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on 5 December 2000
Philip Ball takes the reader on a magical mystery tour of the science of water, written in an easily readable style for the lay person. Topics covered range from the physical structure and properties of water through to the crucial roll of water in life, evolution, and a discussion of the 'strange' forms of water, covering chemistry, biology, physics, geology, weather etc. in a thoroughly enjoyable read. One possible criticism is that the book at times appears to jump around between topics. The book ends with a fascinating account of scientific deception and fraud, centered around the stories of cold fusion. An extremely interesting book for anyone with any curiousity about the substance that makes up over 90% of their own body weight and covers much of this planets surface - as well as possible the interiors of others - another topic discussed in some detail.
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on 25 July 2009
I found a reference to this book in one Oxford's ' very short introduction' series and bought it to fill in what I felt was a lacuna in my knowledge.
I was not disappointed. In its direct style, there is information in this book to satisfy the interest of any body and it can be accessed even by simply dipping in.
From those who prefer the history of science, to those whoe want to understand the scource our world's weather systems an introduction is here.
And I even hd a brief insight into the "lattice theory of water" that I believe homeopaths invoke to explain the efficacy of their preparations which last saw an active molecule many dilutions ago.
Buy it, read it and keep it on your bookshelf
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on 25 May 2007
For me, this volume has three distinct parts which are quite different, like the proverbial curate's egg - good in parts. The overall recommendation would be "read it", and in doing so, you will learn something new about water, the most basic of commodities, and yet at the same time the most precious.

First there are pages on the physical properties of the substance. This also encompasses the chemical properties, and the wonderful story of the discovery of oxygen, with the colourful figures of Cavendish, Priestley and finally Lavoisier. It is one of the quirks of the history of science that what Ball describes as a lonely chemist (Jean Marat) was responsible for sending a prized savant to a death embraced by Madame La Guillotine "because the Republic has no use for savants".

Amongst this part there are facts and figures that remind readers of the wonders of nature, and how "lucky" we are that there is such an abundance of both water, and variety of life forms on our green planet. Three quarters of the world's fresh water is held as ice, yet this comprises only 2% of the Earth's surface water, because of the enormity of the oceans. It is also astonishing that ice has 20 to 30 times less frictional resistance than other solids. Ball brings a sense of wonder and excitement at the natural history all around us, describing how fish and frogs survive at extremely low temperatures (some frogs even freezing), and how plants adapt to cold. The production of abcisic acid in autumn can mean that some plants can survive down to -30º Celsius, yet would have been killed-off by only 0º Celsius months earlier.

The middle part of the book for me was the most challenging, describing in detail how water is joined together by hydrogen bonds. There WERE better sections to this portion, but it was at times hard going, and to have a section that can be described as DRY in a book about water is ironic. That said, it was a revelation that ice can exist in many different forms, including where the temperature is at 100 º Celsius (albeit at very great pressure). There are also philosophical questions about water: if water is the medium in which life began, the fact that water has a destructive impact on amino acids is a problem.

The final part is the most interesting, discussing the nature of what constitutes `good' and `bad' science, whilst discussing ultimately erroneous (as at the current tine) theories in the broad area of water. Ball is at pain not to use the judgemental terms `good' and `bad', but that is what he is describing. His refusal to use these terms is thus rather artificial. He makes the point that science derives much of its formidable strength from the ability to make and live with mistakes. Therefore, it is necessary to encourage mistakes, if they lead in the direction of greater knowledge. He quotes John Madox's view that in science, the concept of heresy is meaningless. Heresy is an opinion contrary to generally accepted beliefs. Therefore, most scientific revolutions start with heresy. However if there are extreme claims, these require extreme evidence. This was the stance taken by `Nature' (of which John Madox was the editor) when faced by one of these possible scientific explanations (cold nuclear fusion - the others being anomalous water, and the idea that `water has memory')

The subject of `water' seems to be a small subject, yet Ball has written a wide-ranging work. It is not a book to go for to get answers, more to go to when you want questions. Along the way there are good side-discussions (including homeopathy, water conservation, global warming and possible future water wars). I am left with a better understanding of what science is (a battle between conservatism, or scepticism of new ideas, and innovation). Let us conclude with the sentiments of Ball: Only a fool would deny that water would hold [as yet] unguessed secrets and wonders in its molecular structure. But it is not so magical so as to escape the laws of physics.

Peter Morgan, Bath, UK (
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on 20 July 2013
A very interesting and in-depth look into the many different aspects of Water. The book is filled with fascinating insights into the special properties of water. The book covers everything from a fairly detailed look at the physics behind the formation of Hydrogen and Oxygen in the early cosmos to the biological aspects of Water and life with plenty of chemistry, history and geography thrown in for good measure.
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on 30 October 2014
Brilliant go to reference. Learnt so much.
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on 27 August 2006
Editor of Nature or not; This reminds more about a speaker in a Victorian hall - with his top hat at his side - trying to impress his audience with his prose instead of telling a good story. Each second sentence seems to exist only as an initiator to the next one: Only to impress together as an art. - One starts the book expecting to get a really good read, and expects this flowery speach to soon end. ...Then one starts to lift an eyebrow, and starts to read half a sentence in the middle of each paragraph. Then one jumps three pages per jump, so ten, then thirty... And it just goes on and on and on... And the "introductory" sentence(s) never ends. Perhaps there is something readable at the end? I don't have the stomach to read it yet; the style is so firmly set. - The author should have praise for using very short sentences in between. Of the kind a good fiction writer uses a couple of times throughout a novel. I guess that this is a positive result of the author's very high education. But one tires of eating 'chocolate' all the time. - I wonder just how much "lay"-man one should be to read this? Perhaps a very special breed from art school? - For a very good read, perhaps one should try "The Shocking History of Phosphorous" by John Emsley instead?
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