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WATER

October 17, 2010

Justin Wedes – Teacher – The Island School

To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves a riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold. –Archibald MacLeish, ‘The Image of Victory,’

What a unique vantage point we have on the world! Plop a red pin down at random on any old place in the (known) universe, and where are you? By modern estimates, you are likely to find yourself in the cold, dark hinterlands between radiant stars and their companion planets. The thought of finding a familiar substance like water- wet as it slides through our fingertips- in a place like that is absurd, right? To borrow from Gertrude Stein: there is no there there.

Or is there? Astronomers talk excitedly now about water emission spectra, the tell-tale signs of water vapor or ice deep inthe caverns of dust clouds. These clouds, made famous by the famous Hubble Pillars of Creation image, are the stellar nurseries where gravity does its best work. The churning of molecules in gravitational collapse is unimpeded by the hot ionizing radiation of distant stars, producing molecular hydrogen (H2) and a myriad collection of organic and inorganic molecules that heat as they collapse and give birth to stars and planets.

But where does water come in? You probably remember from high school chemistry that water is H2O, so it’s only a hop-skip-and-a-jump from molecular hydrogen to full-blown agua. After H2 finds O or OH, the gaseous mix floats in the swirling current around it until encountering a dust grain. Here, H2O can make a home for itself as an icy mantle surrounding the tiny grain. Later, these grains will coalesce with others to become meteoroids or proto-planets in the dust rings of a young star. Billions of years later, these same molecules might awake to a warmer world of evaporation, convection and all the comforts of a habitable world.

Back to Earth. And back to my fresh glass of water.

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