A Miracle Called Water

Water is beautiful. As seas it is delightful to look at. People sit for hours at the shore, doing nothing but looking at the waves rolling against the land. As lakes it is no less captivating; its smooth surface, like a plain sheet, with ripples, is mysteriously soul-touching. Falling down the cliffs, its beauty is breathtaking. It evokes romantic feelings too as it manoeuvres across in rivers, taking odd turns. Springs have their own attraction. People travel long distances to drink in handfuls from a mountain spring. As ice spread over the landscape it is no less enthralling. And it lends beauty to mountain tops clothing them in glory. Falling down as snow, it offers another fascinating sight. And as a long-awaited downpour, it pulls people out into the open to receive it on their bodies. In fact, even in small quantities it is effective. As tears in women’s eyes, it helps soften the hearts of men.

Even its sound is beautiful. As it crashes down a waterfall with a roar, it invites people to come close. As waves, it pounds the land with a rhythmic corral-music. As mountain brooks, it makes a hustling sound that touches the soul. As it clatters on the roofs raining deep in night, people wake up from their slumber, but soon the noise merges with their dreams, and with the music of the noise steadily receding, they go back to a heavier and sweeter slumber. It is also a refreshing agent. A mere face-wash is refreshing. A bath can do by way of removal of fatigue, what nothing else can. A good shower freshens the face of the landscape to lift a downcast soul.

There is about 1.4 billion cubic kilometer of water on earth of which humans consume an infinitesimal amount. Can water be ever used up? No. It is recycled. Because of nature’s water cycle, there is as much water on earth today as there ever was – or ever will be.  Water changes only from one form to another, and moves from one place to another. The water you drink now could have been in the Zam Zam well sometime back. It has passed through thousands of humans, animals and plants before it will go through your body. We are related to others of the humankind in more than one way.

What are the constituents of water? Oxygen and hydrogen: both are gases. But when the two are mixed in the ratio of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms a miracle happens. Tht miracle is water. And the bonding is pretty strong. It will require lot of energy to separate the two. (It will need to be heated to 2,0000 C, to break the bond and separate apart the oxygen and hydrogen atoms). When the mixture evaporates, therefore, it evaporates as water molecules. The oxygen and hydrogen atoms do not separate out. Had the bond broken when heated, we would be in serious trouble not knowing how to combine them together to get back our water.

To be sure, today, no more water comes into existence. That requires large amounts of oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere, and at the same pressure level. Oxygen happens to be there. It is about 25% of the atmosphere. But hydrogen is a trace element, i.e., found in small quantity. Further the two are not found at the same level in the atmosphere. Oxygen being 16 times heavier than hydrogen stays at lower levels, whereas hydrogen rises to upper levels, from where, some of it actually escapes into space. There is no opportunity for the two, therefore, to combine together.

The time of the earliest presence of water on earth, and its early quantities could not be determined scientifically. But it is not difficult to guess that once all water would have been in the atmosphere. As its both constituents – hydrogen and oxygen – are gases, they could have only been in the atmosphere, where by some mechanism, they coalesced and eventually came down as water to settle into the seas. (The Encyclopedia Britannica explains the process in quite some detail). It is conjectured that it must have rained heavily for thousands of years. The Qur’an is specific about it (50: 9), “And We sent down (in heavy quantities), from the heaven water, blessed, and brought out thereby gardens and the harvest-grain.” The word for bringing down is not simply anzalnaa but rather, nazzalnaa which is for exaggeration lending the meaning of bringing down heavily.

The Qur’an in fact seems to be quite assertive about the fact that water was once sent down from above in large quantities. It said, (78: 6-14), “Have We not made the earth as a wide expanse, and the mountains as pegs? And (have We not) created you in pairs, and made your sleep for rest? And (have We not) made the night as a covering, and made the day as a means of subsistence? And (have We not) built over you the seven firmaments, and placed (therein) a light of splendour? And have We not sent down from the clouds water in abundance?” Here the word used for abundance is thajjaajan which is used for pouring out in large quantities. Further, since all the blessings recounted above are those which occurred at the time of creation, the verse speaking of rain also seems to be speaking of the coming down of heavy amount of it in the earlier stages of the earth. Thus the Qur’an confirms the facts that science has been able to discover only lately. Asimov wrote: “In the early stages of the earth’s history, even if our planet was then moderately hot, all the water must have been in the form of vapour. Some geologists believe that the water was then concentrated in the atmosphere as a dense cloud of gas, and that, after the earth cooled, it fell in torrents to form the oceans.” (Asimov’s New Guide to Science, Isaac Asimov, Penguin Pub., 1984, p. 229). This matches with the Qur’anic description (80: 25), “(Let man consider) How We poured forth water in great quantities.” (The original uses the word sabban which is like emptying a bucket full of water).

Water has properties that are so unique to it that it deserves to be called a miracle. It is the only element that is present on the earth as solid, liquid, and gas. No other substance appears in these three states within the earth’s normal range of temperature. And this temperature itself is possible because planet earth has been placed at the right distance. It is at 93 million miles from the sun in a sphere around it known as the eco-sphere. Nearer, the earth would have been too hot, and more distant, it would have been too cold, both conditions not favoring life.

That water is liquid has made possible the appearance of life on earth. No other common substance is liquid at ordinary temperatures. In fact, the temperatures at which water is a liquid are unusual. Water is a liquid between 00 C, its freezing point, and 1000 C, its boiling point.  But other substances with a structure like that of water are not liquid in this temperature range. These substances include gases that contain two atoms of hydrogen, plus an atom of the elements. E.g., Tellurium, Selenium, or Sulphur.  Their formulas show how close they are to water: H2Te, H2Se, H2S. Thus, H2S is made from two atoms of  Hydrogen and one atom of Sulphur (just like two atoms of Hydrogen and one atom of Oxygen, which makes a molecule of water). But H2S does not become liquid. “At room temperatures, H2S is a gas, not a liquid. In fact, the temperature has to drop to -860 C before H2S freezes into solid:” (Cell and Molecular Biology, Gerald Karp, John Wiley & Sons, 1996, p. 37, f.n.). All these substances then, H2Te, H2Se, or H2S, although so close to water, are not found in liquid form on the earth at normal temperatures. If water behaved like these close relatives, it would be a liquid between about -1000 C and -900 C.  In that case, there would be no liquid water on earth because the earth’s temperatures are far higher than –1000 C.

Surface tension is another unique property of water. This property is the ability of a substance to stick to itself and pull itself together. Water’s surface tension is extremely high. A dripping tap shows how water sticks to itself. As the water drips, each drop clings to the tap, stretches, lets go, and then snaps into a tiny ball. Water molecules cling together so tightly that water can support objects heavier than itself. For example, a needle or a razor blade can float on water. Insects can walk on water. Water can also stick to other substances, such as cloth, glass, and soil. It is this property that helps us wipe water off our faces.

Another of water’s quality is its ability to climb up a surface against the pull of gravity. You can see water’s climbing ability in a glass of water. The water is higher around the edges, where it touches the glass. This quality helps it circulate through soil, and up through the roots and stems of plants. It also helps circulate blood, which is mostly water, throughout our bodies, since blood has to climb up from the feet to the heart and further up the head.

Yet another of water’s qualities is that it is a good solvent. It dissolves the hardest rocks as it runs over the land and seeps through the ground. In time, it carries the dissolved materials to the oceans where it undergoes circulation. It dissolves and carries the nutrients in the soil to plants and to the cells within plants. Water also dissolves the food that people and animals eat, and then carries this food to the cells. If the substances did not dissolve in water, like they do not in honey, then the stomach would have been unable to send the digested food to the cells of the body. Yet, strangely, when substances dissolve into water, water molecules do not hold them into strong bonds. But rather, in very weak bonds that separate out whenever need arises. E.g., it is the medium through which materials are transported from one compartment of the cell to another. However, once the material reaches the destination, magically, water is separated out from the nutrients, said thanks, and dismissed. Without water as the solvent and carrier, cells would not function.  Yet, water, although such a great solvent and also reactive with many agents, is the least reactive liquid compared to many alkalis and acids, which react very strongly and dissolve anything that gets in touch with them. Sulphur-dioxide for example, reacts strongly. It will make a hole if you poured a quantity of it in your palm.

If water did not make weak bonds with the material it dissolves, the dissolved material would have risen with water molecules when they rise up as vapors. For example, sea-water has about 1% of salts dissolved in water. There are other chemicals too. But, when water rises up, it breaks away from the other materials to escape as water molecule alone: without any impurity whatsoever. This is a great quality of water which is the sole reason for bringing us sweet water from the seas. Allah said about this (56: 68-70), “Have you considered the water you drink? Did you bring it down from the clouds or was it We who brought it down? Had We wished, We could have made it bitter. Therefore, why do you not give thanks?”

Water stands apart from every other substance in one of its strange qualities. It contracts as it cools until just before freezing, after which it expands until it becomes ice. This is a unique property of water among all liquids. (And it seems it violates nature’s laws). Most substances contract as they grow colder. Water also contracts when cooled. But that is only up to 40 C. If cooled further, to say less than 40 C, it expands. At 00 C when it becomes ice it occupies more space than the same amount of liquid water since it has expanded. For this reason it floats over liquid water. This is a great property and absolutely essential for all life on earth. If ice had contracted, it would sink and settle at the bottom. If that was the case, each winter more and more of ice would accumulate at the bottom and slowly the entire water system would turn solid. What would remain is a thin sheet of water, at the top, and only in summer but the rest of it ice. In winter it will be all ice and water cycle would stop to function. The thin sheet of water would have absorbed the heat preventing the ice at the bottom from becoming liquid. But, because ice expands in volume, it floats at top so as to prevent the cooling of water below the surface. (In laboratory experiments, the upper part of a container of water with ice at bottom was heated from above to boiling temperature, but ice did not melt at bottom).  If not for this property, (a) most of the water on earth would be permanently frozen into vast beds of ice. (b) This also helps in cracking rocks through ice formation in fissures. This is very important for washing and bringing in more chemicals to the soil below.

When ice melts or water evaporates, heat is absorbed from the environment. Heat is released when the reverse happens. This is known as latent heat. The latent heat of freezed water is again one of the highest of all known liquids. If not for this property, (a) the climate would be subject to far more rapid changes. Small lakes and rivers would vanish and reappear constantly. (b) Warm-blooded animals would have a far harder time ridding their bodies of heat. E.g., a person’s body working hard for an hour “generates energy equal to 1,000 kilocalories of heat” (Michael J. Denton), which would raise the temperature of the body by 10 degrees, killing instantly if the heat is not released to the atmosphere. The body does this by sweating “and the heat required for the sweat to evaporate is taken from the body, which thus becomes cooler” (Gerald Karp). Actually, as Denton points out, “the large heat capacity, high latent heat of evaporation, heat conductivity, and low viscosity (of water) conspire to serve the end of temperature regulation in a large organism like a man” (Nature’s Destiny, p. 42).

Water is different from all other elements in one another quality: specific heat. The thermal capacity or specific heat of water, (which is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of water by one degree centigrade) is higher than most other liquids. If not for this, the difference between summer and winter would be extreme and weather patterns would be less stable. It takes in lots of heat before boiling. It boils at 1000 C. Had it boiled at lower temperatures, the earth, whose temperature is largely controlled by the watery sea, would have had very different weather conditions. We might quote Asimov again: “In general, the greater the molecular weight, the higher the boiling point. Water, with a molecular weight of only 18, boils at 1000 C., whereas Propane, with more than twice this molecular weight (44), boils at much lower temperature of – 420C.” (Asimov’s New Guide to Science, Isaac Asimov, Penguin Pub., 1984, p. 476). This is another quality that is essential for life’s survival. E.g., humans need to remove their body heat. Otherwise they would die from internal heat.

We are far from finished with water’s very strange properties. The thermal conductivity of water, (which is the capacity to conduct heat), is four times greater than any other common liquid. Without this, it would be harder for cells which cannot use convection currents to distribute heat evenly throughout the cell. The thermal conductivities of ice and snow are low. If they were high, the survival of many forms of life in the higher latitudes would be lost. Also, water would cool more rapidly and small lakes would be more likely to freeze completely.

Again, water has a very high surface tension: the highest than any liquid except Selenium. This helps draw the water up through the soil within the reach of the roots and assists its rise from the roots to branches in tall trees. If surface tension of water was the same as most other liquids, tall trees would not have received water at the top branches.

We should consider another property of water: its viscosity. The viscosity of tar, olive oil, or sulfuric acid, are 10 billion times, one hundred times and twenty-five times that of water. Water’s viscosity is almost the lowest among the liquids. If it was higher, marine life would have been either extremely difficult, or impossible. Living bodies couldn’t move in water. If viscosity was slightly higher, any movement of material within the cell would be impossible. In fact, the cells themselves wouldn’t have been able to replicate, or move about. Blood circulation through extremely tiny capillaries would have been impossible if the viscosity of water was any higher. And, strangely, if the viscosity was lower, blood circulation would yet be more difficult.

The density of Water is one gram per cubic centimeter. This plays a very important role in marine life. If water was a little more dense all the living organisms in the sea would have been possible only at the top surface. There would be no life at the bottom of the sea. And if was a fraction less dense, all marine life would sink to the bottom of the sea, without the possibility of any life at the upper level.

Life, therefore, depends entirely on the strange properties of water. Protoplasm is the basis of all living matter, and the vital power of protoplasm depends on the constant presence of water. Also, replication is the key to the propagation of life. But no replication would be possible without water. Indeed, it is hard to even think of life except in a liquid state. A little consideration tells us that gases cannot be the ingredients of a living body. For atoms in a gas are volatile, always moving about, jutting into each other, and bouncing away. How can we create a cell with complicated machinery inside with the help of atoms floating around? Or, consider solids. Each atom in a solid is tightly held and is under compression from all sides. How could we make cells from it and make them replicate themselves?

It is not surprising then, that the Qur’an should have spoken so much about water in a very meaningful way. It compared this life to the cycle of water. It said (18: 45), “Strike for them the example of the life of the world: Like water that We sent down from heaven. Then the vegetation of the earth mingled with it (and grew up). Then it became dry and broken which the winds scatter about. And Allah has Power over everything.”

We might quote Michael J. Denton here, “.. Water gives the appearance of being uniquely fit for the type of carbon-based life that exists on earth. Every one of its chemical and physical properties seems maximally fit not only for microscopic life but also for large warm-blooded organisms such as mammals.. If the properties of water were not almost precisely what they are, carbon-based life would in all probability be impossible. Even the viscosity of ice is fit. If it were any greater then all the water on earth might be trapped in vast immobile ice sheets at the poles. If the thermal properties of water were even slightly different, the maintenance of stable body temperatures in warm-blooded organisms would be problematical. No other liquid comes close to water as the ideal medium for carbon-based life.” (Nature’s Destiny, The Free Press, 1998, p.19).

The greatest surprise however is from the other miracle, the Qur’an, which asserts that all life is created of water. It says (24: 45), “Allah created all creations from water.” This is a statement the like of which is found in no other book as old as the Qur’an. The information as it came 1400 years ago is amazing. For, it is science of the modern times alone that informs us that not only all life is water, but it is impossible to have life, as we understand it, without water. In fact, not only is life impossible without water, but water is the major component of all life: A human is 60 – 65% water.  An elephant is about 70% water, a potato 80% and tomato 95%. If our body loses 20% of its water, we will die in a short time. That is true of all living bodies. We all live in water as much as fishes do.

J.Z. Young adds his voice: “It has been suggested that Ammonia might substitute for water in life-like systems elsewhere in the universe. But Ammonia is liquid only between -770 C and -330  C. A further serious disadvantage is that solid Ammonia is denser than the liquid, whereas ice floats. Furthermore, if ammonia was split by organisms as water is by photosynthesis, it would presumably produce Nitrogen, which would never have filled the place that oxygen has in making energy available for life.” (An Introduction to the Study of  Man, J.Z. Young, ELBS pub., 1979, p. 25).

In another place the Qur’an asserts (21: 30), “Have not the unbelievers seen that the heavens and the earth were joined together; then We burst-separated the two; and that We created all living being from water? Will they not then believe?” And it said about the human beings (25: 54), “It is He who created out of water a man, and then appointed for him kindred by blood and kindred by marriage.” And the messenger who brought the Qur’an, seems to have well understood the implications. When asked at a well by a suspecting and could-be informer as to where he was from, he replied, “We are of water” and moved off. The man quipped while he looked at the fading figures of the Prophet and his two Companions: “Water? Which water? Of Iraq?”

We can conclude with Michael J. Denton’s remark, “There is indeed no other fluid which is remotely competitive with water as the medium for carbon-based life. If water did not exist, it would have to be invented. Without the long chain of vital coincidences in the physical and chemical properties of water, carbon-based life could not exist in any form remotely comparable with that which exists on earth.” (Nature’s Destiny, p. 46).

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