Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Division of the Waters (Part 4)

The Division of the Waters (Part 4)

(This is excerpted from my The Everlasting Detective - a collection of unpublished essays)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Chesterton's most famous detective, Father Brown, established the identity of a murderer when he picked up a piece of paper and observed that it "was the wrong shape." ["The Wrong Shape" in The Father Brown Omnibus, 132] Life, at its most fundamental level, is a matter of molecules having the right shape. It seems fantastic and even mystical, but water is responsible for the "right shape" of the machinery of life:
The very shapes of proteins and nucleic acids and the structure of biological membranes are a consequence of their interaction with water.
[Rawn, Biochemistry, 27]
Anyone who has made salad dressing knows that water and oil do not mix. At the molecular level, "water-water interactions are stronger than water-hydrocarbon interactions. Because of the stronger water-water interactions, water molecules force nonpolar hydrocarbons together and surround them. This phenomenon is called the hydrophobic effect. Conversely, molecules that readily dissolve in water are called hydrophilic."[Rawn, Biochemistry, 36]

Much of the machinery of the living cell is made of proteins. Protein molecules are chains of amino acids, some of which are hydrophobic (or non-polar) and some of which are hydrophilic (or polar). Lipids, the building blocks of cell membranes, are molecules which have a hydrophobic body and a polar head. Thus, the polar nature of water makes proteins and lipids take on their correct shapes, producing a molecular division and separating the polar parts from the non-polar parts of the molecules.

The many and various uses of water

The "Canticle of the Sun" by St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the best-known poetic praise-by-enumeration of God after the various biblical lists of the components of creation. Here is the verse in which St. Francis tells about water:
Praised be my Lord for our sister water, who is very serviceable to us, and humble and precious and clean. [from the Poetry Appendix in the Liturgy of the Hours]
Each of these terms - sister, serviceable, humble, precious, clean - is remarkable for the exceeding insight into the reality of water.

Water is humble: it seeks the lowest places. Water is clean; perhaps this means it can render things clean. Water dissolves many substances, and soaps and detergents help dissolve many others. Large quantities of water can even wash rocks away by sheer physical action. Also, water is easy to purify - the atmosphere is doing this constantly. Sunlight evaporates water from lakes and oceans, and once the vapor cools, nearly pure water falls to the earth as rain or snow. Various human uses often require higher levels of purity, notably by the destruction of all microorganisms it contains. Distilled water is a mechanical version of rain, and the result is quite pure, but it does not taste like water, since there are no dissolved minerals to give it the "flavor" of water.

Water is precious, not because it is rare, but because it has so many remarkable properties. It is the perfect example of the Chestertonian paradox of something common which is simultaneously very unusual. And because water has so many remarkable properties, and is so very common, it is serviceable. That is, we use it for many purposes.

The most obvious use of water is the quenching of thirst, closely followed by washing. In a humorous moment, J. R. R. Tolkien has the hobbits sing a happy bath-time song:
O! Water cold we may pour at need
down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
but better is Beer, if drink we lack,
and Water Hot poured down the back.
[The Fellowship of the Ring, 145]
Of course, milk, coffee, tea, beer, and wine (those excellent beverages) are mostly water. Their flavors are a matter of individual preference, but their thirst-quenching power resides in water itself.

There are many other uses for water. In the industrial realm, water is preeminent as a mediator of energy. We speak of the "Age of Steam" - when we began to use water to take energy from burning fuel and convert it into motion. After steam trains and ships came the internal combustion engine, but this device develops large amounts of heat, and requires cooling. Water (usually with various additives) is pumped through the engine block and through a radiator, sending the excess heat into the air. All kinds of machines grouped together under the term "hydraulics" take advantage of the great incompressibility of water, and although other liquids can be used, the term pays Greek tribute to hydor, water. Even nuclear reactors require
large amounts of water: it transfers heat energy and also plays a role in controlling the nuclear reaction.

We have already discoursed at length on the importance of water for life. It is hard to know how far to carry the mystical notion that water is life, especially since human bodies are 60 percent water and some plants are as high as 95 percent[McGee, On Food and Cooking 577] On first thought, the description of water as our sister is something only a poet (or a lunatic) might say, but then again, maybe it's only a mystical term for a simple scientific fact. After all, we've got a lot in common with lakes and rivers - like them, we're full of water, and we would both be gone if it was all dried up.

Let us not overlook the most important term to describe water - a word which St. Francis implies by saying that praise is due to the Lord because of water. That word is "gift":
You care for the earth, give it water,
you fill it with riches.
Your river in heaven brims over
to provide its grain.

And thus you provide for the earth;
you drench its furrows,
you level it, soften it with showers,
you bless its growth.
[Ps 65 Morning Prayer Tue Week II emphasis added]

Baptism is a division by water

The Church uses water as the great symbol of life, and especially of the beginning of Christian life in baptism. It is the baptismal water which divides the new life with Christ from the earlier Christ-less life. All the other ritual uses of holy water are meant to recall these dividing waters of baptism. Water even has its place in the Holy Eucharist: water is added to wheat flour to make bread, and a drop of water is added to the wine before it is offered.

It is well-known that the baptismal waters symbolize death and life. As we have seen, science reveals water's wonderful imagery of triangles and crosses, of unusual properties, of incompressibility, of constancy of temperature, of humility, of marvelous utility, of mediation of energy, of the ability to produce the shapes of life by virtue of its ability to divide. Water indeed reveals a Chestertonian wonder in the commonplace.

Chesterton was a very large man, and he began his autobiography by stating that he "was baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little Church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian." [Autobiography CW16:21] This water tower played an important role in his story The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but even more important to him was the role of baptism: "I know only one scheme that has proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome."[The Thing CW3:156]

(to be concluded)


At 26 July, 2005 14:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Once again, you leave me with much to ponder, eagerly anticipating the next installment.

I must say that I casually discovered your weblog, and it was Part I of this series that kept recalling me here. Now, I have bookmarked this site for the many other wonderful things you offer.

Nicholas Jagneaux


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