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In praise of water

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

NASA quasar water vapor.jpg
NASA artist’s conception of a quasar similar to similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Image by NASA/ESA.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’ve loved water for as long as I can remember. It was a crucial part of my life long before that. You could even say water is a huge part of everything I’ve been and will become.

Growing up in Michigan, fresh water is unusually plentiful. Even Detroit’s river is a strait between enormous lakes. Smaller ones abound. When I first visited Texas, I was told that the state had no natural lakes. It seemed impossible.

Twenty years ago, my first college research paper was for an international relations class. We had to find an international conflict and break it down with a little game theory and a smattering of other analytic perspectives we’d learned. (He really liked game theory.) I picked water rights in the Middle East. I think it was the first time I’d taken something that had always been presented as a mysterious, centuries-long, religious and tribalist conflict, and broken it down into a concrete fight over resources. No resource is more important or elemental than water.

Last year, I wrote a good-sized feature on the Flint Water Crisis and centuries of water pollution in Flint. I also wrote about a timeline put together by museum researchers in Flint. (Like I’ve everything I’ve written, the longer version of both stories is ten times as brilliant and a hundred times more insufferable.)

Anyways. Flint shows both the precarity of our water supply and how essential water is, for everything. We drink it, we bathe in it, we cook with it, we clean our clothes and dishes and almost everything. It flushes our toilets and often heats our homes. It’s essential to business and industry, for cleaning and fuel and disposing waste. It’s what grows our food, whether animal and vegetable. We can’t do anything without water. And like everything else we can’t live without, we take it for granted, finding new ways to abuse and squander it every day.

At the same time, water is terrifying. It is human and inhuman. It storms, it floods, it melts, it poisons and murders us. You don’t have to read Moby-Dick to get a sense of the sublime inhumanity of water, especially the ocean. But it does help.

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

And yet:

But though, to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling; though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.

The first boat we read of, floated on an ocean, that with Portuguese vengeance had whelmed a whole world without leaving so much as a widow. That same ocean rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.

Water is us, and it is not us; it is a symbol of life, and it is nearly as hostile and foreign to landbound life as is outer space.

The BBC radio show “In Our Time” has a terrific episode about water, its chemical construction, and its simultaneous abundance and scarcity in the universe. I’d always thought there was something chauvinistic in scientists’ search for liquid water on other planets: sure, it’s essential to life as we know it on earth, but in all the infinite possibilities of the universe, couldn’t another molecule do the same job?

It turns out liquid water really is, at a chemical level, probably uniquely suited for generating and fostering life:

The periodic table restricts the elements available for life with carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen being the four commonest reactive elements in the Universe. Carbon would seem to be the most important as it can produce an enormous range of compounds (organic chemistry). Other elements such as sulfur and silicon cannot form the complexity of molecules necessary for life, Silicon, in particular, tends to form stable silicates. Life on Earth contains these plus many other commonly found elements. All these elements (except hydrogen) are created inside stars and, if common, will form simple compounds in space, with dust particles in space containing up to 35% organic carbon. For forming part of life, molecules need to be relatively easy both to form and to break down and to be relatively stable within a liquid environment.

A stable liquid medium is required, such as water, with other candidate liquids such as N2, H2S, NH3 and glassy silica being liquid only at low temperatures giving slow reaction rates, or at high temperatures that are destructive and too viscous. Also many of theses putative media freeze from the bottom up that would tend to prevent the establishment of life.

Basically (and please forgive me if I screw this up), it comes back to that hydrogen bonding we kinda-sorta learned about in first-year chemistry. The structure and polarity of liquid water, with two hydrogens on one side and one oxygen on the other, and the exact strength of those hydrogen bonds, makes it uniquely suited to store energy, dissolve compounds, and transmit both of these things from place to place. Salts, enzymes, minerals, oxygen: all of these get pumped through our bodies by way of water. It is very difficult to imagine or even mathematically model any other way to do the same range of jobs.

Phillipe Water Mafia.png

What could Earthlings do if everyone, everywhere had an infinite supply of water?

You start to carry water with you everywhere. Sometimes after getting home from work you drink from the kitchen faucet in great, hiccuping gulps. In no time at all you’ve moved from eight cups a day to a few gallons. Anyone else might have died of hyponatremia by now, but not you. You only grow stronger and more beautiful….

Every country in the world bans the drinking of any beverage other than water. All droughts cease; deserts erupt in a riot of frondescence. You twirl in delight, slowly at first, round and round, as the entire world joins you in drinking more water. Everyone is drinking more water now. A soft, cool rain begins to fall. “She’s the one,” you hear someone whisper before you ascend to a plane of existence where human vocalizations no longer mean anything to you. “The one who drinks a lot of water.”