16 December 2004

Something in the dihydrogen monoxide

The city councillors of Aliso Viejo in Orange County, California, are well-meaning, socially responsible people. And when they came across the huge threat posed to their constituents by dihydrogen monoxide they did what any elected official should do: they took steps to protect their community. A motion due to go before the city legislature proposed banning the potentially deadly substance from within the city boundaries.

Researchers found that the presence of dihydrogen monoxide in Aliso Viejo had reached startling levels: it was present in its crude form, often spilling unmonitored on to the city streets; it was found to be a crucial ingredient in many common chemical compounds; its presence was even detected in that most ubiquitous of civilised artifacts, the styrofoam cup.

And it got worse: dihydrogen monoxide is lethal if inhaled, causes severe burns in its gaseous state, and is the major component in acid rain. Prolonged exposure to solid dihydrogen monoxide can cause severe tissue damage. It can, said the city council report, 'threaten human safety and health'.

Fortunately for the concerned legislators, the rat was smelt before it got as far as the debating chamber. The perils of dihydrogen monoxide have been ignored until now largely because it is better known by its common name: water.

'It's embarrassing,' said city manager David Norman in an inspired act of buck-passing. 'We had a paralegal who did bad research.'

At least the city fathers of Aliso Viejo can sleep soundly at night now that they know dihydrogen monoxie is not ert. I guess it's one for the legal philosophers. If the city council had enacted this law, how should a judge have treated offenders? How is dihydrogen monoxide related to dry economics? How persuasive is the evidence presented by the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division?

Fortunately there is no danger of governments pursuing empirical error. It is, for instance, impossible that a number of governments would invade another country over weapons of mass destruction that do not exist.

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