The Many Mysteries of Water

 Text by Marc Salazaar

Images by V. Neblik*

          As everyone who “did” science in high school knows, there are three states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. Solids melt to give liquids and liquids evaporate to give gasses. Unless they are something really freaky, like CO2, when they skip out on the middle step entirely and just go from Solid to Gas, (and vice versa) via sublimation. Easy. Simple. Yeah…

          Well, as you might suspect, the reality is a bit more elaborate and the universe has quite a lot more than 3 states of matter. Anyone who takes a quick trip over to that gospel of unwavering truth Wikipedia will find four states of “everyday matter” listed, plus a further five non-classical states, seven low-temperature states, three high energy states, a note on very high energy states and three “proposed states” listed.

        In fairness, some of these have only recently been discovered- so for those of us who were at school in the 80s and 90s, it is no surprise that they weren’t on the curriculum. Others have been known for ages- liquid crystals being a prime example. For those lucky enough to have missed out on the cultural and aesthetic “adventure” that was the 1980s, let me just assure you that without an oddly proportioned BMX, a T-shirt that said something suitably American- like “OK”- and a liquid crystal (LCD ) watch, you were no one. I would say- you got relegated to the nerd table at lunch, but- you needed at least one LCD watch per arm to get on there. So, yes, we knew about states that were neither solid nor liquid in the 80s.

        Even some of the fairly exotic states- Bose-Einstein Condensate, for example, have been either known or predicted in certain circles for a surprisingly long time. Since Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein proposed it way back in 1924 in that case. Others, though, such as Quantum Spin Liquids  have only been envisioned much more recently.

      Now, many of these states only exist in parts of the universe that are foreign-beyond imagining to much of humanity. Places where the pressure, heat and magnetic forces are so unlike those found in even the most extreme parts of Planet Earth that they almost defy comprehension. In biological textbooks, we hear about how life “clings on” in the most extreme and inhospitable of environs- the bottom of mineshafts, for example, around volcanic vents, even in strongly radioactive areas. When you understand the processes needed to sustain life as we know it, the fact that living beings survive and even thrive in such places is undoubtedly impressive. However, hearing and reading such things perhaps miscalibrates our idea of what is extreme.

        When physicists talk about extreme environments, they mean places like black holes, or the first few millionths of a second after The Big Bang. Places and times that make biology’s “extreme environments” look like a kiddie pool set alongside an ocean of possibility. It goes without saying that many of the “exotic” states of matter you will find on the Wikipedia list and scattered through the scientific literature are found in exactly these kind of wildly extreme environments. Thankfully, for the sake of almost all of humanity, such places are largely far- in time and space – from anywhere humans live. In general, even the idea of sending a probe to places where such conditions abound naturally is far-fetched at best- and what would become of the probe once it got there, in any case?

 When you sit and think about it, it is astonishing that scientists have been able to predict –let alone discover- many of these exotic states of matter at all. In some cases, a state can be predicted by extrapolation of the laws of physics; they follow from chains of thought like- “what happens if…this force exceeds this value, whilst…this factor also…”. However, in other cases, researchers have gone beyond this theoretical stage and –with frankly breath-taking brilliance of science, imagination and engineering- have created these extreme conditions on Earth.

        One example of this kind of genius- and it really is genius- was recently used to prove the existence of superionic ice: a black and hot form of water. Since superionic ice is thought to be abundant in giant icy planet, it is thought to be neither rare nor inconsequential in the universe at large. Quite the reverse- superionic ice is thought to be abundant in the universe- just not on Planet Earth. So, how did scientists create it here? Well, as this rather wonderfully written piece on Wired explains, researchers working at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics in Brighton, New York , used a mixture of laser beams and X-rays to create high shockwaves giving enormous pressure and high temperatures in very small volumes of water- droplets, in fact, then observed how the water’s properties changed.


        The original scientific paper describing these results was published as a “Letter” to leading scientific journal Nature under the title “Nanosecond X-ray diffraction of shock-compressed superionic water ice”. You can find it online in full [HERE]


       Water is the most abundant molecule on Earth and one that we have known about since the dawn of our evolution. The fact that we are still learning things about it is an enormous testament both to the complexity of the Universe and to the enduring curiosity and “drive” of humanity. In the middle of what has been an undeniably difficult year (2020) and one in which both the best and the worst aspects of the human race have been paraded endlessly before our (collective) eyes, I find this idea- this remorse, undentable curiosity – as awe-inspiring as it is humbling. This website talks a lot about “great minds” and the focus here is often on celebrating the achievements of genius, but there is equal, if not greater merit in the act of trying. Success is the consequence of effort, capability and luck, but effort and capability without the magic factor of luck is also worthy of celebration...

     ...Anyway, such philosophizing aside, it is worth returning to the idea that water still has mysteries for humanity to uncover. Back in July, a rather lovely article in Chemistry World related attempts to unravel more of these mysteries. Opening with the very telling line “Water – perhaps the most important liquid in the universe – is also one of the strangest,” the article, by Tim Wogan, offered a particularly succinct and beautiful explanation of recent water science. Back in the early 1990s, there was a suggestion that much of the general weirdness of water could be explained if it was considered to be not a single substance in one form, but, rather, one chemical that existed in a mixture of two difference phases. The original proposition- set out in a paper by Peter H. Poole, Francesco Sciortino, Ulrich Essmann & H. Eugene Stanley at the University of Boston- has been examined from various perspectives in the 28 years since it was first published without a firm conclusion either way. The latest research implies, once again, that this two-phase idea may indeed be correct.


        It is nice when writing about science to have a neat little story to tell. It is lovely to have a tale that is done-and-dusted, one that traces out all the pitfalls and false ideas that came before the truth-whatever that may have been- was revealed. That form of story-telling works well for old science- for work that is historic. But when we talk about active and new science- the very latest in research- those kind of clear-cut story arcs are rare. If water has many mysteries, then surely part of the reason that so many remain is that it is giving them up only very slowly and so progress- even important, paradigm shifting progress- moves only inch by inch, paper by paper and calculation by calculation...

    ...With such incremental progress being commonplace in scientific research, it is an unexpected pleasure when something big comes along, seemingly completely out of the blue. One of the nicest recent examples of such a thing occurred just last summer, when American geologists discovered a vast aquifer of freshwater hidden in porous rock underneath the North Atlantic Ocean. The aquifer is so vast that, if its water were instead, arranged as a lake upon the surface, that lake would cover some 15,000 square miles. It seems to be the largest such aquifer found anywhere in the world to date and it raises hopes that other large aquifers may be found elsewhere. As humanity becomes increasingly concerned about fresh-water supplies this kind of discovery is more than welcome.

A popular science account of the discovery of this oceanic aquifer can be found on GeologyIn [HERE]

The map accompanying that article shows the aquifer spanning from an area off the New Jersey Coastline all the way north to just South of Nantucket, which gives some idea of the sheer scale of this discovery. I am sure there must be a limmeric in that somewhere...


        The original scientific paper by lead author Chloe Gustafson and colleagues at Columbia University was published in Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 8709 (2019) under the title

“Aquifer systems extending far offshore on the U.S. Atlantic margin”. It can be found here-

      All of which shows that water, everyday, workaday, banal water, can be mysterious and astonishingly complex and that studying it, even now, in 2020, can reveal some marvellous and very welcome surprises.                                                                                                                                                              


Text by Marc Salazaar, First published here 30th Sept 2020.

Images by Victoria Neblik *incorporating original and vintage/public domain content.

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