(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Philip Ball, formerly an editor at the British scientific journal Nature, is a writer and editor with an academic background in chemistry and physics. He is the author of three previous books about science for general readers: The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature (1999), Made to Measure: New Materials for the Twenty-first Century (1997), and Designing the Molecular World: Chemistry at the Frontier (1994).

In his preface to Life’s Matrix: A Biography of Water, Ball outlines his plan for the book in ambitious terms:

I shall need to explore water’s inner nature, the physics and chemistry of its unique personality. . . . I shall look at the influence water exerts on life, on the planetary environments of Earth and other worlds and stars, even on our own preconceptions about the possibilities of science.

If one tosses in generous doses of poetry and mythology, the weather, ecology, and international politics, then the material would seem far too great to explain clearly in four hundred pages—especially in terms accessible to the generally educated reader. However, Ball, who previously escorted readers through the worlds of chemistry, molecular physics, and materials science inDesigning the Molecular World, is up to the task.

The book’s eleven chapters are divided into four major sections. For most nonscientist readers, the first section, “Cosmic Juice,” will prove the most difficult. Here, after a brief overview of mythologies the world over, most of which begin with water, Ball goes back to the beginning of time as scientists see it, delineating how the big bang explains the origins of water and, indeed, of the whole universe. Just seconds after the small volume of extremely compressed matter exploded in the big bang, expanded, and cooled, electrons and protons combined to form hydrogen atoms; some of these hydrogen atoms were transmuted in the interiors of stars to form oxygen. The explanation demands that the reader have some understanding of subatomic particles, and Ball presents this material in a dense few pages. As former editor of Nature, Ball is attuned to the needs of a wide readership; he avoids running ahead and stops occasionally to jolly the reader along: “This is, I appreciate, the stuff of dry chemistry textbooks, and I regret forcing it on you so soon. I hope it is of some consolation to learn that this is all you will need to know about atoms for the rest of the book.”

The second chapter, “Blood of the Earth: Seas and Rivers of the World,” is typical in many ways of the author’s approach throughout the book. From tiny subatomic particles in the first chapter, the second shifts to matters of planetary scale and importance. Ball traces the movement of water from deep beneath Earth’s surface to the oceans, rivers, and lakes, to the atmosphere and back. Various forces act on the water, including the rotation of the planet, the gravitational pull of the moon, pressure that squeezes water out of subsurface minerals, and warming temperatures that melt polar ice. Earth’s water is itself a strong force, a nurturer and a destroyer that looms large in myth and psychology. In a vivid section on the destructive powers of water, Ball describes the catastrophic floods of the ancient and modern worlds and explains the origins of floods, cyclones, hurricanes, and tsunamis.

The chapter is rich in figurative language, flowing from its central metaphor of the hydrological cycle of the earth as the equivalent of the circulatory system in a living body. It is not enough for Ball to present current scientific explanations; he attempts also to capture how scientific thought has changed over the millennia and how scientific phenomena have been interpreted by nonscientists. In a brief history of scientific thought about the motion of water across the earth, for example, Ball summons references to the Book of Job from the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Japanese poets Shosammi Sueyoshi and Ki no Tsurayuki, and the French poet Paul Claudel. He also includes illustrations: a depiction of the flow of water as it percolates, evaporates, and precipitates (the hydrological cycle); maps of global ocean-surface currents and circulation in the depths of the oceans; and a cross-section showing the role of water in creating volcanoes. With the aid of this extensive ancillary material and generous cross-referencing to point readers back to topics that were covered on previous pages, Life’s Matrix manages to keep even the least scientifically...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)