Thursday, February 04, 2010

The strangestliquid:why water is so weird

We are confronted by many mysteries, from the nature of dark matter and the origin of the universe to the quest for a theory of everything. These are all puzzles on the grand scale, but you can observe another enduring mystery of the physical world - equally perplexing, if not quite so grand - from the comfort of your kitchen. Simply fill a tall glass with chilled water, throw in an ice cube and leave it to stand.

The fact that the ice cube floats is the first oddity. And the mystery deepens if you take a thermometer and measure the temperature of the water at various depths. At the top, near the ice cube, you'll find it to be around 0 °C, but at the bottom it should be about 4 °C. That's because water is denser at 4°C than it is at any other temperature - another strange trait that sets it apart from other liquids.

Water's odd properties don't stop there (see "Water's mysteries"), and some are vital to life. Because ice is less dense than water, and water is less dense at its freezing point than when it is slightly warmer, it freezes from the top down rather than the bottom up. So even during the ice ages, life continued to thrive on lake floors and in the deep ocean. Water also has an extraordinary capacity to mop up heat, and this helps smooth out climatic changes that could otherwise devastate ecosystems.

Yet despite water's overwhelming importance to life, no single theory had been able to satisfactorily explain its mysterious properties - until now. If we can believe physicists Anders Nilsson at Stanford University, California, and Lars Pettersson of Stockholm University, Sweden, and their colleagues, we could at last be getting to the bottom of many of these anomalies.

Their controversial ideas expand on a theory proposed more than a century ago by Wilhelm Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays, who claimed that the molecules in liquid water pack together not in just one way, as today's textbooks would have it, but in two fundamentally different ways.

Key to the understanding of water's mysteries is the way its molecules - made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom - interact with one another. The oxygen atom has a slight negative charge while the hydrogen atoms share a compensating positive charge. As such, the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of neighbouring molecules are attracted to one another, forming a link called a hydrogen bond.

Hydrogen bonds are far weaker than the bonds that link the atoms within molecules together, and so are continually breaking and reforming, but they are at their strongest when molecules are arranged so that each hydrogen bond lines up with a molecular bond (see diagram). The shape of a water molecule is such that each H2O molecule is surrounded by four neighbours arranged in the shape of a triangular pyramid - better known as a tetrahedron.

At least, that's the way the molecules arrange themselves in ice. According to the conventional view, liquid water has a similar, albeit less rigid, structure, in which extra molecules can pack into some of the open gaps in the tetrahedral arrangement. That explains why liquid water is denser than ice - and it seems to fit the results of various experiments in which beams of X-rays, infrared light and neutrons are bounced off samples of water.

True, some physicists had claimed that water placed under certain extreme conditions may separate into two different structures (see "Extreme water"), but most had assumed it resumes a single structure under normal conditions.

Then, 10 years ago, a chance discovery by Pettersson and Nilsson called this picture into question. They were using X-ray absorption spectroscopy to investigate the amino acid glycine. The peaks in the X-ray absorption spectrum can shed light on the precise nature of the target substance's chemical bonds, and hence on its structure. Importantly, the researchers had got hold of a new, high-power X-ray source with which they were able to make more sensitive and accurate measurements than had ever been possible. They soon realised that the water containing their glycine sample was producing a far more interesting spectrum than the amino acid. "What we saw there was sensational," Nilsson recalls, "so we had to get to the bottom of it."


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