When I was a boy my elementary school science book offered a definition of life that was based on a collection of properties. It was like a checklist, and where there was the right sort of smoke, you could count on a certain fire. Life was marked by the ability to reproduce, the ability to move and/or respond to environmental stimuli, and the ability to maintain homeostasis. I don’t remember all of the characteristics now; I think maybe there were four or five of them. Years later I read a book which contained a definition of life authored by the Chilean scientist Francisco Varela, which encapsulated much of this in the singular notion termed autopoiesis. The basic translation is self-creating.
Another concept I loved discovering was the idea of dissipative systems. This is the notion that the flow of energy through a system can enable that system to sustain higher states of order. The example often given is a shallow pan of water which is heated from below. When a number of factors converge, the flow of heat through the water will create “dissipative structures”, which are ordered convection cells within the pan of water. In essence, the water spontaneously forms an ordered pattern of convection currents—think of little water wheels spinning in place alongside of one another—that transport hot water from the bottom up to the surface, where it cools. This idea of dissipative structures is an elementary facet of life. We eat high grade nutrients, and return them to the Earth in a “lower grade” form, and our bodies live off of the difference.
Around this time I also began reading about water, first through the lens of Callum Coats’ translations of Viktor Schauberger. I wasn’t as much interested in water as I was Schauberger’s conception of nature in general. One thing led to another and I was on my way to Austria to tour industrial facilities that were using the somewhat esoteric technology of Austrian naturalist Johann Grander (described in a previous post here) to eliminate the need for industrial chemicals in their cooling systems. These were modern, state of the art manufacturing facilities in Austria and Germany that produced such goods as competition skis (think downhill and slalom), semiconductors, and printed textiles. This was a tremendously exciting time for me.
Eventually I realized there was very little I’d learned about life over the years that didn’t apply to water. It would take a pretty persuasive argument at this point to convince me water is non-living. For Johann Grander, water was absolutely alive. And there is a profound way in which all that we call life appears to be an augmentation and extension of the dynamics embodied in water. I want to explore these ideas in a series of pieces, not in any particular order.
Over the last ten years or so the Russian researcher Vladimir Voeikov,with the help of other scientists, has described what he terms the “respiration of water.” You could think of this respiration as being closely related to metabolism, and to the idea of dissipative structures. The first definition on Google of metabolism is “the chemical processes that occur within a living organism to maintain life.” Voeikov showed that water spontaneously undergoes internal reactions which form Reactive Oxygen Species. Low grade energy from the environment (think of water flowing down a stream, or vaporizing into morning mist) causes spontaneous reactions to occur which release bound oxygen and hydrogen. He calls this an exhalation because oxygen and hydrogen gases are released and mobilized in solution. The inhalation is when these gases are once again consumed, and bound together again. The key is that some of the energy released is stored in more complex molecules.
A distinction between dissipative structures in non-living matter and those found in living matter is that in non-living matter there are no internal reservoirs of energy storage. For instance, in the example of the convection cells, as soon as we remove the heat source, the convection cells in the pan dissolve. But in our bodies—the other extreme end of the spectrum—we don’t have to eat continuously to live. We store the energy from our food in complex organic molecules that we can break down later to utilize when needed. It turns out that water does this, too!
Voeikov has shown that water’s respiration processes are capable of producing more complex molecules such as H2O2 and other peroxides. This was a hypothesis he offered in approximately 2006. Later, through collaboration with the Italian physicist Emilio del Giudice, whose work focused on the formation of coherent domains within water, Voeikov realized that energy could also be stored in extensive water clusters that exist in a coherent state. A coherent domain is an ensemble of water molecules vibrating in unison, and it takes energy exchange to “lock” and “unlock” these states. When an ensemble of water molecules are in this collective state, they are able to exist for an extended period of time without degrading due to thermal effects. This is, in essence, a sort of homeostasis.
Let me try to explain this, because it’s really important. When water molecules are in a coherent state they are essentially a single entity. You can only deal with them as a group. So if they change temperature, they all have to change temperature at once, together. They possess the property, in other words, of wholeness. Their individual degrees of freedom are blurred together and so transactions that could occur for individual molecules cannot take place for the group, because they are all holding hands in a circle. They don’t have a free hand you can grab hold of. Thus, a coherent system is in some ways isolated from its environment, and energy can effectively be stored in these reservoirs for use at a later time. This energy storage for later mobilization is the hallmark of life!
What does this all really mean? Well, I am realizing I’ll never come close to conveying the ideas about water that inspire me in a single post, so this will be a new series that I will write. But let me close this first post by suggesting that scientists have discovered that water displays one of the most fundamental characteristics of living organisms: it possesses an internal, cyclical dynamic that is able to receive energy from its environment, metabolize that energy into more complex internal structures that are insulated from the external environment, and utilize that energy through metabolic cycles to continuously sustain higher-order functions. There is much, much more to say about this, but I hope you find it an intriguing beginning to what is for me a fascinating topic.