What The Waters Revealed Essay

Katrina’s not over. We still being affected right now. By not educating us, they're robbing out of the opportunity to be the next whoever. We got to go see how other people was living, it opened up our eyes. I mean it's like they preparing them for the future. Here in New Orleans, it's like they preparing us for prison. I'm here to represent the people who wasn't able to make it.

-- Kim Rivers Roberts

"Tell your name to the camera," an offscreen voice instructs. "My name is Scott Michael Roberts," responds the man filling much of the frame. The camera shifts to take in his wife, who says, "And I'm Kimberly Roberts." Scott nods. "And this is my wife Kimberly Roberts. We're from New Orleans, the Ninth Ward, underwater."

Scott and Kim have arrived at a shelter in Alexandria, Louisiana, just days after the levees broke back home. They're among many interviewees for documentary makers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who have come to the flood area to record how victims of Katrina are coping. In this instant, they learn how their film will be transformed. Kim has her own video footage of the storm. "That's my purpose of living," she says, "that I could tell people what I been through, man." But she's not handing over her footage to just anyone. "I've been saving it," she adds. "But I'm not gonna give it to nobody local, you know, for them to mess around and put on local. This gotta be worldwide."

A survivor in the most compelling, cagey, and charismatic sense, Kim has her sights set right. And her collaboration with Lessin and Deal, Trouble the Water, reveals not only the terrors of the hurricane but also the political and personal valences of its legendary mismanagement. Like other examples of what Dennis Lim calls "the emerging genre of Hurricane Katrina cinema," Trouble the Water includes the swirling storm graphics off TV, a damning interview with Mike Brown, and appalling soundbites from George Bush ("When the storm is over, the federal government has got resources that will deployed to help you. In the meantime, America will pray"). But it also brings to screen a vibrant mini-community of Nola residents, whose acute and often angry analyses of their circumstances put the so-called experts to shame. It also makes Kim and Scott's experiences its hardcore center, cutting back and forth between the aftermath and the storm ("Two days after the levees fail," "Four days after the levees fail"), exposing how people lived in impossible conditions, and also how some died, as well as how the lack of official assistance and organization continues to shape possibilities for survivors.

"It's me, reporting live, Kold Medina," Kim says, using her professional hip-hop name as she watches water rising high on her street. "We'll be bringing y'all more footage very shortly: here we go." The storm footage in Trouble the Water is both unnerving and sadly familiar: other amateur filmmakers sent images to CNN or posted to YouTube their views of the waters, winds, and darkness. Still, Kim's shots of her family gathered in their attic or the winds raging outside are poignant as well as pointed.

Though she and Scott hear Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuation order on TV, they can't leave because their car has recently been stolen. "If I had wheels I'd be gone too," she tells a neighbor she films packing his car. And then, she asks, "Got weed? I'm gonna try to hold down for the fucking storm." Both Kim and Scott have dealt drugs ("I was either gonna be in jail or under the ground," he says after the storm, "because I was making money the wrong way, I wasn't doing nothing right").

Post-Katrina, they dedicate themselves to a "new beginning," at first in Memphis, where Kim's cousin lives ("I believe freedom exists somewhere," Scott says as he prepares to leave Louisiana for the first time in his life, "There's just limitations on the freedom") and then back in New Orleans. Their choices are determined repeatedly by external circumstances: the promised FEMA check doesn’t arrive in the mail, Kim's brother Wink is incarcerated for a misdemeanor (his description of the storm viewed from prison may be the film's most harrowing: "When the guards and everybody left," he remembers, "We just went crazy," trapped, resourceless, "eating paper and toothpaste").

Wink's story, accompanied by archival footage of men in orange jumpsuits stranded on a flooded road, is set alongside Kim and Scott's experiences, as they find Kim's Uncle Ned, a heroin addict, dead in his home, or walk through the ward in search of assistance. After picking up Ned's corpse, a young National Guardsman gives Kim the phone number for "Mortuary Affairs, if you guys want the remains of the body that was here." Shortly after the storm, Kim, Scott, and a "crowd" of survivors arrive at the local Naval Support station, seeking shelter. Alternating between Scott's account (the guards pulled out and cocked weapons to disperse the survivors) and a Navy officer ("It was a real eerie feeling, I thought, but we had to do our job and that was to protect the interests of the government"), the film indicates the lingering distrust between citizens and authorities.

Other tensions emerge in a comparison of Kim's raw storm footage and the professional video the city plans to use to promote tourism. A pert white lady representative smiles, "While eighty percent of the city was devastated, that twenty percent where the tourists are, was not." And so, she concludes, though the advertisement was shot before Katrina (featuring jazz music, happy dancers and dines), she says, "Everything in the DVD is perfect, so we still use it."

Even as this rejuvenation is planned, however, Kim and Scott walk through their devastated neighborhood with a newfound compatriot and sometime cameraman, Brian Nobles. Living in church-run group home for recovering addicts when the storm hit, Brian speaks for his fellow citizens as he looks out on his future: "I don't want to let Louisiana play games with my life no more," he says, part defiant and part defeated. "I don't wanna trust Mayor Nagin, I don't wanna trust Blanco, I don't wanna trust nobody, no official in Louisiana. They failed us once."

The film offers no easy road to resolution, but instead, detours and annotations, making its overarching argument in ways that are unavoidable but also subtle. Even before the rains start, Kim and her neighbors know they'll be on their own, observing a cruiser parking down the street, in front of a corner store. "The police ain't coming, 'cause they trying to get out the way of the hurricane," she says. "They going in the store and get their snacks and chips too." In the Ninth Ward, the lines between legal and outlaw, even moral and immoral acts, are broken long before Katrina comes along. The storm only throws into relief the choices people make, whether it be Kim's neighbor Larry Simms, who makes repeated trips with a punching bag as a float to move people from their flooded homes, or Scott, using a boat to move people, though he admits later he can't swim.

As she records these selfless acts, Kim is revealed as a remarkable storyteller, not only in her choice of images and commentary, but also in her rapping. Sad that her just-burned first master CD has been lost in the flood, she is thrilled when a cousin shows up with a dub. "You bumpin' my CD!" she cheers, as he pulls up, speakers turned way up. And when she begins to perform a track she calls "Amazing," she shows yet another kind of brilliance. Recounting her mother's addiction and death from AIDS, and her own very hard knocks, Kim puts Katrina in perspective, again.

Trouble the Water

Director: Carl Deal
Cast: Kimberly Roberts, Scott Roberts, Brian Nobles, Jerome Baham, Kendall "Wink" Rivers, Larry Simms
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Display Artist: Tia Lessin, Carl Deal
First date: 2008
US Release Date: 2008-08-22 (Limited release)
A translation of this essay into Chinese can be found here

A Review of Gerald Pollack’s The Fourth Phase of Water

In The Fourth Phase of Water, Gerald Pollack offers an elegant new theory of water chemistry that has profound implications not only for chemistry and biology, but for the metaphoric foundation of our understanding of reality and our treatment of nature.

Let me emphasize that this is not a New Age book by someone of questionable scientific credentials. This is a book on chemistry, albeit one easily accessible to lay people. Pollack is a highly decorated professor at the University of Washington, author of numerous peer-reviewed papers, recipient of the 2012 Prigogine Medal, and editor of the academic journal Water. I mention this because in a field fraught with what some call pseudo-science, but what I'll politely call speculative inquiry unburdened by scientific rigor, paradigm-busting theories attract an inordinate degree of hostility.

Indeed, Pollack devotes one of the early chapters to two such episodes: the polywater debacle of the 1960s, and the water memory controversy twenty years later. These illuminate some of the politics of science-as-institution and means by which dissident views are suppressed. Furthermore, as I will touch on later, they also reveal some of the sacrosanct metaphysical assumptions underlying science as we know it – assumptions that the present book indirectly violates. It is no wonder then that it has encountered a mixed, and in some cases decidedly chilly, reception in scientific circles. Notwithstanding all that, The Fourth Phase of Water avoids any of the stridency or persecution stories that sometimes color heterodox books. The tone is courteous, conversational, and cautious when presenting more speculative ideas.

One would think that after two hundred or more years of modern chemistry, something as fundamental and seemingly simple as water would be thoroughly understood by now. Before reading this book, I took for granted the explanations my high school and college textbooks offered for evaporation, capillary action, freezing, bubble formation, Brownian motion, and surface tension. Everyone else assumes the same thing, which may be why the conventional explanations are seldom scrutinized. However, as The Fourth Phase of Water demonstrates, a little creative scrutiny reveals severe deficiencies in conventional explanations.

The crucial concept in the book is that of “exclusion zone water,” or EZ water for short. Imagine a beaker of water in which hundreds of thousands of plastic microspheres are suspended. Standard chemistry would expect that these would be evenly distributed throughout the medium – and they are throughout most of the water. However, near the sides of the beaker (and any hydrophilic surface submerged in the water), the water remains clear, free of any spheres. Why? Standard chemistry predicts an exclusion zone a few molecules thick might exist next to the glass, where polar water molecules stick to the distributed charges, but the exclusion zone Pollack observed was at least a quarter millimeter – several hundred thousand molecules thick.

Pollack and his colleagues proceeded with caution, testing and ultimately eliminating various conventional explanations for the phenomenon (e.g. convectional flows, polymer brushing, electrostatic repulsion, and leaking materials). They also began investigating the properties of the exclusion zone, with intriguing results: EZ water excludes almost everything, not only suspended particles but solutes as well. It exhibits an electromagnetic absorption peak at 270nm, and emits less infrared radiation than bulk water; it has higher viscosity and a higher index of refraction than bulk water. Most surprisingly, they discovered that the exclusion zone had a net negative charge, and that the water outside the zones had a low pH, indicating that protons had somehow been ejected from the EZ water.

With this information, Pollack and his collaborators hypothesized that the exclusion zone is composed of a liquid crystalline form of water, consisting of stacked hexagonal layers with oxygen and hydrogen in a 2:3 ratio. Of course, ice also consists of stacked hexagonal sheets, but in the case of ice the sheets are held together by the extra protons. Pollack proposes that EZ sheets are “out of register” – aligned so that the oxygens of each layer are frequently next to the hydrogens of the adjacent layers. The alignment is not perfect, but it creates more attractions than repulsions, enough to create cohesion as well as a molecular matrix tight enough to exclude even the tiniest of solutes.

Where does the energy come from to create this charge separation? It comes from incident EM radiation. When a water sample is shielded from incoming radiation and heat flux, no EZ forms.

The bulk of The Fourth Phase of Water is devoted to applying this hypothesis to various phenomena in water chemistry. In my mind, his greatest strength as a scientist is to ask seemingly naïve questions that no one else is asking. For example, he questions the conventional explanation of surface tension, which invokes the hydrogen bonding pressure on the water surface. Could the extraordinary surface tension of water really be explained by the energy in a layer less than one nanometer thick? He asks, why don't gels, which can be over 99.9% water, leak water? Why do charged aerosol droplets of water coalesce into clouds instead of repelling each other and dispersing evenly throughout the sky? Why does hot water sometimes freeze more quickly than cool water (the Mpemba Effect)? Why does the steam rising from a cup of hot coffee come in discrete puffs? Why do boats leave a wake of relatively still water behind them sometimes 15 or 30 minutes after passing?

This book offers extraordinarily economical answers to these questions and more. The experiments he cites are straightforward and compelling. While they offer highly unconventional answers to basic questions in chemistry, he does not invoke supernatural or paranormal forces. Nor does he question fundamental physical laws (of thermodynamics, relativity, quantum theory, etc.). One cannot help but wonder: Why, then, is his theory ignored?

I think the reason goes beyond standard Kuhnsian resistance to paradigm shifts. Pollack is not, after all, the first scientist to get into trouble for advancing theories about water that suggest it is more than a generic, structureless substance, more than a medium for chemistry and a raw ingredient for chemistry. Something else is going on here.

A quick review of the history of the two controversies mentioned earlier, polywater and water memory, is instructive. In the first case, Russian chemists discovered that water in narrow tubes exhibited anomalous properties, neither liquid nor solid (the anomalies are exactly the same ones that Pollack describes). An uproar followed, and Western scientists accused the Russians of failing to eliminate impurities from the water – namely, trace amounts of dissolved silica from the glass tubes. In the end the Russians admitted that the water was impure, and the discovery was relegated to the dustbin of history. No one, however, offered an explanation of how dissolved silica could account for those anomalous properties. Pollack points out the truly pure water, the universal solvent, is nearly impossible to obtain. The substance of the Russians' discovery was never considered; rather, a convenient pretext was found to dismiss it.

The case of water memory is even more egregious. In 1988, Jacques Benveniste published a paper in Nature that claimed that a sample of water that had formerly contained antibodies still evoked an immune response from white blood cells, as if the water “remembered” their presence. Nature published the article (Benveniste was a top French immunologist), but then sent an inquisitorial squad to investigate, which included the professional magician James Randi and the fraud investigator Walter Stewart. Accounts differ as to what happened next, but everyone agrees that no direct evidence of fraud was found. The team concluded only that the results were not replicable, a claim that Benveniste strenuously denied to no avail: his funding was canceled, his laboratory taken away from him, and his academic career was ruined. To this day, his name is associated with pathological science and his obituaries are masterpieces of character assassination.

Notice how, in the previous paragraph, I put the word “remembered” in quotation marks, as if to assure the reader that I don't think water could literally have memories. The quotation marks imply that water can only, at best, behave as if it could remember. Because, after all, it is just water, right? It doesn't possess the complexity, the organization, the intelligence, the experiential beingness that would be necessary in order to have actual memories. Modern chemistry holds just that: that water is a generic fluid, any two samples of which are fundamentally identical, differing only in temperature and the presence of impurities (and hydrogen isotope ratios for you sticklers out there).

Polywater, water memory, and Pollack's theory all violate that principle, which is really a kind of anthropocentrism. Our civilization, especially in its treatment of nature and in the sameness of its commodity economy, operates by the assumption that we humans alone have the qualities of a self. The rest of the world is just a bunch of stuff out there; therefore, we are at liberty to exploit it as we will, to impose our intelligence on a insensate substrate that lacks any of it. Any scientific theory or technology that violates this principle seems immediately wrong, even outrageous, to the mind that operates by it.

One way to view the transition our society is undergoing today is that we are assigning selfhood to more and more beings that we “othered” in the past. We've made some progress: today we recognize the full legal personhood of women and racial minorities (although unfortunately, racist and sexist beliefs persist with much greater tenacity than most white men recognize). We no longer see animals as insensate brutes, although again, the manner and degree of animal intelligence is poorly understood. Even plant intelligence is emerging as a hot topic of research, although it is the rare scientist who would say “plants are intelligent” or “plants have a subjective experience” without offering a thicket of disclaimers and qualifiers to the effect, “Of course I'm not saying they are actually intelligent.”

To be sure, Gerald Pollack isn't saying water is intelligent either. His research does open the door to such a view though, because it implies that any two given “samples” of pure H2O are unique, with a structure that depends on what it has been in contact with. Why did I put “sample” in quotes here? It is because the very word implies that if I take a small amount of water from a larger amount, say a test tube from a bathtub, that the smaller will have the same properties as the larger. In other words, it implies that water, or anything sampled, is fundamentally isolable from its environment.

Pollack's research casts both assumptions – uniformity and isolability – into question. He does not go so far as to claim that water can carry information, but he comes close when he observes that the exclusion zone's properties differ for different materials. That is perhaps why homeopaths have seized upon his research (as they also did with Benveniste's). Homeopathy, of course, is the very epitome of quackery in the eyes of medical orthodoxy; its association with Pollack's work (though he never makes any claims for it himself) is surely one reason why the scientific establishment is wary of his work.

No sober observer would say that he has “proven” the validity of homeopathy, let alone the menagerie of water-based modalities and products one can find on the Internet. But if we accept his results – and I hope other scientists repeat and extend his experiments – at least one can no longer say that these modalities contradict indubitable scientific principles. Of course if any two samples of pure water are identical, then structured water products and medicines are bunkum. Thanks to Pollack (and a lineage of other researchers that he has uncovered in the scientific literature), this is no longer certain.

The Fourth Phase of Water contributes to a much larger paradigm shift that is proceeding across all the sciences, and indeed to a transition in the defining mythology of our civilization. In science alone, the implications of his findings, if verified, are profound, especially in areas like cell biology, plant physiology, chemical signaling, and of course medicine. Beyond that, they erode the story that we live in a dead universe of generic substances, that we, the sole intelligence of that universe, are therefore its rightful lords and masters. Pollack is part of the evolution of science toward a more shamanic worldview that understands that all things possess some kind of beingness.

Resistance to this shift is still strong, perhaps because its consequences are so huge. Even without realizing the enormity of the implications, orthodox thinkers instinctively attack any work that is aligned with it. A common tactic is to allege "contamination," which (along with fraud) is used as an all-purpose dismissal of anomalous results, in archeology and even astronomy as well as chemistry. It amounts to an accusation of sloppiness, of incompetence. No one wants to be thought a dupe; therefore, when the ostracism of iconoclasts such as Benveniste, Pollack, Pons and Fleischmann, Halton Arp, etc. begins, those who are secretly sympathetic to them keep silence, fearing quite justifiably for their funding and careers.

While I suspect that Gerald Pollack is sympathetic to the larger transition in civilization's mythology, there is little sign of it in the book. He restricts himself to chemistry and, when he ventures into the realm of speculation, makes it clear that he is going out on a limb. Perhaps his unsensational tone, his consideration of alternative explanations, and his adherence to experimentally based assertions will do something to assuage the natural skepticism of the scientifically orthodox reader. But I doubt it. The radical implications of this work strike too close and too deep.

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