Billed as "A Biography of Water," Life's Matrix
would seem to have taken on a nearly insurmountable challenge. Yet author Philip Ball, science writer and consulting editor for Nature
, covers the very interesting chemistry and physics of the substance and our species' long relationship with it without losing the reader--after all, each of us is mostly made of the wet stuff. From the ancients' conception of water as an element, recognizing its importance and primacy among terrestrial matter, to our current understanding of the intricate dance of hydrogen bonds that give water its unique, life-giving properties, Ball always finds the right angle to keep the story compelling. Chapters covering the nuts and bolts of water, which the reader might reasonably expect to be a bit dry, consistently remind us of its crucial role in so many aspects of our lives, from ocean currents to irrigation to tears. Some of the cutting-edge scientific reports are weirdly fascinating--the discovery of several different conformations of liquid and solid water and their odd behavior will provoke plenty of brow-furrowing, even if none of us will ever find ice-nine cubes in our cocktails at happy hour. The book closes with the now-obligatory look at what a mess we've made of the book's subject when seen as a natural resource, and offers potential short- and long-term solutions. Facing these issues is vital if we want to remember "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink" as great poetry rather than apocalyptic prophecy. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Water, water everywhere: from cell nuclei to the morning dew and the polar icecaps, water matters in every biological and almost every physical process we can observe on earth. Ball (Designing the Molecular World) has therefore written a very ambitious book: physics and chemistry of many varieties, cell biology, geology, volcanology, climatology, the history of science, gardening, near-earth astronomy and even urban planning and Middle East politics enter into his fact-packed and pleasurably long flume ride of a book. Ball moves swimmingly from the Big Bang to the discovery of hydrogen, oxygen and molecular structure and then into the workings of rivers, groundwater flow, oceanic currents and evapotranspiration, which together make up the all-important hydrological cycle. That cycle in turn depends on properties that make water exceptionalDamong them its "ability to exist in more than one physical stateDsolid, liquid or gasD... at the surface of the planet." Frozen water in glaciers, advancing or retreating as earth cooled or warmed, created much of our present landscape. Atmospheric water interacts constantly with air currents to keep California's vineyards fertile or to flatten Bangladesh with frequent cyclones. Ball covers the early investigators who tried to figure out how liquids behave. He considers how ions in water work, and what this means for solar power. And he looks at the brouhaha over "polywater," a sort of '70s prequel to cold fusion. "Water's inner nature, the physics and chemistry of its unique personality" might have flummoxed a lesser writer, but Ball has composed for the serious reader a definitive account of rain, sleet, snow, vapor and other forms of H2OD"why it is so remarkable a substance, and why as a result it is the matrix of life." (June)
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