The Story of Water
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
A Deep Dive Into Earth’s Most Seminal Substance
Water, thou hast no taste, no color, no odor; canst not be defined, art relished while ever mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, thou fillest us with a gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939)
Anyone who has undertaken a serious study of water can attest that full consideration of this magical substance warrants the adage “the further we look, the less we know”.
All water is not the same. Water is dynamic, it can be energized and enhanced, some call it "living water", others "structured water". Nevertheless, water can be activated.
The story of water is a fascinating exercise in humbling yourself to the power and majesty of the natural world, and presents us with important tools for impriving hydration and human health.
There may be no discussion of greater importance for the future of humanity.
Water is Earth’s most valuable resource. Goethe said, “Water sustains all.”
We have one word for it, yet every time we experience water it is never the same. Water is obvious, but mostly misunderstood. Water is invisible, yet a part of every moment of our existence. Major religions revere water, and at the same time describe it destroying the Earth in great floods. Water floated the Titanic, and sunk her at the same time. Water can be everywhere and nowhere all at once, showing up in the dew of the morning and reappearing as a fog rolling through the hills at dusk.
Water expresses elegance in the grace of a babbling brook, great power in the force of a surging whirlpool or an epic surfing wave at Mavericks, and devastating destruction as a tsunami or a 100-year deluge. Water is unassuming, but alive with energy; seemingly inert, but the personification of vitality. Water is a riddle of life and, on balance, may be the most miraculous and, at the same time, disrespected substance on Earth.
With water, words fail us, yet it is intimately infused into our language. As they say, “A rising tide raises all ships”. We “go with the flow” when we cooperate, or “blow off steam” when we get upset. We “freeze up” when we get nervous, and “make a splash” when we become influential. Inexperience is described as being “wet behind the ears” and being in debt is described as being “underwater”. We say these things without even thinking about them, and these phrases represent a mere “drop in the bucket” of the ways that water is infused into human culture.
Water is life. It is the substance we look for to seek the potential for living organisms on other planets. Water is the sea that our spirit swims in through our body to generate the ideas that manifest the physical world we inhabit. In the words of the poet Wallace Stevens, “Human nature is like water, it takes the shape of its container.”
Let’s put it this way, water is much more than just wet. Given its significance you would think there are institutes dedicated to studying water, but there are few. In fact, with water, the more we discover, the more questions get raised. As D.H. Lawrence said in his book The Third Thing, “Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes it water. And nobody knows what that is.”
Philip Ball, author of H2O: A Biography of Water puts it this way, “No one really understands water. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but the stuff that covers two-thirds of our planet is still a mystery. Worse, the more we look, the more the problems accumulate: new techniques probing deeper into the molecular architecture of liquid water are throwing up more puzzles.”
The character of water is one of grace under pressure, constantly seeking its own level without prejudice, but with a beautiful intention that defines deliberate action. Like Bruce Lee says, “Empty your mind, be formless, be shapeless…like water. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”
Misunderstood and flowing without form, many are humbled, some are awed, but most in the modern world are unaware of the wonders of water. Michael Pollan told the story of plants manipulating human behavior as a means of expressing themselves in his book The Botany of Desire, and the same can be said for water. Tom Robbins personifies water in his book Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, “Human beings were invented by water as a device for transporting itself from one place to another.”
For such a common substance, it turns out we retain a surprisingly limited collective understanding of the origins, abilities, and secrets of water. Where does water come from? What is water, anyway?
The truth on all accounts is that we experience water more than we understand it, and like many things of natural origin water in its functional sense lacks a true definition. The best literal guess of its origin on Earth is from stony meteorites that commonly strike called “carbonaceous chondrite”; but the truth is a genuine mystery.
Throughout human history, water was recognized to be one of the four classical elements, along with air, earth, and fire. It was in 1781 that chemist Antoine Lavoisier ran an electrical current through water and realized that it gives off two gases — hydrogen and oxygen. Gay-Lussac and von Humboldt first defined the essential nature of the water molecule not far after this in the early 1800’s to the extent that we now have a good understanding of the fine architecture of waters two hydrogens and single oxygen that most are familiar with from textbooks. But you may be surprised to discover that modern popular science with all of its authority, expertise, and experience has never actually seen a water molecule. Despite it being the most common solvent used for experimentation in science, the true nature of water escapes deductive scientific explanation.
Of course, water molecules are incredibly small. For reference, the average snow crystal contains about 10 quintillion (10 followed by 18 zeroes) water molecules. But the significance of water is not just found in the make-up of a single molecule, but in how it works collectively and with other substances.
Water shows us its secrets, but defies definition. For instance, we know that no two snowflakes are the same. Every snowflake is formed in a unique space and time, just like the uniqueness expressed in the conception of human beings. Even identical twins express minor but definite differences. Life is infinitely more complex and so much richer than we give it credit.
Water expresses over seventy anomalies that befuddle the mighty scientific method that demands strict objective replication. Water scoffs at such rigidity, and never repeats itself. In the words of Heraclitus, one of the original Greek philosophers, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Water is so all encompassing that we can take it for granted, like the fish not recognizing that it lives under water. Water is described as beyond science, as expressed in the words of the French biologist Fred Vles, “Biology is for the most part the science of water”; or the words of the father of modern biochemistry Albert Szent-Gyorgyi who said, “Life is water dancing to the tune of solids.”
We owe our very existence to the anomalies of water. Due to its distinctive molecular structure water exhibits its greatest density and carrying capacity at 39.2°F with the density actually decreasing below this temperature. This is why ice floats on liquid water, which is relatively unique in Nature, and quite significant. Imagine if water froze from the bottom up, would life have survived ice ages on the bottom of solid lakes?
Did you know that there are at least nine different kinds of ice? Water has an unusually high melting and boiling point compared to other materials. In some cases, hot water freezes faster than cold water. It’s called the Mpemba effect.
Water has a high viscosity, or resistance, relative to other liquids. This also allows it to retain heat to help regulate our weather and be a great facilitator of sound waves. True to its mystery, pure water is actually an insulator, but becomes a capable conductor only relative to the ions that it holds. In other words, water gains its identity based on what it is not.
Almost nothing behaves the way expected when it comes to water, pressure actually reduces ices melting point and thermal conductivity, and actually causes water molecules to move further away from each other. This makes no “scientific” sense, but so it is with water.
The strangeness of water is a result of its polarity, or the expression of both a positively (+) and negatively (-) charged side to its molecule, resulting in the familiar V shape chemical structure. The polarity of water creates a “dipole moment” that makes it capable of combining with and dissolving almost anything, giving it the title of the “universal solvent”.
Because water is a polar molecule and opposite charges attract, water hugs itself through a process called “hydrogen bonding”. One consequence of hydrogen bonding is capillary action, which was actually the subject of Albert Einstein’s first scientific paper. With capillary action water molecules attract one another so strongly that they defy the force of gravity, such as in chromatography experiments where water pulls colors apart as it travels up a paper towel, or in a hydroponic system where the wicking action of capillary mats deliver water to plants without pumps.
The phenomenon of hydrogen bonding can also be seen in formation of clouds, the meniscus in a glass of water, or the surface tension created that allows water striders to skate on still water, inhabiting a unique ecosystem called a neuston.
The promiscuity of water makes it near impossible to isolate as pure H2O, which only exists in concept and maybe a vacuum. We construct tenuous certainty around Mother Nature and her ability to support life that fool us in our brilliance, that result in false security around the expertise of well-meaning people using powerful authority and methods that rip apart the whole to study the parts, parts that can no longer speak to one another in a way that is alive. We seek the truth in the dark, and we fail from the start, but it is not for a lack of trying.
In his 2013 book The Fourth Phase of Water Dr. Gerald Pollack of the University of Washington describes the tribulations of the history of water research in great detail. The Russian discovery of “polywater” in the 1960’s and later the French foray into homeopathy both made focused campaigns to document the mysterious nature of water in published research but were rebuked in the name of “science”.
The elemental ionic substance that water collects translates to “contamination” in the realm of popular science, resulting in generational research never reaching the light of the collective day. This universality by which water can dissolve and hold substance results in it being the absolute worst experimental control on Earth, and has halted almost every professional inquiry into the mysteries of water since the turn of the twentieth century.
To highlight the extreme resistance of popular science towards water, in 1988 John Maddox (1925–2009), the editor of the famous scientific journal Nature issued a response to the research submitted by the renowned scientist Jacques Benveniste (1935–2004) proving the merits of homeopathy that was first developed by Samuel Hahneman (1755–1843). Benveniste’s results showing efficacy for homeopathy were in complete contradiction with generally accepted scientific views, and Maddox responded, “Our mind is not as so much closed as not ready to change the idea of how modern science is constructed.”
Despite the intense opposition of the status quo towards paradigm changing discovery, and in light of the paradox of knowing so little about something so familiar, water science is moving forward.
For some time water has been known to exist as two distinct “isomers” (or types with a dissimilar arrangement of atoms in the molecule) based on their differing properties at the atomic level, but recently a team of researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland successfully isolated two different forms of water molecules for the first time. Known as “ortho-water” if the two hydrogen atoms in the molecule are spinning in the same direction, and “para-water” if they are spinning in different direction; the researchers succeeded in separating the two different forms of water using electric fields and documented how they reacted with ultracold diazenylium ions (a form of nitrogen). Fascinating stuff.
Water works on a macro-scale creating structures like stalagmites or the Grand Canyon, and also on the micro-scale dissolving the tiniest of substance, and not always in our favor. Water holds things in a way to make them imperceptible, like an invisibility cloak that prevents us from seeing the substances held within. We are mesmerized by its uniformity, and at the same time can be collectively unaware of its potential for toxicity.
We see this in the water tragedy of Flint, Michigan and in other communities the world over where the people who cannot afford to protect themselves from this stealthy onslaught are crippled and at the mercy of imperceptible poison. Herein is the threat of runoff from conventional agriculture and artificial lawn care, and public policies like water fluoridation and chlorination.
We see this in the water crisis in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. We live at the end of the Cape Fear River and withstand a tremendous influx of waste from animal agriculture. There are more pigs than people in our state, with most of them localted in our area of Southestern NC. On top of this we recently experienced a coal ash pollution issue that made headline news from Duke Power, and are now going through a battle with Chemours, a DuPont spin-off, from a chemical called GenX. GenX is a member of a family of chemical compounds know as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are man-made and have broad uses in commercial products such as food packaging, nonstick coatings, and firefighting foam. PFAS chemicals are sinister in their ability to bypass filtration and extremely controversial.