Sunday, February 21, 2016

Life's Matrix by Philip Ball

Water is a chemical essential to human life and culture, and it is possibly the oddest common substance. Physicist and science writer Philip Ball describes the nature of water, both scientific and cultural, in Life’s Matrix (originally published in the United Kingdom as H2O: A Biography of Water).

Ball begins at the very beginning—the big bang. Hydrogen, the simplest atom and most abundant element in the universe, appeared early in the universe. Oxygen is forged in stars and has become the third most abundant element. There is water in space. Ice seems to be common in the far reaches of the solar system. It has been found on the moon and stars and a few molecules appear in the cooler spots on the sun.

We have found no worlds yet that have as much liquid water as ours. The water cycle has shaped Earth. Our weather comes largely from the interplay of water and energy. Even the water locked up in the ice of our poles and glaciers shape the land, influence the weather, and affect the movement of heat, water and salt in ocean currents.

Ball tackles all phases of water, including a few exotic forms that only occur in extreme conditions created in laboratories. That water exists as vapor, liquid, and solid within the fairly narrow range of temperatures that are common on Earth make it unique. This is just one of its unusual properties. The structure of the water molecule is described in the book along with the physics that explain its behavior, to the degree that such things are even known.

Our understanding of water as a compound of hydrogen and oxygen is a relatively recent thing. For a long time, water was thought of as an irreducible element. This makes sense on some level. Water is essential to life as we know it. It is irreplaceable. From the perspective of living creatures, and in almost every culture, water is a fundamental material.

In the final chapter, Ball moves away from the hard sciences to culture, economics and policy. Water of the quality needed for drinking, and even the lesser quality needed for other things, is scarce and unevenly distributed on the planet. To take a serious look at water is to be drawn to issues of health and wealth. Growing population and changing climate will put increased demands on the available fresh water, and we need to consider how we are going to manage it. Ball takes a look at some of the hot spots.

The book is intended for a broad audience. I think it is probably more accessible to someone with some education in the sciences, especially chemistry or physics, but someone had a high-school level class in these subjects they should be able to follow along.

In addition, the book is 16 years old, so necessarily out of date in some respects. I suspect that much of the physics, chemistry and biology described is still sound. Similarly, there is unlikely to be discoveries in history that would seriously outdate the book, even in the interesting section on dead ends and “pathology” in water science.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Ball, Philip. Life’s Matrix: A Biography of Water. 1999. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.