Sunday SciKu | Polarity All the Way Down

Photo by Jong Marshes via Unsplash

Life as we know it couldn’t exist without the strange properties of water, which are due to its exceptional polarity. A water molecule is a big negative oxygen atom on one end with two positive hydrogen atoms on the other, making it an extreme dipole. It’s not the most extreme (that would be all-cis hexafluorocyclohexane), but nothing comes close in abundance. That arrow-like shape allows it to cut like a knife through anything else that’s even slightly polarized, making it the universal solvent of biochemistry. Water isn’t just that life happened to emerge from the sea—it couldn’t have appeared in anything but a sea of water forcing all of the necessary chemicals together. It’s not just the universal solvent, but also the universal catalyst. As life on land, we’re really just bags of water that brought the sea with us.

The polarity of water also provides its bizarre physical properties—the melting and boiling points of water are abnormally high, allowing it to be liquid on Earth. Solids are less dense than liquids, so ice floats. It’s surface tension is much higher than other liquids. There are around 70 physical properties like this that make water a physical anomaly. Even more interestingly, the molecular polarity alone isn’t enough to explain it all.

That’s where this week’s sciku story comes in. One of the hypotheses has been that water actually has two liquid states—a traditional one, and another that’s more like a liquid crystal. Even though the traditional liquid state dominates at room temperature, there’s always a slight amount of flux between the two states, giving water’s bizarre behavior an extra boost.

If that’s hard to imagine, think about the surface of a lake, where a few molecules are always evaporating into gas as others are condensing back into liquid, creating an equilibrium that’s constant while always changing. That’s happening inside every glass of water, according to this hypothesis, only the flux is between liquid and liquid rather than liquid and gas.

The problem is that it could only be modeled by computer and had never been proven in the real world. The process is too rare and rapid to observe at room temperature, and ice forms too quickly at cold temperatures. Until this week, when a team at Stockholm University managed to use X-ray lasers to examine supercooled water at high pressure to prove this to be true. Every glass of water and droplet in your body is in constant flux between these liquid and liquid crystal states.

Thinking about this as I dozed off to sleep last night, it occurred to me that the necessity of polarity isn’t just a metaphor for our broader society, it’s metonymous, and on every level. Human cognition isn’t functional without something akin to a dipole moment—we need the competing approach and avoidance circuits; it’s why we have two brain hemispheres. We carve up the world into patterns and name them—that’s what an idea is, from the Greek, a pattern. And to see a pattern, idein, is literally to see. We pull those ideas apart and put them back together, and that process is the scaffolding of everything we’ve ever done as a technological species.

In the same way, without a constant frothy sea of division, societies wouldn’t be able to spark or sustain themselves. Polarity is the knife blade that allows us to cleave and recombine into something better, swimming forward against the current of entropy, embodied now in two political halves always at war with each other. It’s not just turtles all the way down, it’s polarity all the way down. This is another example of the fractal substrate of the universe (which is what my old book American Fractal was actually about). We’re all bags of polarity moving through that fractal fabric, blinking into and out of existence, nodes of flux in our own states of flux, catalyzing a larger chemistry, never realizing, as Vonnegut put it, that we were making champagne.


election year—
the extreme polarity
of water


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