Water Is Weird

And its strange behaviors make life possible. /

If someone were to stop you on the street and ask you to name, on the spot, a naturally occurring substance that epitomized ordinary—something entirely lacking in strangeness—there is high probability that you would eventually say “water.” You might note, as an aside, that it is a very important ordinary substance, essential to life and refreshing to the parched, but nothing about water strikes you as being particularly odd.

But you would be wrong. I mean, really, really wrong. The behavior of water, at least when compared to other natural materials, is a bit bizarre. In particular, there are at least five different properties of water that, if you were stumbling upon it for the first time, might strike you as strange.

Take, for instance, those ice cubes blissfully floating at the top of your iced tea. We think of this as quite normal until we test virtually every other substance known to man and find that a solid cube of copper or wax or rock each sinks straight to the bottom when dropped into a tub of its liquid form. In normal substances, the atoms of a cooling liquid tuck in closer together when solidifying into a solid. More atoms in a smaller space makes the solid denser than the liquid, such that solid forms sink. Unless you are water, of course, in which case the unique arrangement of molecules in ice actually expands the volume compared to the liquid form, and ice floats.

Then there is that transparency thing. We take it for granted that light passes through water, but what other naturally occurring substance can be collected into a fish tank and provide a clear view of everything inside? There are substances that are indeed transparent when isolated and melted, but we rarely find ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 14 / January 22, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note
  2. When Are We Going to Get There?

    If it’s space travel you’re complaining about, the answer is ‘Not in your lifetime.’ /

  3. The Mundane and the Almighty

    Finding God in speech, a bath, and a meal. /

  4. The Peace of Wild Things

    Resting in the grace of the world. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff

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