The Catalyst
G. R. Yohe
Illinois State Geological Survey
Urbana, Ill. 61801

It had been perhaps the most eerie trip that men had ever taken, or at least had survived to tell about. And now, as the vividly colored leaves outside my laboratory window danced and dripped. in the October rain, I recalled another rainy morning, just last spring, when our returning spaceship had settled gently down on Earth. We disembarked sound and in good health and the samples we collected were unloaded safely, except for the dropping of one case of bottles. The records that we had found, written in strange hieroglyphics were Intact and we were eager to decipher them.

The crew - a navigator, pilot, astronomer, nuclear physicist, machinist, and I, chemist - had taken off many years before, and our spaceship in due time had sped beyond the limits of our solar system. As we neared the star Tsiai, we saw that it was surrounded by, a planetary system strikingly similar to our own. We found the planet which in size and position in that system seemed most like our Earth and there we landed in a bleak and wintry climate.

Everywhere there were snow and ice. Trees and plants appeared dormant, or frozen. There were frozen lakes and rivers and glaciers on the mountains. There were cities, but no signs of life. When we landed at what was obviously an airport, no one came to greet us, to welcome us, or to threaten us. It wasn't until we entered buildings and sought the inhabitants, that we learned the stark, shocking truth. They were dead. Starved, frozen, or brought down by disease, we knew not, but all were dead. One vast planet of death, of white solitude, of frozen desolation.

The people were creatures not greatly different from the inhabitants of our home planet, as far advanced in technology and civilization as we. Factories and transportation systems, streets and buildings, farms and parks were fully the equal of our own. But the people were dead-victims of some planet-wide disaster. Nowhere did we find evidence of violence, nor was there excessive radioactivity that might account for their tragic end.

We explored for three weeks by our own clock-calendar (fourteen days by the rotation of that icy planet) before we started home. We noted several odd things that I feel are worth recording. Most of the homes we visited had equipment, largely makeshift, that appeared to have been used for melting ice. It would seem that the tragedy that had overtaken them -had been a rather swift oncoming of an Ice Age. Another oddity, and a confirmation of this Ice Age postulate, was that we could not find liquid water anywhere. Lakes were frozen solid and there was no flowing water below the ice of the rivers. The temperature was not distressingly low - we never found it below -30oC, yet it never went above -10oC while we were there. We, too, had to melt ice to obtain water.

In one of the buildings of what appeared to be a large scientific research institute. I had found the emaciated, frozen body of a chemist, or so I judged him to be from the appearance of the laboratory. Beside him I found his notebook and it was rather obvious that he had been writing in it shortly before the freezing death had claimed him. I took the notebook hoping that it might reveal something of the tragedy that had occurred.

Then, after collecting samples of ice and frozen soils and photographing all manner of strange things and places, we started long trip home.

Analyses of our samples after we reached the home planet showed nothing unusual. Water was the same as our owneven the percentage of deuterium it contained was, within experimental error, the same as that found in Earth water. Bacteriological tests of our samples and careful observation of our crew during a quarantine period revealed no trace of pathogenic organisms. Our reports were nearly complete, except that I was still impatiently awaiting the decoding and translation of the frozen chemist's notes.

There was a knock on my door and Dr. Chemin, our translator, entered carrying a sheaf of papers. "We've nearly finished, sir. Now that we have the system for transcribing their alphabet into ours, it's rather easy going." He paused. "I thought you'd better start reading it while we finish the rest. It's weird, sir; frightening." He handed me the papers and left as I started to read the translation. What follows is the story of that unfortunate victim on the faroff satellite of Tsial:

"It is doubtful that anyone will ever read the words I write, for now there are not many of us left. The tragedy that has overtaken our planet, however, is of my making, and I must write an account of it, even though none survives to read it.

"As everyone knows, even the youngest child in school, when water freezes, the ice is lighter than the liquid, and floats on its surface. But during !" (Note: a date, doubtless some years earlier - Chemin.), I was experimenting with certain catalysts (catalyst may not be the right word, but it means an additive of some sort - C.) to modify crystal structure. I added a small amount of #$%&'. (Sorry, I can't translate this formula - C.) to some water, and placed the vessel in a cold chamber. Ice crystals soon formed, but although they were of the same appearance as ordinary ice, they sank to the bottom of the tube. This was odd and certainly had not been reported before, so I investigated further, primarily to see how dilute a solution of #$%&' would be effective in catalyzing the formation of this heavy ice. I melted the crystals, pipeted out one tenth of the liquid and diluted it with nine parts of fresh water. When this was cooled, the ice crystals sank as before. I repeated, diluting to 1/100, 1/1000, 1/10,000 of the original concentration. Still the ice crystals sank. I proceeded. One part in a million, one in a billion, one in a trillion. I kept diluting until I lost track of the dilution; still the crystals sank. I kept at it for days, but I was never able to dilute the solution sufficiently to make ice crystals that would float. The catalyst had imparted to the water the property of becoming more dense as it froze, and I was unable to change it back.

"Finally I stopped, appalled, realizing for the first time what I had done. I had thrown all my waste solutions down the drain! They were gone-out through the disposal plant, discharged into the river, and then to the lake!

"Frantically, I rushed to the lake. I took a sample of water near the city, another halfway around the lake, a third on the opposite side. I returned to my laboratory and placed the tubes in the cold chamber. Ice floated on the sample from the opposite shore, but sank in the other two tubes. Two days later I repeated the test; this time the ice sank in all three tubes.

"I reported immediately to the government authorities that the lake by our city was contaminated. Once convinced of the gravity of the situation, they made plans for complete isolation of the lake. First, the dam at the far end of the lake was sealed, although engineers argued about how long the waters could be contained. Guards were posted to quarantine the lake and keep anyone from approaching it. Arrangements were made to supply our city with water from Rmnisen. Announcements were made saying that the water was polluted and unsafe for drinking; it was feared that the truth would start a panic. Finally, technicians were sent to monitor several points in the watershed for appearance of #$%&'.

"Looking back, I don't think any of us really believed we could succeed, but the attempt had to be made. The impossibility of absolutely isolating such a body of water should have been apparent, but it wasn't until a few days later that I gave up all hope. One evening I was returning to the laboratory when I saw a flock of ten kught (must be a type of bird - C.) arise from the lake and fly invoud (must mean direction - C.) Chill struck me as I realized that they were bound for their mating grounds in the upper part of a neighboring watershed and that they probably carried traces of my catalyst. Once it entered that vast river system, there would be no way to stop the spread.

"In 10 days, our worst fears were confirmed. A sample of water from Rmnisen produced ice of the heavy variety. Unless the limit dilution I had failed to find in the laboratory could be attained naturally, our planet was doomed. The findings were reported to the government authorities and the work of isolating our lake was canceled, for now it was known to be futile. There was nothing to do but wait.

"Oddly, the first public notice of the ominous events that were transpiring came from an advertisement in our city newspaper. The local ice company announced that it was placing on the market ice cubes that would sink rather than float in water and that the annoyance of ice striking the lips of drinkers of chilled beverages was a thing of the past. This campaign to sell this oddity was short lived, however, as people all over the city noted in surprise that their own homemade ice cubes had the same property. Soon ice with similar behavior was reported from other cities, not only in the nearby river system, but in other watersheds. My catalyst was spreading to the uttermost parts of the planet.

"Unthinking people were pleased, at first, about this new property of ice. But with the coming of our cold weather season, inconveniences and troubles began to show up. With the earliest freezing weather, no ice formed on the lake surface, but fine crystals were deposited on the bottom, visible in the shallows. Soon these crystals were forming shifting 'sand-bars' in the river. Then the city water company found its intake pipe in the lake was obstructed and a growing mass of crystals began to plug the underground pipes. A heating system was installed at the intake point, and for a while warm water was distributed to our homes. Then it became obvious that no heating system could melt the heavy ice in the lake at a sufficiently rapid rate to supply the city. There was liquid water deep in the lake near the city's intake, but the remainder of the lake was soon frozen solid. Rivers became more and more choked with the shifting crystals, and finally all flow ceased. Cities that depended on rivers or lakes for water were in dire straits. Only wells could be used as sources for water.

Somehow, we got through the cold season. There had been suffering and some deaths, but most of us survived, and with the coming of warm weather, hope was renewed.

"But although the ice began to melt, it did so only on the surfaces. The choked river channels could not carry the flow, and there were serious floods. Deeper lakes remained partially frozen even during the warm season. Most fish and marine life had been killed. Farmers managed to raise some crops, but not enough. A shortage of food was imminent.

"The onset of the next cold season brought earlier solidification of lakes and rivers than had the previous year. There was greater suffering; more death. The warm season was slower in corning, and it was short. Very few crops were raised. Starvation or freezing faced us.

"Frantically I, and all chemists of our planet, worked in the laboratories, trying to find some substance that would nullify the effect of #$%&' and cause ice of lower density to be formed. No one succeeded.

"There it little more to be said. Chemists allotted the remaining supplies of food, not because they deserved to live longer I but because it was felt that only they had a chance to save our planet. But we have failed. Everywhere there is ice - and death."

There was a knock on my door and Chemin entered. "Here are the final pages of that notebook translation." I looked at him, almost in panic at the thought that had just come to me. "Never mind that now!" I cried. "Get me the foreman who was in charge of the airport ground crew the day we landed. Immediately!"

Chemin must have contacted the airport headquarters at once, for in fifteen minutes, during which I could do nothing but pace the floor, the foreman entered.

"I'm the ground foreman," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"The day we landed on our return from the space trip," I said, "a case of bottled samples w dropped. How was that accident handled?"

"Why, one bottle was broken. We swept up the glass and threw it away."

"What happened to the contents?" I asked. "Well, it was raining, you may remember," he answered. "Whatever was in the bottle was washed away and down the drain, I guess."

He took a newspaper from under his arm, opened it to the center page, and handed it to me. "By the way," he said, "you're a chemist. What do you think of this?" I read the advertisement he pointed out, but I cannot describe the utter horror that I felt. "City Ice Company announces a new product - ice cubes that sink in cold drinks!"

G. R. Yohe was trained as an organic chemist. Before retiring in 1972 he did research on the chemical constitution of coal at the Illinois Geological Survey. Previously he had been a chemist with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co and had taught chemistry at Ohio Wesleyan University.

*Reprinted from Chemistry Vol. 46, pp. 8-11 Sept. 1973