Water may be the universal solvent, but Ball (Designing the Molecular World, not reviewed) uses its history and properties, along with his artful narrative voice, to transfix readers.
It is as elemental as it gets, this association of atoms—two hydrogen, one oxygen—and as critical to everything humans hold dear, like their existence. Ball has fashioned an affectionate, enthusiastic, and revealing “biography” of the substance at once popular in its approach and deeply intelligent in its ability to convey its subject’s often counterintuitive nature: “If it is news to you that water can freeze . . . at 212[INSERT DEGREE SYMBOL] F, here is another revelation: water can be cooled at least 68 degrees below freezing point without solidifying to ice.” Ball's book is no sideshow of watery oddities, though they enliven the proceedings; it is a full-dress portrait, starting with the cosmic messengers who carried ice on their backs from the far reaches of our galaxy to Earth. When there was enough atmospheric moisture, and when the Earth cooled enough to permit it, the rains came, long and hard—a flood no ark would have survived, though it set the stage for life. From the hydrological cycle to the nature of cellular water, Ball lets liquid mechanics evolve off the page into lucid, timeless, essential processes. He jumps into the minds of our ancestors to track the mythical baggage they associated with water, and he introduces the many curious characters involved in water science (such as the Rabelaisian Paracelsus) from the mysticism of the Middle Ages to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Ball makes gnawing the bone of hard science (stream morphology, nuclear fusion, etc.) painless, while Wordsworth and Shelley and Yeats offer words to soothe the flow.
A superb and quenching portrait of this modest association of atoms that alone permits life among us. (30 b&w illustrations)