Transcript: Dr. Gerald Pollack on The Fourth Phase of Water at TEDxGuelphU

Here is the full transcript of Dr. Gerald Pollack’s TEDx Talk titled ‘The 4th Phase of Water’ at TEDxGuelphU conference.

Full speaker bio: Dr. Gerald Pollack


Book(s) by the speaker:

The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor

Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life


MP3 Audio:


YouTube Video:



Dr. Gerald Pollack – Professor of bioengineering at University of Washington

Thank you. Water is quite beautiful to look at, and I guess you probably all know that you’re two-thirds water — you do, don’t you? Right. But you may not know that because the water molecule is so small that two-thirds translates into 99% of your molecules. Think of it, 99% of your molecules are water.

So, your shoes are carrying around a blob of water essentially. Now, the question is, in your cells, do those water molecules actually do something? Are these molecules essentially jobless or do they do something that might be really, really interesting? For that matter, are we even really sure that water is H₂O? We read about that in the textbook, but is it possible that some water is actually not H₂O? So, these are questions whose answers are actually not as simple as you think they might be.

In fact, we’re really in the dark about water, we know so little. And why do we know so little? Well, you probably think that water is so pervasive, and it’s such a simple molecule, that everything ought to be known about water, right? I mean you’d think it’s all there. Well, scientists think the same. Many scientists think, oh, water it’s so simple, that everything must be known. And, in fact, that’s not at all the case.

So, let me show you, to start with, a few examples of things about water that we ought to know, but we really haven’t a clue. Here’s something that you see every day. You see a cloud in the sky and, probably, you haven’t asked the question: How does the water get there? Why, I mean, there’s only one cloud sitting there, and the water is evaporating everywhere, why does it go to this cloud forming what you see there?

So, another question: Could you imagine droplets floating on water? We expect droplets to coalesce instantly with the water. The droplets persist for a long time.

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And then here’s another example of walking on water. This is a lizard from Central America. And because it walks on water it’s called the Jesus Christ lizard. At first you’ll say, “Well, I know the answer to this, the surface tension is high on water.” But the common idea of surface tension is that there’s a single molecular layer of water at the top, and this single molecular layer is sufficient to create enough tension to hold whatever you put there. I think this is an example that doesn’t fit that.

And here’s another example. Two beakers of water. You put two electrodes in, and you put high voltage between them and then what happens is a bridge forms, and this bridge is made of water, a bridge of water. And this bridge can be sustained as you move one beaker away from the other beaker, as much as 4 centimeters, sustained essentially indefinitely. How come we don’t understand this?

So, what I mean is that there are lots of things about water that we should understand, but we don’t understand, we really don’t know. So, okay, so what do we know about water? Well, you’ve learned that the water molecule contains an oxygen and two hydrogens. That you learn in the textbooks. We know that.

We also know there are many water molecules, and these water molecules are actually moving around microscopically. So, we know that.

What don’t we know about water? Well, we don’t know anything about the social behavior of water. What do I mean by social? Well, you know, sitting at the bar and chatting with your neighbor. We don’t know how water molecules actually share information or interact, and also we don’t know about the actual movements of water molecules. How water molecules interact with one another, and also how water molecules interact with other molecules like that purple one sitting there. Unknown.

Also the phases of water. Now we’ve all learned that there’s a solid phase, a liquid phase and a vapor phase. However, a hundred years ago, there was some idea that there might be a fourth phase, somewhere in between a solid and a liquid. Sir William Hardy, a famous physical chemist, a hundred years ago exactly, professed that there was actually a fourth phase of water, and this water was kind of more ordered than other kinds of water, and in fact had a gel-like consistency.

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So, the question arose to us — you know, all of this was forgotten, because people began, as methods improved, to begin to study molecules instead of ensembles of molecules, and people forgot about the collectivity of water molecules and began looking, the same as in biology, began looking at individual molecules and lost sight of the collection. So, we thought we’re going to look at this because we had some idea that it’s possible that this missing link, this fourth phase, might actually be the missing link so that we can understand the phenomena regarding water that we don’t understand.

So, we started by looking somewhere between a solid and a liquid. And the first experiments that we did get us going. We took a gel, that’s the solid, and we put it next to water. And we added some particles to the water because we had the sense that particles would show us something. And sure enough you can see what happened is that the particles began moving away from the interface between the gel and the water, and they just kept moving and moving and moving. And they wound up stopping at a distance that’s roughly the size of one of your hairs. Now, that may seem small, but by molecular dimensions that’s practically infinite. It’s a huge dimension.

So, we began studying the properties of this zone, and we called it, for obvious reasons, the exclusion zone, because practically everything you put there would get excluded, would get expelled from the zone as it builds up, or instead of exclusion zone, EZ for short. And so we found that the kinds of materials that would create or nucleate this kind of zone, not just gels, but we found that practically every water-loving, or so-called hydrophilic surface could do exactly that, creating the EZ water. And as the EZ water builds, it would expel all the solutes or particles, whatever into the bulk water.