Miscellany

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!”

Miscellany

“Waters from snow and ice are all bad,” opined Hippocrates of Cos around 400 BC. “Once frozen, water never recovers its original nature, but the clear, light, sweet part is separated out and disappears.” Such melted waters, he declared, “are the worst for all purposes.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

The story of Juan Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth in Florida in 1513 was fabricated after his death in a chronicle by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a Spanish courtier who found the explorer to be egocentric, dim-witted, and gullible—and so wished to render him foolish in the annals.

Miscellany

“To cross a great river,” advises a third-century Chinese alchemical text, you should smear a mixture of mercury, carp gall, and dragon grease on the bottoms of your feet. “When you walk on the water, you will not sink.”

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

The gaseous relief offered by carbonated water when drunk after heavy kosher meals made seltzer popular among early twentieth-century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who accordingly gave it the nickname belchwasser.

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

A March 2018 report in the Wall Street Journal about a pre-Passover speech delivered by Israel’s prime minister included an error; a correction ran the following day. “An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Benjamin Netanyahu said Moses brought water from Iraq,” it read. “He said the water was brought from a rock.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

Valhalla, the mythical hall for slain Norse warriors, is said to cater a nightly feast of boar meat but to offer no water to wash it down. According to the chief speaker of Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning, the warriors would have received a disappointing reward for their agonizing deaths in battle if served merely water. The menu instead includes mead supplied from the udder of a she-goat named Heidrun.

Miscellany

Around 14,500 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, the collapse of a large chunk of ice, likely from the Laurentide Ice Sheet covering North America, initiated an event known as Meltwater Pulse 1A. Sea levels rose more than a foot—and more than a mile of coast disappeared—per decade, displacing those living near shorelines. The earth’s human population was then roughly three million, 0.04 percent of what it is today.

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.