For good measure, a review of “The Water Book”

Ksiazka o wodzie 2

Thinking about water matters, it is difficult to find a more appropriate example of a book, the review of which could open a new service dedicated to them. The book on water by Aleksandra Kardaś, despite the fact that some time has passed since its publication (2019), is still an item fresh enough to be worth introducing to the “Water Matters” reader.

I have read a lot about water in my life. I still remember from the communist era the children’s book Why Is Water Wet? Today, to claim that it determined my development and caused me to read the Water Framework Directive professionally and scientific hydrobiological articles for peri-professional entertainment would be to add to the legend. Nevertheless, reading popular science books is one of the factors that shape a person. So the availability of good items of this type is very important. A book about water is, of course, quite differently written than the one from my childhood (well, and devoted to water in its entirety, not just in one chapter). Undeniably, it is a valuable item.

So, could this book have surprised me with anything? It certainly didn’t discover completely new spaces for me, but it fit very well into the familiar package of water facts. For me – a hydrobiologist – this set is necessarily different from that of a hydrologist, geophysicist or hydrotechnician, but it can probably resonate well with everyone’s mainstream interests.

Because of my development path, I have read more than one hydrobiology textbook, and every self-respecting position in this category has a section explaining what actually justifies the existence of hydrobiology or ecohydrology departments, separate from biology and ecology. The book on water is not about hydrobiology, but also starts with matters such as the structure of the molecule, hydrogen bonds and unusual volume changes at temperatures near zero degrees Celsius. I, therefore, will admit that this chapter did not capture my attention for long. Nevertheless, for some audiences this may be the first compendium of its kind, and they need this chapter.

After this rather predictable but necessary introduction, the author moves on to the chapter Water and Life. This is not a hydrobiology book, so it talks not only about the water in which aquatic organisms live, but also about the water that all organisms, not just aquatic ones, contain in their tissues. The chapter mentions bacteria and archaeons from hot springs, coconuts spread by ocean currents, amphibians that breathe through wet skin and reptiles whose body covering is a barrier to water, trees that suck up evaporating water through their stomata, and many other non-obvious and fascinating examples. The author writes about water as a component of sweat, hemolymph or cerebrospinal fluid, but also as an important biochemical agent, involved in the hydrolysis of various substances (from ATP to nutrients) or a substrate or product of respiration and photosynthesis.

To a biologist, this chapter may look very cursory, but remember that this is not a textbook on hydrobiology or physiology. Probably for a person not involved in this field of science on a daily basis, the amount of information about the role of water in life is overwhelming anyway. Also, hydrochemistry is treated too vaguely in my opinion. It is apparent that the author is interested in the carbon and water cycles, but other (bio)geochemical cycles less so.

The next chapter deals with the oceans, which, geophysicist that the author is, gives room for improvement. It is filled with currents, Coriolis force, El Niño/La Niña, erosion, abrasion and similar issues. The next section shows water in the atmosphere. Here, the circulation is described with even more intensity. This is an issue that you won’t see in a traditional hydrobiology textbook, yet water in reservoirs is largely dependent on that previously found in clouds of various kinds. There was also a description of water as a greenhouse gas and an explanation of why the current variation in its level in the atmosphere does not cause further climate change.

The next two chapters deal with ice. One is dedicated to sea ice, the other to land ice. Here the hydrobiologist would like to read more about cryobionts, and not mainly about the non-living part of this environment. Anyway, not only inanimate, but even dead, as you can learn here that dead ice is not a metaphor, but a glaciological term.

Then again, the themes familiar from hydrobiology books return – rivers, lakes and the processes taking place in them.

And finally, water in technology – from paddle wheels to water cannons and water cutters, and even water used to capture neutrinos or slow down neutrons in nuclear reactors. Slowing down, or, as the author writes, moderating. This phenomenon is compared here with the moderation of discussants on Internet forums.

Characteristic language is an important feature of this book. It is quite light, typical of the young adult social group. The author refers to concepts familiar from Internet virals, such as “a brick in a washing machine” (although one wonders if the associations are still as vivid several years after the release), or participation in mass events.

Aleksandra Kardaś uses scientific terms, but not only. Instead of a superposition of electrons in an orbital, he writes of “a kind of fuzzy cloud” formed by electrons similar to “a cartoon character running around in circles.” With the dipole structure of the molecules, he writes that they “just can’t help waving their ‘hydrogen paws’.” Admittedly, this will make it more difficult to cite the book as a scientific source, but I don’t think that was its purpose. It is more important not to discourage laymen from reading the whole thing.

For me, such language is as acceptable as possible. However, I will admit that writing about heavier and lighter water has reached the depths of my purism. The first time the author at least writes it in quotation marks, but then no more. I understand that in colloquial language it is said so, but carelessly equating heaviness with density in a text, admittedly popularizing, but there was no such thing, scientific content, is too much for me.

In conclusion, for a person interested in water in its various aspects, the main advantage of this book is that it brings together in one volume knowledge that is available, but so far scattered in various places. For me, reading The Water Book was an enjoyable pastime, refreshing, yet requiring no more concentration than one can afford while riding the streetcar to work.

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