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Philip Ball, a precocious young editor and writer at the British science journal Nature, with whose work I was previously unfamiliar, is apparently the hot new thing among popular science writers. Based on the evidence of this book, it's easy to see why folks like him so much.
Ball's thesis and method are apparent from the title. He sets out to demonstrate how central water is to our existence and he does so by tracing it's life history from the Big Bang right up to today. The broad arc of his story allows him to demonstrate a truly remarkable command of disparate topics, ranging from Cosmology to History, Geology to Mythology, and Chemistry to Politics. For someone with my embarrassingly limited science background, there was a little too much theory to absorb in one reading, but any technical confusion is more than made up for by the wealth of non-scientific information he provides. The book is packed with colorful anecdotes, interesting vignettes and fascinating factoids. If it's too much to say that you learn something new on every page, it certainly seemed to be true.
If I have one complaint with the book, it is that Ball has done such a good job of demonstrating how ubiquitous and remarkable water is, that by the time he gets to the dire environmental warnings about our wastefulness that conclude the book, it's sort of hard to take them too seriously. This section also tends to turn the biography into a bit of a melodramatic cliffhanger. He can hardly be blamed for not knowing water's ultimate fate, but there is a certain lack of closure to his tale.
There are a number of popular science writers I particularly recommend: Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man), Daniel Boorstin (The Discoverers), Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell : Notes of a Biology Watcher--see Orrin's review), Carl Sagan (The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence ), Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb), Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time: from the Big Bang to Black Holes) and Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions--see Orrin's review) have all written classics and among more recent authors Timothy Ferris (Coming of Age in the Milky Way) and David Quammen (The Flight of the Iguana : A Sidelong View of Science and Nature) are especially good. I don't know that Philip Ball belongs in such exalted company already, but I'm certainly interested to see what he writes about next.
-ESSAY: Utopia theory: From theories of pedestrian movement and traffic flow to voting processes, economic markets and war, researchers are striving towards a physics of society (Philip Ball, October 2003, Physics World)
Book-related and General Links:
-Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science
-ESSAY: physics : Theory does not hold water (PHILIP BALL, Nature)
-ESSAY: climate : Storm in a tea cup? (PHILIP BALL, Nature)
-ESSAY: chemistry : Waxy races (PHILIP BALL, Nature)
-ESSAY: Climate Change: Climate is complex says Philip Ball.Greenhouse gases, living systems, the circulation of the oceans and the planet's orbit all influence the earth's climate. But can the study of past climate change allow us to predict future trends? (Philip Ball, Prospect)
-REVIEW : of Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water by Philip Ball (Tom Fyles, Natural Science)
-REVIEW : of Philip Ball, Life's Matrix : A Biography of Water (Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com)
-EXCERPT: The Self-Made Tapestry : Pattern Formation in Nature, by Philip Ball: Chapter One
-REVIEW: of The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature (by Philip Ball) (Reuben Rudman, Department of Chemistry, Adelphi University, Journal of Chemical Education)