Life's Matrix, A Biography of Water

Philip Ball

Philip Ball (born 1962) is a British science writer. For over twenty years he has been an editor of the journal Nature for which he continues to write regularly.[1] He now writes a regular column in Chemistry World. He has contributed to publications ranging from New Scientist[2] to the New York Times, The Guardian, the Financial Times and New Statesman. He is the regular contributor to Prospect magazine,[3] and also a columnist for Chemistry World, Nature Materials and BBC Future. He has broadcast on many occasions on radio and TV, and in June 2004 he presented a three-part serial on nanotechnology, Small Worlds, on BBC Radio 4. He holds a degree in chemistry from Oxford and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University."

My reaction is that it is more a literary work than a science work, but tells the story of a lot of science, and I learned a lot in the latter part of the book.

Chapter 1 The First Flood

p3 Survey of origin stories

p5-6 Blitz version of big bang and CMB

p6 Tribute to George Wald, who wrote the intro to Henderson's Fitness of the Environment. The cosmic background and development in this chapter proceeds to 4.4-4.0 Gyr and the condensation of water on the Earth.

Chapter 2 Blood of the Earth

p22 Overview of the hydrologic cycle and the rivers and oceans of the Earth. Quotes verses from Job as a framework. Ocean currents, tides, underground aquifers, storms, tsunamis

Chapter 3 Storehouses of the Hail

p59 Three phases, global sunscreen, ice ages, glaciers

Chapter 4 Oceans in the Sky

p82 Water on other worlds, water on moon, Mars, the Venus oven, Jupiter's moons, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. Saturn's moon Titan, other ice-bound moons, and then back to the "lone blue dot".

Chapter 5 Open to the Elements

p115 Historical, philosophical musings. Lots of the pioneers of chemistry cited.

Chapter 6 Between Heaven and Earth

p151 Interesting citing of Pieter Brueghel. I had just cited Brueghel for his painting of the Tower of Babel in last weeks lesson in Bible study. He was in the cold era in Europe when glacial fingers crept down into northern Europe.

p152-3 Discusses anomalous expansion upon freezing and proceeds to a section "The anomalous liquid".

p154 Behavior upon freezing

p156 Other anomalous properties

p157 Very neat quote "We're better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside the nucleus of an atom than whether it'll rain on auntie's garden party three Sundays from now .. we can't even predict the next drip from a dripping tap when it gets irregular." T. Stoppard, Arcadia, Faber&Faber, London, 1996 (a play).

p158 Phase diagram, thermo of water

p162 Rather technical discussion in "on the brink of order and chaos"

p167 Why water is crooked.

p169 Hydrogen glue- discussion of hydrogen bonding

p172 Structure of ice and water

Chapter 7 Cold Truths

p183 Different forms of ice

p194 More history invoking Faraday, Thomson and others on ice's slipperiness

p203 Supercooled water

p207 Diagrams of the regimes of supercooled water

p210 Fish antifreeze

p213 Cold-tolerant biology

p214 Freeze tolerance of land-hibernating frogs, including the spring peeper. Extracellular water, about 65% of total, turns to ice. Heart stops beating!

p215 Plant cells - freeze outside cell, then osmotic transfer of some of intracellular water to concentrate cells for freeze resistance. Fluid of some plants can be supercooled to -47°C.

p216 Discussion of freezing organs

Chapter 8 The Real Elixir


p222 Nice soliloquey on water as the truly essential thing for life.

p224 Touches the chicken & egg situation of DNA and proteins without calling it that. Nice overview of the difficulties.

p225 Miller-Urey

p226 After discussing Miller-Urey and other proposals, acknowledges "the early atmosphere was not like this".

p226 "If the origin of the protein alphabet is a headache, making the elaborate characters of the nucleic-acid alphabet is something of a nightmare." He continues in this vein, clearly acknowledging the enormous difficulties of the origin-of-life problem. Actually a very nice summary of the difficulties.

p227 "Reconstructing the chemical origin of life is just one hurdle after another." Proceeds clearly with more of the difficulties. Quotes Chris Chyba of U of Arizona - I wonder if he knows Impey. Hydrothermal vent discussion.

p228 Short history of life. This is actually very well done and I gained both information and perspective from it. It looks like the biology is really his forte.

p228 Life to 3.5Gy in rocks of eastern South Africa, like the currently living stromatolites of Australia. Good, articulate description.

p229 Stromatolite layers contain the bluegreen algae, which are photosynthetic "autotrophs". In 1996 similar evidence of life was found in SW Greenland which is dated 300Myr older, extending the estimate of life's beginning back to 3.8Gyr. There is evidence of both autotrophs and heterotrophs. Discusses Oparin of 1930s, his book "The Origin of Life", and suggests that he was the inspiration for the Miller-Urey experiment. Oparin worked with production of fermented drinks, and the early heterotrophs had to work by fermentation for an anaerobic metabolism. Good general discussion of the role of autotrophs and heterotrophs in early life.

p230 Interesting comments about sulfur. Autotrophs had to have hydrogen, so extracted H from H2S, and purple sulfur bacteria still do.Yellow sulfur deposits from early autotrophs. Discusses part of the process of synthesizing glucose.

p231 Discusses glycolysis and ATP, fermentation in anerobic metabolism. Discusses aerobic like us, but early Earth required autotrophs. Interesting statement that the early autotrophs required sulfur.

p231 "Poison in the Water" - good section on the transition to H2O as the source of hydrogen. Photosynthetic splitting of water to get the needed hydrogen for synthesizing carbohydrates.

p232 "So water was not just the medium for early life: it was a raw material. An organism that gets its hydrogen from the abundant water all around stands at a distinct evolutionary advantage to one that has to rely on scarcer hydrogen sources such as hydrogen sulfide." But it produced oxygen, a poison to much of life at that time. Lynn Margulis "The oxygen release from millions of cyanobacteria resulted in a holocaust far more profound than any human environmental activity." Oxygen is a "potent, reactive and corrosive gas". "it is able to generate free radicals, highly reactive bleachlike compounds that burn up organic molecules". But the oxygen level in the atmosphere didn't rise until about 2 Gyr ago - he didn't say what the evidence for that was. But he points to banded iron deposits as part of the answer to why - much oxygen was trapped in the iron oxides. But says it was overwhelmed at 2Gyr by the oxygen production.

p233 The first aerobic respirers could probably do both aerobic and anaerobic, "facultative aerobes". I'm impressed with this discussion. Some of it is brand new to me.

p233 Banded iron formations in Greenland. Acted as "oxygen sponge" at 3.8Gyr. But all the "oxygen sponges" could not hold out against the proliferation of oxygen producers, hence the "pop up" of oxygen 2 Gyr back. Caused "major evolutionary upheavals".

p233 "two-party system" of oxygen-producing autotrophs and aerobic respirers came to dominate. Discusses prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

p234 Discusses organelles in eukaryotes as possible symbiotic combinations: "Lynn Margulis suggests that this symbiosis was driven in part by the oxygen crisis" Description of end of Archaean era.

p234 "High and Dry" is a good story of the presumed nature of the transition from sea to land.

  • Plants first to provide food,need autotrophs, photosynthetic cyanobacteria, gives 460My, abundant 325My
  • Discusses defense against water loss - cell membranes, waxy "cuticle" protective layer, spores protected
  • Short life cycles
  • UV hazard, flavenoids help protect.

p235 Animal transition, amphibians, pore respiration

p236 Story of eggs introduced som new ideas to me. In water, sacs for eggs developed, and development of eggs on land was a way to "take the sea water with them". Reptile protection against dehydration. "Shells are, you might say, evolution's way of bringing the sea with you."

p236 Good basic plant biology section. It would be a good guide for extending the plant biology section of HyperPhysics. Lots of ideas here that I am not recording.

p236 "Hydraulic plants", fractal branching

p236-237 From roots to leaves, one-way fluid system.

  • xylem - carry water and dissolved nutrients from roots. Composed of dead cells.
  • phloem - made of primarily living cells, carries sugary products of photosynthesis from the leaves to the rest of the plant.
  • discusses strength of woody plants and turgor of non-woody plants with the high pressure inside cells.
  • discusses the osmosis transfer mechanism.

p238 Discussion of photosynthesis, the chloroplast. Careful organization and regulation - must balance transport of CO2 in and O2 out.

p238 Discusses stomata on leaves, exquisite water balance.

p239 More extreme examples of water control, with evergreen needles as examples.

p239 Again discusses the role of osmotic pressure in getting water to the tops of trees.

p240 Stretched water - superheated water - a bit weird. Control of cavitation, interesting details. Water properties in the xylem - sophisticated defenses against bubble formation that might block water transport through tiny vessels.

p241 Starts discussion of blood and lymph.

p241 Typical birch tree transpires about 80 gallons of water a day. This is more than bare ground, even more than standing water. Helps engineer local climate, rain forest effect, help reclaim waterlogged soil - interesting details.

p243 Red blood cells enable blood to transport up to sixty times more oxygen than it can dissolve. States 15000 pints of blood still needed to transport it. Iron's affinity to CO greater that that to oxygen, hence toxicity.

p243 Eels and salmon move "between fresh and salt water, regulating the saltiness of their body fluids."

p244 Mentions the ice fish that I read about in Sean Carroll's The Making of the Fittest. Also about hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin in arthropods.

p244 Critical nature of the pH of blood. Should include some of these details in HyperPhysics. 7.4+/-.1 for blood, if <7.3 can't take up CO2, >7.7 can't release CO2. 6.8 leads to coma and death. Buffering helps to control the pH, discusses Le Chatelier's principle.

p245 Role of carbonic acid.

p246 Discusses Galen, ancient physiologist - new to me, nature of ancient medicine

p246 Interesting discussion of lactic acid, as in muscles after extra exertion.

p247 Amylase in saliva, leads to sweet taste of bread while in mouth.

p247 Discusses fact that stomach acid has pH<1, about like battery acid. Discusses ways to prevent digestion of stomach lining.

p247 Urine deals with unwanted nitrogen, ammonia.

p248 NH3 to urea and uric acid

p248 Frog bladders a source of water for aboriginals in Australian desert - discussion of handling of water by frogs.

Chapter 9 Inner Space

p254 paragraph 3 "Yet there is no intelligent force to guide the strand of a protein into its folded native state. Rather, the amino acid sequence in the protein's chain contains the encoded information needed for its proper folding: the protein comes with its own assembly instructions. The blind forces of physics and chemistry are enough to direct the folding process, when the protein is in water. .. Implicit in the information programmed into the protein chain is the instruction 'Fold carefully in water.'" In this paragraph he makes clear his aversion to teleology. This paragraph is a worldview paragraph, a statement of faith.

p255 Deals with the mysteries of how water interacts inside the cell

p256 "Bound water" and "free water" as first step, then into the complexity of secondary interactions.

p258-9 Ions as structure makers or structure breakers of the surrounding water. Franz Hofmeister series of salts in terms of their increase of solubility of proteins. Diagram and discussion of sugar solubility.

p260 Methane in water - decrease in energy, but decrease in entropy, so not very soluble.

p261-262 Blocking methane pipes when water is present with crystalline matrices of methane and water - gas-hydrates.

p262 Entropy role in hydrophobic environment - Kauzman's model "origin of hydrophobic attraction and clustering must lie with the entropy of hydration" "arises from the preference for maximal disorder" Interesting context for studying entropy in such interactions, but Kauzman's model has shortcomings

p263 Other possibilities for hydrophobic nature - still some mysteries.

p264-5 More discussion of the mysteries of water near hydrophobic surfaces - complicated discussion of what comes to be called "drying" between two hydrophobic surfaces.

p266 cites Henderson's "fitness" from 1913.

p267 "water wires" to conduct H

p268 In the crowded interior of the cell, water molecules contribute to exquisite fine-tuning of binding interactions of proteins.

Chapter 10 Pride, Prejudice and Pathology

p277 Langmuir's criteria for pathological science

p279 Paragraph 2, A little insight into why he would have a worldview of "hard rationalism".

p279 Story of "polywater"

p282 Some of the Russian data

p282-291 Saga of polywater degenerating to "polycrap" and attributed to impurities.

p291 Decries the role of mass media in the polywater controversy. "dawn of scientific disclosure by press release rather by peer-reviewed publication.

Chapter 11 A Drop of Something Stronger

p293-297 A discussion of the dream of the hydrogen economy.

p296 Steam reforming to produce H2

p297 Interesting discussion of current solar power mechanisms, some of which produce hydrogen. Photosynthesis, possibility of genetically engineering hydrogen producers, some cyanobacteria do produce hydrogen.

p298 Fuel cell story with H and O

p301 Paragraph 2, nice paragraph on the difficulties of fusion energy.

p301-306 The cold fusion story.

p304 Muon catalyzed fusion

p307 Recap of Langmuir's criteria for pathological science with cold fusion as the poster child.

p310 Last paragraph, interesting comments on histamine and antihistamines

p310-331 Extensive discussion of Benveniste's dilution experiments. An example of the difficulty of assessing validity of experiments at the limit of detection.

p332 Another list of cautions for "pathological science"

p332-336 More philosophical discussion of water and the cautions against the non-scientific while encouraging investigation.


p340 80% of all diseases and 1/3 of the deaths in developing countries are the result of contaminated water.

p342-344 Chilling story of salinization of agricultural land by irrigation, taking out of production some lands that have been farmed for thousands of years.














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