Thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist Mugai Nyodai, the world’s first Zen abbess, struggled to achieve enlightenment until, one night during her training, the bottom fell out of an old bamboo-bound pail she was using to carry water. The spill freed her. “No more water in the pail!” she wrote in a poem commemorating the experience. “No more moon in the water!”
Egyptian pop singer Sherine Abdel-Wahab was sentenced to six months in prison in 2018 for insulting the Nile. Asked by a fan to perform her hit song “Have You Drunk from the Nile?,” Abdel-Wahab responded, “You are better off drinking Evian,” informing the fan that the waters of the Nile can lead to schistosomiasis, a disease also known as snail fever, which has plagued Egypt for so long that strains have been found in excavated pharaonic-era mummies.
To clear his head during his martial-arts training in the 1950s, Bruce Lee went sailing. He slapped the water angrily and found it instructive about kung fu. “I struck it but it did not suffer hurt,” he later wrote. “I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible.” Lee was energized. “That was it!” he recalled. “I wanted to be like the nature of water.”
An antigerm campaign to outlaw the shared drinking cups used at public fountains spread through the United States in 1911. One pamphlet referred to the “cup of death”; another showed the Grim Reaper enticing a young girl to take a sip. Illinois declared the practice “as antiquated as the ducking stool and the inquisition,” while the American Medical Association noted a curious new “jet apparatus” that could keep a child’s lips from touching a water spout.
Observing Mars through his telescope in 1877, Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw oceans and canali, meaning channels. The latter was mistranslated into English as canals, implying Martian-made waterways, and an amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell soon began publishing books pointing to these as evidence of life on Mars. By 1910 photographic technology had advanced sufficiently to debunk his extrapolated theories.
Many medical experts disdain the widely circulated idea that adults need to drink eight glasses of water per day; most agree that solid foods alone provide enough hydration. Barbara Rolls, a nutrition researcher at Pennsylvania State University, was asked in 2001 about the origin of the spurious rule. “I can’t even tell you,” she said, “and I’ve written a book on water.”
Tacitus reports in his Annals that Nero’s “passion for extravagance” brought disrepute and danger in the year 60 when the emperor went bathing in the spring that fed the Aqua Marcia, the aqueduct believed to deliver Rome’s healthiest drinking water. Nero “profaned the sacred waters,” complains Tacitus, and “the divine anger was confirmed by a grave illness that followed.”
A 1551 municipal law in Lisbon regulated water at the Palacete Chafariz d’el Rei, segregating access across six spouts: the first for “slaves, freedmen, black people, mulattoes, and Indians”; the second for galley slaves; the fifth for “black and mulatto women and Indian women, both freed and captive”; and the sixth for white women and girls. White men and boys got the middle spouts, the third and the fourth.
A 2018 study of sediment cores taken from the bed of Walden Pond found signs of “cultural eutrophication”: human urine released into the pond since it became a popular swimming spot in the 1920s has altered the water chemistry and could turn the “beautiful clear lake into a slimy green stew.” The study was reported in the Boston Globe with the headline “Please Stop Peeing in Walden Pond, Researchers Beg.”
During a battle with Scythians in Macedonia on April 29, 1091, Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus noted the midday sun “shedding its rays,” reported his daughter Anna Comnena in the Alexiad. He dispatched local peasants to bring water in skins or jars to his troops, who “sipped a drop of water, then returned to the fray.” The newly hydrated Byzantines wiped out their enemies, and a chant began: “All because of one day the Scythians never saw May.”
Analysis of lead pipe from the buried city of Pompeii revealed in 2017 that the Roman water supply may have had high levels of antimony, a toxic element likely used to increase the pipes’ strength. “It’s bigger than the diarrhea,” said an expert in archaeological chemistry about antimony’s possible effect on the population. “It’s the decline of the Roman Empire in 476.”
In an experimental paper published in the International Journal of Nanotechnology in 2016, researchers reported discovering a phase of water that is not solid ice, liquid water, or vapor gas. The fourth state is found at around 50 degrees Celsius and behaves a bit like liquid crystal.
In 1967 Bobby and Ethel Kennedy participated in the tenth annual Hudson River Whitewater Derby. Bobby’s kayak capsized in the freezing water; he was hurtled down the rapids. The next day Ethel attempted the course, accompanied by a ski expert and a mountain guide; the trio’s canoe tipped over three times. “A rescue party’s been sent up the river to get Mrs. Kennedy, who is on a rock,” an announcer told those waiting at the finish. “She’s having a bad day.”