Views from the third world. Earth.

How Water Keeps Us Alive

Biologically speaking, we’re just walking water sacs, held together by tape

Why do people say drink more water? By all means hydrate, but have you questioned why you’re always putting this chemical in your gut? It’s really about much more than your skin or general health. It’s about the nature of life itself. Human life — life as we know it, in fact— is just water balloons that clambered out of the ocean and walked the Earth. That’s basically it.

We are a cocktail of many things, but water is the mixer. It is the universal solvent. Without it we could not solve the problem of life.

What Is Life?

There are many definitions of life, all somewhat meaningless because we’re so biased. As Carl Sagan said,

Lawrence Henderson concludes that life necessarily must be based on carbon and water, and have its higher forms metabolising free oxygen. I personally find this conclusion suspect, if only because Lawrence Henderson was made of carbon and water and metabolised free oxygen. Hendersen has a vested interest. (Carl Sagan, 1973)

For our purposes I’ll go with a water based idea of life, but you could possibly make the cocktail out of liquid methane, or a gas, or even a lumbering solid. I’m not saying that this is life, just life as we know it.

One definition of life is that it’s a meta-environment. A self-contained environment within an environment. Like a terrarium. Your body, for example, simulates a watery, oceanic environment for your cells, and a bunch of microbial passengers. Ask the trillions of ancient bacteria inhabiting you and they’d be like “yeah, I know Prasanna, he carries around the ocean for us, and minds the thermostat.” It is actually debatable as to whether humans are a meaningful form of life or just a spaceship for microbes. But I digress.

How does life create this meta-environment? Duct tape. Basically duct tape. We don’t use strong chemical bonds to do stuff, we use weak non-covalent bonds. The chemical equivalent of tape. We use weak connections to make our cell walls, DNA, and proteins, the equivalent of duct tape is holding you together right now. You’re not a molecule, you’re just… Molly.

Are you with me so far? Basically we’re a walking ocean-sac held together by duct tape. Does that make sense? Stab yourself and watch the liquid leak out and entropy increase, you’ll see that this is true (don’t stab yourself).

How Does The Duct-Tape Work?

To understand cellular duct tape, just think of oil and water. Hydrophobia. This peculiar chemical neurosis is the building block of everything from your cell walls to DNA.

Water has a light charge, and this light polarity works like a magnet. Some shit loves water and some hates it. If you hold two positive magnets together they’ll push apart, this is like hydrophobia. The ‘tails’ of phospholipids, for example, are hydrophobic. Dunk them in water and the ‘tails’ will curl up in the center, with the heads outside. Voila, a basic cell wall. DNA, also, is curled and held together largely by hydrophobia. It’s not a molecule, it’s not chemically bonded. It’s held together by duct-tape. Chemistry defines reality, but this ‘not-chemistry’ defines life.

As NASA physicist Andrew Pohrille says,

The bottom line of this story is that the hydrophobic effect in water provides the means for matter to spontaneously organise. By doing so, it is this basic organising effect of life. 

Again, this the chemistry of life as we know it. Maybe the liquid methane on Titan has a different organizing affect on alien life, who knows. Regardless, for life as we know it, this is life as we know it.

Life on Earth has been categorised into millions of species but, at the molecular level, we are all the same, made from DNA and proteins acting in solutions of water.  (Alok Jha, The Book Of Water)

That’s the cocktail of creation. Just add water.

What Am I?

You, being a life form, are 60–70% water. As a fetus you start as around 95% water, reaching 60–70% only after about five years. This water is really a stable meta-environment for your cells, a wet spaceship. Your cells use two-thirds of your water content. Ancient oceanic creatures like mitochondria got together billions of years ago, and only recently constructed these weird leggy vehicles to live on land. Though we left the ocean, we never really got away.

"Molecular life began bathed in it, and has never found a way of getting away from it," wrote biologist Peter Rand about water. "Much of evolution has provided mechanisms for not only keeping it there, but also for making sure it does not change concentration, even in the face of drastic environmental conditions. (The Book Of Water, page 97)

This is why we need to drink water. Because we are water. Water is life, and it’s not clear that we’re much more than a temporary cup. Life is much bigger (and smaller) than us and — given that water is so common across the universe — quite likely spread across the universe. And this is only life as we know it. God knows what other cocktails can be made.

This is a sliver of the insight I got from reading Alok Jha’s The Book Of Water. You will learn much more if you read it yourself. Note that I publish these articles early on Patreon, do a weekly round-up, and write exclusive shit that’s too personal for here.