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The water of life, or the life of water?
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)