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Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water Paperback – June 4, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0520230088 ISBN-10: 0520230086 Edition: First Edition
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 429 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; First Edition edition (June 4, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520230086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520230088
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #839,696 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Gary A. Baker on July 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This ages old question is probed by Nature writer and consulting editor Philip Ball is his latest book Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water. In this humourous and evocative account, he addresses aspects from the origin and folklore of water to its life-giving properties at the cellular level to ecological imperatives necessary to sustain it as our most fundamental natural resource. In this pilgrimage, he does not merely point out the landmarks along the way but offers a staggeringly eclectic and fresh perspective on this common (even pervasive) substance so central to our existence. Philip Ball offers intellectual entertainment of the highest order--a horn of plenty...the reader will never regard water in the same way again!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Orrin C. Judd VINE VOICE on September 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Philip Ball, a precocious young editor and writer at the British science journal Nature, with whose work I was previously unfamiliar, is apparently the hot new thing among popular science writers. Based on the evidence of this book, it's easy to see why folks like him so much.
Ball's thesis and method are apparent from the title. He sets out to demonstrate how central water is to our existence and he does so by tracing it's life history from the Big Bang right up to today. The broad arc of his story allows him to demonstrate a truly remarkable command of disparate topics, ranging from Cosmology to History, Geology to Mythology, and Chemistry to Politics. For someone with my embarrassingly limited science background, there was a little too much theory to absorb in one reading, but any technical confusion is more than made up for by the wealth of non-scientific information he provides. The book is packed with colorful anecdotes, interesting vignettes and fascinating factoids. If it's too much to say that you learn something new on every page, it certainly seemed to be true.
If I have one complaint with the book, it is that Ball has done such a good job of demonstrating how ubiquitous and remarkable water is, that by the time he gets to the dire environmental warnings about our wastefulness that conclude the book, it's sort of hard to take them too seriously. This section also tends to turn the biography into a bit of a melodramatic cliffhanger. He can hardly be blamed for not knowing water's ultimate fate, but there is a certain lack of closure to his tale.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Atheen on July 7, 2003
Format: Paperback
Wow. At first having noted the author's vita on the cover, I wasn't certain that an individual trained "only" in chemistry and physics could adequately write a book that was "obviously" about geology. As I read on, however, I realized that Phillip Ball's intention really was to write a "biography of water" as the subtitle suggested. The book in fact contains information about water from almost every perspective: from the origins of its constituent elements oxygen and hydrogen in cosmological processes to it's social and political effects in the modern world. The book covers it all. Because I have almost a complete degree in geology, I enjoyed most particularly the geological effects of water including its effects on geomorphology, its impact on glacial formation, its effect on climate and ocean physics, etc. The author lost me a little in his discussion of the chemistry and physics of the substance, but I still found what I understood of it very instructive. Water's function in the evolution of life and in the biochemistry of cellular metabolism was also interesting to me since I enjoy studying evolution-paleontolgoy and earth history were my major focus in studying geology--and I also am a nurse caring for patients whose fluid and electrolyte status arises from the cellular effects of water.
Probably the most important messages in the book, however, are those regarding conservation and utilization of water resources. Certainly the information about the disparity of water availability and quality between the western and 3rd world countries, between urban and rural use, and between countries and states that have competing interests in a particular watershed were very enlightening.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on December 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover
We live on the planet called Earth. That just shows our chauvinism and inability to see the larger picture. The planet ought to be called Water. As Philip Ball points out in _Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water_ (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), water covers two thirds of the globe, and seen from space, water in its three different states is what determines what Earth looks like. It also determines that every other heavenly body we have been able to see looks to us like a lifeless orb. It is water that defines life for us, and when we go poking our noses into other planets, one of the first things we try to find is water. So no wonder that Ball has called this a biography.
And like a good biography, the book covers all the aspects of his subject. He goes into the origins of water back to the big bang. He shows how we found it on the moon and Mars, and of all places, our Sun. Since he is a doctor of physics, it is not really surprising that he looks at the chemistry and physics of his subject, detailing why ice expands, and why you can ski on solid water but not on asphalt. He tells how its currents run the oceans, and how we don't completely understand the molecular happenings in water flow, or in the formation of snowflakes. He tells us about the dire problems we could have if we don't start handling this most precious and most taken-for-granted resource with more wisdom. He reports at length on the foolishness of cold fusion of heavy water, or of polywater.
In short, this book wonderfully covers every aspect of water you could think of. Ball writes with humor and excellent analogies, and even when the science gets complicated, he is an excellent guide.
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