This was one of my father’s old books that I read twenty or more years ago. He had bought it in a barn somewhere in the back country where the owner was just trying to make a couple of bucks. My father only had a quarter, enough to buy this book. When he came back the following weekend with money, the place was gone, shut down or burned down, I don’t really remember anymore. This would have been in the 1970’s I think.
The book was a hardcover with no dust jacket. The cover was a deep blood red, but that may have been from age. I remember my father was excited about the book because it was something special. He might have said it was the first hardcover SF anthology, but I might be misremembering or he may have been wrong. The book was quite thick, several hundred pages, maybe 500. I think the title was on a dark plate on the front. The binding was a slightly darker and different shade of red.
I remember the stories as very golden age. The only one I remember at all clearly was the first one, I think.
A scientist is walking one day and notices that there is an eerily clear pond surrounded by dead animals and plants. It may have had industrial waste runoff but I don’t remember. There is a description of something like a half a cow or a deer on the edge of the water, where the rest has been eaten away by the waters. The scientist takes a sample back to the lab of the pond water.
After experimenting, he finds that the water is able to respond to stimuli, eventually hooking up a speaker and finding the water can converse. The water learns rapidly, and figures out a way to become mobile, the small pool walking around. The scientist feeds the water pieces of raw chicken or something, which it dissolves.
The water wants to explore and to spread, and the scientist knows that if it does, there will be no stopping it as the water takes over. In desperation, the water tries to escape down a drain, but the scientist stops it by pouring carbolic acid into the water (I remember distinctly that it was carbolic acid), killing it.
I think there may have been another story in the anthology I vaguely remember. A scientist is sentenced for a crime. His punishment is to spend the rest of his life researching, which doesn’t seem so bad. Then he finds out that there are conditions. He must research one of several classical impossible problems. I don’t remember if he would be released if he succeeded or not.
The classic impossible problems were things like developing a perpetual motion machine, or a universal solvent. The government figured that there was no point in wasting good scientists, it seemed a fitting punishment, and if any of them ever actually solved one of these problems, it would be a boon.
The scientist decides to look into the universal solvent. Eventually he announces that he has found it. Investigators, skeptical, come to look and just see him at a table, smiling. They demand to see the solvent and he sneers. He explains that a universal solvent couldn’t be held in any container, as it would simply dissolve the container. So he had swallowed it. And soon it would work it’s way out of his body, through the floor of the prison, and make its way to the center of the earth. I think the implication was that this would destroy the world in some way, but I don’t remember how.
I’d like to find this book again, and my father is sadly no longer available for me to ask what he might remember.