The Water Book by Alok Jha, book review: An investigation of the Earth's liquid lifeline

Jha takes in the origin of water in space; the origin of life; how irrigation shaped civilisation; the world of the ocean currents; and much else

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The Independent Culture

Alok Jha is one of the brightest young science writers around: after a long stint at The Guardian he is now ITN's science correspondent. He belongs to a select band of science communicators, and knows his science at a deep level and can put it across.

Perhaps nothing is as remarkable, vital and apparently banal as water. "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water", wrote WH Auden in "First Things First", but until we don't know where our next drink is coming from or California runs dry we won't get too worked up about it: colourless, ubiquitous – it doesn't dazzle.

Except, of course, if you look at in the right way.

Water is absolutely central to life; much of our knowledge is very recent and will be new to most. Water isn't just the medium for life: the subtle bonds between water molecules, known as hydrogen bonds, are actually nature's way of gently steering life's processes in the right direction.

The Water Book manages to take in the origin of water in space; the origin of life; how irrigation shaped civilisation; the world of the ocean currents and its living denizens; and much else. Cultural references abound, with an especially good treatment of Leonardo, who was fanatical about water. The more encyclopaedic material is interspersed with Jha's account of his Antarctic voyage, getting up close and personal with water in one of its more extreme forms.

I found perhaps the most striking revelations in The Water Book concerned the high-pressure forms of ice currently being investigated. One of the great shocks of recent science is that substances we thought we knew turn out to have great surprises in store. The graphite of the humble pencil turned out to be harbouring the hi-tech wonder material graphene. In the case of water, the last 20 years have seen an explosion of research on super-water-repelling substances and self-cleaning surfaces, inspired by the never-sullied-by-dirt lotus plant. And now we discover that the enormous pressure that exists on Jupiter could have compressed ice to such an extent that it has become metallic.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Californian drought reminds us that human settlements have to follow water, which is ominously starting to shift its distribution around the globe. Water is inexorably going to rise up the political agenda; studies of it at leisure, as in this book, reinforce the lesson of its importance and just might help us to use it better in future.