In the first page of his book How to Read Water, explorer Tristan Gooley writes, “We can look at the same stretch of water every day for a year and not see the same thing twice.” He then asks, “How does one compound behave with such diversity?”
It is this very diversity that helps make water life-giving. Water is a poster child for self-directed turbulence, self-organization, spontaneity, and chaotic pattern—itself an oxymoron.
Water embraces paradox. It is both sticky and slippery.
Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by water’s behaviour. Gooley tells us that da Vinci carefully observed water’s stickiness. Da Vinci “liked to watch the way a small drop of water does not always instantly fall from the underside of a tree branch,” Gooley writes. “Da Vinci noticed that when the drop is big enough to fall, it does so with some resistance.” The drop stretches with the pull of gravity until a “neck” forms; when the neck becomes too thin, the drop finally detaches and plops to the ground.
Water likes water.
Part of why water is sticky arises from its high surface tension, one of its anomalies. It’s what makes water form a “ball” that pushes up against gravity, unlike other liquids such as alcohol. Surface tension measures the strength of the water’s surface film. The strong attraction between the water molecules creates a strong film. Water’s surface tension allows water to hold up substances heavier and denser than itself. It can support many types of creatures, from tiny water striders to considerably larger Central American lizards.
Surface tension—and adhesion—is also responsible for capillary action, which allows water (and its dissolved nutrients) to move through the roots of plants and through the small blood vessels in our bodies. Water creates enormous pressure in pores and capillaries. In a seed, water pressure reaches 400 atmospheres at the moment of germination, permitting the seedling to break through asphalt.
Where water meets another medium such as air or a surface such as glass or even itself in a different condition (e.g., flow or density or temperature), these attractive forces form a boundary layer that acts like a “skin.” The boundary water (also called EZ water or interfacial water) behaves differently than the bulk water inside.
High surface tension was generally attributed to hydrogen bonding with extra lateral linkages increasing the stiffness. This is not a sufficient explanation. Recent observations point to structural and behavioural aspects. Martin Chaplin of London South Bank University suggests that high surface tension is caused by the strong attraction of interfacial water molecules at the gas–liquid surface towards the bulk liquid. The interfacial water molecules “are hydrophobic, stiffer, superfluidic and thermally more stable than bulk water… Liquid water at liquid–solid and liquid–gas interfaces behaves as a separate thermodynamic system from bulk water,” says Chaplin.
In 2007, Dr. Elmar C. Fuchs and Professor Jakob Woisetschläger demonstrated that when they subjected two adjoining beakers of water to a high voltage charge (15 kV), the water climbed the sides of each beaker to meet. When they moved the beakers apart, the water “stuck,” forming a cylindrical water bridge that stretched over 2.5 centimetres (1 inch) across. The video of the experiment is stunning. Once “jolted,” the two water bodies appeared to grope for one another, trembling like two shocked children holding hands.
The floating water bridge revealed a rotating outer layer (or shell) and researchers discovered that the hydrogen bonds in the floating water bridge were stronger than those in liquid water at any temperature. They also showed that the water bridge differed from the bulk liquid state on a molecular level.
Water also likes other surfaces.
This property is in part responsible for water’s slippery nature and a phenomenon called capillary action: in which water is drawn along a surface to which it is attracted, independent of gravity. You can see examples of this on a paintbrush dipped in water (the water is drawn up through the brush), or in the meniscus (concave-curved surface vs. flat) that forms in a narrow tube as the water against the surface pulls the rest up with it.
The high diffusion rate of water helps transport critical substances in multicellular organisms and allows unicellular life to exist without a circulatory system. One important result is that the viscosity of blood, which behaves in a non-Newtonian way (its viscosity decreases with pressure), will drop when the heart beats faster. The negative dipole charge of water also increases in interfacial water, which makes up most of cellular water; this negatively charged EZ water enhances the flow of blood through your capillaries.
“When water is more dense, and more compact, the molecules move faster,” adds Marcia Barbosa, exploring another life-giving property of water: its cohesiveness. It is this property that helps give water its diffusion abilities and solvent abilities. Water—unlike most other liquids—also needs a lot of heat to warm up even a little, which allows mammals to regulate their body temperature.
Barbosa, Marcia. 2014. “The weirdness of water could be the answer.” TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OLFwkfPxCg
Chaplin, M.F. 2001. “Water: its importance to life.” Biochem. Mol. Bio. Educ. 29: 54–59.
Denton, Michael J. 2002. “Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe”. Free Press, New York, NY. 480 pp.
Fuchs, E.C.; J. Woisetschläger; K. Gatterer; E. Maier; R. Pecnik; G. Holler; and H. Eisenkölbl.2007. “The floating water bridge.” J. Phys. D: Appl. Phys. 40: 6112–6114.
Gooley, Tristan. 2016. “How to Read Water: clues and patterns from puddles to the sea.” The Experiment, New York, NY. 394 pp.
Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Delta, BC. 584 pp.
Pollack, Gerald. 2013. “The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid and Vapor”. Ebner & Sons Publishers, Seattle WA. 357 pp.
This article is an adapted excerpt from “Water Is…” (Pixl Press)
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.