Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Chemical Faithfulness, Part 1: The Power of Water

The most ordinary things are also the most incredible. Every day I have to relearn this. This truth is so big, it can only fit into my neurons when it’s cut down and reduced to a particular angle. Science can give one angle. So can history, or visual arts, or music, or theology. What’s really fun is to take two of those angles and put them together again. As a biochemistry professor and a Christian, I can “see” how atoms and proteins work from the science angle, and I can “see” how this relates to how I love God and neighbor from the theology angle. Both angles come together to bring light to even the most seemingly mundane of subjects: a cool drink of water.

Consider the power in a drop of water. If given to a dehydrated infant with cholera, it extends life. If it pushes a turbine around inside the Hoover dam, that pushes electrons and creates electric power. The electrons in water even carry power that is evoked through chemical rearrangement. If the sun’s power can be focused by the right catalyst into that drop of water, then the H2O molecule can be split into H2 hydrogen and O2 oxygen – which are later recombined to release energy. Right now water is split inefficiently. If water could be split efficiently, then a bottle of water could make enough hydrogen to ignite in a generator and power a house. Who would have anticipated that water could burn?

You are thirsty when you need this power. More than anything, it’s the liquid state of water that provides the power. Liquids flow and change, giving biochemistry the ability to detect outside information through sense receptors, and then to respond to that information through flowing change. Flowing water has always been a fitting metaphor for life -- physically, and by extension, spiritually.

“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” cries Isaiah. Jesus answers Isaiah, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.” To the woman at the well, Jesus gave living water, but not like she expected. From John the Baptist to the water basins in the Tabernacle to the Temple’s brazen circular sea, for thousands of years the flow of water has washed bodies, souls, and minds.

Speaking as a chemist familiar with molecules of all sorts and sizes, there is no molecule more deserving of the scriptural adjective “living” than the water molecule. No other single molecule is as intimately associated with life.

The rain that falls on the just and the unjust is truly living water, and is truly good. Liquid water is “living” on all scales, whether large as a solar system, small as a protein, or old as the Earth. Geology, chemistry, and biology show connections between water and life both obvious and hidden.

Water gave life when this planet was created. Water is a unique and life-giving gift, and very often we see right through it, until taking the time to look closer. Looking closer with science always surprises me. My original beliefs about how the world works are challenged and corrected. Old hypotheses are traded for new. But my core beliefs, the beliefs that are truly deserving of that name, they are not destroyed by this challenge. They are washed and grown, even baptized. The more I learn about water, the more I see it “live” around and in me, and the more I can see in Scripture’s metaphor of “living water.”

I see chemical evidence for “living water” today, yesterday, and even a billion yesterdays ago. This consistency in the universe is one sign of God’s chemical faithfulness across ages. In the next two posts, I will describe the chemical signs of this faithfulness at two times: today in places and creatures, and in the distant past, at the origin of life itself.

No comments: