Science Book Reviews : Life's Matrix : A Biography of Water, by Philip Ball

Classification : General Science Books - Cosmology - Physics - Chemistry - Geology - Earth Science - Biology

Link to the site main index : Book Reviews - All Categories         Link to the Science Book Reviews index page

Please click here to display the price and option to buy :
Philip Ball, Life's Matrix : A Biography of Water

Paperback reprint, 2001 - 429 Pages
(Note: The first edition, hardcover, 2000, is out of print.)

Lifes's Matrix : A Biography of Water , by Philip Ball

          What's the big deal? It comprises 70% of our bodies ... it actually becomes part of us as it flows through us ... and it covers 70% of the surface of the planet Earth. So, it's only water!

          Water deserves a biography because its importance is imprinted on every facet of human experience. In Greek mythology, the gods divided among themselves the realms of the sky, earth, underworld, and the sea. Poseidon, god of the sea, was said to have intervened in the Trojan War and the journeys of Odysseus. Water is mentioned very early in the myths of creation in the Rig Veda in India and in the Book of Genesis. It was one of the four elements of the European alchemists. Water has dominated human psychology as an archetypal symbol in every stage of our history.

          That was the childhood of the human race, and science brought us into our adolescence. While the ancient Greek Democritus (c. 400 BC) proposed that matter is made of invisibly small particles which he called atoms, it was John Dalton, in the 19th century, who proposed the first semi-modern concept of atoms and molecules that still has some usefulness in modern chemistry. Dalton determined that specific elements combine in specific ratios to form compounds -- and we all know that water is H2O .

Table of Contents
for the first edition (hardcover)
Life's Matrix : A Biography of Water
by Philip Ball
New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1999

List of Illustrations		     vii
Preface 			     ix

Part One -- Cosmic Juice

  1.  The First Flood		     3
  2.  Blood of the Earth	     22
  3.  Storehouses of the Hail	     59
  4.  Oceans in the Sky 	     82

Part Two -- Two Hands, Two Feet

  5.  Open to the Elements	     115
  6.  Between Heaven and Earth	     151
  7.  Cold Truths		     183

Part Three -- Life's Matrix

  8.  The Real Elixir		     221
  9.  Inner Space		     249

Part Four -- Strange Brew

  10. Pride, Prejudice and Pathology 271
  11. A Drop of Something Stronger   293

Epilogue : Blue Gold		     337
Notes				     373
Bibliography			     391
Index				     405
Click here to display the price
and option to buy

          Philip Ball explains "why water is the weirdest liquid." [page 151] First of all, "water is crooked" [167], i.e., the atoms H-O-H are not in a straight line, but form a 104.5 degree angle. The concentration of electrons on the side of the H's -- the side that looks like the ears on Mickey Mouse -- give that side a negative charge, while Mickey's chin has a positive charge. This asymmetrical charge distribution makes the molecules in any container of water stick together like a truckload of magnets. Due to this stickiness, a drop of water on the table or on a leaf remains huddled together in a rounded droplet shape, and the surface of a pond has the surface tension to permit a water bug to walk on it. Because water molecules are polar, you can't dissolve a substance made of nonpolar molecules -- the oil and water in your salad dressing keep separating. To cut the grease on our dinner plates, we add a little soap to the dishwater, which, being made of nonpolar molecules, can pry the gunk off the dishes.

          Water is the only liquid that expands when it freezes, which makes ice float on a lake. In the winter, the lake freezes from the top down, and fish can continue to live in the liquid water beneath the ice. But enough examples; you get the idea: "water is the weirdest liquid."

          Philip Ball takes us on a journey through the history of the universe, beginning with the first nanoseconds after the Big Bang. That's when electrons and protons came together to form the first atoms, those of hydrogen, which is the H in the formula H2O . The O part of the formula, oxygen atoms, like all the other elements, were formed much later, after stars were born. They were manufactured by nuclear fusion inside the stars.

List of Illustrations, Life's Matrix : A Biography of Water , by Philip Ball

  1. The hydrological cycle
  2. Global ocean-surface currents
  3. Global deep-sea circulation
  4. Creation of volcanic island arcs
  5. Global ice sheets during the last ice age
  6. Argentiere Glacier in the French Alps
  7. Valleys carved by glaciers
  8. The rivers of Mars
  9. A "splash" crater on Mars
  10. The surface of Jupiter's moon Ganymede
  11. The icy surface of Callisto
  12. Europa's surface, showing fragmented ice rafts
  13. Plato's atoms
  14. A typical phase diagram
  15. Phase diagram of water
  16. The structure of a liquid
  17. The water molecule
  18. The basic structural motif of liquid water
  19. The structure of ice
  20. Computer model of the network of liquid water
  21. Snowflakes
  22. Dendrites formed by sudden solidification
  23. Historical impressions of snowflakes
  24. How ice doubles its density under pressure
  25. The temperature range of liquid water
  26. Phase diagram showing the possibility of two kinds of liquid water
  27. Inside a bacterial cell
  28. Sugar molecules distinguished by water
  29. Does water have memory?
  30. Water distribution throughout the world
Click here to display the price
and option to buy

          Clumps of star material broke away and formed the planets. Fortunately, our own planet is one of the few that ended up having plenty of this weird liquid we call water. The crooked molecule made it possible for living cells to develop in the sea, because cell membranes permit just the right menu of nutrients to diffuse through them. Billions of years of water erosion broke up the surface of the rock planet and formed soil. Water plus a few dissolved nutrients became the sap of plants - then it became our own "sap", which we call blood. Only because water is the weird liquid, we can be alive. Now, when scientists search for life on other planets, their first question is always about the likelihood of the presence of water there.

          Philip Ball also takes on controversial public issues. The global water supply is endangered by pollution dumped carelessly by the owners of industry, and possible means to solve this problem are considered. In telling the tale of the cold fusion controversy, in the race to develop alternative energy sources, we hear about the stubbornness, greed and other human frailties that sometimes tend to spoil the scientific method. The claims of homeopathy are put on trial, since it isn't logical that a biological reagent can be effective in a solution which has been diluted to the point that no molecules of that reagent are present at all.

          I played a little game with this book, probably because I'm a science teacher: I tried to find some aspect of water that the author failed to discuss. I couldn't find one. Not only does Philip Ball include it all; he unifies it all. He shows how water is a territory where we have an intersection of philosophy, mythology, ethics, law, agriculture, industry, economics, psychology, and physical science. More than anything else, it is the stuff of ourselves.

          Philip Ball is an editor of the scientific journal Nature and has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Bristol.

          The title of the book is an allusion to a remark by Paracelsus (c. 1530 AD) who called water "the matrix of the world and all its creatures."

(417 pages, including 30 illustrations, 18 pages of notes, a 13-page bibliography, and a 13-page 2-column index.)

This is an link for Life's Matrix : A Biography of Water , by Philip Ball
Link to the site main index : Book Reviews - All Categories         Link to the Science Book Reviews index page