Saturday, July 22, 2006

Knowing water

On October 4th, 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite. It was the size of a basketball, weighed 183 pounds, and orbited the earth in 98 minutes. So began the "Space Age".

I was ten years old. When the United States entered the space age, so did I—by becoming a junior scientist. I could not go into space, but I could study the elements. I studied the chemistry of the water molecule—two hydrogen atoms bound to a common oxygen atom. At room temperature and normal air pressure, these two elements were gases. Eventually I ran a direct electrical current through an sulfuric acid solution, and collected hydrogen and oxygen at two electrodes inside separate test tubes. This was one of my life's greatest moments.

But did I really know water? The power of water was just an abstraction. The Pacific Ocean was only thirty minutes away, but I had never stepped into those vast waters. My mother was afraid of water—be it a rain storm or the ocean—and I was my mother's child.

Not until I was married did I learn to swim. The body is lighter than water, it will float if you don't struggle against it, becoming stiff and thrashing yourself down until you take in gulps of something quite alien to your lungs. Water is hard. Fall into a pool and water demonstrates its solidity. Water is seductive. As you swim, it takes on the feeling of a sensuous substance enfolding you within its body. Eventually, you feel free—like a fish or a soaring eagle. Moving and flowing in a pool is its own self-sustaining pleasure.

After some months in the pool, I braved the frontier: the roaring Pacific Ocean. I became a beach bum. Sun and surf, day after day. Throwing my body into the waves. Catching a wave of salt water that carried this finite human body to the soft sandy shores of Corona Del Mar not far from Newport Beach. I took in life from the vast water. I had discovered water as way of being, at an entirely other level from oxygen and hydrogen.

Meanwhile, more and more satellites orbited the earth. I knew that water was going to be important to people someday living on other planets. Would they make their own water from hydrogen and oxygen? Would they know water as a way of being? Would they even care?

Image source is from NSSDC Master Catalog Display: Spacecraft.

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