Friday, December 15, 2017

Transcript: Dr. Gerald Pollack on The Fourth Phase of Water

Dr. Gerald Pollack – Professor of bioengineering at University of Washington

Thank you. Water is quite beautiful to look at, and I guess you probably all know that you’re two-thirds water — you do, don’t you? Right. But you may not know that because the water molecule is so small that two-thirds translates into 99% of your molecules. Think of it, 99% of your molecules are water.

So, your shoes are carrying around a blob of water essentially. Now, the question is, in your cells, do those water molecules actually do something? Are these molecules essentially jobless or do they do something that might be really, really interesting? For that matter, are we even really sure that water is H₂O? We read about that in the textbook, but is it possible that some water is actually not H₂O? So, these are questions whose answers are actually not as simple as you think they might be.

In fact, we’re really in the dark about water, we know so little. And why do we know so little? Well, you probably think that water is so pervasive, and it’s such a simple molecule, that everything ought to be known about water, right? I mean you’d think it’s all there. Well, scientists think the same. Many scientists think, oh, water it’s so simple, that everything must be known. And, in fact, that’s not at all the case.

So, let me show you, to start with, a few examples of things about water that we ought to know, but we really haven’t a clue. Here’s something that you see every day. You see a cloud in the sky and, probably, you haven’t asked the question: How does the water get there? Why, I mean, there’s only one cloud sitting there, and the water is evaporating everywhere, why does it go to this cloud forming what you see there?

So, another question: Could you imagine droplets floating on water? We expect droplets to coalesce instantly with the water. The droplets persist for a long time.

And then here’s another example of walking on water. This is a lizard from Central America. And because it walks on water it’s called the Jesus Christ lizard. At first you’ll say, “Well, I know the answer to this, the surface tension is high on water.” But the common idea of surface tension is that there’s a single molecular layer of water at the top, and this single molecular layer is sufficient to create enough tension to hold whatever you put there. I think this is an example that doesn’t fit that.

And here’s another example. Two beakers of water. You put two electrodes in, and you put high voltage between them and then what happens is a bridge forms, and this bridge is made of water, a bridge of water. And this bridge can be sustained as you move one beaker away from the other beaker, as much as 4 centimeters, sustained essentially indefinitely. How come we don’t understand this?

So, what I mean is that there are lots of things about water that we should understand, but we don’t understand, we really don’t know. So, okay, so what do we know about water? Well, you’ve learned that the water molecule contains an oxygen and two hydrogens. That you learn in the textbooks. We know that.

We also know there are many water molecules, and these water molecules are actually moving around microscopically. So, we know that.

What don’t we know about water? Well, we don’t know anything about the social behavior of water. What do I mean by social? Well, you know, sitting at the bar and chatting with your neighbor. We don’t know how water molecules actually share information or interact, and also we don’t know about the actual movements of water molecules. How water molecules interact with one another, and also how water molecules interact with other molecules like that purple one sitting there. Unknown.

Also the phases of water. Now we’ve all learned that there’s a solid phase, a liquid phase and a vapor phase. However, a hundred years ago, there was some idea that there might be a fourth phase, somewhere in between a solid and a liquid. Sir William Hardy, a famous physical chemist, a hundred years ago exactly, professed that there was actually a fourth phase of water, and this water was kind of more ordered than other kinds of water, and in fact had a gel-like consistency.

So, the question arose to us — you know, all of this was forgotten, because people began, as methods improved, to begin to study molecules instead of ensembles of molecules, and people forgot about the collectivity of water molecules and began looking, the same as in biology, began looking at individual molecules and lost sight of the collection. So, we thought we’re going to look at this because we had some idea that it’s possible that this missing link, this fourth phase, might actually be the missing link so that we can understand the phenomena regarding water that we don’t understand.

So, we started by looking somewhere between a solid and a liquid. And the first experiments that we did get us going. We took a gel, that’s the solid, and we put it next to water. And we added some particles to the water because we had the sense that particles would show us something. And sure enough you can see what happened is that the particles began moving away from the interface between the gel and the water, and they just kept moving and moving and moving. And they wound up stopping at a distance that’s roughly the size of one of your hairs. Now, that may seem small, but by molecular dimensions that’s practically infinite. It’s a huge dimension.

So, we began studying the properties of this zone, and we called it, for obvious reasons, the exclusion zone, because practically everything you put there would get excluded, would get expelled from the zone as it builds up, or instead of exclusion zone, EZ for short. And so we found that the kinds of materials that would create or nucleate this kind of zone, not just gels, but we found that practically every water-loving, or so-called hydrophilic surface could do exactly that, creating the EZ water. And as the EZ water builds, it would expel all the solutes or particles, whatever into the bulk water.

We began learning about properties, and we’ve spent now quite a few years looking at the properties. And it looks something like this: You have a material next to water and these sheets of EZ layers begin to build, and they build and build and they just keep building up one by one. So, if you look at the structure of each one of these planes, you can see that it’s a honeycomb, hexagonal kind of structure, a bit like ice, but not ice.

And, if you look at it carefully, you can see the molecular structures. So, of course, it consists of hydrogen and oxygen, because it’s built from water. But, actually, they’re not water molecules. If you start counting the number of hydrogens and the number of oxygens, it turns out that it’s not H₂O. It’s actually H₃O₂. So, it is possible that there’s water that’s not H₂O, a phase of water.

So, we began looking, of course, more into these extremely interesting properties. And what we found is, if we stuck electrodes into the EZ water, because we thought there might be some electrical potential, it turned out that there’s lots of negative charge in that zone. And we used some dyes to seek positive charge, and we found that in the bulk water zone there was an equal amount of positivity.

So, what’s going on? It looked like is, that next to these interfaces the water molecule was somehow splitting up into a negative part and a positive part. And the negative part sat right next to the water-loving material. And the positive charges went out beyond that. We found it’s the same, you didn’t need a straight interface, you could also have a sphere. So, you put a sphere in the water, and any sphere that’s suspended in the water develops one of these exclusion zones, EZ’s, around it, with the negative charge, beyond that is all the positive charge. Charge separation. It didn’t have to be only a material sphere, in fact, you could put a droplet in there, a water droplet, or, in fact, even a bubble, you’d get the same result. Surrounding each one of these entities is a negative charge and the separated positive charge.

So, here’s a question for you. If you take two of these negatively charged entities, and you drop them in a beaker of water near each other, what happens to the distance between them? I bet that 95% of you would say: Well, that’s easy, I learned in physics, negative and negative repel each other, so, therefore they’re going to go apart from one another, right? That what you’d guess? Well, the actual result if you think about it, is that it’s not only the negative charge but you also have positive charge. And the positive charge is especially concentrated in between those two spheres, because they come from contributions from both of those spheres. So, there are a lot of them there.

When you have positive in between two negatives what happens is that you get an attractive force. And so you expect these two spheres to actually come together despite the fact that they have the same charge, and that’s exactly what happens. It’s been known for many years. They come together, and if you have many of them, instead of just two of them, you’ll get something that looks like this. They’ll come together and this is called a colloid crystal. It’s a stable structure. In fact, the yogurt that you might have had this morning probably consists of what you see right here. So, they come together because of the opposite charge.

The same thing is true if you have droplets. They come together because of the opposing charges. So, when you think of droplets, and aerosol droplets in the air, and think about the cloud, it’s actually the reason that these aerosol droplets come together is because of this opposite charge. So, the droplets from the air, similarly charged, come together coalesce, giving you that cloud in the sky.

So the fourth phase, or EZ phase, actually explains quite a lot. It explains, for example, the cloud. It’s the positive charge that draws these negatively charged EZ shells together to give you a condensed cloud that you see up in the sky. In terms of the water droplets, the reason that these are sustained on the surface for actually sometimes as long as tens of seconds — and you can see it if you’re in a boat and it’s raining, you can sometimes see this on the surface of the lake, these droplets are sustained for some time — and the reason they’re sustained is that each droplet contains this shell, this EZ shell, and the shell has to be breached in order for the water to coalesce with the water beneath.

Now, in terms of the Jesus Christ lizard, the reason the lizard can walk, it’s not because of one single molecular layer, but there are many EZ layers lining the surface, and these are gel-like, they’re stiffer than ordinary surfaces so, therefore, you can float a coin on the surface of the water, you can float a paperclip, although if you put it beneath the surface it sinks right down to the bottom, it’s because of that.

And in terms of the water bridge, if you think of it as plain old, liquid, bulk water — hard to understand. But if you think of it as EZ water and a gel-like character, then you can understand how it could be sustained with almost no droop, a very stiff structure.

Okay, so, all well and good, but why is this useful for us? What can we do with it? Well, we can get energy from water. In fact, the energy that we can get from water is free energy. It’s literally free. We can take it from the environment. Let me explain.

So, you have a situation in the diagram with negative charge and positive charge, and when you have two opposing charges next to each other it’s like a battery. So, really we have essentially a battery made of water. And of course you can extract charge from it, so that is right now.

Batteries run down, like your cell phone needs to be plugged in every day or two, and so the question is: Well, what charges this water battery? It took us a while to figure that out, what recharges the battery. And one day, we’re doing an experiment, and a student in the lab walks by and he has this lamp. And he takes the lamp and he shines it on the specimen, and where the light was shining we found that the exclusion zone grew, grew by leaps and bounds. So, we thought, aha, it looks like light, and we’ve many experiments to show, that the energy for building this comes from light. It comes not only from the direct light, but also indirect light.

What do I mean by indirect light? Well, what I mean is that the indirect light is, for example, infrared light that exists all over this auditorium. If we were to turn out all the lights, including the floodlights, and I pulled out my infrared camera and looked at the audience, you’d see a very clear, bright image. And if I looked at the walls you’d see a very clear image. And the reason for that is that everything is giving off infrared energy. You’re giving off infrared energy. That’s the energy that’s most effective in building this charge separation and this fourth phase.

So, in other words you have the material, you have the EZ water, and you collect energy from outside, and as you collect the energy from outside, the exclusion zone builds. And if you a take away that extra energy, it will go back to its normal size. So, this battery is basically charged by light, by the sun. It’s a gift from the sun.

If you think about it, what’s going on, if you think about the plant that you have sitting in your kitchen, you’re getting light, you know where the energy comes from, the energy comes from the light. It’s the photons that hit the plant, that supply all the energy, right? And the plant converts it to chemical energy, the light energy to chemical energy, and the chemical energy is then used to do growth and metabolism and bending and what-have-you. That we all know, it’s very common.

What I’m suggesting to you from our results is that the same thing happens in water. No surprise, because the plant is mostly water, suggesting to you that energy is coming in from outside, light energy, infrared energy, radiant energy basically, and the water is absorbing the energy and converting that energy into some sort of useful work. And so we come to the equation E = H₂O. A bit different from the equation that you’re familiar with. But I think it really is true that you can’t separate energy from water; water is a repository of energy coming free from the environment.

Now can we harvest some of this energy, or is it just totally useless? Well, we can do that because you have a negative zone and a positive zone. And if you put two electrodes in, you can get energy, right? Just like a battery. And we’ve done that and we were able to, for example, have a every simple optical display. It can be run from the energy that you can get from here. And obviously we need to build it up into something bigger and more major in order to get the energy. This is free energy and it comes from water.

Another opportunity we’ve been developing is getting drinking — clear, free, drinking water. If you have a hydrophilic material, and you put contaminated water next to it with junk that you want to get rid of — so, what happens is, I’ve shown you, is that this stuff gets excluded from beyond the exclusion zone, and the remaining EZ doesn’t have any contaminants. So, you can put bacteria there, and the bacteria would go out. And because the exclusion zone is big, it’s easy to extract the water and harvest it. And we’ve done that. And we’re working on trying to make it practical.

Well, one of the things we noticed is that it looks as though salt is also excluded. So, we’re now thinking about extending this, putting in ocean water. And you put the ocean water in, and if the salt is excluded, then you simply take the EZ water which should be free of salt, and you can get drinking water then out of this.

So, getting biological energy. The cells are full of macromolecules, proteins, nucleic acids, and each one of these is a nucleating site to build EZ waters. So, around each one of these is EZ water. Now, the EZ water is negatively charged, and the region beyond is positively charged, so you have charge separation. And these separated charges are free, available, to drive reactions inside your cells.

So, what it means really is, it’s a kind of photosynthesis that your cells are doing. The light is being absorbed, converted into charge separation, just the same that happens in photosynthesis, and these charges are used by you. One example of this, obtaining energy on a larger scale, I mean the energy is coming in all the time from all over and it’s absorbed by you, actually quite deeply: If you take a flashlight and you shine it through the palm, you can actually see it through here, so it penetrates quite deeply, and you have many blood vessels all around you, especially capillaries near the periphery, and it’s possible that some of this energy that’s coming in is used to help drive the blood flow.

Let me explain that in a moment. What you see here is the microcirculation, it’s a piece of muscle, and you can see a few capillaries winding their way through. And in these capillaries are the red blood cells that you can see. A typical red blood cell looks like on the upper right. It’s big, but when they actually flow, they bend. The reason they bend is that the vessel is too small. So, the vessel is sometimes even half the size of the red blood cells. They’re going to squinch and go through.

Now it requires quite a bit of energy to do that, and the question is: Does your heart really supply all the energy that’s necessary for driving this event? And what we found is a surprise. We found that if we take a hollow tube made of hydrophilic material, just like a straw, and we put the straw in the water, we found constant unending flow that goes through.

So, here’s the experiment, here’s the tube, and you can see that the tube is put in the water. We fill out the inside just to make sure it’s completely filled inside, put it into the water and the water contains some spheres, some particles, so we can detect any movements that occur. And you look in the microscope and what you find looks like this: unending flow through the tube. It can go on for a full day as long as we’ve looked at it. So, it’s free; light is driving this flow, in a tube, no extra sources of energy other than light. So, if you think about the human, and think about the energy that’s being absorbed in your water, and in your cells, it’s possible that we may use some of this energy to drive biological processes in a way that you had not envisioned before.

So, what I presented to you has many implications for science and technology that we’ve just begun thinking about. And the most important is that the radiant energy is absorbed by the water, and giving energy to the water in terms of chemical potential. And this may be used in biological contexts, for example, as in blood flow, but in many other contexts as well. And when you think of chemical reactions that involve water, you just think of a molecule sitting in the water. But what I’ve shown you is not just that, you have the particle, EZ, positive charge, the effect of light, all of those need to be taken into account. So, it may be necessary to reconsider many of the kinds of reactions, for understanding these reactions that we’ve learned about in our chemistry class.

Weather. So, I’ve shown you about clouds. The critical factor is charge. If you take a course in weather and such, you hear that the most critical factors are temperature and pressure. Charge is almost not mentioned, despite the fact that you can see lightning and thunder all the time. But charges may be much more important than pressure and temperature in giving us the kind of weather that we see.

Health. When you’re sick the doctor says drink water. There may be more to that than meets the eye. And in food, food is mostly water, we don’t think of food as being water, but it’s mostly water. If we want to understand how to freeze it, how to preserve it, how to avoid dehydration, we must know something about the nature of water, and we’re beginning to understand about that. In terms of practical uses, there’s desalination a possibility, and by the way, the desalination, where you need it most is where the sun shines the most, in dry areas. So, the energy for doing all this is available, freely available, to do it. And for standard filtration as well, a very simple way of removing bacteria and such from drinking water — it could be actually quite cheap for third world countries. And finally, getting electricity out of water through the sun’s energy that comes in, another possibility.

So, I’ve tried to explain to you water’s fourth phase, really understanding that water has not three phases, but four phases. And understanding the fourth phase, I think, is the key to unlock the door to the understanding of many, many phenomena. And mostly, what we actually like most, is understanding the gentle beauty of nature.

Thank you very much.


Related image
Image result for bulk water biochemistry

"to Gilbert Ling
who taught me that water in the cell
is nothing like water in a glass;
whose courage has been a
continuing inspiration."

Related image

Related image

Our specific goal is to understand water. Water now seems complicated. The understanding of everyday phenomena often requires complex twists and non-intuitive turns — and still we fail to reach satisfying understandings. A possible cause of this unsatisfying complexity is the present foundational underpinning: an ad hoc collection of long-standing principles drawn from diverse fields. Perhaps a more suitable foundation — built directly from studying water — might yield simpler understandings. That’s the direction we’re headed.

  To read this book, you needn’t be a scientist; the book is designed
for anyone with even the most primitive knowledge of science. If you understand that positive attracts negative and have heard of the periodic table, then you should be able to get the message. On the other hand, those who might thumb their noses at anything that seriously questions current dogma will certainly find the approach distasteful, for threads of challenge weave through the book’s very fabric. This book is unconventional —a saga filled with steamy scenes and unexpected twists, all of which resolve into something I hope you will find satisfying, and perhaps even fun to read.

  I have restricted formal references to those instances in which citations seemed absolutely necessary. Where the point is generally known or easily accessible, I’ve omitted them. The overarching goal was to streamline the text for readability.

  Finally, let me admit to having no delusion that all of the ideas
offered here will necessarily turn out to be ground truth. Some are
speculative. I have certainly aimed at producing science fact, not science fiction. However, as you know, even a single ugly fact can demolish the most beautiful of theories. The material in this book represents my best and most earnest attempt to assemble the available evidence into a cohesive interpretational framework. The framework is unconventional, and I already know that some scientists do not agree with all aspects. Nevertheless, it is a sincere attempt to create understanding where little exists.

  So, as we plunge into these murky waters, let us see if we can
achieve some needed clarity. 

Seattle, September 2012

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has 
seen and thinking what nobody has thought.
 Albert Szent-Györgyi, Nobel laureate (1893-1986)


A reader's guide to the species that lurk within 
the mysterious aqueous Domain. 

Water Molecule: The familiar water molecule,
composed of two hydrogen atoms and one 
oxygen atom.

Bulk Water : The standard collection of water
molecules, whose arrangement is still debated.

Ever wonder…
What mysteries lurk in the depths of a glass of water?
What makes the wispy clouds of vapor rising from 
your cup of hot coffee? Or the puffy white clouds 
hovering in the sky? Why do the bubbles in your 
pop get bigger the longer you wait? What keeps 
Jell-O’s water from oozing out? Why does your 
tongue stick to something frozen? And why don’t 
your joints squeak?

Questions such as those have remained 
unanswered not only because they have seemed 
complex, but
also because they require that scientists pursue a
politically risky domain of science: water research.
Scientists trying to understand the “social behavior”
of H20 do so at grave risk to their reputations and
livelihoods because water science has suffered
repeated fiascos. Water scientists have been virtually
tarred and feathered.

Undaunted, one scientist has navigated the perils 
of water science by conducting dozens of simple, 
carefully controlled experiments and piecing 
together the first coherent account of water’s 
three dimensional structure and behavior.

Professor Pollack takes us on a fantastic voyage
through water, showing us a hidden universe 
teeming with physical activity that provides 
answers so simple that any curious person can 
understand. In conversational prose, Pollack 
relentlessly documents just where some scientists 
may have gone wrong with their Byzantine 
theories, and instead lays a simple foundation for 
understanding how changes of water structure 
underlie most energetic transitions of form and 
motion on Earth.

Pollack invites us to open our eyes and re-
experience our natural world, to take nothing for 
granted, and to reawaken our childhood dream of 
having things make sense.

Professor Gerald Pollack is Founding Editor-in-
Chief of the scientific journal, WATER and is 
recognized as an international leader in science 
and engineering.

The University of Washington Faculty chose 
Pollack, in 2008, to receive their highest annual 
distinction: the Faculty Lecturer Award. He was 
the 2012 recipient of the coveted Prigogine 
Medal for thermodynamics of dissipative 
systems. He has received an honorary doctorate 
from Ural State University in Ekaterinburg, 
Russia, and was more recently named an 
Honorary Professor of the Russian Academy of 
Sciences, and Foreign Member of the Srpska
Academy. Pollack is a Founding Fellow of the 
American Institute of Medical and Biological 
Engineering and a Fellow of both the American 
Heart Association and the Biomedical 
Engineering Society. He recently received an
NIH Director’s Transformative R01 Award for 
his work on water, and maintains an active 
laboratory in Seattle.

Pollack’s interests have ranged broadly, from 
biological motion and cell biology to the 
interaction of biological surfaces with aqueous 
solutions. His 1990 book, Muscles and 
Molecules: Uncovering the Principles of 
Biological Motionwon an “Excellence 
Award” from the Society for Technical
Communication; his subsequent book, 
Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life
won that Society’s “Distinguished Award.”

Pollack is recognized worldwide as a dynamic 
speaker and a scientist willing to challenge any 
long-held dogma that does not fit the facts.

Water 'Exclusion Zone' (EZ): The “exclusion zone” 
(EZ), the unexpectedly large zone of water that 
forms next to many submersed materials, got its 
name because it excludes practically everything. 
The EZ contains a lot of charge, and its character 
differs from that of bulk water. Sometimes it is 
referred to as water’s fourth phase.

Electron and Proton : Electrons and protons are 
the elementary units of charge. They attract one 
another because one is positive and the other is 
negative. Electrons and protons play central 
roles in water’s behavior — more than you 
might think.

Water Molecule Charge : The water molecule is 
neutral. Oxygen has a charge of minus two, while 
each of the hydrogen atoms has a plus one 
charge. H2O net charge = 0

Hydronium Ion : Protons latch onto water 
molecules to form hydronium ions. Imagine a 
positively charged water molecule and you’ve 
got a hydronium ion. Charged species like 
hydronium ions are highly mobile and can 
wreak much havoc. H3O+.

Interfacial Battery : This battery comprises the 
exclusion zone and the bulk water zone beyond.
The respective zones are oppositely charged, 
and the separation is sustained, as in an ordinary 

Radiant Energy : Radiant energy charges the 
battery. The energy comes from the sun and other
radiant sources. The water absorbs these energies 
and uses them to charge the battery.

Honeycomb Sheet : The honeycomb sheet is the 
EZ’s unitary structure. Sheets stack parallel to 
the material surface to build the EZ.  

Ice : The atomic structure of ice closely
resembles the atomic structure of the exclusion 
zone. This similarity is beyond coincidence: 
one transforms readily into the other.

Droplet : The water droplet consists of an EZ 
shell that envelops bulk water. The two
components have opposite charges.

Bubble : The bubble is structured like the droplet,
except that it has a gaseous interior. Commonly, 
that gas is water vapor.

Vesicle : Since droplets and bubbles are similarly 
constructed, we introduce the generic label: 
vesicle. A vesicle can be a droplet or a bubble, 
depending on the phase of the water inside. 
When a droplet absorbs enough energy, it can 
become a bubble. 

Water Riddles: Forging the Pathway

1 . Surrounded by Mysteries

Beaker in hand, two students rushed down the 
hall to show me some thing unexpected. 
Unfortunately, their result vanished before I 
could take a look. But it was no fluke. The next 
day the phenomenon reappeared, and it became 
clear why the students had reacted with such 
excitement: they had witnessed a water-based 
phenomenon that defied explanation.

Water covers much of the earth. It pervades the 
skies. It fills your cells — to a greater extent than 
you might be aware. Your cells are two-thirds
water by volume; however, the water molecule is 
so small that if you were to count every single 
molecule in your body, 99% of them would be 
water molecules. That many water molecules are 
needed to make up the two-thirds volume. Your 
feet tote around a huge sack of mostly water molecules.

What do we know about those water molecules? 
Scientists study them, but rarely do they concern 
themselves with the large ensembles of water 
molecules that one finds in beakers. Rather, most 
scientists focus on the single molecule and its 
immediate neighbors, hoping to extrapolate what 
they learn to larger-scale phenomena that we can 
see. Everyone seeks to understand the observable 
behavior of water, i.e., how its molecules act 

Do we really understand water’s social behavior?

Since water is everywhere, you might reasonably 
conclude that we understand it completely. I 
challenge you to confirm that common 
presumption. Below, I present a collection of 
everyday observations, along with a handful of 
simple laboratory observations. See if you can 
explain them. If you can, then I lose; you may 
stop reading this book. If the explanations remain 
elusive even after consulting the abundant 
available sources, then I ask you to reconsider 
the presumption that we know everything there 
is to know about water.

I think we don’t. Let’s see how you fare.

Everyday Mysteries

Here are fifteen everyday observations. Can you 
explain them?

Wet sand vs. dry sand. When stepping into dry 
sand, you sink deeply, but you hardly sink into the 
wet sand near the water’s edge. Wet sand is so 
firm that you can use it for building sturdy castles 
or large sand sculptures. The water evidently 
serves as an adhesive. But how exactly does water 
glue those sand particles together? (The answer is
revealed in Chapter 8.)

Ocean waves. Waves ordinarily dissipate after 
traveling a relatively short distance. However, 
tsunami waves can circumnavigate the Earth
several times before finally petering out. Why do 
they persist for such immense distances? (See Chapter 16.)

Gelatin desserts. Gelatin desserts are mostly 
water. With all that water inside, you’d expect a 
lot of leakage (Fig. 1.1). However, none occurs. 
Even from gels that are as much as 99.95% water,
[1] we see no dribbling. Why doesn’t all that 
water leak out? (Read Chapters 4 and 11.) 
(Fig. 1.1 What keeps the water from dribbling out 
of the Jell-O?)

Diapers. Similar to gels, diapers can hold lots of 
water: more than 50 times their weight of urine 
and 800 times their weight of pure water. How 
can they hold so much water? (Look at Chapter 11.)

Slipperiness of ice. Solid materials don’t usually 
slide past one another so easily: think of your shoes 
planted on a hilly street. Friction keeps you from 
sliding. If the hill is icy, however, then you must 
exercise great care to keep from falling on your 
face. Why does ice behave so differently from 
most solids? (Chapter 12 explains.)

Swelling. Your friend breaks her ankle during a 
tennis match. Her ankle swells to twice its normal 
size within a couple of minutes. Why does water 
rush so quickly into the wound? (Chapter 11 
offers an answer.)

Freezing warm water. A precocious middle-
school student once observed something odd in 
his cooking class. From a powdered ice cream 
mix he could produce his frozen treat faster by 
adding warm water instead of cold water. This 
paradoxical observation has become famous. 
How is it that warm water can freeze more 
rapidly than cold water? (See Chapter 17.)

Rising water. Leaves are thirsty. In order to 
 through evaporation in plants and trees, water 
flows upward from the roots through narrow 
columns. The commonly offered explanation
asserts that the tops of the columns exert an 
upward drawing force on the water suspended 
beneath. In 100-meter-tall redwood trees, 
however, this is problematic: the weight of the 
water amassed in each capillary would suffice to 
break the column. Once broken, a column can no 
longer draw water from the roots. How does 
nature avert this debacle? (Check out Chapter 15.)

Breaking concrete. Concrete sidewalks can be 
cracked open by upwelling tree roots. The roots 
consist mainly of water. How is it possible that 
water-containing roots can exert enough pressure 
to break slabs of concrete? (Look through Chapter 

Droplets on surfaces. Water droplets bead up on 
some surfaces and spread out on others. The 
degree of spread serves, in fact, as a basis for 
classifying diverse surfaces. Assigning a 
classification, however, doesn’t explain why the 
droplets spread, or how far they spread. What 
forces cause a water droplet to spread? (Go to
Chapter 14.)

Walking on water. Perhaps you’ve seen videos 
of “Jesus Christ” lizards walking on pond 
surfaces. The lizards scamper from one end to
the other. Water’s high surface tension comes to 
mind as a plausible explanation, but if surface 
tension derives from the top few molecular layers 
only, then that tension should be feeble. What is 
it about the water (or about the lizard) that makes 
possible this seemingly biblical feat? (Read 
Chapter 16.)

Isolated clouds. Water vapor rises from vast 
uninterrupted reaches of the ocean’s water. That 
vapor should be everywhere. Yet puffy white 
clouds will often form as discrete entities, 
punctuating an otherwise clear blue sky (Fig. 
1.2). What force directs the diffuse rising vapor 
towards those specific sites? (Chapters 8 and 15
consider this issue.)

Squeaky joints. Deep knee bends don’t 
generally elicit squeaks. That’s because water 
provides excellent lubrication between bones 
(actually, between cartilage layers that line the 
bones). What feature of water creates that 
vanishingly small friction? (Take a look at 
Chapter 12.)

Ice floats. Most substances contract when 
cooled. Water contracts as well — until 4 °C. 
Below that critical temperature water begins 
expanding, and very much so as it transitions to 
ice. That’s why ice floats. What’s special about 
4 °C; and, why is ice so much less dense than 
water? (Chapter 17 answers these questions.)

Yoghurt’s consistency. Why does yoghurt hold 
together as firmly as it does? (See Chapter 8.)

Mysteries from the Laboratory

I next consider some simple laboratory 
observations, beginning with the one seen by 
those students rushing down the hall to show me
what they’d found.

(i) The Mystery of the Migrating Microspheres

The students had done a simple experiment. They 
dumped a bunch of tiny spheres, known as 
“microspheres,” into a beaker of water. They 
shook the suspension to ensure proper mixing, 
covered the beaker to minimize evaporation, and 
then went home for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, they returned to examine the 

By conventional thinking, nothing much should 
have happened, besides possibly some settling at 
the bottom of the beaker. The suspension should 
have looked uniformly cloudy, as if you’d poured 
some droplets of milk into water and shaken it 

The suspension did look uniformly cloudy — for 
the most part. However, near the center of the 
beaker (looking down from the top), a clear 
cylinder running from top to bottom had 
inexplicably formed (Fig. 1.3). Clarity meant that 
the cylinder contained no microspheres.
Some mysterious force had driven the micro-
spheres out of a central core and toward the 
beaker’s periphery. If you’ve ever seen 2001: A
Space Odyssey, and the astonishment of the ape-
humans upon first seeing the perfect monolith, 
you have some sense of just how our jaws
dropped. This was something to behold.

Fig. 1.3 Near-central clear zone
in microsphere suspension. Why
does the microsphere-free cylinder
appear spontaneously?

So long as the initial conditions remained within 
a well-defined window, these clear cylinders 
showed up consistently; we could produce them 
again and again.[2]  The question: what drives 
the counterintuitive migration of the spheres away 
from the center? (Chapter 9 explains.)

(ii) The Bridge Made of Water

Another curious laboratory phenomenon, the so-
called “water bridge,” connects water across a 
gap between two glass beakers — if you can 
imagine. Although the water bridge is a century-
old curiosity, Elmar Fuchs and his colleagues 
pioneered a modern incarnation that has aroused 
interest worldwide.

The demonstration starts by filling the two 
beakers almost to their brims with water and then 
placing them side-by-side, lips touching. An 
electrode immersed in each beaker imposes a 
potential difference on the order of 10 kV. 
Immediately, water in one beaker jumps to the 
rim and bridges across to the other beaker. Once 
the bridge forms, the two beakers may be slowly 
separated. The bridge doesn’t break; it continues 
to elongate, spanning the gap between beakers 
even when the lips separate by as much as 
several centimeters. (Fig. 1.4). 

Fig. 1.4 The water-bridge. 
bridge made of water spans the gap
between two water-filled beakers.
What sustains the bridge?)

Astonishingly, the water-bridge hardly droops; it 
exhibits an almost ice-like rigidity, even though 
the experiment is carried out at room temperature.

I caution you to resist the temptation to repeat 
this high-voltage experiment unless you consider 
yourself immune to electrocution. Better to 
watch a video of this eye-popping phenomenon.
[w1] The question: what sustains the bridge 
made of water? (See Chapter 17.)

(iii) The Floating Water Droplet

Water should mix instantly with water. However, 
if you release water droplets from a narrow tube 
positioned just above a dish of water, those 
droplets will often float on the water surface for 
period of time before dissolving (Fig. 1.5). 
Sometimes the droplets may sustain themselves 
for up to tens of seconds. Even more 
paradoxically, droplets don’t dissolve as single 
unitary events; they dissolve in a succession of 
squirts into the pool beneath.[3] Their 
dissolution resembles a programmed dance.

Fig. 1.5 Water droplets persist on
water surface for some time. Why?

Floating water droplets can be seen in nature if 
you know where to look. A good time is just after 
a rainfall, when water drips from a ledge onto a 
puddle or from a sailboat’s gunwales onto the 
lake beneath. Even raindrops will sometimes 
float as they hit ground water directly. The 
obvious question: if water mixes naturally with 
water, then what feature might delay the natural 
coalescence? (Look at Chapters 13 and 16)

(iv) Lord Kelvin’s Discharge

Finally, Fig. 1.6 depicts another head-scratching 
observation. Water drawn from an upside-down 
bottle or an ordinary tap is split into two 
branches. Droplets fall from each branch, passing 
through metal rings as they descend into metallic 
containers. The rings and containers are cross-
connected with electrical wires, as shown.
Metal spheres project toward one another from 
each container through metallic posts, leaving 
an air gap of several millimeters between the spheres.

Fig. 1.6, The Kelvin water-dropper
demonstration. Rising water levels
create a high-voltage discharge.
Why does this happen?

Originally conceived by Lord Kelvin, this 
experiment produces a surprising result. Once 
enough droplets have descended, you begin
hearing a crackling sound. Then, soon after, a 
flash of lightning discharges across the gap, 
accompanied by an audible crack.

Electrical discharge can occur only if a large 
difference in electrical potential builds between 
the two containers. That potential difference
can easily reach 100,000 volts, depending on gap 
size. Yet, the massive separation of charge 
needed to create that potential difference builds 
from a single source of water.

Constructing one of these exotic devices at home 
is possible[w2]; however, observing the discharge 
on video is a lot simpler. A fine example is the 
one produced by Professor Walter Lewin,[w3] 
who demonstrates the discharge to a classroom 
full of awe-struck MIT freshmen. He then invites 
the students to explain the phenomenon as their 
homework assignment. Can you explain how a 
single source of water can yield this massive 
charge separation? (Read about it in Chapter 15.)

Lessons Learned from These Mysteries 

The phenomena presented in the foregoing 
sections defy easy explanation. Even prominent 
water scientists I know cannot come up with 
satisfying answers; most cannot get beyond the 
most superficial explanations. Something is 
evidently missing from our framework of
understanding; otherwise, the phenomena 
should be readily explainable — but they are not.

I want to reemphasize that we’re not dealing with 
water at the molecular level; we’re dealing with 
crowds of water molecules. We don’t yet 
understand water molecules’ interaction with 
other water molecules — water’s “social” 

Social behavior is the purview of social scientists 
and clinicians, from whom we might learn. A 
friend of mine, a psychiatrist, once told me that, 
in order to understand human behavior, you 
should focus on oddballs and weirdos. Their 
behavioral extremes, the psychiatrist opined, 
provide clues for understanding the subtler 
behaviors of the rest of the population. That 
same reasoning can apply here: the foregoing
cases describe some situations where water 
exhibits extreme “social” behaviors; as such, 
they provide clues for understanding the more 
ordinary behaviors of water molecules.

Thus, rather than brushing aside our inability to 
explain the phenomena above, we exploit them 
for the clues they provide. We turn ignorance to 
advantage. You’ll see many examples of this 
process once we reach the book’s middle chapters.

The next chapter 2 , provides some helpful 
background. It considers what we already know 
about water’s social behavior and what we
don’t, but it focuses mainly on the surprising 
reasons why we know so little about Earth’s 
most common substance. 

Chapter 2. The Social Behavior of  H2O