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Wonderful Water

Wonderful Water


European scientists are excited about the Large Hadron Collider, a massive machine which is expected to begin to perform fancy physics experiments later this year. The idea for this machine was first proposed in the late 1970s. By 1990, European scientists were still trying to raise money to build this expensive device. Now finally in 2008, it should finally begin to work.

What this machine, located near Geneva, is supposed to do, is to smash small amounts of matter together at speeds so intense, that the material breaks up into fragments, some of which have never been seen before. The hope of physicists is that they will see particles which will enable them to explain where everything in the universe came from. These scientists are certainly ambitious!

You might imagine that to get to this point, we have a good under standing of everyday scientific issues. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If there is one material which is absolutely basic to our earth, it is water. This liquid covers about 70% of earth’s surface and its presence is essential for life. Water also makes our climate more moderate, less hot or less cold than it would be in a dry environment.

Of course there is lots of water available for scientific studies. How is it then that an essay in the scientific journal Nature (March 20/08) was entitled “Water – an Enduring Mystery”?

The article begins: “No one really understands water.” (p. 291). It continues that the more we use new techniques to study water, the deeper the puzzles about this liquid become. Indeed later in the essay, the author declares “even those who work on general theories of the liquid state of matter won’t go near water: it is too anomalous, too strange. It does not do what liquids are “supposed” to….” (p. 292) Water apparently has many unusual features. It expands upon freezing and it is able to absorb huge amounts of heat energy without itself warming much, among other features.

Philip Ball, the author of the essay on water, points out that it may seem strange that the current popular view of how water works may actually be wrong. Stranger things, however he says, have happened. The controversy might not seem to be very important, Mr. Ball declares, but our ability to understand how other materials interact in a watery environment, could be wrong if our concept of water is wrong. A new interpretation of how water molecules clump together could affect drug design, our theories of how components interact in a living cell, how minerals interact in rocks and many other disciplines.

Essayist Mr. Ball concludes that we should think of this puzzle as an “exercise in humility.” “Humble” is not the kind of adjective we would apply to scientists, on the other hand, who think they will soon explain the origin of everything. One of these scientists, Leon Lederman, has entitled the particle for which they are searching, the “god particle”, because then scientists will, they believe, have explained everything without any need for God. Indeed, an illustration in the July 19/07 issue of Nature depicts people worshipping a technicolour particle (p. 311). Science journals don’t normally deal with worship, but in the case of a particle, they made an exception.

These people should rather reflect how minimal our understanding is compared to the wonders of the creation. When we consider something as important as water, which has properties so important to us but which are so unexpected, it seems that we should humbly give thanks. This is the appropriate attitude when observing any part of nature.

July 2008

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