Whole Earth Review

The morality of molecular water

The morality of molecular water

Peter Warshall

The sage’s transformation of the world arises from solving the problem of water. If water is united, the human heart will be corrected. If water is pure and clean, the heart of the people will readily be unified and desirous of cleanliness. Even when the citizenry’s heart is changed, their conduct will not be depraved. So the sage’s government does not consist of talking to people and persuading them, family by family. The pivot (of work) is water. Lao Tze

TO THE MANIACAL water, there is a moment when water’s presence on the planet riles the mind: Where did the stuff come from? Ancient creation stories, the origin of celestial and terrestrial, and fresh and salt waters, enchant but are they enough? What about new understandings — science’s knowledge of the physical and chemical character of molecular water? Must we ignore them? The new creation myth finds water’s origin in an atomic marriage: hydrogen and oxygen.

What is water? Spousal love.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins

1. The Origin of Water

Hydrogen is as elementary, old (born of the Big Bang), flammable, and common a substance as the universe can atomically generate. Its incomplete electron cloud yearns for another electron, even if that means mating itself ([H.sub.2]). Its lightness lets it escape the planet’s gravity-grip faster than any other gas on Earth. Oxygen is sixteen times plumper, younger by hundreds of thousands of years, born in giant red stars, a promiscuous bonder even unto itself ([O.sub.2]) whose molecular marriages tend to leave a sour taste on the back of a human tongue, and whose incomplete atomic shells have both deep and superficial yearnings for two unattached electrons. (Water came before the genesis of gender, polygyny, or polygamy. I just can’t decide which atom is what sex.

In an arm of the Milky Way, among the 400 billion or so stars, a supernova exploded. Atoms were torn apart. Only on cooling did the plasma of particles allow for the birth of water’s parents: hydrogen and oxygen. But the temperature was too hot for even the most passionate bonding. Oxygen and hydrogen simply crashed into and bounced off each other for millions of years. At some moment, as the vacuum of space ate the heat of the swirling gases, the temperature dropped and the birth of water, molecular water, became possible. Hydrogen and oxygen formed the first of their three bonds. They married covalently, shared electron clouds, and honeymooned as microscopic ice crystals on the dust of the dying star. Water was born as snowflakes. Water was born with the most delicate symmetry and an individuality of design that has no rival.

Molecular water survived because it had a protective friend. Silicates, a family of minerals that would become the the most common on Earth, crystallized in the gravitational field of the new planet. As they cooled and heated, cooled and heated, sometimes crystal, sometimes in a liquid that would become a crystal, the silicates incorporated water — not bonded chemically but “housed” in their molecular marriage within the crystal lattice. it was a fortunate first home for newlywed water. Silicates dissolve very reluctantly in water and water cannot destroy its own domesticile. The silicates are, in fact, the water-resistant sands of time. In the present, they constitute most of today’s beaches where each wave shuffles but never dissolves the grains.

Back to the story. As the Earth gained shape and the concentric shells of gases segregated out around its more solid core, water kept a low profile in its silicate sanctuary. Only when the planet formed a fragile crust, insulating its highly radioactive interior, did the silicate sanctuary heat up. Internal body temperatures rose, melting the silicates and releasing water as steam. From fumaroles, volcanos, and geysers came the first free form of water on the planet’s surface. From rocks and thermonuclear heat, the first water-child, Steam, was born. Maybe in the coolest pockets of the crust, another child, nascent Groundwater, hid from the heat.

If it weren’t for the Sun, the origin story of planetary water might end here. But, about 50 million years after the congealing of the planet, when the atmosphere was loaded with dust, steam and carbon dioxide, the Sun belched. A stupendous solar wind (the Tau-tauri) swept through the orbits of the inner planets. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars found their atmospheres blown off their cores and out toward the edges of the solar system. jupiter and Saturn captured some of their atmospheres in passing. The first child of silicates — Steam — vanished.

Some geo-storytellers would dispute this part of the plot. Others say the original atmosphere left by hitchhiking rides with hydrogen as the planetary merry-go-round (each day was maybe five hours long] spun its gasses into the void. Water, others say, did not totally vanish from the surface of the Earth. It is possible, they say, that the Earth already had some seas or lakes that did not leave the planet. in all of these tales, the Earth had to give birth over again, restoring its atmosphere. I like the Tau-tauri plasma blitz.

The generous silicates melted once again. Some more comets smashed into the cooler core, embedding themselves in oceans or hot surface. From comets, meteors and silicates, Steam was reborn. Once again steam filled the atmosphere. By this second birth, the planet had trapped most of its heat deep within. When the atmosphere crashed to 646[degrees]K, the steam condensed to clouds and torrential rains rained endlessly. Freshwater, the second Earth-child of water, covered the planet in a shallow coat. These shallow “seas” were, as “lakes,” largely free of salts. And hidden in the cooled and pocketed rocks, Freshwater’s dark twin, Groundwater, found a stable home.

There was no one moment when the earliest seas of Earth turned salty. The birth of saline waters took place slowly, with silicate-derived clays leaching their sodium and volcanos out-gassing their chlorine. The story is confused by the timing of mountain building and ocean basin sinking. Two billion years ago, the continents finally attained sufficient size and altitude to display the watery landscape we know today: oceans and bays, estuaries and inland lakes, long rivers, braided streams, and ponds. The water quality twins — Salt and Fresh — completed Steam’s clan and finalized their separation. In turn, Salt/Fresh’s non-oceanic offspring such as Salty Lakes and Briny Lagoons joined the hydro-family.

When deep oceanic basins and Himalayan cordilleras were still dreams, the only high elevations sticking up from the shallow seas were volcanos. Perhaps, at this time, on some dormant volcanic peak in one of the polar regions, the first snowflake fell and stuck. Water began to return to its existence in its pre-planetary form, the ice crystals of cosmic dust. The birthdate of this last child of water — Fields-of-Ice — is the subject of some contention. The erosive powers of its sibling, Freshwater, ate the evidence. Trying to be rational, one cadre of geo-tall-talers says there is no evidence until 1.5 billion years ago. Coyote bards sing glacial ballads from their memories of the earlier times.

2. The Lopsided Powers of Water

The power of molecular water comes from its asymmetry, its imbalance. This image is a bit hard to render because the asymmetry is imperceptible by the human eye. Water maniacs have had to make up models, metaphors and analogies to describe its lopsidedness. There are plastic-ball and ball-and-stick models, Mickey Mouse metaphors, and sci-fi orbital models. But none of them truly captures the image of the different volumes and shapes of the clouds sketched by electron movement as it buzzes 1 or is it hums? I around the nucleus. Like many of the special Pueblo “medicine” saddle blankets or Kung! baskets or Nupiak amulets for dangerous shamanistic journeys, the object is lopsided.

To survey this molecular landscape, the trick is to think like an electron. identify yourself with the location of this negative energy. The water molecule, although essentially a globe and with an overall electric neutrality, cannot be cut like a globe into four equal quarters, and no point of electric balance can be located. if HOH was a linear molecule — a little opened bracelet with one hydrogen bead on each side of a much larger oxygen bead — a neutral symmetrical molecule would be formed with the negative charges on the left and right, and the positive charges cancelling each other out in the center of the oxygen atom. The electrical energy of the molecule would display an unexcitable equilibrium that was closed to other linkages without a good shot of new energy (like heat).

Water is dramatically asymmetrical because oxygen has a special “liking” for electrons and they are held closer to oxygen’s nucleus than either of the hydrogen nuclei. Thinking like an electron cloud, you should now be snuggled up to oxygen’s nucleus. The hydrogens show a little extra positive charge because of the unequal sharing of electrons. The lopsidedness means that, despite an overall neutrality, the water molecule has a more negative pole and a more positive pole (called a dipole or polar molecule). If you model water with hydrogen-and-oxygen plastic balls, the arrangement resembles a mouse’s head, with the oxygen chin more negative and the hydrogen ears more positive. The hydrogen ears form an angle of 105[degrees], rather than a straight line like the opened bracelet (180[degrees], because of the larger concentration of electrons in oxygen’s innards.

A closer look at the molecular mouse would produce a different drawing. With their narrower tops pointing toward the middle, four bowling-pin-shaped clouds would stick out at 105[degrees] angles. Two of the bowling-pinshaped clouds are the centers of positive energy (the hydrogen “ears”) and two, formed from oxygen’s outermost electron clouds, are the centers of negative energy. In this visualization, water assumes a more boxy form, with two negative and two positive “corners.” The boxy form means that water does not pack together like marbles (with no corners) or mouse heads (with three points of contact) but has a more complex, flickering Bucky Fuller architecture. When you tinker-toy five water molecules together, a geodesic that looks roughly like a tetrahedron (an Egyptian pyramid with a water molecule at each of the points) can be built.

Molecular water’s “disharmony” allows for a bit of disarray and wildness that keeps the molecular landscape hopping. The cockeyed architecture caused by the bond angles and the imbalanced electricity generate its uniqueness: the universal solvent, a structured liquid, exceptional cohesive and adhesive strength, a totally eccentric boiling and freezing point compared to other molecules, a capacity to absorb heat that maintains life on the planet, the ability to float as a solid in its own liquid — to name just a few.

Before Part 3 describes these personality traits, it is good to stop a moment and think of the value of the lopsided shape and its powerful unequal negative energy distribution — two values “put down” as counterproductive or deformed, value not given enough praise among my friends. . . .

Let the most absent-minded of

men be plunged into the deepest

reveries . . . and he will infallibly

lead you to water, if

water there be in that region.

Meditation and water are wedded

forever. –Herman Melville

3. Water’s Character

The most distinctive character of liquid water is its hydrogen-bonding, how it holds together, how it resists disassembly. Each polar molecule can create links between other molecules. The hydrogen-bonds flicker on and off between one, two, three or f our of its “corners.” At room temperature, about 86 percent of all the water molecules link at any one moment. The bonds grasp and relax their grip every 1/10,000,000,000 to I/ 100,000,000 of a second, a normal time for a liquid. Water is remarkable in having so many bonds even though each individual hydrogen bond is loose, weak, and yielding. It is not just the shared-electron marriage of a single oxygen to two hydrogens that creates the strength and structure of water, but this collectivity of fleetingly shared electrons between the married water molecules.

Water teaches that yielding and structured properties, loose and organized personality traits, mechanical movements and fluid freedoms should not be considered in conflict but as complementary parts of a whole.

Water is coherent. Water is cohesive. It maintains integrity without a loss of mobility or flexibility. Its “holding together” can be seen in its support of a leaf floating high on a puddle or the high-and-dry water strider racing about the eddies. Surface tension, the technical term for water’s cohesive strength, also endows water with a small defiance, a resistance that will not ignominiously submit to gravity. Before thy cup runneth over, fill it to the brim. Then add a bit more. The watery dome that bulges just slightly over the brim is water’s cohesion. The molecules “glue” themselves into a tensile web pushing the air upward. The meniscus is water or wine taking its stance against gravity. Water displays a remarkable adherence to other materials, as well as coherence to itself. By H-bonds to myriad surfaces, water lays down a surface film (“wets” it]. Knee joints profit from water’s lubrication. Our bodies stay cool, in part, from sweat sticking to the skin and slowly vaporizing. The coastal rainforest would not feel so lung-like if rain and mist could not adhere to the tree moss, bark, and dangling lichens.

Adherence need not be external. Water adheres internally to helices of proteins, strands of tissue, and folds with many cellular interfaces. The flesh of many seeds swells with such avidity that a seed buried in pavement can crack it. Ships have sunk from their rice cargos imbibing so much water that the sacks burst and split the hulls. The concentrated egg mass of a female frog has such an affinity for adherent water that, within minutes of entering the pond, the egg mass gels into a volume larger than mom herself. “Imbibition,” a techno term for water adhering internally, plays a role in the setting of the Venus flytrap’s jaws and the re-opening of the sensitive plant’s leaflets after collapse.

Adherence benefits thousands of creatures with no reward to water. It slows water’s return to the sea or sky. Adherence is a major element of water’s benevolence.

In a glass tube, water will creep up the edges beyond the water level. This expansion (the upturned, sickle-moon meniscus) is water expressing its coherent and adherent powers against gravity. In small tubes, molecular water’s coherence/adherence bequeaths a much greater defiance of gravity. In trees, liquid water climbs up the arboreal plumbing in part by linking hydrogen-bonds so that the topmost molecule yanks up the molecule below. In large vessels of the tree, the water moves up at ten feet or more per hour. In soil, water climbs through the pores to bring moisture closer to the surface. Cathedral forests and desert flowers rely on those evanescent hand grips of hydrogen bonds to bring them life. Only mercury rolls around in a silvery cohesiveness greater than water. Yet, mercury has no adhering properties.

The Chinese called the combined powers of adherence and coherence — molecular water’s ability to move as a liquid against gravity — its rectitude, its uprightness: intellectual, moral or physical. Water exhibits constancy in all its phases (liquid, gas, solid]. This constancy is perceptible in the temperature change of liquid water which increases or decreases more slowly than almost any other known material. The watched pot etc., but also the watched ice cube tray. in the time it takes for an iron pan to get too hot to handle, the water within it will warm only to tepid. Water takes ten times the energy of iron (for equal weights) to heat one degree. A pan of oil takes half as much time to heat up as a pan of water. The slow heating of water acts as a kind of buffet against accelerated boiling or burning. Delicate custard, in a double boiler, can thank water for preventing many a dessert calamity.

The constancy of the molecular hydro-community is equally dramatic when you try to force water to change state: water to ice; water to vapor. Water resists changing state. A “normal” marriage [without hydrogen-bonding) would endow water with a boiling point of -132[degrees]F (-91[degrees]C) and a freezing point of -148[degrees]F (-100[degrees]C), following the trends of water’s close structural cousins ([H.sub.2]S, [H.sub.2]Se, [H.sub.2]Te). These boiling and freezing points would render water a worthless medium for life’s rock-n-roll metabolics, let alone for cooking. But water’s boiling point is almost 200[degrees]C higher and its freezing point is 100[degrees]C higher, maintaining water as a fluid and at temperatures copacetic to enzymes and proteins and nutrients. Water’s resiliency is part of the now oft-repeated aqua-mantra: asymmetry, imbalanced electrical energy, and a myriad of hydrogen bonds between the water molecules.

Life depends in toto on water’s constancy. technically, this is one aspect of an organism’s homeostasis.) The ability of water to absorb large amounts of energy buffers photosynthesis in cytoplasm and the transfer of oxygen in animal blood from chaotic flux; moderates the Earth’s climate by using oceans and lakes for heat storage; cases seasonal change and our bodies’ adaption to it by slowing, without shocks, the change of weather; and protects plants like cacti from boiling under desert skies, Most of all, water’s specific heat, heat of vaporization, and heat of fusion give life its ability to maintain in hard times. Without these molecular traits, climatic extremes would turn living creatures over to their Maker at unprecedented rates.

Water, besides being structured and fluid, mobile and organized, yielding with rectitude, can now be respected for its resiliency in energy flux. it’s a life preserver.

One last note about hydrogen-bonds and water. When water chills, the molecules move slower and come closer and closer together. At about 4[degrees]C, they are moving so slowly and are so close that every one of the hydrogen bonds can occur simultaneously. [With more heat, one or two or three bonds can occur from the “corners,” but never all of them at once.) As water chills even further, the hydrogen-bonds maintain themselves by stretching the angles of attachment. They form an open latticework rather than jamming together like most other liquids. The result: ice floats as crystal less dense than its liquid, and occupies more space as a crystal than it does as its own meltwater.

The levity of crystal water not only busts your forgotten bottle of Bud in the freezer but covers the lake on top with a protective seal. If ice sank, wintering fish and the roots of lily pads would have no sanctuary. Eventually, all freshwater bodies like lakes would freeze solid. The lightness of ice, its contrariness, is also an expression of its humor. Another beer?

The third bond of this molecular marriage is the most intimately involved with the other members of the biochemical landscape. Ionic (from the Greek “going” bonds expose a paradoxical part of water’s character. Where the hydrogen and covalent bonds solidify water’s marriage within itself and to each other, ionization helps “distance” both water and many other married molecules from each other in order to allow creative acts and a wider range of molecular arrangements. “Distancing” encourages a looseness between the mates (the ions of atoms] that allows them greater freedom to interact with others.

This promotion of individuality between chemically bonded mates filled a nineteenth-century literary need in the description of love. When Michael Faraday advertised this water-mediated disassociation, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) jumped on it to describe love in Middlemarch. Faraday’s and Eliot’s writings have infiltrated our thoughts of love as a kind of electro-magical field that promotes attraction by first encouraging the best of each individual’s potential. Ionic love offered an alternative to the Victorian, tightly bonded marriages so stultified by domestic sacrifice.

Water’s ionizing tendencies are one model for love, reappearing as the “sacred” marriage in the works of D.H. Lawrence.

Both oxygen and hydrogen conspire in the paradox, cutting down on electrical attractive forces even as they promote them. Oxygen holds onto both its own and hydrogen’s electrons, letting hydrogen maintain its positive charge (essentially a proton). Hydrogen has the slight tendency (and encouragement) to jump from its strong covalent bond with oxygen and to join covalently with the neighboring oxygen atom, an atom it has previously “known” only through the weak and yielding bonds of hydrogen.

A fleeting menage a quatre forms, with one oxygen having three hydrogens ([H.sub.3]O+, hydronium). In pure water, this truly electrically charged moment returns to water’s “normal” menage a trois ([H.sub.2]O) — one oxygen with two hydrogen. But in the presence of other ions (usually salts), like the sodium and chlorine of table salt, the new arrangements get complex. The menage a quatre (H.sub.3]O+) and the truly incomplete hydroxide (oxygen and one hydrogen, [H.sup.-1]) attach themselves to any attractive and appropriately charged neighbors. The whole society of electrically charged ions, now in the pool of water’s ions, loses its clustering and specific bondage and becomes a more uniform mixture within water. We know them as “wine” or “Coca-Cola” or “ocean”: solutions of water and other ingredients.

At any single moment, something like two ten-millionths of one percent of all water molecules are involved in surrounding other ions. So, the paradox. While the surrounding water has caused new opportunities for ionic bonding, the water itself acts as a shield to prevent electric currents from passing through the water rapidly. Pure water cuts down on the transmission of electric currents by 98 percent compared to a vacuum, or by one-third compared to alcohol. For instance, because alcohol transmits electricity better than water, a Dutch water-maniac, Dr. Lyklema, pointed out that a good drunk before electrocution would save the prison a lot of electricity.

For the moment, don’t let this example distract! We’re talking about the beauty of water and how it can arrange solutions and moderate electric currents. On Earth, the consequences of water’s high dielectric constant and small ability to ionize certain solutions are much more life-giving than -taking. Without the universal solvent powers of water, the body would roller-coaster from too acid (the hydroniums] to too alkali (the hydroxides). Blood could not buffer the acid-forming molecules fabricated from carbon dioxide. Trees could not resist the corrosiveness of acid rain. Food could not be digested nor nutrients exchanged between members of the food web. Nerve cells could not control their signals and humans could not think.

Not all substances dissociate in water, only those called hydrophilic water-loving). Water-fearing hydrophobes have no electric charge; they float oblivious as fat globs in chicken soup. To mix hydrophobes into water, a cook or Nature uses mechanical, not electrical, energy. Water plus oil and a lot of arm work make the vinaigrette, bernaise or mayonnaise — but these are not solutions. Mayonnaise, whose water comes from the lemon juice or vinegar and homogenized milk are emulsions. They are created by breaking up the hydrophobes into such small droplets that they (hopefully) remain dispersed in water.

The hydrophobe/hydrophile split is not an antagonism. Water is the medium that allows the phobes and philes to evolve into new molecular structures and even acquire memory. For instance, proteins and nucleic acids (including DNA) evolved to be part hydrophobe and part hydrophile in order to build muscle and transfer genetic information. Cell walls fold fats over proteins — layering phobes and philes — to control ingress and egress of the unmated ions. Living fluids combine emulsions and solutions to provide structural memory to semen, mucus, blood, and the Jello-like interiors of certain cells.

Ancients (before mayonnaise) recognized that pure water held no memory. in Greek legend, Charon rows the dead across various rivers to the dwelling place of the dead. As they cross, they lose all memory of their last lifetime’s acts. Charon rows them through self-purifying and memory-cleansing waters, the river of Lethe, one of four rivers required for safe passage. Pure water holds no memories of its previous elasticity, shape, or molecular arrangement.

4. The Parables of Water

Despite science’s continual attempt to rid itself of subjective metaphor and myth, the contemporary creation story and our images of molecular water do not truly break with the ethical tone and more ancient human perceptions of water. Molecular water is still an arbiter of creativity and danger, purity and pollution, integrity and freedom, coherence and looseness, gathering and dissolving, rectitude and passive acceptance, benevolence and murder. Water remains one model for love, memory, and the needs of the soul.

We are always in contact with molecular water and we place value on molecular water, in our dreams if not in our bodies, whether we like it or not. “Our bodies are moulded rivers,” to quote Novalis. Sent downstream from an upstream outfall, in parts per million or billion, molecular water carries the good or bad news through your faucet or even in your bottled water. By emulsion or solution, water always carries information about purity or danger within its substance. Water may transport the poison seed that grows to a cancerous bloom or the beneficent drops [priestly or in rain) that flood the spirit with grace. Undisclosed, unapparent, undetected, untracked, and unexplained, but here nevertheless.

Molecular water, perhaps trapped by the limitations of human minds, remains literally and metaphorically the glue that binds fire and rock and air as Lao Tze and Plato both proclaimed.

All things are dissolved by fire

and glue together by water.

–Plato’s follower

Molecular water teaches that the opposite of creativity is not a counterfeit, colorless, staid, or stuffy act. The hydro-opposite is receptivity, Liquid water accepts more elements than any other liquid on Earth. It holds them and lets them roam in solution, mostly in a quietly receptive manner. it years no human judgments. Water will dissolve what we call either pollutants or nutrients with equanimity.

At some point, receptive water becomes ionically creative, mixing the solutes. We may like the creation green algae floating in a lake or a salmon in a brook] or not. Water cares not one bit. Water is still delightfully immune to human will.

The molecular subtext warns those who believe that they can ultimately tame and manipulate the substance. It warns them to cultivate more humility. Water instructs us relentlessly — anything you put in, it will receive and transform and offer back. in this personality trait, it is not unlike the human mind.

But for hydrophiles like myself, molecular water hides one mystery: its song. Water bodies visible to humans carry ambiguous suggestive tunes. Sometimes we hear their soundshapes as voices or divine music in the ripples or waves. Flowing water on a human scale brought the great water-watcher, Thoreau, both anxiety and solace:

He who hears the rippling of

rivers in these degenerate days

will not utterly despair.

Who’s speaking in there? Below our level of perception. Among the molecules. John Coltrane, or Ali Akbar Khan? Bach, Jimi Hendrix, the Ba-Benjelle pygmies, or gagaku strings? Whales or the wind? Until microphones can hear the electrons’ ballad, I can only return to the frog pond and meld these musings with the comfortable chorus of their random splashing and guttural roupy squalls.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Point Foundation

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