Stanford Researchers Conclude that Liquid Water has a Structure Totally at Odds with the Textbooks

Liquid water, Stanford researchers concluded from the X-ray data, has a structure totally at odds with what textbooks say and what scientists have believed for more than a century. Rather than being a sea of tetrahedrons - little pyramids with triangular bases, formed when each water molecule connects to four others - it seems to be an ocean of rings and chains, with most molecules hooking up with only two others via strong bonds.

Conventional Wisdom Collapses

As often happens when the conventional wisdom starts to collapse, on closer inspection there wasn't much holding it up in the first place. The notion that water molecules form pyramids actually had little empirical support, Dr. Nilsson says: "Experimental findings have been so sparse that theoretical work has dominated the field," and the theory is so inexact "that you can get almost any result you want just by tweaking" a few numbers.

Pyramids, Rings & Chains?

Not everyone is sold on the rings and chain idea. Just months after the Stanford team concluded that the pyramid model was all wet, and in response to it, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that water is too a bunch of tiny pyramids. That brought a testy response from the Stanford researchers, who disparaged their rivals' experiment as full of "fundamental shortcomings" and beset by a "lack of reproducibility."

Although the Berkeley team is sticking to its pyramids, many scientists are persuaded by the rings and chain. Overturning the pyramid notion is "an incredibly big deal," says chemist Giulia Galli of UC Davis, who wasn't involved in the experiment. She is using a supercomputer to crank through trillions of quantum calculations to determine what structure water should have according to basic principles.

This may seem like an esoteric question, "but different structures (of water) should behave differently," says Prof. Galli. Because life runs on water, fathoming its true structure could overturn key ideas in biology.



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