The Magic of Water

May 3, 2019

One day, frustrated after many hours of meditation and practice, Bruce Lee, still a teenager, went sailing. His martial arts teacher, Yip Man, had been instructing Lee in the art of detachment, a key facet of gung fu. Lee couldn’t let go. “On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water!” he later wrote.

“Right then—at that moment—a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.”

For Lee, the budding martial artist, water embodied an ideal of lithe and effortless strength. He learned this from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and updated it, adding, “When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself.” It’s striking that water can illustrate and elucidate a martial arts philosophy while also being, to this day, the “least understood material on Earth,” as researchers reported recently.

In their 2018 study, Hajime Tanaka, John Russo, and Kenji Akahane—all researchers in the Department of Fundamental Engineering at the University of Tokyo, in Japan—tried to tease apart what makes water unique among liquids. It’s got anomalous properties, like expanding when cooled below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which explains why lakes freeze downward, from top to bottom, rather than up.

Normally frozen solids are more dense than their liquid equivalents, which would mean that frozen chunks would fall to the bottom of a lake instead of staying on top. Water also becomes less viscous compared to other liquids when compressed, and has an uncanny level of surface tension, allowing beings light enough, like insects, to walk or stand atop it. Since it’s these distinctive features among others that power our climate and ecosystems, water can appear to be “fine-tuned” for life.

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