Quantum Mechanics, Water, and Living Organisms

Yeah, I don’t normally read SPAM. Let me state that for the record – full disclosure! – so that you folks out there don’t get the wrong idea. However, I got one today I thought was funny in its misguidance. It was one of these “religious SPAM disguised as science” mails. The text is posted at the bottom of this entry.

The premise is this: water is so oddball, so mysterious, one has to invoke intelligent design (from the Koran, no less) to explain it. Hmm.


The author goes on a long and pleasant discussion of how water is most dense at 4 degrees celcius, how it is a poorer conductor of heat than other materials, and how these things are needed for life to exist. The crux of the message is that water seems somehow **crafted** for life.
The statement that closed this case for me (meaning, the one that tipped me off where the author’s extent of knowledge ended) was this:

“Why doesn’t water act normally? Why does it suddenly begin to expand at 4°C after having contracted the way it should?

That is a question that nobody has ever been able to answer.”

Well, the problem here is that this is absolutely not true. Fundamentally, the explanation lies in the structure of the water molecule, which is itself a product of the statistical laws of Quantum Mechanics and the structure of the electromagnetic and strong nuclear forces. The key here is the phrase “hydrogen bond”. It is the hydrogen bond, and the nature of its structure, that gives water the “inexplicable” properties the author reveres.

The property of water’s density is very simple: the hydrogen bond allows water molecules to be closer to one another in liquid form than they are when forced into the regular lattice spacing of ice. The hydrogen bond itsef is due to the partial electric charge created by the spacing of the bonds, and the central oxygen atom, in H20. This partial electric charge is, in turn, a result of the probability distribution of the electrons surrounding the two hydrogen nuclei; these electrons spend more time in one region of space than another, spreading their unit charge over an asymmetric volume and causing a weak polarization in water, which in turn is the nature of the hydrogen bond.

A good explanation is found in the WikiPedia.

So you see, my SPAMMER friend, we need not turn to intelligent design to explain the behavior of the water molecule, nor bulk water itself. In fact, intelligent design fundamentally has little to do at all with this process. If God doesn’t play dice, to paraphrase a famous objection to quantum mechanics, Nature herself certainly does. It’s the roll of the dice that ascribes the partial charge to the H2O molecule, and thus causes liquid water to be more dense at 4 degrees than solid ice at zero degrees Celcius.

In fact, one can make the argument instead that life is centered more on the structure of water than vice versa. Life, you assume, is some well-defined abstract that has wants and needs and desires. I think, rather, that our friends in the deep sea – the sulphur consuming bacterium – teach us that life crafts itself around the fundamental nature of a thing. Certainly you and I, and our cells (all forms of life) do not find sulphur useful. I cannot argue that sulphur is useful because I need to drink it. However, those little bacteria in the vents deep in oceanic volcanoes need it, and so they must instead have evolved around sulphur.

I would encourage you, Ms. Spam, to think a little more carefully about the universe in the future. Spend some time studying the polarization of water using a simple plastic haircomb and your kitchen faucet. Spend some time learning quantum mechanics so you can calculate the behaviour of bonded H2O molecules, in liquid and in a lattice. And please spend some time out and about in Nature, rather than with your nose in some 1500-year-old religious text.

===SPAM TEXT BEGINS HERE ================

I believe that my topic is useful and I would like to share my thoughts,


Most of our planet is covered with water. Oceans and seas make up three fourths of the earth’s surface while the land itself contains countless numbers of rivers and lakes. The snow and ice on the summits of lofty mountains is water in its frozen form. A substantial part of the earth’s water is in the sky: every cloud contains thousands–sometimes millions-of tons of water in the form of vapor. From time to time, some of this water vapor turns into drops of liquid and falls to the ground: in other words, it rains. Even the air you’re breathing now contains a certain amount of water vapor.

In short, no matter where you may look on the surface of the earth, you’re certain to see water around somewhere. Indeed, the place you’re sitting in at this moment probably contains about forty to fifty liters of water in it. Look around. You can’t see it? Look again, more carefully, this time raising your eyes from these words and look at your hands, arms, legs, and body. That 40-50 liter mass of water is you!

It’s you because about 70% of the human body is water. Your body’s cells contain many things but nothing so much or so important as water. The biggest part of the blood that circulates everywhere in your body is of course water. This is true not just of yourself or of other people however: the bulk of the bodies of all living things is water. Without water it seems, life is impossible.

Water is a substance that was specially designed so as to be the basis of life. Each and every one of its physical and chemical properties was specially created for life.

Other liquids freeze from the bottom up; water freezes from the top down. This is one of the most unusual properties of water and it is crucial for the existence of water on the surface of the earth. Were it not for this property, that is, if ice didn’t float, much of our planet’s water would be locked up in ice and life would be impossible in its seas, lakes, ponds, and rivers.

Let’s examine this in detail to see why. There are many places in the world where the temperature falls below 0°C in winter, often considerably below that. Such cold will of course affect the water in seas, lakes, etc. These bodies of water grow colder and colder and parts of them begin to freeze. If ice didn’t behave the way it does (if it didn’t float in other words) this ice would sink to the bottom while the warmer bits of water would rise to the surface and be exposed to the air. But the temperature of that air is still below freezing so these will freeze too and sink to the bottom. This process would continue until there was no liquid water left at all. But this isn’t what happens. What happens instead is this: As it gets colder, water grows heavier until it reaches 4°C at which point everything suddenly changes. After this, the water begins to expand and it becomes lighter as the temperature drops. As a result, the 4°C water remains on the bottom, the 3°C water above it, the 2°C water above that and so on. Only at the surface does the temperature of the water actually reach 0°C and there it freezes. But only the surface has frozen: the 4°C layer of water beneath the ice remains liquid and that is enough for underwater creatures and plants to continue to live.

We should note here that another property of water-the low thermal conductivity of ice and snow-is also crucial in this process. Because they are such poor conductors of heat, the layers of ice and snow keep the heat in the water below from escaping into the atmosphere. As a result of all this, even if the air temperature falls to -50°C, the layer of sea ice will never be more than a meter or two thick and there will be many fractures in it. Creatures such as seals and penguins that dwell in polar regions can take advantage of this to reach the water beneath the ice.

Again let us recall what would happen if water didn’t behave this way and acted “normally” instead. Suppose water continued to become denser the lower its temperature became like all other liquids and ice sank to the bottom. What then?

Well in that case, the freezing process in the oceans and seas would start from the bottom and continue all the way to the top because there would be no layer of ice on the surface to prevent the remaining heat from escaping. In other words, most of earth’s lakes, seas, and oceans would become solid ice with a layer of water perhaps a few meters deep on top of it. Even when the air temperature increased, the ice at the bottom would never melt completely. In the seas of such a world, no life could exist and in an ecological system with dead seas, life on land would also be impossible. In other words, if water didn’t “misbehave” and acted normally, our planet would be a dead world.

Why doesn’t water act normally? Why does it suddenly begin to expand at 4°C after having contracted the way it should?

That is a question that nobody has ever been able to answer.

Water is “just right” for life to a degree that cannot be compared with any other liquid. The larger part of this planet, a world whose other attributes (temperature, light, electromagnetic spectrum, atmosphere, surface, etc) are all suitable for life, has been filled with just the right amount of water necessary for life. It should be obvious that this cannot all be accidental and that there must instead be intentional design.

To put it another way, all the physical and chemical properties of water show us that it is created especially for life. The earth, purposefully created for mankind to live in, was brought to life with this water that was specially created to form the basis of human life. In water, God has given us life and with it He causes the food by which we are nourished to spring from the soil.

But the most important aspect of all this is that this truth, which has been discovered by modern science, was revealed in the Qur’an, bestowed upon humanity as a guide fourteen centuries ago. Concerning water and mankind, God’s word is revealed in the Qur’an thus:

It is He who sends down water from the sky. From it you drink and from it come the shrubs among which you graze your herds. And by it He makes crops grow for you and olives and dates and grapes and fruit of every kind. There is certainly a Sign in that for people who reflect. (Surat an-Nahl: 10-11)

I’ll only say this one thing…

Of this whole private matter of the Schiavos and the Schindlers, I’ll only say this: I wish that the legislators who tried to meddle in private affairs, that the President in his pajamas with so much determination, that these enthusiastic and sometimes agressive protestors in Florida, would take all the effort they focused on one braindead woman and turn it toward the wider lpublic issues of health and healtcare, food and support for the relative poor or the severely poor, and education for all Americans. They’ve let the plight of one family move their passions; let those passions move past this meddling and into the productive business of the People.

Shaken by a Nation’s Ignorance

Despite the intervening 24 hours, I am still pretty shaken by the young voices from yersterday’s “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” segment on the debate on evolution. My wife and I discussed this last night on the way home from work, and a little after she watched the re-run of the program on PBS. At first, the discussion was just me venting all the frustration I felt about how… well, about how ignorant those kids in the program seemed.

Jodi has a way of calming me. Mostly, this time it involved letting me talk (at length) about how I felt. Afterward, I came to a few realizations after our conversation. First, these are teenagers. They are products of their households. Given their position in the so-called “Bible Belt”, it’s not a surprise that they don’t understand the distinction between truth and belief. Second, it’s the **parents** of these kids that are at fault. Poll parents on their religious or political beliefs, and poll the kids, and it’s a documented fact you’ll see a strong correlation

After distilling my concerns through discussion with Jodi, I think I arrived at the kernel of my concern (apart from how we, as scientists and teachers, communicate the meaning of “theory of gravity”, “theory of evolution”, etc.). In our society, the first thing we do (at least, as Christians) is take our kids to church. They go to church before they ever go to school. Their heads are thus filled – or, at least, exposed – to all these confusing accounts of history, interpreted through the limited eyes of 2000-4000 year old cultures, tainted by the political or sociological aims of the authors of these religious texts. We fill their heads with stories (lies?) about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy. Then when they go to school and start learning about the real world, we expect them to reconcile these two drastically opposing interpretations of the world: fact and belief.

I know Jodi and I will have a lot to discuss about how we’ll raise our kids, and what half-truths or lies we’ll tell them to make their lives more fun. But on one thing we did agree: we should expose them to non-religious, non-faith issues as well as religious issues. You can’t send a kid to church and expect the school to undo the damage. You have to approach these things rationally.

I think God had it quite right when he said (and here I paraphrase), “Proof denies faith.” Faced with truth, how can faith withstand? Even in science, proof has denied faith again and again. Take the advent of quantum mechanics. So many brilliant physicists were so convinced that energy has to come in continuous units; so many physicists were so convinced that the orbits of electrons around the atoms could take any value. Yet, these beliefs had testable consequences. Because of this, you could take them to task. When this was done, the evidence stacked up against both. Energy had to come in discrete packets; orbits had to have discrete radii. Continuity, a bedrock of scientific belief, fell to the truth of the quantum postulate.

I imagine many such things will happen in science still. The key here is that scientists, confronted with testable consequences and results opposing their assumptions, change their minds. Maybe not all at once, and maybe not all scientists. But most will, and most will make tremendous progress when they accept the truth and deny the faith. I am sure that our cherished beliefs about nature, such as CPT invariance (the basis of quantum field theory, which is in turn the foundation of the Standard Model), will be challenged in the coming decades. We can only make progress by accepting that fact, should it happen.

I would call on all religious fundamentalists to take this lesson to heart. Progress can only be made when you accept the truth about the universe. Otherwise, you lock yourself in a conflicting and myopic view of the world, a small box that traps your soul. Proof denies faith, but if you must have faith then at least reconstruct it around that truth.

Debate about Evolution

I am shocked. Sickened and shocked. If you have a connection to the internet, or a TV, listen to the report on tonights “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” (“http://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/index.html”:http://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/index.html) . This report by the News Hour’s science team has detailed interviews with students in rural America, proponents of Christian creationism and its pseudoscientific spinoff, intelligent design, and real scientists. I’ll put a link to the archived audio when it appears later.

I was first turned **green** by the audio clips of students. Kids who really believe that it’s easier to think humans were made from dust; easier to believe that we appeared fully formed 10,000 years ago; that the concept that the universe was created in a Big Bang is hard to swallow, but some unknowable all knowing prime-mover is more believable.

I guess what struck me most is that they kept using the work “believe” or “belief”. And that’s exactly what their misguided standpoint is: a pure belief, contradicting established facts about the origin and nature of this universe and our own species. The truth is that they are confusing belief with rigorous scientific investigation. For instance, I doubt that Hopi tribe native Americans believe that Man was created 10,000 years ago; I doubt that the ancient Chinese saw Adam and Eve as the first people, made from dust (or a rib); I doubt that the native inhabitants of Africa thought that humans inhabited a garden and were kicked out for listening to a snake. In fact, that’s just it: beliefs are different for all people at all times.

However, fact and truth are universal. Science provides a framework for eeking the truth out of the universe. It’s a fact that no matter where you come from or who you are, when empowered with the scientific method you can search for evidence of the creation of humans only 10,000 years ago in their present state; you can test the hypothesis that we were the first inhabitants of Earth (or nearly so, by a few days); you can test whether or not the universe is steady or expanding, whether it is consistent with creation 10,000 years ago or with a big bang that happened 13.7 billion years ago. People from all cultures and climates, all beliefs and faiths, can apply their brains to the universe and come up with the same answers as scientists in the 1700s, or 1800s, or 1900s.

That’s the point, I guess. Belief is not universal. Belief changes with the experience of a person, the character of their upbringing, their exposure to systems of faith. Fact and truth are universal.

The truth and fact of evolution is not in dispute, at least not by the largest majority of learned people who take the time to study the world and not just talk about it. The processes that select some traits in an environment, and suppress others, are well established from the smallest cells to the largest predators. The development of our own solar system is a result of a kind of natural evolution, thanks to the protective existence of Jupiter. It shielded the inner regions of the solar system from rogue planets and asteroids and comets, thus facilitating the formation of Earth, Mars, and Venus. Thank goodness for that. If Jupiter hadn’t protected this region of space, we wouldn’t have been able to evolve here, rise up and express creative thought, and then been able to concoct crazy explanations about how we believe the universe arose.

Damn you and bless you, Jupiter.

One last thought. In the course of this “News Hour” report, they interview a right honorable gentleman who was launching a creation science museum. He said that the problem with science is that it can’t talk about the past, since we weren’t witnesses to the past (the big bang, dinosaurs, etc.). Therefore, science should have nothing to say about the past because anything it uses to do so is based on beliefs about initial conditions. That would then imply that he thinks the Bible is an accurate record of the history of humans, and establishes the initial conditions. But isn’t that predicated on the much shakier belief that (a) nobody tampered with the record (i.e. though translations from one language to another) and that (b) it came straight from the mouth of God to the page of the book?

Seems to me given how unreliable people are in general, one is resting on pretty bad earth assuming nobody had an agenda with the Bible. I think it’s much easier to believe that Carbon-14 decays predicably at any epoch of time, or that the blackbody radiation of the universe can be used to estimate the age of the universe, just as the blackbody radiation from a hot oven can give you an accurate measure of when the heating element was turned off.


Here is the link to the “News Hour program on the debate about evolution”:http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/jan-june05/creation_3-28.html