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Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

Life’s Matrix by Philip Ball

In astronomy, biology, literature, nature, philosophy, research, science on January 14, 2013 at 06:41

From: Life’s Matrix by Philip Ball, http://www.philipball.co.uk

In myth, legend, literature and the popular imagination, then, water is not a single thing but a many-faced creature: a hydra, indeed. This is the essence of water’s mystery, and it remains even when water is picked apart by science. Water is the archetypal fluid, the representative of all that flows, and yet science shows it also to be a profoundly anomalous liquid, unlike any other. Some scientists doubt whether water inside living cells, the very juice of life, is the same stuff as water in a glass; at the molecular scale, they think its structure may be altered; perhaps cell water even congeals into a kind of gel. Water behaves in unexpected ways when squeezed or cooled below freezing point. Life needs water, but it remains a profound mystery why water, a lively and reactive substance, didn’t break apart the complex molecules of the earliest life forms on Earth almost as soon as they were formed.

When a substance becomes mythical, it works curious things on our imagination, even without our knowing it. Substances like this are ancient, and they have magical powers. Gold and diamonds, bread and wine, blood and tears are agents of transformation in story and legend. But none, I think, surpasses the beauty, the grandeur, the fecundity and the potency of water. This is why water is, and must always be, much more than a simple compound of hydrogen and oxygen, or a dance of molecules. To explain its role in our imaginations, its life-giving potential, its bizarre and perplexing properties, its sweet nourishment and its glittering surface-to fully explain these things, we do perhaps have to reduce water to its mundane constituents. But even when we do so, we have to remember what we are dealing with: not just a chemical compound, but a fundamental part of nature, with aspects that are serene, enchanting, enlivening, profound, spiritual and even terrible. In the voice of the babbling stream, says Wordsworth, ‘is a music of humanity’. And Bachelard bids us listen well to this music: ‘Come, oh my friends, on a clear morning to sing the stream’s vowels! Not a moment will pass without repeating some lovely round word that rolls over the stones.’

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Reposted with permission from: Philip Ball

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