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Monday, December 6, 2010

8 Silly Things We Believe About Water

One of the most telling consequences of our lack of scientific understanding is our relative inability to distinguish genuine scientific fact from the pseudo-scientific ramblings of urban legend.  There is no finger pointing in that statement, for I am the product of an American public education and thus as susceptible to misinformation as the next person.  Even things that contradict logic can be made to sound sensible when cloaked in the mysterious verbal trappings of chemistry or (God forbid) quantum mechanics.

How are you gonna float in yourself?
That's just not natural.

To illustrate our vulnerability, consider the most familiar chemical compound on the planet.  By the time we are self aware, we are aware of water.  It is probably the only chemical compound on the planet that the average American could identify solely by its chemical components.  We can easily recite the freezing and boiling points of water and nothing else on earth.

And yet, despite its ubiquity and the relative strength of our knowledge about it, we are fully capable of believing complete nonsense about water.  Consider just a few of my favorite widely believed yet wholly unsupported myths about dihydrogen oxide.

 #1) Boiling Water Freezes Faster Than Cold Water 

As contrary to common sense as this seems, a surprising number of people believe this one.  When pressed, they will give a stuttering and stilted scientific explanation that often relies on some mistaken belief that chemicals that are “boiled out” would otherwise inhibit the water from freezing.

Ice waiting to happen.

Even the most basic scientific understanding can puzzle through this one.  It will take more energy to cool water from 212 degrees to 32 degrees that it will take to cool water from, say, 78 degrees to 32 degrees.  I don’t really feel a need to explain why that is.  It would seem that most minds would require some pretty compelling evidence before they would willingly abandon this self-evident fact.

As it turns out, there can be compelling evidence but it’s harder to come by than some people would have you believe.  Under the perfect circumstances, boiling water can freeze faster than room temperature water, but it’s not as miraculous as one might think.  The culprit here is evaporation.  Boiling water might evaporate much faster than cold water and thus there would be less water to freeze.  This hardly constitutes “freezing faster” since we can all agree that less water freezes faster than more water.

 #2) Cold Water Boils Faster Than Hot Water 

My mother introduced me to this myth as a child and I did not bother to question it until more than a decade later.  “When boiling water”, she told me, “always use cold water from the tap, not hot water.”  It sounded wrong, but she said it convincingly and at that point in my life my mother was the highest authority on all things kitchen.

Also, this is the fastest route to China.

Like the previous myth, this one is based not on a misunderstanding of science, but rather on a willingness to toss that understanding out the window.  I couldn’t pin down any consensus on the origin of this myth or what explanation is used to justify it, but clearly it remains a widely held belief.

If it were true, a nuanced scientific explanation would be in order.  Since it’s not, I need only say that hot water is already hot so it boils faster.  There is a hot water heater “pre-boiling” water for you all the time so it doesn’t make much sense to start with cold water if your goal is to make it hot.

 #3) You Should Drink 8 Glasses of Water Every Day 

This may just be the most widely believed medical myth.  There are a few competing theories about where this myth comes from, but one thing that is in consensus is the fact that it is incorrect.  What’s more is that there is no recommended daily allowance of water that would be correct for every one.

To save time, drink it all
in one serving.

Your body is made mostly of water and to remain healthy you need only replace the water your body uses each day.  This amount will vary greatly depending on your size, your level of activity and your unique physiology.  While eight glasses may be right for someone, for most people that’s simply way more water than their body needs.

If we accept that all of us have the sense to drink when we’re thirsty and thus avoid death by dehydration, there are as many health risks in drinking too much water as too little.  Finding the proper balance of water intake is really just as easy as drinking when your body alerts you that it doesn’t have enough water.  Cutting out sugary beverages would have far more impact on your health than adding another 5 or 6 glasses of water.

 #4) Adding Salt Causes Water to Boil Faster 

In defense of people who believe this, it is actually true.  This myth doesn’t come as much from a lack of understanding of science as a lack of understanding of proportions.  Water will boil faster if there is salt in it.  That much is not in question.  This crosses over to myth, however, when you start adding a spoonful of salt to a pot in hopes of saving yourself some time.

"Gimme some more salt!  I haven't got all minute..."

In truth, the amount of salt you would have to add to make a difference in the boiling time is quite high and even then it would be only save you a few seconds.  To make a worthwhile difference the water would have to be somewhere between brackish and briny.  In other words, you would be trading a minute of boiling time for pasta that tasted like it was just rescued from the ocean.

 #5) Toxic Chemicals Can Be Leeched From Water Bottles 

It amazes me how the pendulum of myth can swing so far when it comes to bottled water.  There are plenty of unsupported and demonstrably false myths about how healthy bottled water is, but there are just as many urban legends that make it out to be cancer-laden witchery as well.

Perhaps the most prevalent of these myths is the notion that there are toxic carcinogens trapped within the walls of the bottle just waiting to break down and seep into your unsuspecting esophagus.  Reusing the bottle or allowing it to sit in a hot car is said to accelerate this poisonous decay.

Just look at all the death waiting to happen...

Now, if you’re the type of person that would be willing to except the explanation that the bottled water industry is in league with the Illuminati and wants to kill us all with tainted plastics, you’re probably too far gone to be talked back from the ledge by anything I write of Blognoscor.  The remainder of my readership can rest assured that we have government programs in place to keep companies from using toxic plastics to package consumables.

Reusing a water bottle will not cause it to release anything into your water and beyond that, there is nothing within that bottle that would be carcinogenic.  Far too many purveyors of urban health myths rely on our national tendency to equate chemicals with danger.  But everything is laced with chemicals.  The very word “thing” implies that there are chemicals involved.  You and I are laced with chemicals.  Our chemicals are laced with chemicals.  Water is made up entirely of chemicals.  The fact that there are chemicals in the water bottle is to be expected and should come as no concern.

 #6) The Coriolis Effect Cares About Your Bathtub 

This is a classic example of misapplying an existing phenomenon in an inappropriate circumstance.  This widely held misconception is based on the fact that hurricanes spin in the opposite direction south of the equator and prefer to be called “typhoons”.  The Coriolis effect, a byproduct of the earth’s rotation and the interaction between the surface and the atmosphere, actually does cause this.

Pictured: Mother Nature showing off.

This effect, however, acts slowly on massive systems.  The brief cyclonic action that takes place in your bathtub doesn’t really have time to be affected by the rotation of the planet.  Far more important is the actual geometry of the tub and the direction from which the water is introduced to the drain.

This myth is perpetuated in places near the equator where unscrupulous charlatans will “show” you the effect by moving a few paces north or south of the equatorial line and draining water into specially made trick tubs.  In point of fact, the Coriolis effect is so weak at the equator that it essentially has no effect on anything, let alone something as short lived as a bucket’s worth of water in a pan.

 #7) Filtered Water is Healthier 

The scope of the water purification industry is astounding.  In a country with amazingly clean publicly available water, American’s spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year treating, filtering and purifying water that has already been treated, filtered and purified.  This is not to mention the massive amounts we spend foregoing tap water altogether in favor of bottled water (now with 20% more “H”!).

So are all these water pictures making
you have to pee yet or what?

There are reasons to filter tap water, but none of them are really health related.  In some municipalities water might have a sulfurous odor or a displeasing taste and filtering water will certainly improve that.  In a few older homes they might even remove tiny (and ultimately insignificant) impurities picked up in decrepit plumbing.  But none of this really makes the water any healthier.

 #8) Water can be “Ionized” 

This is something of an extension of the previous point, but so blatant is the lunatic buffoonery around these money-funnels I felt they needed their own place along my list.  The product is called a “water ionizer” and it promises to treat your water with electrolysis in order to make it healthier and easier for your body to absorb.  This “ionized” or “alkalized” water is said to infer all manner of health benefits.

"But where does the gullibility go?"

This is nonsense standing on the shoulders of bull crap.  Your body has no problem absorbing water, nothing that can be done to it will make it any easier to absorb, electrolysis does nothing whatsoever to water and the term “ionized water” is as meaningless as the term “Awesome-ized water”.  There is absolutely no evidence anywhere on the planet that anything these companies claim is based on so much as a fraction of truth.

If it seems like I’m getting carried away on this one, keep in mind that these machines cost upwards of $2000 and as much as $6500.  Because of the miraculous health benefits they promise, they are often marketed to people with terminal illnesses that are willing to forego logic in hopes of finding anything that works.  This blatant and merciless thievery should not be treated lightly or given any respectful deference.  But don’t take my word for it, just ask anyone who has any reason to know and isn’t selling a water ionizer.

Aaron Davies

Note: No participles were dangled in the making of this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting blogpost! Re: #2-I was always told to use cold tap water too, but it was because the hot w. sat in tank and was thought to have off flavours due to the condition of the tank, this is perhaps the real reason for your mother telling u to use cold water- it tastes better. Re: #3-I heard it was a quote from surgeon general something like "One needs 8 glasses of w. a day, most of which comes from food and daily beverages" and only the first half was repeated. Re: #4- adding salt lowers the boiling temp. which means it cooks things at a lower temp! It may boil faster but its not as hot so the time u gained may be lost to longer cooking times