Introducing The Water Book by Alok Jha

May 20, 2015, Article by Tom in Books


You might not ever really think about it, but water is fascinating. ITN science correspondent Alok Jha has thought about it – a lot. So much so, in fact, that he’s written a book about water, the aptly-titled The Water Book. It’s a superb read that makes the most ordinary subject come to life, and the cover is absolutely stunning too.

It’s out on May 21st in hardback and ebook, so here’s an exclusive look at the intro to The Water Book

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It’s raining outside. If not where you are, then somewhere on the Earth at this very moment, water is falling from the sky. It might be droplets or snowflakes, sleet or hail. Water is always moving – under your feet in unseen aquifers and in the pipes laid down by engineers to move food and waste around our cities. It moves next to you in trees and plants, sucked from the ground to feed their leaves. Water solidified the concrete of the walls around you or produced the wood or plastic for your chair, the paint on the walls and the drink by your side. And you might hear it nearby, in the sea, a river or a lake. It works inside you, a thick treacle that looks unlike any other water you have ever encountered. It moves around in your blood (it is your blood), keeps your proteins and DNA working and in their correct shapes and transports nutrients and signals in and out of cells. Each living cell is mostly water, each one differentiated only a fraction from purity by a few chemicals.

To humans, though, water is more than a mere chemical, and more than a functional ingredient for life. In fact, we rarely think of it as either of these things specifically. Instead, thinking of water immediately brings to mind a cultural object, constructed from the overlapping stories of hunters, poets, Olympic swimmers, factory-workers, novelists, ecologists, water engineers, farmers, consumers, chemists, historians, theologians, divers and astrobiologists. Each will give you a different view. All will be correct. Put them together and you still have an incomplete picture.

How can something so common and familiar be so difficult to describe? What we see when we look at water depends on the time frame in which we see it, of course. In our personal encounters with water, it is infinitely yielding. But over the course of centuries, it writes its impulses indelibly on the landscape. ‘There is nothing softer and weaker than water,’ writes Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. ‘And yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things.’

Water nourishes and soothes us. But this same stuff also carved the Grand Canyon out of solid rock over the course of millennia, and every day thunders down with unimaginable fury at Niagara and Victoria Falls.

In the tsunami that flowed across the Indian Ocean in 2004, water was the medium that expressed a tension in the Earth’s crust that had been gathering in force and latent energy over the course of thousands of years, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and wrought devastation for millions more.

This liquid, a substance of life, is also one of fear. Roiling waters can take us away from air, engulf us and disorient us. Though we need and crave it, water can be a tantalising poison for thirsty sailors. Its paradoxical nature can be nightmarish, as Coleridge knew:

‘Water, water, every­where / Nor any drop to drink.’

Novelists, poets and journalists have talked of the fore­boding of a body of water, the dark unknowability of the sea, the loss when something slips overboard and to oblivion beneath the surface. ‘Consider the subtleness of the sea,’ wrote Herman Melville in Moby Dick. ‘How its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.’ Better to remain safe on the verdant land, he counselled, and out of the ‘appalling’ ocean that surrounded it.

We know more about space than we do about the furthest reaches of the oceans because, despite the difficulty and expense of escaping the atmosphere, it is actually easier and less dangerous than dealing with the crushing pressures of the deep sea.

Still, water is the life giver and no known life exists without it. This chemical has been our key to exploration as we look for life among the stars. In this search, we have been looking for worlds like our own, a snapshot of the primordial Earth, perhaps, as it might have been before we evolved to colonise it, changing it slowly beyond recognition.

Water courses through us, our societies and our planet. But look at it rationally and this is a profoundly strange chemical that bends and flexes the usual rules of chemistry: why does ice float on water? How can liquid water store so much more heat than anything else? How does it manage to so carefully choreograph the behaviour of so many biolog­ical molecules inside our cells? Why is water not a gas at room temperature, given how light its molecules are? All of these things, just a few of dozens of anomalies and complexi­ties that mark water out as a strange chemical, have been critical to the formation and evolution of complex life. If water behaved like everything else, the Earth would look very different and none of us would be here to know about it. Given this fundamental importance to our world and to our biology, it is perhaps surprising that we have only recently begun to understand why water behaves the way it does.

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The Water Book is published on May 21st in hardback and ebook. Follow Alok on Twitter: @alokjha

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