Galileo Galilei engaged in a series of debates about why ice floats on water in 1611. His opponents contended that it was because of the shapes it took, and even tried to sway Florentine opinion with public experiments involving ebony spheres and splinters.
Today, we know they were wrong. But, even 400 years after Galileo, we still don’t understand all the details.
This was the message of the 2013 Aqua Incognita conference. Also held in Florence, it focused on the foundational physics and chemistry of water, including questions like those Galileo debated. Richard Saykally, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke at the conference, and says the topic of the conference surprised people. Like his mother. “What could we not know about water?” she asked him. “It’s wet. It comes from rain.”
There are plenty of other paradoxes besides water’s deceptive simplicity. It covers most of the Earth, but is regularly in short supply. It is intimately involved in the processes of life, but life on other planets may not need it. It is inscrutable and unpredictable, but we try to price it. The debates show no signs of ending.
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