Science in Society Archive

Science and Art of Water

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reveals how science and art become one in her feeling for water that goes back to traditional Chinese culture

Water is the heart’s medium of thought

When I was a child, I took it for granted that thoughts and feelings both come from the heart; which is why the Chinese say “heart thinks” 心想.

Water is linked to the state of the heart in the expression “heart water” 心水.

When thoughts are lucid, we say “heart water is clear” 心水清, implying that one is able to think her way out of difficult situations, or see through deceit and insincerity.  So it follows that a person whose “heart water is still” 心水静 thinks most clearly; as opposed to someone whose “heart is confused as twisted hemp” 心乱如麻. Water is the heart’s medium of thought.

The heart that thinks is our mind, and the Chinese translation of the English word “mind” is indeed “heart” , as well as “rationality” 理性. The mind is actually the “heart-mind” 心理, because mind is saturated with feeling.

This was very real to me. I could sense thoughts emanating from the heart with feelings so intense that my heart seemed at times to burst open like a many-layered peony expanding out to the universe; or else contract with excruciating pain as though crushed in the grip of an iron hand.

Feeling and thinking were so inextricably entangled that everything I learned at school was palpably good or bad, beautiful or ugly, happy or sad.

As I grew older, I learned to keep my thoughts to myself like everybody else, but that did not diminish the feelings. If anything, the feelings grew stronger. They reach out like invisible liquid tentacles towards the new object, to recoil in dislike, or touch and explore with interest, and at times, to wash over with love. Anything beautiful I would latch onto for years and years afterwards without rational understanding; until something happens, and it would fall into place in the Grand Scheme.

Looking back, the moments I was awestruck with things I did not understand far outnumber those when things fell into place, but they are no less inspiring.

A flotilla on the meaning of life, the universe and everything

Thus, by 1992, I had accumulated in the water of my heart-mind a formidable flotilla of beautiful and significant but vague ideas about the meaning of life, the universe and everything: what is the universe is made of, the nature of space and time, the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s time and freewill, the English mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s organic space-time in the quantum universe; what is life, why are organisms are so perfectly coordinated; what is consciousness, where do thoughts really come from; how can a tiny shapeless, featureless egg develop into a shapely, highly differentiated organism.

Some people might find the meaning of life, the universe and everything in religion. But I had given up on religion a long time ago, because nature was too absorbing and beautiful to be censored by faith and belief. I love nature far too much, and want to know her as thoroughly and intimately as I could.

Figure 1   The flotilla of vague big ideas on the meaning of life, the universe, everything

So, in the summer of 1992, something did happen.

Life is all the colours of the rainbow in a worm

I peered down a polarizing light microscope, and saw life in all the colours of the rainbow inside a worm. What was nature telling me?

Typically, colours are generated by crystals such as quartz with ordered arrangement of atoms, or by liquid crystals with ordered alignment of electrically polarized molecules. But how could a living, breathing worm whose molecules are churning around transforming energy have any molecular order?

The answer is that the liquid crystalline molecules in the worm not only are aligned, but also moving coherently, macromolecules and water molecules together. As coherent molecular motions are much slower than visible light vibrations, the ordered alignment of molecules will still be registered by the light passing through. It is like using an extremely short exposure time with a very sensitive camera to capture sharp images of a fast moving object. In other words, the colour images of live organisms are direct evidence of coherent molecular motions in the organism. Without this coherent molecular motion, life would have been impossible; we would literally burn out with all the waste heat generated.

The rainbow in the worm means that organisms are liquid crystalline and coherent to a high degree, even quantum coherent (as I shall explain).  It means that the entire organism is electrically polarized from head to tail, like a single crystal. Not only are the macromolecules in the tissues and cells electrically aligned, but also the water. It is actually the water that makes the entire organism liquid crystalline because this water is liquid crystalline, in the sense that the water molecules are lined up electrically, and much more ordered than water outside the organism.

That flotilla of vague big ideas crystallized into a coherent story told in [1] The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, which did try to answer all the big questions, though by no means definitively.  The most important lesson nature taught me was new - something I had not thought of, or not sufficiently - the pivotal, essential role of water for life. The Rainbow Worm presents empirical evidence and theoretical arguments for the idea that the organism is quantum coherent and liquid crystalline water plays the lead in creating and maintaining the coherence of organisms.   

Life is water’s quantum jazz

What does it mean to be quantum coherent? It can be defined quite precisely as I did in The Rainbow Worm [1], but I am going tell you how it can be understood intuitively and aesthetically, which is more important. Quantum coherence is a sublime state of being whole that maximizes both local freedom and global cohesion; that’s why I call it “quantum jazz”. It is a hive of coherent activities, a light and sound extravaganza with a musical range of (at least) 73 octaves or 22 orders of magnitude in space-time, and every single player improvising freely from moment to moment yet keeping in step and in tune with the whole. Quantum jazz happens inside organisms, which is how they manage to coordinate their simultaneous metabolic, motor, cognitive and aesthetic activities so perfectly. It is the diverse multiplicities of molecules dancing to the tunes of liquid crystalline water. Organisms do quantum jazz together too, in pairs, in groups, in populations, across species in the entire biosphere, ultimately, throughout the whole universe. We are doing that right now: cells in our brain are firing together, as neuroscientists have now demonstrated for musicians playing together [2], most likely our hearts are beating in synchrony, bringing the rest of our living functions into collective focus. And it is water that makes it happen; water’s quantum jazz animates the world. Some of you are fortunate to have been at Chris Lee and Edward Cowie’s fantastic concerts.  This evening, I promise you the most thrilling water quantum jazz from Lotte Anker and Mark Sanders (and it certainly turned out to be).

Since writing the Rainbow Worm more than 20 years ago, I have taken nature’s lesson to heart, and immersed myself in water consciously and unconsciously, literally and metaphorically. (Perhaps that’s what baptism means, it is to give oneself up to love, a universal love simultaneously of everything and of nothing in particular.)  In my dreams, water comes to me in expanses of crystal clear turquoise shimmering in the sunlight. I plunge into it with joy and relief, like a fish too long out of water. The water closes over me in a fulsome embrace and I swim effortlessly, the water in my body and my heart-mind resonating, singing, to the water all around me and beyond, to the entire lake, the sea and all the oceans in the world, to water throughout the universe. In recent years, astrophysicists have found water everywhere in the universe; they now think it is the most abundant substance and is present at the very birth of the universe.

There is evidence that water behave as a collective in cells and tissues of our body and in other confined spaces of nanometre dimensions, where many different crystalline and quasi-crystalline structures are formed (see later).  The remarkable diversity of structures formed by Shui-Yin Lo’s ‘double-helix water’ [3] is another manifestation of the same tendency of water to behave collectively, in this case, within a drop of the specially prepared water. Evidence exists that large volumes of water too, behave as a coherent whole [4] (The 'Wholiness' of Water, SiS 23), which led me to speculate that perhaps even oceans could do the same. Water touches and senses everything, and responds as a whole, like an organism.

In a paper published in 1997 [5] (Quantum Coherence and Conscious Experience, ISIS scientific publication), I argued that quantum coherence is the prerequisite for consciousness. To put it the other way round: a quantum coherent entity is likely to be conscious and to have a heart-mind; and that certainly applies to water.

Water is life & life is water

Water not only gives and sustains life; it embodies all that life entails: it is sensitive and responsive, spontaneous and free-flowing, accommodating and flexible, yet effective and powerful. These qualities are the very opposite of the rigid mechanistic model that has dominated biology and our social and political institutions for hundreds of years; and is becoming fast obsolete as well as unsustainable. The world is in turmoil largely because of that. The old institutions are breaking down, the global financial crisis deepens as inequality grows and with it social unrest. People everywhere are ripe for a change, and many of us are here because we believe that water, both the art and science of water, holds the key to the change.               

Water’s infinite moods, forms, and colours are the stuff of art and poetry; they also reflect the diversity of organisms on Earth: on land, in water and in the air. Water is progenitor and emblem of all organisms on Earth, and in the entire universe. For if water is present everywhere in the universe, extra-terrestrial life may not be so rare after all. (Here is a spectacular rendition by ISIS artist Li Poon of aquatic life forms one might find on an alien planet. And you can see many other surprises in his paintings exhibited here.)

Liquid water can indeed be so still it is a perfect mirror even as you can see right through it; and the slightest disturbance will create ripples. No wonder it is a metaphor for clear thinking and perception.

Water flows, it falls, sometimes spectacularly. Water gushes out from deep down beneath the earth surface in hot steamy jets. It pours from the sky (and one of our favourite games as children was to stand in the pouring rain and get soaking wet). It vaporizes to form clouds, and tiny invisible droplets that unspin sunlight into rainbows. Water makes oceans that ebb and flow in response to the gravitational fields of the sun and the moon as Earth pirouettes on its axis.  Oceans make waves and gigantic tsunamis, as terrifying as they are breathtakingly beautiful. Tides and tsunamis are the result of the entire ocean behaving as a coherent whole.

Figure 2   Tsunamis are created by entire oceans behaving coherently

Water also falls as snow and hailstones from the sky. Between melting and freezing, it crafts icicles that hang from the eaves like a glass glockenspiel, or connect branches to the ground like organ pipes, or decorate twigs in sparkly, spiky blossoms.

Snow and ice accumulate and compact into glaciers, frozen rivers gliding majestically in slow motion towards the sea, where pieces float off as icebergs - to be sculpted by wind and waves into phantasmagorical shapes - or create monumental flow-forms, like musical gestures played out in eons of time.

But it is in the microscopic world of snowflakes that water’s dazzling inventiveness is most conspicuous. Snowflakes are ice crystals formed when supercooled water droplets in the clouds freeze and fall through the atmosphere. Complex shapes emerge as they experience different temperatures, pressures and humidity on the way to Earth’s surface.  Every snowflake is unique in the entire history of the universe. It is a supreme work of art, and many enthusiasts spend hours photographing them.

But so is the organism. Not only are organisms infinitely diverse even within a single species, each individual is unique; even identical twins differ from each other because they have individual experiences.  Each moment in life is new and unrepeatable; even when you think you are doing the same thing all over again.

The new science of water for life and art

Within the past two days, we have learned a great deal on the new science of water. That’s why I wrote a sequel to Rainbow Worm dedicated to water in living organisms [6] Living Rainbow H2O (ISIS publication) in my continuing quest for the meaning of life the universe and everything. This book is also my story of recent findings in the quantum physics and chemistry of water that tell you why it is so fit for life. “Water is the means, medium and message of life, the beautiful rainbow within that mirrors the one in the sky.” I talked mainly about the science yesterday. Let me now summarise how it illuminates life and art for me.

I thought my love affair with water started 20 years ago with the Rainbow Worm. In truth, it probably began as far back as I could remember. Getting to know water is like finally arriving at a lush green oasis after years and years in the desert, it is like recovering my lost soul. All I want to do now is to be in water, and to be water and all it stands for, and that’s what I try to paint. I was born in the year of the snake, and 2013 is coincidentally the year of the snake, so the rainbow snake is an obvious theme, though Living Rainbow H2O was not planned specifically for it. What I did not know until Brigitte Hansmann, a Friend of ISIS who is here, told me several weeks ago, is that 2013 is the year of the water snake, and the Buddhist symbol for the year is the lotus. Lotus is a prominent theme in my paintings exhibited here. Is that another mere coincidence? Or is my heart-mind tuned into the collective quantum memory of the entire Chinese Taoist/Buddhist tradition? I let you decide.

Water is the means of life

Water is the means of life; this is well-known, though not sufficiently acknowledged.  It is water that fuels the dynamo of life. Water is the basis the energy metabolism that powers all living processes; it is the chemistry and the electricity of life.

The abundant life on earth, including you and me, depend on photosynthesis in green plants, algae and cyanobacteria that traps the energy of sunlight by means of chlorophyll (the green pigment in chloroplasts) to split water into hydrogen ions (protons), electrons and oxygen (equation 1), giving life access to an abundant energy source. Protons and electrons flowing as positive and negative electricity provide metabolic energy for growth, development and all other living activities, and serve as a major channel for intercommunication. I gave a lecture recently entitled [7] Life is Water Electric (SiS 57), printed in the latest issue of our magazine.

Perhaps more importantly, photosynthesis liberates oxygen so air-breathing organisms including us could evolve to fill the earth with teaming millions of species in the sea, on land, and in the air.

Figure 3   Water is the means of life

The protons and electrons go to reduce (or fix) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into carbohydrates to create the biomass of photosynthetic organisms, which serve as food for herbivores, and down the food web to the vast majority of air-breathers, who in turn, use the oxygen to break down carbohydrates in mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells, to obtain energy for growth and reproduction, regenerating carbon dioxide and water. This completes the living dynamo of photosynthesis and respiration, the core energy metabolism, the magic roundabout that turns inanimate substances into living organisms.

However, it takes lots of energy to split water, 12.6 eV, to be precise, and requires an energetic photon in the soft X-ray region, which would destroy life, and is not what green plants and cyanobacteria use. They use mainly red and to some extent blue light in the visible spectrum. The reason is that water is already partly excited by taking in energy from the ambient electromagnetic field, which makes it quantum coherent even at ordinary temperatures and pressures, and that is new.

Liquid water not only behaves as a collective whole, it is quantum coherent, and excitable, the molecules dancing rapidly between two states, one with ice-like tetrahedral hydrogen bonded structure – the excited configuration - and the other not quite so regular, the ground state, as explained in my lecture yesterday. This quantum coherence is very dynamic, the hydrogen bonds making and breaking in trillionths of a second. The regular tetrahedral arrangement is the preferred configuration when water is out in the open and unconstrained, or even in confined spaces above certain dimensions. This is a consequence of excitation by the ambient electromagnetic field, as predicted by quantum field theory according to Emilio Del Giudice and his colleagues. The excited water is stabilized on the surfaces of membranes and macromolecules in tissues and cells. (Albert Szent-Györgyi, the father of biochemistry had suggested that more than 50 years ago.) It is the liquid crystalline water I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, which is present in both animal and plant cells and tissues. Only this excited liquid crystalline water can be split by chlorophyll in cyanobacteria, algae and green plants. Otherwise, you and I would not be here, and our planet would only be populated by bacteria, fungi, and maybe a few animal species that can live without oxygen.

Water is the medium and message of life

Water is so flexible that alternative bonding structures are readily adopted, and by the collective as a whole when it gets into really tight nanospaces, as you have seen earlier. Water’s flexibility also underlies its ability to form the infinite variety of beautiful snowflakes I showed you.

The collective crystalline structure is important, not only because it maintains the water molecules in an excited quantum coherent state in the living organism, it also enables the water to transmit both positive and negative electricity for rapid intercommunication between cells and tissues (see above).

Water’s ability to form diverse crystals and quasicrystals is most probably the reason it can help colloid crystals and quasicrystals ‘self-assemble’, again, in endless variety, which may well account for the immense diversity of organisms based on water.

 Colloid crystals are crystals of particles or liquid crystals. These higher order crystals are the stuff of organisms; for example, collagen, muscles, microtubules in the cytoskeleton of cells are all colloid crystals. Many new and emergent electronic and photonic devices are colloid crystals. Research in such soft matter – “Where physics meets chemistry meets biology” - is now all the rage [8]. Diatoms are photosynthetic algae renowned for the diversity of their exquisitely sculpted glass shells. There are about 250 living genera with more than 200 000 species classified by their unique morphologies [9]. The shells are self-assembled, most likely from colloid crystals of silica particles; artificial opals are readily made from silica particles in the laboratory [10]. Diatoms shells are inspiring many nanotechnologists to create new nanostructures with special electronic and photonic properties.

Finally, water is the perfect medium for quantum jazz. Like the ideal manager, its over-riding message is for everyone to perform their best on their own terms, and providing them the means and conditions for doing so. (That’s the kind of boss and colleague that many will die for.) Water enables all molecules, small and large, to perform their specific vital functions at all times, and in perfect coordination with the whole.  They can all express their full degrees of freedom (which may span ten orders of magnitude in tempo for a macromolecule), while having access at all times to ultra-sensitive intercommunication channels, via water electricity, and electromagnetic signals to keep in touch with everyone else.  

Water is the supreme catalyst - the super-facilitator of chemical reactions, speeding them up by 1010 to 1023 times - because it has the knack of making things happen spontaneously and effortlessly. That’s what quantum coherent action, or quantum jazz is all about. And we can do it altogether, now!

Article first published 25/03/13


  1. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms, World Scientific, 1993, 2nd edition, 1998, 3rd enlarged edition, 2008, Singapore and London.
  2.  “Making music together connects brains”, Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 29 November 2012,
  3. Lo S-Y. The improvement of health with stable water clusters. International Water and Health Symposium, The Athenaeum, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, 31 January – 1 February 2013.
  4. Ho MW. The ‘wholiness’ of water. Science in Society 23, 48-49, 2004.
  5. Ho MW. Quantum coherence and conscious experience. Kybernetes 1997, 26, 265-76.
  6. Ho MW. Living Rainbow H2O, World Scientific and Imperial College Press, Singapore and London, 2012.
  7. Ho MW. Life is water electric. Science in Society 57, 43-51, 2013.
  8. Soft Matter, RSC Publishing,
  9. Gordon R, Losic D, Tiffany MA, Nagy SS and Sterrenburg FAS. The Glass Menagerie: diatoms for novel applications in nanotechnology. Trends in Biotechnology 2008, 27, 116-27.
  10. Wang A, Chen S-L, and Dong P. Rapid fabrication of a large-area 3D silica colloidal crystal thin film by a room temperature floating self-assembly method. Materials Letters 2009, 63, 1586-9.

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Terry Pollock Comment left 31st March 2013 03:03:16
Whether in the music I play with my colleagues, in the study of marine biology, or in my personal meditations, all of my life, I always feel that I become blended into the whole, as movement within an ocean ground swell, or a fusion with all of the angels of heaven, or the organic locking, schooling tendency of our music jams...that I believe illustrates the quantum coherence of water (and all of life) that you describe!! I perceive the turquoise 'wavelength' all around/through me and I am overcome with joy and love. Thank you, once again, for so beautifully articulating such a profound and fundamental energetic phenomenon.