Book Club: The Water Knife

waterknifeI grew up in New England – Rhode Island, specifically. Rhode Island is green, with big, green, leafy trees and lots of green grass.  There’s water everywhere – rivers, brooks, streams, lakes, oceans – and people water their yards and gardens daily.  In 2009 I moved to Arizona and as my dad says, “everything here is really brown.” It’s dusty and dry.  When it rains, I go outside as if it’s a special event.  I don’t pour leftover water from making coffee or tea down the sink – I use it to water my plants. Next door, in California, I watch as the drought forces people to cut their water usage by 30% and a reservoir in Los Angeles is covered with 96 million shade balls to decrease evaporation. Nearly every day on NPR is another story about how water, or the lack of water, is affecting someone in Arizona or nearby. Just in the past weeks are stories about the impact of rivers being contaminated with over 3 million gallons of toxic waste from an abandoned gold mine and farms popping up in Northern Arizona in the midst of a drought by drilling wells into the aquifer. Just over the weekend at brunch, we were discussing proposals to cover the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which diverts 1.5 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River to Arizona each year.  Water and drought are a central part of the conversation here is the Southwest.

This is why, when reading the Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, I was struck how this story could be our future reality. The novel is set in a United States where water is scarce and senior water rights are viciously fought over.  Texas no longer exists because it’s water is gone, and their people are treated worse than refugees in neighboring states – assuming they can get in. Vegas has been set up as a utopia with self-enclosed “archologies” that are protected from the dust storms, heat and lack of water by Catherine Case who ensures that Vegas gets its water.  She does this by using her “water knife” whose job is to cut the water supplies from cities and towns who don’t have the water rights.  Folks in these cities that have been cut off either move or die.  It’s a stark book depicting a stark future.  It’s not about biology or health so, in a way, it doesn’t even fit as a book club for my blog, but I can’t stop thinking about it (and since it’s my blog, I can do whatever I want). Water is an issue that needs to be addressed now, otherwise we may find ourselves on the other end of a water knife. Read this book.  Think about it.  And then let’s see if we can find ways to prevent this apocalyptic future from coming true.

As a follow up, I had the opportunity to meet with Paolo Bacigalupi at a lecture entitled “The Imagination Drought: Speculative Fiction as a Tool of Warning and Empowerment.” He described his process for writing these  “cli-fi” thrillers and how he thinking about two different things: black swan events, which are things that happen that aren’t expected but change everything, and a narrative tunnel, which essentially assumes that because something happens yesterday, that’s what’s going to happen today.  Using these two concepts, he sees how people don’t expect the massive changes that may be coming.  But he presents these changes as an opportunity to see a dismal future before it happens so that we may take the chance to change it.


Paolo (center) and me (right) after the lecture,

No s**t?!?! Interesting facts about poop

I was talking to my sister and four-year-old nephew the other day and my sister prompted him to tell me what he wanted to study when he grew up. He looks right at me and answers “poop”. Totally funny coming from the boy who really is obsessed with his own poop, but as a scientist, I responded that I could tell him lots about poop and asked, “what about poop are you interesting in studying?”  His response, “All of it.” Well, I agree. Poop is far more interesting than we give it credit for.  In the next two posts, I will share with you all the interesting stuff I know about poop.  This post will be facts about poop and the second post will be about using poop as a cure for diseases.  Let’s get down and dirty...

fecalmatterI’m not one of those people fascinated by poop.  I have never read any of the most popular books on the topic “Everyone Poops” or “What’s Your Poo Telling You“. In fact, I won’t even admit that I poop myself (as my husband will attest I insist that it’s all butterflies and rainbows down there).  But (butt!) being in a lab makes you think about things you never expected.  A common laboratory activity is something called a journal club. Held weekly, undergrads, graduate students and post-docs take turns discussing a scientific topic or journal article.  I like talking about the newest technology and controversial topics, so when it was my turn, I decided to look into the ancient, but recently rediscovered, therapeutic uses of poop to help cure diseases. As a started my research on the topic, I realized that I knew very little about poop in general.  Being the scientist that I am, I went to learn more.  And lucky you, I’m going to share!

watering_poopFirst and foremost, what is poop made of? The majority (75%) is water! The remaining 25% is a mix.  About a third of this 25% (doing the math, that’s 7.5% of your poop) is dead bacteria (back to that later) and a third fiber and undigested food (like those corn kernels you didn’t chew before swallowing).  The final third contains living bacteria, protein, cell linings, fats, salts, and substances released from the intestines and liver. In fact, the brown color of poop comes from some of these secreted substances such as bile and also bilirubin, which comes from dead red blood cells.

seven types of poopThere are seven different types of poop that have been categorized in the Bristol Stool Form Scale (or BSF for short) developed by Dr. Ken Heaton from University of Bristol.  I was going to spend the next 5 minutes wondering exactly what sort of methodology brought him to discover this seven type system, but then I just looked at the original article. “Sixty-six volunteers had their whole-gut transit time (WGTT) measured with radiopaque marker pellets and their stools weighed, and they kept a diary of their stool form on a 7-point scale and of their defecatory frequency.” I’m glad I was not a volunteer in that study – keeping a daily diary of my stool form and have the length of time from mouth to poop tracked – ick!  However, Dr. Heaton was able to conclude that the form the stool takes depends on the time it spends in the colon, with 3 and 4 being ideal stools. Now one more thing for siblings, partners, and spouses to argue about – who’s poo is better?

But(t) let’s get serious.  Besides being an indication of intestinal health, poop is also filled with bacteria.  These bacteria are representative of the bacteria that can be found in your gut and are part of your “microbiome“. Your microbiome (all of the bacteria and other bugs in and around your body) outnumber your human cells 10 to 1, and scientists think that 300-1000 bacterial species inhabit the GI tract alone!  We’re not entirely sure exactly how many species because most of these bacteria don’t grow outside the gut (in the presence of oxygen), and when we look for gut bacteria by sequencing the DNA of poop samples, we’re not sure if the bacteria in poop represents all the bacteria that are found in the gut.

Either way, what do all those bacteria do? They help with digesting food and producing vitamins.  They regulate fat storage and do some crazy things like influence the immune system and the brain (more on that in a future post).  These bacteria are also protective against pathogens, like bad  infectious bacteria or viruses. How the gut microbiome protects against pathogens is still being studied, but we know that some gut microbiome bacteria create antimicrobials that kill bad bacteria.  In other cases, its all about the balance of the good bacteria versus the bad.  When this balance changes, it can be a cause or consequence of the disease. And one of the cures to these diseases, might just be poop itself, which is what I’ll discuss in my next post.

Want to learn more about poop?  Check out some of these resources:

Why is water so interesting? Featuring Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman


Misty (left) and me getting ready to swim

In this two part series, I partner with my friend, Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman, winner of the women’s 200 meter butterfly in the 2000 Australian games.  Misty currently coaches private lessons, leads swim clinics, and gives motivational speeches around the world.  Misty was also recently named the senior assistant coach for the Arizona State University swim team. In her spare time, Misty extends her passion for swimming into the community as a spokesperson for FitPHX and encouraging everyone to learn how to swim.

I met Misty five years ago in Valley Leadership as members of Class 32 (Best Class Ever!!) We became fast friends, even though you may not expect a scientist and a swimmer to have much in common.  To be honest, I’m not much of a swimmer, though I do love my pool and my technique improves every lesson I take with Misty.  Misty, on the other hand, is quite a scientist. Part of her swimming success came from a careful, scientific analysis of every aspect of her stroke. As we were talking one evening, we starting thinking about what we could discuss together on my blog.  What cool things in science would also be interesting to a swimmer? My first thought – WATER!

I remember the first time I really learned about water was in my freshman year of college in my intro to chemistry class. I was amazed that an entire chapter was devoted to the physical properties of water.  I knew that water was incredibly common: 71% of the planet is covered in water and humans are 65% water.  There are 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  So what makes this incredibly common, important and useful substance so freaking cool and worth devoting an entire textbook chapter to?


By OpenStax College [CC BY 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Lets start with the molecular structure. Water is made up of one oxygen (O) and two hydrogen (H) molecules, which is why the abbreviation for water is H2O (two Hs and one O).  The oxygen is connected to each of the hydrogens by covalent (permanent) bonds. Because of the way that the electrons within the oxygen and hydrogen atoms are distributed, the oxygen is slightly more positively charged and the hydrogens are slightly negatively charged.  This essentially makes water a weak magnet.  In chemistry, we call that “polar“. This polarity is the reason that water has so many unique properties, but I’m only going to talk about one that directly relate to swimming: surface tension. To learn more about water polarity, check out this fabulous TedEd talk.


A great example of surface tension thanks to Pixabay

Surface tension is best described by examples:  filling a glass of water over the top, rain beading on your windshield, or bugs walking on the water of the pool.  The water doesn’t spill out of the glass, the rain doesn’t turn in sheets and the bugs don’t fall under the water and die because of surface tension. More accurately, these things happen because the polar (aka slightly magnetic) water molecules are attracted to one another and stay together.  Or to be even more scientific –  the water inside the glass or raindrop or pool is surrounded by other water molecules that can move around each other.The water molecules at the top of the water glass or pool or raindrop don’t have water molecules above them, so they are pulled inwards toward the other water,  creating surface tension.

Interestingly, surface tension directly relates to swimming.  Just take a look at this amazing photo of the effects of surface tension on the 2012 Olympic 200 meter backstroke winner Tyler Clary.  He eventually does leave the water – but he will need to use energy and force to break the surface tension at the top of the water.  This is why swimmers can swim faster underwater than on the top of the water – they aren’t fighting surface tension (plus there are other physics “things” in play like less less drag and less energy wasted with splashing underwater).

Misty’s Message: Although she would LOVE to encourage everyone to just stay underwater, that’s not realistic because we don’t have gills. However, most kinds of tension – including “surface tension” – should be avoided at all costs especially while swimming. Instead of focusing on the reality that you have to break the surface tension in order to breathe, focus on reducing drag because “not being streamlined – that’s a drag.”