The Power of Water

Commentator Ruth Levy Guyer meditates on the power of water. Guyer is a professor of bioethics at Haverford College.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Today, commentator Ruth Levy Guyer is celebrating her mother's 80th birthday. As a present, the family put together a montage of family pictures. She says it opens with a quote from one of her mother's favorite books, Gift from the Sea. For Ruth Levy Guyer, water has always been a touchstone.

Professor RUTH LEVY GUYER (Bioethics, Haverford College): Water is intoxicating. I can stare endlessly at the sea and not get bored, and I can swim for hours in a placid lake and not get winded. But we all know that intoxicants kill, as well as thrill.

I've read about a well-documented psychiatric condition, compulsive water drinking, that results in death, and young soldiers who fail to practice what the military calls proper water discipline die from water overdoses.

I was just a kid when I first fell under water's spell. I was sitting innocently at my desk in Franklin Elementary School, wearing my Brownie uniform. On the day I became a philalute(ph), a lover of water, George Washington was peering at me from his portrait, charts of Palmer Method letters set the high penmanship standard I was expected to achieve, and above the clock, were the ominous words: time passes, will you?

It was then Miss Brennan dropped her bombshell. The human body is 60 percent water, she said. Huh? I stared at my hands, skin, nails, blood vessels, evidence of bones. I saw no water. But would Miss Brennan lie? When the bell rang, I moved cautiously up the aisle, so as not to slosh or spring a leak. Water balloons were fragile, and suddenly I was one of them.

As I got older and learned some biology, I was able to more realistically envision the placement of all that water in my body. My 100 trillion cells were full of it, and my lymph and blood, which transport everything everywhere, consisted mostly of the universal solvent, H2O. Sounds so simple, but it's nimble, segueing between gas, solid and liquid, and it's counter-intuitive with the solid floating on the liquid.

The implications of earth's water being a closed system are breathtaking. I am drinking from the same pool of water molecules that George Washington and Miss Brennan, and even the punctilious Palmer drank from. And the raindrops pelting me are ones that freaked out Noah.

I once read a fascinating article about the Pilgrims, who flocked to Lourdes. They dipped their diseased bodies in the sacred pools, and drink the healing waters. They suppurating lesions dry up. They cast their crutches aside. Surely, the great miracle at Lourdes was that more people didn't actually end up septic after contact with those fetid pools.

But I'm no water skeptic. When I was young, I saw water call to a douser as he walked our property with his divining rod, looking for where we should dig our well. Just because it's colorless, odorless, and tasteless does not mean water is passive. Its atoms are charged, its drops are polar, it helps proteins fold, and some claim water remembers molecules it interacted with.

We spend our first nine months afloat, so it's not surprising that some of us remain amphibious throughout life. And suppose the relation is reciprocal. Suppose water feels an affinity for us. Might that explain why it comes in storms and surges to claim certain people?

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ELLIOTT: Ruth Levy Guyer teaches bioethics at Haverford College. This is NPR News.

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