Preface: 4th Phase of Water
(Republished with Permission of Author from www.ebnerandsons.com)
There in my living room sat the Nobel laureate. He was shy and I was intimidated, a combination certain to generate awkwardness. It was like trying to make small talk with Einstein. What do you say?
Sir Andrew Huxley was a Nobelist among Nobelists. He had already done classical work on cell membranes, and by the time of our meeting he’d become the leader in the field of muscle contraction. His many accolades included President of the Royal Society; Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; and recipient of the Order of Merit from the Queen of England. He was also a member of the distinguished Huxley family, a lineage that produced the legendary biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) and the prescient writer Aldous Huxley. Here in my humble living room sat this towering scientific aristocrat.
During those awkward moments, nobody dared mention the elephant in the room: experimental results from our laboratory demonstrating that my guest’s theory might be wrong. He’d come to check out our evidence, which took place earlier, within the confines of my laboratory. But, in my living room, we avoided that thorny subject altogether, focusing instead on such compelling issues as the weather. Even with a few rounds of sherry for social lubrication, it was a struggle to let it hang out; after all, Huxley was a scientific oracle — practically a deity.
Towering figures like Huxley appear awesome; however, we tend to forget that even the most renowned scientists are human. They eat the same foods we eat, share the same passions, and are subject to the same human foibles. So, while we may marvel at their insights and respect their contributions, we need not feel obliged to treat those contributions as faultless or absolute; scientific formulations are hardly sacred.
Treating any scientific formulation as sacred is a serious error. Any framework of understanding that we build needs to rest on solid foundations of experimental evidence rather than on sacred formulations; otherwise, the finished product may resemble one of M.C. Escher’s renderings of subtle impossibility — a result worth avoiding. Even long-standing models remain vulnerable if they have not managed to bring simple, satisfying understandings. Galileo’s story teaches us that when an established foundation requires the support of elaborate “epicycles” to agree with empirical observations, it’s time to begin searching for simpler foundations.
This book attempts to build reliable foundations for a new science of water. The foundation derives from recent discoveries. Upon this new foundation, we will build a framework of understanding with
considerable predictive power: everyday phenomena become plainly explainable without the need for mind-bending twists and jumps. Then comes the bonus: the process of building this new framework will yield four new scientific principles — principles that may prove applicable beyond water and throughout all of nature.
Thus, the approach I take is unconventional. It does not build on the “prevailing wisdom”; nor does it reflexively accept all current foundational principles as inherently valid. Instead, it returns to the root
method of doing science — relying on common observation, simple logic, and the most elementary principles of chemistry and physics to build understanding. Example: in observing the vapor rising from your cup of hot coffee, you can actually see the clouds of vapor. What must that tell you about the nature of the evaporative process? Do prevailing foundational principles sufficiently explain what you see? Or must
we begin looking elsewhere? (You’ll know what I mean if you read Chapter 15.)
This old-fashioned approach may come across as mildly irreverent because it pays little homage to the “gods” of science. On the other hand, I believe the approach may provide the best route toward an
intuitive understanding of nature — an understanding that even laymen can appreciate.
I certainly did not begin my life as a revolutionary. In fact, I was pretty conventional. As an undergraduate electrical engineering student, I came to class properly dressed and duly respectful. At parties, I wore a tie and jacket just like my peers. We looked about as revolutionary as members of an old ladies’ sewing circle.
Only in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania did some one implant in me the seeds of revolution. My field of study at the time was bioengineering. I found the engineering component rather staid, whereas the biological component brought some welcome measure of leavening. Biology seemed the happening place; it was full of dynamism and promise for the future. Nevertheless, none of my biology professors even hinted that students like us might one day create scientific breakthroughs. Our job was to add flesh to existing skeletal frameworks.
I thought that incrementally adding bits of flesh was the way of science until a colleague turned on the flashing red lights. Tatsuo Iwazumi arrived at Penn when I was close to finishing my PhD. I had built
a primitive computer simulation of cardiac contraction based on the Huxley model, and Iwazumi was to follow in my footsteps. “Impossible!” he asserted. Lacking the deferential demeanor characteristic
of most Japanese I’d known, Iwazumi stated in no uncertain terms that my simulation was worthless: it rested on the accepted theory of muscle contraction, and that theoretical mechanism couldn’t possibly
work. “The mechanism is intrinsically unstable,” he continued. “If muscle really worked that way, then it would fly apart during its very first contraction.”
Whoa! A frontal challenge to Huxley’s muscle theory? No way.
Although (the late) Iwazumi exuded brilliance at every turn and came with impeccable educational credentials from the University of Tokyo and MIT, he seemed no match for the legendary Sir Andrew
Huxley. How could such a distinguished Nobel laureate have so seriously erred? We understood that the scientific mechanisms announced by such sages constituted ground truth and textbook fact, yet here
came this brash young Japanese engineering student telling me that this particular truth was not just wrong, but impossible.
Reluctantly, I had to admit that Iwazumi’s argument was persuasive — clear, logical, and simple. As far as I know, it stands unchallenged to this very day. Those who hear the argument for the first time quickly see the logic, and most are flabbergasted by its simplicity.
For me, this marked a turning point. It taught me that sound logical arguments could trump even long-standing belief systems buttressed by armies of followers. Once disproved, a theory was done — finished.
The belief system was gone forever. Clinging endlessly was tantamount to religious adherence, not science. The Iwazumi encounter also taught me that thinking independently was more than just a cliché; it was a necessary ingredient in the search for truth. In fact, this very ingredient led to my muscle-contraction dispute with Sir Andrew Huxley (which never did resolve).
Challenging convention is not a bed of roses, I assure you. You might think that members of the scientific establishment would warmly embrace fresh approaches that throw new light on old thinking, but mostly they do not. Fresh approaches challenge the prevailing wisdom. Scientists carrying the flag are apt to react defensively, for any such challenge threatens their standing. Consequently, the challenger’s path can be treacherous — replete with dangerous turns and littered with formidable obstacles.
Obstacles notwithstanding, I did somehow manage to survive during those early years. By delicately balancing irreverence with solid conventional science and even a measure of obeisance, I could press on largely unscathed. Our challenges were plainly evident, but we pioneered techniques impressive enough that my students could land good jobs worldwide, some rising to academia’s highest levels. Earning that badge of respectability saved me from the terminal fate common to most challengers.
During the middle of my career, my interests began expanding. I sniffed more broadly around the array of scientific domains, and as I did I began smelling rats all over. Contradictions abounded. Some of the challenges I saw others raise to their fields’ prevailing wisdom seemed just as profound as the ones raised in the muscle-contraction field.
One of those challenges centered on the field of water — the subject of this book. The challenger of highest prominence at the time was Gilbert Ling. Ling had invented the glass microelectrode, which revolutionized cellular electrophysiology. That contribution should have earned him a Nobel Prize, but Ling got into trouble because his results began telling him that water molecules inside the cell lined up in an orderly fashion. Such orderliness was anathema to most biological and physical scientists. Ling was not shy about broadcasting his conclusions, especially to those who might have thought otherwise.
So, for that and other loudly trumpeted heresies, Ling eventually fell from favor. Scientists holding more traditional views reviled him as a provocateur. I thought otherwise. I found his views on cell
water to be just as sound as Iwazumi’s views on muscle contraction. Unresolved issues remained, but on the whole his proposal seemed evidence-based, logical, and potentially far-reaching in its scope. I
recall inviting Ling to present a lecture at my university. A senior colleague admonished me to reconsider. In an ostensibly fatherly way, he warned that my sponsorship of so controversial a figure could
irrevocably compromise my own reputation. I took the risk — but the implications of his warning lingered.
Ling’s case opened my eyes wider. I began to understand why challengers suffered the fates they did: always, the challenges provoked discomfort among the orthodox believers. That stirred trouble for the challengers. I also came to realize that challenges were common, more so than generally appreciated. Not only were the water and muscle fields under siege, but voices of dissent could also be heard in fields ranging from nerve transmission to cosmic gravitation. The more I looked, the more I found. I don’t mean flaky challenges coming from attention-seeking wackos; I’m referring to the meaningful challenges coming from thoughtful, professional scientists.
Serious challenges abound throughout science. You may be unaware of these challenges, just as I had been until fairly recently, because the challenges are often kept beneath the radar. The respec tive establishments see little gain in exposing the chinks in their armor, so the challenges are not broadcast. Even young scientists entering their various fields may not know that their particular field’s orthodoxy is under siege.
The challenges follow a predictable pattern. Troubled by a theory’s mounting complexity and its discord with observation, a scientist will stand up and announce a problem; often that announcement will come with a replacement theory. The establishment typically responds by ignoring the challenge. This dooms most challenges to rot in the basement of obscurity. Those few challenges that do gain a following are often dealt with aggressively: the establishment dismisses the challenger with scorn and disdain, often charging the poor soul with multiple counts of lunacy.
The consequence is predictable: science maintains the status quo. Not much happens. Cancer is not cured. The edifices of science continue to grow on weathered and sometimes even crumbling foundations,
leading to cumbersome models and ever-fatter textbooks filled with myriad, sometimes inconsequential details. Some fields have grown so complex as to become practically incomprehensible. Often, we cannot relate. Many scientists maintain that that’s just the way modern science must be — complicated, remote, separated from human experience. To them, cause-and-effect simplicity is a quaint feature of the past, tossed out in favor of the complex statistical correlations of modernity.
I learned a good deal more about our acquiescence to scientific complexity by looking into Richard Feynman’s book on quantum electrodynamics, aptly titled QED. Many consider Feynman, a legendary
figure in physics, the Einstein of the late 20th century. In the Introduction to the 2006 edition of Feynman’s book, a prominent physicist states that you’ll probably not understand the material, but you should read the book anyway because it’s important. I found this sentiment mildly off-putting. However, it was hardly as off-putting as what Feynman himself goes on to state in his own Introduction: “It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That’s because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.”
The book you hold takes an approach that challenges the notion that modern science must lie beyond human comprehension. We strive for simplicity. If the currently accepted orthodox principles of science
cannot readily explain everyday observations, then I am prepared to declare that the emperor has no clothes: these principles might be inadequate. While those foundational principles may have come from
towering scientific giants, we cannot discount the possibility that new foundations might work better.
Our specific goal is to understand water. Water now seems complicated. The understanding of everyday phenomena often requires complex twists and non-intuitive turns — and still we fail to reach
satisfying understandings. A possible cause of this unsatisfying complexity is the present foundational underpinning: an ad hoc collection of long-standing principles drawn from diverse fields. Perhaps a more suitable foundation — built directly from studying water — might yield simpler understandings. That’s the direction we’re headed.
To read this book, you needn’t be a scientist; the book is designed for anyone with even the most primitive knowledge of science. If you understand that positive attracts negative and have heard of the periodic table, then you should be able to get the message. On the other hand, those who might thumb their noses at anything that seriously questions current dogma will certainly find the approach distasteful, for threads of challenge weave through the book’s very fabric. This book is unconventional —a saga filled with steamy scenes and unexpected twists, all of which resolve into something I hope you will find satisfying, and perhaps even fun to read.
I have restricted formal references to those instances in which citations seemed absolutely necessary. Where the point is generally known or easily accessible, I’ve omitted them. The overarching goal was to streamline the text for readability.
Finally, let me admit to having no delusion that all of the ideas offered here will necessarily turn out to be ground truth. Some are speculative. I have certainly aimed at producing science fact, not science fiction. However, as you know, even a single ugly fact can demolish the most beautiful of theories. The material in this book represents my best and most earnest attempt to assemble the available evidence into a cohesive interpretational framework. The framework is unconventional, and I already know that some scientists do not agree with all aspects. Nevertheless, it is a sincere attempt to create understanding where little exists.
So, as we plunge into these murky waters, let us see if we can achieve some needed clarity.
Seattle, September 2012