Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water

by Philip Ball

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

400 pages, 2000

Buy it online





Anatomy of H20

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


It's not every day that you encounter a biography of a substance, let alone one of the most ubiquitous substances on the face of the planet. British science writer and physicist Philip Ball has put water under the microscope of his meticulous scientific analysis in Life's Matrix, in an attempt to answer a question that is much more complex than it seems on the surface: what exactly is water?

In its most basic scientific terms, of course, water is a molecule made up of two hydrogen atoms joined to one atom of oxygen. But this classroom definition doesn't begin to tell the story of water's crucial role in the biology, physics and chemistry of our world. "Over two-thirds of the planet's surface is covered by liquid water," Ball writes, "and over one-twentieth by ice. We call our home Earth -- but Water would be more apt."

Water is the very stuff of our weather systems, existing in all its various forms as rain, hail, snow and cloud. Our helplessness in the face of a disastrous flood is a reminder of how powerful it can be: "Water can be harnessed but not tamed. We can make it serve us in little ways; its capacity to dominate and overwhelm us is far greater."

It fills up the vast oceans, lakes and rivers that make our planet blue, providing a means of travel through the ages and a medium for abundant life. But our relationship with water is much more intimate than that. As Ball points out, "Whether you are a scorpion or a cucumber, a Salmonella bacterium or a bull elephant, water is literally your lifeblood, give or take a few additives."

Ball delights in the intricacies of biochemistry and his analysis of water in all its crucial roles takes him into the lab far more often than out into the natural world. A solid background in physics and chemistry would be a real asset here in grasping and appreciating the finer points of this exceptionally well-researched but complex book.

In other words, it's geared towards the science buff interested in the intellectual take of a real master in his field. Be prepared for a lot of technical language (a small sample: "When two deuterium nuclei fuse, their constituent subatomic particles can be rearranged into a helium-3 nucleus and a neutron, or a hydrogen-3 (tritium) nucleus and a proton"), without which Ball could not express his more complex scientific observations.

That said, there is much here to interest the reader with a more general background. What saves the book from becoming bogged down in jargon is Ball's fresh and even somewhat whimsical writing style. For example, clouds are "ephemeral sculptures of water and ice that condense out of clear skies, stick around for a while, and then disperse again like Marley's ghost." To lend a more three-dimensional feel to his observations, he liberally sprinkles his book with relevant quotes from poets, philosophers, scientific minds and even mystics like Lao Tzu: "The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao."

Here we learn that there is abundant water not just on earth but in space, generally in the form of ice: "Water finds its way into just about any niche in the Universe that will have it," Ball claims. It's a bit of a shock to learn that water exists not only in ice crystals on the moon, but even on the sun, which has steam in its atmosphere.

The science novice will be surprised at the number of anomalies water exhibits. Most liquids shrink when frozen, while water expands. Liquid water at very low temperatures is more dense than the solid form, which is why ponds ice up on the surface, not at the bottom. The slipperiness of ice is another anomaly: "Over how many other solids... can you travel downhill on a pair of planks at fifty miles an hour?"

Ball also delves into what can only be called "weird science," probing some dubious recent discoveries such as "polywater" and cold fusion. Though these seeming breakthroughs didn't hold up in the lab, they were promoted sufficiently to cause the media to jump on the bandwagon with some pretty absurd conclusions. Certain premature claims about the viscous nature of polywater caused the Wall Street Journal to proclaim, "A few years from now living room furniture may be made out of water."

One of the more intriguing and relevant passages in Life's Matrix is the concluding chapter, "Blue Gold," in which Ball discusses the growing problem of world water shortage brought about largely through mismanagement. "Half the world's population does not have basic sanitation systems, and a quarter has no access to clean water. As a result, around 80 percent of all diseases and one-third of the deaths in developing countries are the result of contaminated water."

Destructive agricultural practices such as deforestation and political squabbles over who "owns" the water have complicated the picture. Ball has a few practical ideas as to how to effect change (for example, we really do not need drinkable water to wash our cars). But he foresees a lot of resistance. Humans insist on seeing water as something sacred and almost magical, not to mention inexhaustible. "The barriers seem to be mainly psychological rather than technical or economic," Ball concludes. "We need to rethink our relationship to water." If understanding the substance will help further this cause, Ball has already made a significant contribution. | November 2000


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.