Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water by Philip Ball

(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000, $25.00, 432 pages)

Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas by Colin Woodard, Foreword by Paul Ehrlich

(Perseus Books, 2000, $26.00, 320 pages)

Water The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers

(Houghton Mifflin, 2000, $26.00, 368 pages)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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To the ancients, water was elemental, one of the basic substances from which all others are made. It was purity itself. In abundance, it drew people together. In scarcity, it was the source of conflict. It stirred passions of mythic proportions.

It still does -- and passion is the stuff of which good literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, is made. We use water, we abuse water, and, as the diverse and fascinating books by authors Philip Ball, Colin Woodard, and Marq de Villiers demonstrate, we revere water -- for good reason. It is, as Ball calls it, Life's Matrix."

Ball, a contributing editor to the renowned British science journal Nature, treats water as the subject of a "biography" for science-loving readers. Water was born, not in the Big Bang, but (astronomically speaking) soon afterward in the early generations of stars where hydrogen and helium fused into heavier elements, including oxygen.

Billions of years later, the process of planet formation led to a remarkable jewel, Earth, where water could exist not only as solid ice and gaseous vapor, but also in its liquid state. There, both a benign, stable climate and water-based life evolved.

Among the many treats for readers of Life's Matrix is the opportunity to adopt a body posture that mimics the bonding of water molecules. Through Ball's choreography and words, they will grapple both physically and mentally with water's unusual physical and chemical properties, which underlie both biology and climate.

Yet Ball writes not as a scientist alone. In his extensive epilogue, he becomes a passionate advocate for the protection of Earth's water as a resource. Thanks to millenia of hydrological ingenuity, agricultural and urban civilizations have been able to thrive. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, water resources seemed to be inexhaustible and resilient enough to recover from any insults humanity could inflict. The benefits always -- it seemed -- outweighed the costs. We now know that our assumptions about both the resilience of the resource and the costs were wrong.

How wrong? DeVilliers' Water and Woodard's Ocean's End provide some answers. In a passionate, powerful travelogue, Christian Science Monitor global affairs writer Woodard takes readers through once renowned settings on lakes, seas, and rivers where human technology has wreaked havoc or threatens to do so soon. If current literature on water were to be collected and canonized, this book would be the equivalent of Jeremiah.

It begins with a trip to the Black Sea, where in the last decades of the twentieth century, a thriving ecology collapsed. It's hard to tell which straw was the final one, but the sea's worst troubles certainly came from the engineering and abuse of its most important inlet, the Danube River.

Woodard's other ports of call on his gloomy travels include the depleted fisheries off Canada's east coast; Louisiana's delta region where erosion and the annual formation of an offshore spring and summer "Dead Zone" threaten both land and economy; the endangered coral reef off Belize; the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which -- if dire predictions of global warming come to pass -- may be wiped out in storm surges if it doesn't disappear entirely beneath the Pacific Ocean waves in the new century; the coast of Antarctica, where vast ice shelves are breaking apart and where an "apocalypse scenario," the collapse of the ice cap could raise world-wide sea levels eighteen feet, submerging hundreds of coastal cities including New York, London, and Jakarta.

Woodard's tendency to exaggerate the likelihood of worst-case scenarios opens Ocean's End to criticism. Still, Jeremiah is part of the biblical canon for a reason. The prophet not only warned the people about their excesses and offenses against God, but he reminded them that they could make different choices. Woodard's fervent call for action recognizes not only our excesses and offenses against Nature but also our opportunity and ability to change course before it is too late.

Where Woodard preaches, de Villiers teaches. He details "the fate of our most precious resource" in a concise yet rich curriculum: the science of the Earth as a hydrological system; the technology of collecting and diverting water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, industry, and recreation; the economics of water use and allocation; the political science of conflict resolution, public policy, and international affairs; the entrepreneurship of innovation.

Like any good curriculum, de Villiers' shows complex interrelationships among the courses. Readers come to see both the value and limits of theory when applied in practice. They discover that good ideas like well-drilling, dam-building, irrigation, and scientific agriculture can lead to unexpected and counterproductive results. Through the book's wealth of examples, they understand the tension between immediate needs and long-term concerns.

Though acknowledging Woodard's dismal settings and adding a few of his own, de Villiers is no Jeremiah. Throughout the book, he quotes experts on all sides of the complex issues, and he closes with a chapter of "Solutions and Manifestos": practical ideas to redistribute fresh water or desalinate sea water; ways to reduce demand for water through conservation, pricing mechanisms, efficient technologies, and a new water ethic; proposals to reduce global problems by controlling population or defining new relationships.

He closes on an upbeat note from one of the most impropable characters in his detailed and fascinating account: "Whenever my reading on water threatened to overwhelm me either with gloom... or with tedium..., I thought of Feodor Zibold and his dew collector.... (I)n all his fecklessness and stubbornness,... [Zibold] tells us... that we are not without weapons in these wars we are waging against our own worst nature."

Physicist Fred Bortz is an author of science books for young readers and a passionate ambassador for science. As "Dr. Fred," he visits schools throughout the United States and Canada.