Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: H20 A Biography

Looking for some good science writing about a common topic? Pick up Philip Ball's, "H20, A Biography".

Philip writes about water from a few different angles. It talks about how water originated in the Universe. The book talks about the origin of the Universe (Big Bang, not 6000 years), and how planets were formed. Then it goes into how Earth might have got its water. We take water for granted, but many planets have little or no water at all. If we believe that intelligent life requires water, we need to understand how water could have come around in the first place. It is a very strange set of circumstances that caused Earth to get water and retain it. Many planets might have had water, but they lost it over time. Astronomers and Physicists have looked at Venus and Mars and tried to reason about how Earth might have had water. The Science behind this is quite beautiful and involved, and it helps that Philip explains it so well.

Next, Philip explains how humans discovered water. This is the most interesting part of the book, the history of Science. Ancients thought that water was an element, and they did not know that ice, water and steam are the same compound. This led to a long set of mistakes and it shaped the thinking of early chemists, leading them astray. I found this section remarkable. How does one realize what water contains? Philip lists all the major Physics and Chemistry milestones that allowed humans to recognize that water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. The book also talks of how humans realized that ice, water and steam are the same compound. The mis-steps are very instructive. They lead to a better understanding of how science proceeds and how mistakes are corrected. Early chemists thought that when something is burned, it gives up phlogiston (rather than taking up oxygen). This was an easy mistake, given the instruments of the time. Early chemistry made quick advances when people showed that burning was a process of oxidation, combining chemically with oxygen. (Similar mistakes were made in early experiments with electricity. Electricity was through to flow from the positive lead to the negative lead, when the actual flow is in the opposite direction. Thus, electrons now have a negative charge by convention.)

In the third section, the book talks about the behavior of water in cells, and the anomalous behavior of water under various circumstances: low temperature, high pressure, low pressure, presence of solid bodies. I didn't know much of it, though I confess that I wasn't able to retain much of this information. It was just too dense for me in parts, and I had to skim through. The book ends with drinking water, and explains why the lack of drinking water is one of the biggest problems facing humanity.

The book is a beautiful history of early chemistry and various aspects of water. It does get technical at times explaining in quite some detail how certain things work. It is best to skim such sections and return to them later. A majority of the book is an easy and insightful read.