribution network.”
These early sites also noted that this “hazardous chemical” was used “as an industrial solvent
and coolant . . . in many forms of animal research . . . in the distribution of deadly
pesitcides . . . [and] as an integral part of the operation of nuclear power plants.”
They also claimed that although it could damage concrete, erode natural landscapes and interfere
with the operation of automobile brakes, it was still used “as a fire retardant” and “an
additive in certain junk foods and other food products.”
Funny now, at the time, some people were truly deceived. In fact, one hoax in 1997 was so
convincing, its four teenage masterminds were arrested and nearly faced criminal charges.
The young men, aged 14 to 16, distributed fliers in the Wylie Heights neighborhood outside
of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that carried warnings that dihydrogen monoxide was responsible
for “severe hydration, frequent urination and possible death.” They included an 800
number on the flier (that directed the caller to a telephone sex business) and listed the
name of the father of a classmate as a “county health inspector.” After the “health inspector”
received several calls from distraught people, some of whom got mad at him, he called the
police. The teens were eventually identified when they blabbed to his son, their classmate.
Although they were not ultimately charged, they were forced to go door-to-door to apologize.
Also in 1997, Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High in Idaho
Falls, Idaho, as part of a science project called “How Gullible Are We?” warned 50 of
his classmates of the “dangers” of DHMO and asked them to join his effort to ban DHMO.
He was able to get 43 to sign his petition. Besides average citizens and middle school
students, sometimes even public officials have been fooled. In March 2004, the City
Council of Aliso Viejo, California, had planned to take up a ban on foam cups because of “environmental
concerns . . . [of] the danger posed by dihydrogen monoxide, described as a chemical used in
production of the [foam cups] that can threaten human health and safety.” Blaming the initiative
on “a paralegal who did bad research,” the city’s manager pulled the proposed law from
the agenda prior to any vote. Bonus Facts:
In another case of an absurd law almost being passed by politicians who should really apparently
have paid more attention in school, at one point the state of Indiana almost passed a
law declaring mathematical Pi to be 3.2… The ridiculous story starts with amateur mathematician
Edward Goodwin who, in 1894, believed he had finally solved the age old mathematical problem
of “squaring the circle” (i.e. find a square with the same area as a given circle using
a straight edge and a compass. ) Intending to copyright his proof, Goodwin, a philanthropist,
wanted to ensure that Indiana schools could use it for free in their textbooks. Somehow,
he persuaded Indiana State Representative Taylor I. Record of Posey County to introduce
a bill on January 18, 1897, that also stated in pertinent part: “A bill for an act introducing
a new mathematical truth . . . . It has been found that a circular area is to the square
on a line equal to the quadrant of the circumference . . . . The diameter employed as the linear
unit according to the present rule in computing the circle’s area is entirely wrong . . . “.
The bill, written by Goodwin, goes on to, in the words of a well-respected mathematician
at the time, Professor C.A. Waldo, give two different values for pi, neither of which
is correct: “At the outset it gave 4 as the true value . . . while towards the end it
gave 3.2…” After being introduced, it went to the House
Committee on Canals (also sometimes called the Committee on Swamp Lands), which didn’t
know what to do with it, so they sent it to the Committee on Education on January 19,
1897. The proposed law, House Bill 246 (1897), had the support of the State Superintendent
of Public Instruction and was recommended by the Education Committee on February 2,
1897. While pending in the full House, one member,
a former teacher, stated: “If we pass this bill which establishes a new and correct value
for pi, the author offers to our state without cost the use of his discovery and its free
publication in our school text books, while everyone else must pay him a royalty.”
Unusually, the bill was read three times on the House floor (in fact they had to suspend
a rule to read it the third time), but finally passed by a vote of 67-0 on February 5, 1897.
Obviously, no one understood what it said. In the Indiana Senate, the bill first was
sent first to the Temperance Committee, which must have fallen off the wagon, because on
February 10, 1897, that committee recommended that it be passed.
Sanity finally prevailed, however, when the bill got to the Senate floor on February 12,
1897, as it was immediately met with derision – not because the Senators could tell on their
own it required a modification of pi to complete the proof, but just because it involved math.
On February 12, 1897, Senator Hubbel summed up the sentiment of most: “The Senate might
as well try to legislate water to run up hill as to establish a mathematical truth by law.”
Of course, the Senators didn’t really understand what the bill said, either. And, being a body
known for its lack of propriety and propensity to “tell jokes, skylark and make noise,” the
Senate proceeded to ridicule the bill for another 30 minutes, such as with this exchange:
“Senator Drummond: “It may be I am densely ignorant on this question of mathematics.”
Senator Ellison: “Consent! Consent!”” After the laughter died down, however, the
bill was dropped. This was likely due, in no small part, to a remarkable coincidence
that had occurred three weeks earlier. By happenchance, when the bill was being voted
on in the House, the aforementioned Professor C.A. Waldo had been at the legislature to
shepherd through an appropriation bill for Indiana University and Purdue University.
After the pi bill had passed the House, someone showed Professor Waldo a copy and asked if
he would like to meet Goodwin. After looking over the document, Waldo declined stating
“he was acquainted with as many crazy people as he cared to know.”
Waldo then began working on the Senate- in his words coaching them- so they were fully
apprised of the bill’s absurdity when it arrived in that esteemed body.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we brought up mathematical pi and didn’t mention one of
our favorite mathematical facts partially related to pi- that the mathematical volume
of a pizza is pizza. You see, if z=radius of the pizza and a=the height then Π * radius2 * height
=Pi * z * z * a.