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Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water

Philip Ball

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2000, Hardcover, 400 Pages, US$29.00 list, ISBN: 0374186286 Available from

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

Marq de Villiers

Stoddart, Toronto, 2000, Paper, 422 Pages, CAN$24.95 list, ISBN: 0773761748 Available from

Reviewed for naturalSCIENCE by

Tom Fyles Note 1

Department of Chemistry, University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3065, Victoria, B.C. V8W 3V6, Canada

The driest books in the University of Victoria library are in the series Water: A Comprehensive Treatise. Yet seven fat volumes are hardly comprehensive for such a topic, even in the restricted world of physical chemistry, and further equally dry titles on adjacent shelves examine water's role in sciences from astronomy to zoology. Directly or indirectly, water is the most discussed chemical. Even so, the scientific literature on water is lost in the flood of water prose, water poetry, water purity, and water politics. "Water, water..." is truly everywhere.

Philip Ball's biography of water floats on this ocean, carried forward by its currents. What keeps it from foundering is Ball's lively writing. Face it: 370 pages plus notes and references on water has considerable potential to join the other dry tomes. But not when the author entitles a section on cellular fluids as "Just Juice," or describes the sharing of electrons in the H-O bond by noting that oxygen "hogs the electrons like a selfish lover stealing most of the duvet." The section on the water phase diagram, "The Phaseland of Water," should be compulsory reading for writers and editors of introductory chemistry texts. Not only does Ball entertain, his discussion of "Phaseland" and other landscapes is rigorous physical chemistry.

Ball confronts the biographer's task literally. He recounts the cosmological origins of water's "parents," hydrogen and oxygen, and water's birth in interstellar space. From these origins he examines the Earth's hydrosphere: the hydrologic cycle, ocean currents, subsurface water, atmospheric water, and glaciers. Like a biographer, he notes dramatic events—catastrophic floods, tsunamis, ice ages—and the potential for further disasters as a result of climate change. He's clearly skeptical of doomsday scenarios proposing large sea level changes due to polar ice-cap melting, and advises us "to hope for the best and prepare for the worst." Ball then moves quickly to water in the solar system, to "Oceans in the Sky." He passes the moon, Mars, Venus, and Gannymede, to settle eventually on Europa's ice-covered ocean and its potential for life. Ball's polemic against manned space missions is a distracting element in this section, although some of his targets, such as creating an Earth-like atmosphere on Mars, richly deserve his ridicule.

The "Two hands, Two Feet" section of the biography is a remarkably readable account of the chemical properties of water. The section begins with the "naming of H2O," an account of the path from water as one of Aristotle's elements, to the late eighteenth century recognition of water as a chemical compound. Historians of science will object to the linearity of this presentation, but Ball captures some of the difficulties faced by Cavendish, Lavoisier, and Priestly, as they struggled to rationalize experimental findings on the combustion of hydrogen in "dephlogistonated" air. Their problems are those faced by every synthetic chemist: at what level should the minor impurties be ignored? Cavendish correctly reported that the water produced in his combustion experiments was slightly acidic (which we now see as a result of some nitrogen oxides produced in the flame). His insistence on respecting those observations held him from the "simpler" explanation of water as an oxide of hydrogen promoted by Lavoisier. Ball's discussion truly highlights the chemist's dilemma: how to build a logical theoretical structure from partial and conflicting experimental evidence.

The main theme for Ball's book emerges in "Between Heaven and Earth: Why Water is the Weirdest Liquid." On the chemical level he is certainly correct. Unlike all other compounds, solid ice floats on the liquid water. No other chemical substance has the rich structure of water in all its phases, and Ball revels in pointing out water's anomalous behaviors. Ball ties these to water's "two hands, two feet" form, which leads to hydrogen atom "hands" grasping the electron-pair "feet" of adjacent molecules. Cartoons illustrate the ordering in solid phases of water, and the long analogy of the phase diagram as a map of "Phaseland" is both engaging and fundamental. Snowflakes, skiing, and supercooled water all combine to build the case that water's physical properties are unique among chemical substances. The chapter Life's Matrix, on the "biology of water," provides a title for the book, but offers very little biology and quite a bit more chemistry. Ball provides a condensed and conventional presentation of prebiotic chemistry leading to cellular life. His ultimate point is simple: water as the "weirdest liquid" plays a significant role in maintaining protein and cellular structures via the hydrophobic effect: the fear of water. The writing on physico-chemical principles is lucid here too.

From the perspective that water is a weird chemical, Ball's last major section, "Strange Brew," builds a case that water engenders a disproportionate number of exotic claims. As an editor of Nature, Ball is well placed to have a finger on the pulse of fringe science, and he draws a parallel between "weird water" and a propensity for weird claims about water. He begins with an account of Langmuir's criteria for pathological science and then looks at the history of three "wild water" stories: polywater, cold fusion, and "water memory." The first two fulfil most of the criteria formulated by Langmuir, particularly the way in which they ran rampant through the scientific community and then as rapidly faded under the weight of scrutiny. The "water memory" case involved specific antibody recognition at dilutions that should have produced many orders of magnitude fewer than a single molecule remaining in the test sample. Although the initial report was much discussed, relatively few labs initiated parallel work, so this case is less obvious under the Langmuir criteria. It was the (in)famous investigation by Nature's editor, John Maddox, involving the Amazing Randi as part of the investigative team, followed by the published rebuttal in Nature, that apparently closed the case. Ball reformulates the conclusions of the investigative panel in a way that bridges to Langmuir's criteria. They will be useful in recognizing the early stages of pathological science, and deserve broader discussion than they will get, buried as they are on page 332.

The weakest part of the book is the epilogue, "Blue Gold." Clearly no writer on water can avoid dealing with water as a resource, but the perfunctory treatment provided by this epilogue serves no one well. The principal issues are highlighted, but their treatment is cursory. For example, the "water wars" between northern and southern California are relegated to a footnote, the disappearing and noxious Aral Sea is not mentioned, and the sinking aquifers world wide are noted only as they relate to brackish water incursion. Conventional technological solutions—reduce, reuse, recycle—are advanced with no real analysis of the scope of the problem.

The short conclusion on the "meaning of water" highlights the problems of the epilogue. Many of the historical references and short quotes throughout the book draw on religious sources, and Ball develops the idea of the "mystery" of water in several places. So it comes as no surprise that he concludes that the "meaning of water" could lie outside the realm of physical science. Yet having argued this way, he falls back to molecular properties as the source of our fascination with water. Even so well written a book as this will have difficulty in convincing the general reader. Perhaps the role of biography is not to convince, but to recount the facts of a subject's life, the nature of the subject's actions, the subject's legacy and the reactions of the subject's contemporaries and descendents. Ball does a fine job on the first three, but leaves the reactions, our reactions, largely unexamined.

Has Philip Ball ever been really thirsty? Has he ever been in a position where the quantity and quality of the available water were insufficient? Marq de Villiers has, and it shows from the first sentences of his book Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. In a sense, De Villiers' scope is more restricted than Ball's: he is a "water collector" and he presents snapshots of water use, reuse, and abuse, to survey global water resources. He is not a scientist (he uses the odious word "boffins") but his accounts of global hydrology and climate are competent and illustrated with appropriate anecdotes. For example, his section on ocean currents begins on the Cape of Good Hope and the few hardy Atlantic swimmers compared with the crowded beaches to the northeast on the Indian Ocean side. This human starting point develops into an excellent account of ocean circulation, every bit as persuasive as Ball's.

Where de Villiers runs well beyond Ball is in his discussion of human actions in the hydrosphere. He offers chapters on "Who Has How Much, and Who's Running Out?," "How Humans Have Always Discovered, Diverted, Accumulated, Regulated, Hoarded, and Misused Water," "The Problem of Irrigation," and "Shrinking Aquifers." All these sections recount the many facets of water engineering, on a global scale, and through human history. De Villiers builds each chapter with short case histories that expose the main issues, yet together weave a rich tapestry of human water usage. The science and engineering chapters together support and inform excellent chapters on water politics. Water is the fundamental political issue in the Middle East, in northeast Africa, and in the Indian subcontinent, and influences international relations in both developing (China) and developed countries (US-Canada, Europe). The lack of water limits human development over much of the globe. De Villiers builds a persuasive case that water politics will dominate international and domestic agendas for at least the next decades.

Ironically, De Villiers' closing chapter, "What Is To Be Done," comes remarkably close to the concluding section of Ball's book. In peaceable regions the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra may provide the basic requirements. The alternative is violent confrontation between hostile upstream states and thirsty downstream states. The potential for armed confrontation between states over water is probably small, but turning off the tap to the neighbours will certainly lead to human suffering. The consequences will be more devastating than pitched conflict. There is no ambiguity about the meaning of water for de Villiers: water is life. Hopefully those who would mediate the coming conflicts will understand this as deeply as de Villiers.

In the end, it is the two books in conjunction that provide the satisfying portrait of a chemical that has played, and that will play, such a dominant role in life in general, and contemporary human life in particular. Water is, after all, life's matrix.


(1) Felix Franks (Editor). 1975. Water: A Comprehensive Treatise. ISBN: 0306371855. Plenum, New York.

Note 1

Dr. Tom Fyles is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He can be reached by email at His research interests include membrane transport, rising from a background of synthesis, physical organic chemistry, and supramolecular chemistry.

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