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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 29 April 2021

H2O by Philip Ball

The 'biography' of water. 

It's not just the school science that Ball tells us such as the hydrological cycle. Ball tells us how water arrived on earth (from the meteorites and comets that coalesced into the earth) and assesses the chances of liquid water on Venus, Mars and the moons of Jupiter. One fascinating chapter considers the various theories of the origin of life and shows how the chemistry of water acts as evidence against some of these theories. He looks at the history of science with regard to water, considering pre-Socratic philosophers up to alchemists and beyond. Two chapters are devoted to the rather odd chemistry of water and the hydrogen bonds that can produce strange results, as well as different types of water. Then he goes back to the role that water plays in living processes One amusing chapter considers some scientific dead ends in which water played a part, including one which initially seemed to validate homeopathy. A final epilogue considers water as a resource and considers the possibility of water wars.

It is an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, study. Ball explains ideas extremely clearly, on the whole, without dodging the difficult stuff. I found his predilection for quoting statistics a little wearisome but my main criticism is that I read it too late. It was only published in 2015 yet it is already out of date in several places. Not Ball's fault!

Ball spends a lot of time and energy trying to impress with very big (and sometimes very small) number but there are also many fascinating moments:

  • "The Polynesian cosmogeny reproduces that of the Old Testament in extraordinary detail: the supreme being Io says ‘Let the waters be separated, let the heavens be formed, let the earth be!’" (Ch 1)
  • "Water on Earth ... nurtured and sustained civilization – yet the fresh waterways that fed the cultures of ancient China and Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indian continent make up barely a tenth of a thousandth of all the liquid water on the planet. Just about all of the rest is salty, and lethal" (Ch 2)
  • "at a mythological level, the natural waters of the Earth offer humankind a journey into death. The Styx is the conduit to Hades, the Ganges even today a repository of the deceased. The Nile and the Tigris were not only holy in Near Eastern belief but the dwelling place of the dead, ruled by demigods with the power of resurrection. From the association of streams and rivers with death and rebirth comes the Christian practice of baptism." (Ch 2)
  • "The Ship of the Dead is a potent and recurring symbol: the Flying Dutchman, the Marie Celeste." (Ch 2)
  • "In deserts, evaporation is about equal to precipitation and there is essentially no run-off." (Ch 2)
  • "Once mariners considered that there were seven seas to sail: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic Oceans, the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas and the Gulf of Mexico." (Ch 2)
  • "ninety-five per cent of all land points have antipodes – equivalent points in the other hemisphere – in the sea." (Ch 2)
  • "Because of the fifty-minute difference between a terrestrial day and the lunar rotation period, high tides come twenty-five minutes later on each successive half day." (Ch 2)
  • "in Persian, in which the first word of the dictionary is ab, meaning ‘water’. Herein lies the root of the word ‘abode’, from the Persian abad" (Ch 2)
  • "There is now a rumour, however, that at least some parts of London’s water table are rising again because the big breweries, which consumed much of the water in the city’s aquifers, have moved out of town (or out of business). Londoners are warned of an impending threat of flood rising from the deep, because the capital no longer makes its own beer." (Ch 2)
  • "around six million years ago ... a period of particularly dry climate lowered the sea level and cut off the connection to the Atlantic through the shallow Straits of Gibraltar, leaving the Mediterranean a land-locked sea. Without replenishment from the global oceans, the Mediterranean then slowly dried out." (Ch 2)
  • "The floor of this desert reached two thousand metres below global mean sea level, and the rivers feeding into it from Europe and Africa faced a huge plunge at the dried-up coast, carving great gorges into the rock." (Ch 2)
  • "About five million years ago the dam at Gibraltar seems to have been breached, and the resulting waterfall, as the Atlantic fed back into the dry basin, would have made Victoria Falls look like a leaky tap. The torrent was one hundred times larger than that at Victoria, feeding about a hundred cubic kilometres of Atlantic water into the basin every day to fill up the Mediterranean again in about a century." (Ch 2)
  • "Today around forty per cent of deaths from acts of nature, as well as forty per cent of the societal costs of natural disasters, are the result of floods." (Ch 2)
  • "Egyptian civilization is one of the very few that has no legend of a deluge, presumably because the Nile is so vast that it was always able to act as a buffer against intense meteorological events." (Ch 2)
  • "William Hobbs, who related this tale in 1907, was also moved to speculate that a tsunami might have been responsible for the parting of the Red Sea that allowed Moses and the Israelites to evade their Egyptian pursuers. Later commentators suggested that it was perhaps not the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed but the Sea of Reeds on the Mediterranean coast, and that the tsunami was produced by the eruption of Santorini volcano in the Aegean Sea in the fifteenth century BC – an outburst that may have inundated the northern coast of nearby Crete, triggering the collapse of the Minoan civilization." (Ch 2)
  • "Certain types of phytoplankton produce a gas called dimethyl sulphide (DMS), apparently as a by-product of their metabolism. The distinctive odour of DMS is responsible for the invigorating smell of the coastal sea." (Ch 3)
  • "A fine drizzle consists of droplets of typically 200 micrometres or so across, which reach free fall at a leisurely half a metre or so per second. Cloud droplets about a millimetre across become fully fledged raindrops, heading earthwards with a terminal velocity of about nine metres per second." (Ch 3)
  • "cyclic changes in the Earth’s three orbital parameters, now called Milankovitch cycles, alter the distribution of solar radiation that the Earth receives, and their net effect triggers long-term climate change." (Ch 3)
  • "when dinosaurs were still at large ... the Earth may have been so warm everywhere that no ice sheets existed." (Ch 3)
  • "Medieval shrines to goddesses were nearly always close to wells, springs, lakes or seas;" (Ch 5)
  • "the Lady of the Lake can be identified with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love." (Ch 5)
  • "Many of the earliest autotrophs seem to have extracted hydrogen from hydrogen sulphide; some very primitive bacteria, called purple sulphur bacteria, still do. Take away the hydrogens and what’s left is sulphur. Many of the bright yellow sulphur deposits in the world today are the waste heaps of primitive autotrophs." (Ch 8)
  • "To early organisms faced with oxygen from water-splitting photosynthesis, it was as though their neighbours had started dumping toxic waste in their back yard." (Ch 8)
  • "Organelles are thought to be the remnants of once fully-fledged prokaryotic individuals, with which the eukaryotes fused in a symbiotic relationship." (Ch 8)
  • "The icefish Chaenocephalus aceratus has refined its oxygen consumption to such a degree that it can make do with no haemoglobin at all: it moves sluggishly enough that the oxygen dissolved in its blood plasma is sufficient to meet its needs. The blood of the icefish is therefore a translucent white." (Ch 8)
  • "Many people perceive something unnerving in human body fluids. Alien abductees seem to regard them as highly prized amongst extraterrestrials, and General Ripper considered his to be the victim of a Communist plot in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove." (Ch 8)
  • "Centuries of over-irrigation in the Middle East and in the Indus valley of Pakistan have led to acute problems of salinization, in the latter case giving the region one of the lowest crop productivities in the world." (Epilogue)
  • "Dumping of ‘dung and filth’ into England’s rivers was outlawed in the fourteenth century," (Epilogue)
  • "human excreta can be composted to dark, crumbly fertilizer within a year. There seems to be no strong reason other than aesthetics why compost toilets are not standard items in many modern houses." (Epilogue)

An important study, designed for the more intelligent general reader. April 2021

Ball has also written:

  • Critical Mass: a brilliant study of phase changes
  • The Devil's Doctor: a biography of Paracelsus

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

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