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Our biologist-reporter tunes in to an interview with a particle of water, who explains everything we ...
2021-04-12 09:00:00

Testing the Waters
A Liquid Interview

Testing the Waters

Our reporter Tomasz Sitarz came across the transcript of an unusual talk show, featuring an interview with a very special guest: a particle of water. The starlet droplet not only put up with the host’s dry humour, but also flooded the audience with streams of knowledge about its very particular structure and properties. We encourage everyone to give it a read – after all, we’re all in the same boat.

Read in 8 minutes

Host: Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome back to our studio. After the stormy dispute with Mr Cumulonimbus about the climate crisis, we dip our toes into a very different topic. Our next guest is a first-class celebrity. Present in every kind of environment, finding her way into the narrowest cracks of existence. She is the driving force of this spectacle we call life. Please welcome… Water!

Water: Good evening, thank you for having me.

In our programme, we try to enter the high seas of conversation, following a formula based on depth psychology. We want our guests to be able to describe how their personality developed from the earliest childhood memories, all the way to their fully-formed adult shape. Therefore, my first question is this: Where did you come from?

The answer to this question isn’t as simple as it may seem. Several theories examine the sources of my presence on Earth, and I’ll be happy to elaborate on them later, but as a particle, I consider my coming-to-existence a chemical process. As you may already know, I am made of two atoms of hydrogen, connected with one atom of oxygen. Therefore, my formula could be written down as HOH, or, as it is customary, H2O.

Could you be so kind and explain the main characteristics of your particle to us?

With pleasure. I’ll try to be crystal clear about it. In regular conditions on Earth, I am normally a liquid. This quality alone is rather unusual, since other particles of similar construction are usually encountered in gas form. I owe this exceptional property to my hydrogen bonds.

Does this mean that water particles hold on to their neighbours with some special kind of power?

A hydrogen bond is a type of electrostatic interaction between hydrogen and electronegative atoms – in this case, oxygen. Try to imagine the charges present in the structure of water. You might notice that the negative charge is moved slightly closer toward oxygen. This means that the positive charge is nearer hydrogen, therefore making me a polar particle.

You mean snow white, with an appetite for seals and promoting the capitalist vision of the winter solstice?

Not this time, sir. It simply means that electric charges in my particle are distributed unevenly, making some of it charged positively, and some negatively.

So, you have a plus on one side, and a minus on the other. Like a battery, that is?

Your quips might not be overly obnoxious, but you are draining my patience – and you’re still wet behind the ears, mind you. But now, back to polarity. A positively-charged hydrogen atom of one particle interacts with a negatively-charged oxygen atom from a neighbouring particle. This creates something reminiscent of a net in which all the particles are distributed in a particular, well-researched way.

Does this information have any impact on the issues that our viewers have to deal with in their daily lives?

Why of course! My negatives attract positively-charged particles, and my positives interact with the negatives present in my environment. This, in turn, allows me to work alongside all kinds of particles. Considering my small size, it’s not hard to conclude that I am a universal solvent. This quality is particularly important, as it impacts the functioning of all living organisms, including our viewers. Any and all biochemical reactions that, as a result, brought you to the existence, require their components to be dissolved in a water environment.

Does this quality play an important role in the functioning of proteins?

I can see you did your homework. Yes, it is of crucial importance. Proteins, without which there would be no metabolism, are often polar. Those particles are much larger and more complex, which makes their charges more spread-out and far-apart. As a universal solvent, I approach my task without hesitation and provide appropriate conditions even for the least solvable of proteins. I shan’t wade any deeper into my abilities to dissolve many kinds of salts, necessary for the functioning of living organisms. I assume that everyone has some kitchen salt at home, so you can go ahead and find out for yourself.

Well, I am certain that there is much more to particle polarity than what you told us. It makes me think that your explanation was somehow…

I’m warning you!

Please forgive me, I just have to… It was somehow… Watered down.

You seem to consider yourself a spring of humour.

It’s how I make a living. But please, do continue. What are some other aspects of your uniqueness?

The presence of hydrogen bonds in my particle is a direct reason for my exceptional heat capacity. It’s a physical property that describes the amount of heat necessary to produce a unit change in my temperature. In the human language, it means that it takes a lot of effort to bring a cup of water to the boil, and then you’d have to wait a long time for said mug to cool down to room temperature. This property always made me the perfect environment for living organisms who, as we know, are not big fans of significant temperature fluctuations. This also applies to larger systems. A significant portion of excess energy produced by human activity has been accumulated in the oceans. I am both your environment and your protective shield.

Drawing from the archives (797/1960)
Drawing from the archives (797/1960)

And we’re all immensely grateful. Now I have another question that you might find a joke, but I’d appreciate your understanding. In many cultures, there has been gossip about beings capable of walking on water. Could you comment on that, please?

Well, it’s rather obvious, isn’t it? I am known for my high surface tension. You have surely seen insects skidding to and fro across the surface of a lake?

Of course. But I meant a human.

If they evolved in a way that equipped them with appropriate limb construction, I cannot see why not. Were their legs extremely long, splayed-out at the ends?

I don’t think so. No scriptures mention that, anyway.

Well, in that case, I’d say it’s just gossip. Let’s go back to facts. Time flows.

You’re right. You seem to be a perfectly-designed particle. And you meet so many conditions necessary for life on Earth to begin.

I haven’t revealed all my secrets yet. And although I found your question about walking on water rather silly, it reminded me of something worth mentioning. I am highly cohesive, which means my particles cling to each other very eagerly. It can be best observed at the International Space Station. I am sure you have all seen the videos showing large bubbles of water, drifting freely in space. I should also mention adhesion, which is a bit like cohesion but occurs between different kinds of particles. Both of those phenomena – along with high surface tension – are a consequence of good old hydrogen bonds.

It sounds like you owe a lot to them. Could you perhaps tell us a bit more about your relationship?

It’s true, they make me who I am, but they’re also present in hundreds of other molecules, so I wouldn’t want anyone to assume I have somehow monopolized them. If anything, I find it surprising that humans talk so little about their merits.

Please forgive us. They’re hard for us to observe, not to mention appreciate properly.

Here you are wrong. You can see them everywhere. Just think about trees and other plants. You can see them full well, and you won’t tell me they aren’t important. They exist in their current form thanks to our favourite hydrogen bonds. Even without mentioning their role in facilitating metabolism and cell construction, it would be hard not to be grateful to them.

This sounds a little murky to me.

Your quips and puns really do leave a lot to be desired. How come your employers haven’t noticed there’s plenty more fish in the sea? Well, never mind. Let me explain, then. The life of trees is dependent on water, which they absorb with their roots. But then they have to transport it all the way to their leaves, using their transport system: phloem. Carrying large amounts of water upwards to such heights would consume huge amounts of energy, which the tree cannot spend lightly. But luckily, hydrogen bonds support the tree in this job. Thanks to adhesion and cohesion, I am subject to the phenomenon of capillarity that allows me to ‘climb’ upwards, towards the leaves.

Very impressive. But it seems to me that other organisms have taken to your properties even more swimmingly.

Knowing your sense of humour, I’m guessing you mean fish.

You’re so quick!

I’m getting fed up with it, but I’ll try to steer this conversation to the shore. Indeed, water organisms owe me a lot.

Like… their name?

Their lives. Have you ever wondered why lakes and ponds are buzzing with life in the spring, rather than being full of fish corpses, frozen to death?

Everyone knows that! The ice only covers the surface.

But not everyone knows why. When it comes to thermal expansion, I am quite exceptional. In their liquid state, most substances increase their density in proportion to the decrease in temperature. In my case, this interrelation isn’t so easy to predict. Yes, my density does go up as the temperature goes down, but it reaches its maximum level of about 4°C. Even such a giggler as yourself knows that dense objects tend to fall down to the bottom of a water reservoir. And so do I, when I cool down to the aforementioned temperature.

So what happens to the ice on the surface?

Of course, some of the water freezes, creating an ice cover on the surface. The density of ice is lower than that of water, so it will float to the top and remain there. It also serves as a pretty efficient insulation layer, keeping the temperature of water underneath optimal for the survival of life. Which is why an ice-covered pond may look like a barren fish cemetery, but underneath, the conditions for survival are just fine.

You can work just fine no matter what state you’re in. I must say, I find it quite commendable.

Are you sure you’re human?

What kind of question is that?

You sound like a machine designed to produce terrible puns on demand.

I can see that you’re seething. Let me ask you one more question before you boil over, then. Did you come from space?

If you are from Earth, then I must belong to space. But seriously now, I don’t know. Some people say I was brought to Earth by another planet during the same collision that created the moon. I like this theory, because I feel a strong connection to the moon. It can be observed during sea tides.

What do others say?

Others believe I was made by some interplanetary rubble. When the planets were taking shape, the solar system was filled with rocks of all shapes and sizes. They revolved around the sun, sometimes colliding with one another. This created planets that attracted more and more material with their gravitational pull, becoming gradually larger. This rubble could have contained large amounts of water. Sometimes it would be ready-made water; sometimes, it was just plenty of hydrogen and oxygen that, once on the planet’s surface, reacted with each other.

Let’s solve it once and for all: where are you from?

I don’t know. Please stop pressing me. I am no joke. The same water that softens a potato can denature and harden an egg.

I’m not sure I understood, but I’d like to end our conversation with a riddle.

I know I’ll regret it, but go on.

Why don’t grizzly bears dissolve in water?

Because they aren’t polar.

You threw a wet blanket on my closing line.

Well, I hope it will be water under the bridge soon enough.


Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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Tomasz Sitarz

was asked to write a few words about himself and it blocked him. He clogged up like the import channels of the mitochondrial proteins, whose unblocking and biogenesis he studies. Out of curiosity and hunger.