The Magic and the Mystery of Water - Pacific Standard

The Magic and the Mystery of Water

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Water doesn’t just sustain life and literature; it also takes them away.

By Jason G. Goldman

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The Water Book: The Extraordinary Story of Our Most Ordinary Substance. (Photo: Headline Publishing Group)

The Water Book: The Extraordinary Story of Our Most Ordinary Substance
Alok Jha
Headline Publishing Group

Water is weird. The substance that bears one of the world’s best-known chemical recipes — two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen — seems rather prosaic on the surface, and perhaps that’s because it’s found just about everywhere. It rains down on us from the skies, runs beneath our feet in underground aquifers, laps against the banks of rivers and the shores of oceans, and fills swimming pools and drinking glasses. As steam, it spins the power-plant turbines that electrify homes and factories; as ice, it’s responsible for reflecting enough sunlight that our planet remains habitable.

The chemical pushes and guides us on our search through the cosmos, both nearby on the Moon and on Mars, and far away on worlds like Kepler-186f, an exoplanet some 500 light years from us in the constellation Cygnus, the swan. For where there is water there is at least the potential for life.

But water isn’t just the stuff of biology and chemistry. It soaks through the traditions of nearly every religious culture on the planet, from the flood myths of Noah and Gilgamesh to the holy water packaged in vials and hawked to tourists on the street corners of Jerusalem.

It would not be hyperbole to say that our planet’s greatest civilizations would not exist but for fresh water. The Mesopotamians founded their culture at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, a pair of rivers still so important to modern Iraqi culture that Saddam Hussein had engineers divert their flow, a measure intended to deprive militias from finding refuge in the southern marshes. This place, surrounded by desert — a spot some Biblical scholars claim hosted the Garden of Eden — was the literal origin of human civilization. Here is where agriculture was developed, dams invented, cities formally organized, the wheel dreamed up — a technology that would later be used to create electricity from the flow of water.

“Look at it rationally and this is a profoundly strange chemical that bends and flexes the usual rules of chemistry.”

Rivers continued to inspire throughout human history. Several of America’s greatest fictional tales are inextricably linked to the flow of the Mississippi, thanks to the one-time riverboat pilot named Samuel Clemens. Egypt has the Nile, England the Thames, and India the Ganges. The Romans flourished thanks to their water-transporting aqueducts, and one need only look as far as the Three Gorges Dam in China or Brazil’s plan to dam the Amazon to appreciate how water continues to power modern societies.

But water doesn’t just sustain life and literature; it also takes them away. The tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 killed thousands and washed away most of the northeastern towns of Kuji, Ofunato, and others; the wave was more than three stories tall when it slammed into the oyster-farming village of Rikuzentakata.

An ancient form of torture relies on little more than the slow release of water drops onto the forehead. Spend too long underwater without a gulp of fresh air, and this chemical substrate for life will quickly snuff yours out.

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This story first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

Water issues dominate headlines even today. Residents of Flint, Michigan, are justifiably afraid to drink the water that flows from their taps. While California battles a five-year drought, water bottling giant Nestlé continues to siphon water away on an expired permit. And if that drought causes Mono Lake to drop too low, the eggs and chicks in California’s second largest gull rookery, now protected on an island in the center of the lake, could disappear down the throats of hungry coyotes.

In some places, high-speed Internet is easier to come by than fresh water. Indeed, the World Health Organization estimates that 663 million people can’t access clean water, and that number will only increase as more of the planet shifts from a grain- to a meat- and dairy-based diet. UNICEF reports that, in some places, it is the responsibility of school-age girls to collect water for their families, a task that prevents them from spending time in the classroom. Lack of water can kill just as readily as too much of it.

From granting to stealing life, water is able to accomplish so much precisely because it’s such an odd little molecule. “Look at it rationally and this is a profoundly strange chemical that bends and flexes the usual rules of chemistry,” writes British science journalist Alok Jha in The Water Book: The Extraordinary Story of Our Most Ordinary Substance. For one thing, its solid form floats on top of its liquid phase; most substances contract and sink when they become solid, which is why solid candles do not float on melted wax. But water expands when it freezes, which is why frozen pipes are so apt to burst. It’s also why, as Jha would learn while on expedition to Antarctica, visiting our planet’s polar regions is so incredibly dangerous.

This story starts, as many adventures do, on a boat. Jha reported in 2013 from a polar research vessel called the Akademik Shokalskiy. The expedition, expected to last a month, was organized to re-trace the Antarctic explorations of British-Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, conducted a bit more than a century prior. Jha was there to cover the voyage and its scientific objectives for the Guardian, where he was a science correspondent for 11 years.

While science, medicine, and engineering have made it possible for more people to survive visits to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean that surrounds it like a menacing moat, there are some things that 100 years of technology still can’t beat. There’s the seasickness, for example. “I don’t know how long I lay there, waiting for my head to stop spinning,” Jha writes about the simple task of trying to dig his anti-nausea pills out from his bag. “I was forced to lie down on the floor next to my open suitcase, still clutching the two tablets in my right hand. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore my brain’s command to go and find a place to vomit.” It is the tale of one man’s struggles to cope with water’s fury that makes The Water Book more than a comprehensive textbook.

The World Health Organization estimates that 663 million people can’t access clean water, and that number will only increase as more of the planet shifts from a grain- to a meat- and dairy-based diet.

Though it is that too. In The Water Book, Jha introduces his readers to water in all forms, from the tiniest of molecules to the vast aggregations of trillions upon trillions of those molecules, roiling ocean currents that drive our planet’s global weather patterns; from the bits of water bound up in Moon dust, to the seas beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, to the 16 different types of water ice known to scientists on our own world.

While Jha’s battle with the churning saltwater beneath him sets an entertaining scene upon the book’s opening, it’s the denouement that emphasizes the quiet dominance of the everyday substance floating atop your iced tea. It was on Christmas morning, two weeks after its departure from New Zealand, that the Akademik Shokalskiy became trapped. Though its hull is reinforced for breaking through sea ice, sometimes there’s just too much of it, or it grows too thick, and even a heavily armored ship gets stuck.

After 10 days of waiting, with nearly 20 miles of accumulated ice between the ship and the nearest open water, Jha and the rest of the ship’s passengers were evacuated to a nearby Australian icebreaker called the Aurora Australis.

“The vast ice fields of Antarctica are a salutary reminder that this is the form water takes, for the most part, in the universe,” Jha muses after his rescue. “Frozen, inhospitable, barren, alien.” Indeed, this is water as you’ve never known it.

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