‘We’ve built our entire world around water. Our temperature scale, our bodies. Water shapes our continents, flows through our oceans and rivers, creates atmosphere and weather – this one substance does all of that. And we’ve got to a point where we’re so used to it, we ignore it.’
Alok Jha has written about a huge range of scientific topics in his career as The Guardian’s science correspondent and, latterly, science correspondent for ITV News. But it is the seemingly simple subject of water which formed the subject of his latest book, ‘The Water Book.’
‘It started with a thought one day’ he says. ‘I was thinking about what, other than water, is pH 7 – neutral. Water was the only thing I could think of. And then I realised, of course water is neutral – it’s the basis of that scale. And then you go down this rabbit hole…’
Podcast interview with The Water Book author Alok Jha
In the first of our water themed London Lectures, as part of the Society’s Year of Water, Jha outlined why he became fascinated by water; its strange properties, its fundamental role in so many life processes, and how it got here in the first place.
‘We know that it was created in space, and probably arrived on Earth about half a billion years after the planet was first formed – before that, there was water present on the surface, but it was driven away because the planet was so hot.’
The prevailing theory is that the Late Heavy Bombardment – a 500 million year period during which the Earth was bombarded by comets and asteroids – brought payloads of water to Earth. From then on, it has been vital to the development of our planet – thanks to some unusual properties.
‘If I ask you to think of a liquid, you’re probably going to think of water. So you’d think it would be the most boring thing in the world to study, but if you speak to fluid chemists, they run away from water. They have a theory of fluids that describes everything – apart from water. Water is the one thing that spoils experiments, ruins trials – they’re always trying to get rid of it in their apparatus.
‘It doesn’t follow lots of the rules of chemistry – for example, it expands when it freezes. Ice floats, pipes burst in the winter. Lakes freeze at the top and not the bottom – it makes no sense that it would do this.
‘It has a huge surface tension, which means insects can float on its surface, and also gives it the ability to drag itself up small channels like capillaries in your blood stream, or a plant moving water from the roots to the leaves. There’s dozens of reasons why water perplexes and bends the rules of chemistry.’
The Water Continent
In his lecture, Jha also talked about his recent trip to Antarctica, as part of a trip onboard the Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian research vessel.
‘Being in the middle of one of the largest oceans in the world, the roughest seas in the world, makes you realise just how small we are as a human race.’
‘You can talk about the chemistry, which is weird, but you can also talk about the physicality of this substance. Antarctica has the largest ice sheets in the world – huge ice sheets bigger than countries.
‘We just don’t see that much water around us, but this is the material that covers most of the Earth. We’ve put it out of our minds when we live in cities. We bend it to our will, channel it underground, get annoyed when it rains. But actually, outside of cities, water is the environment. It controls everything.’