Wednesday, November 17, 2004

What I think about while I lie awake at night, Part III: Is there a doctor in the house?

If you're reading this before parts I & II, don't. It'll make even less sense than usual.

As you will recall, among my possible explanations for the Apollo 13 temperature drop was bad writing. And I just couldn't think about space and bad writing without making a side trip to the mining camp on Io (one of Jupiter's moons), where we find Sean Connery redoing High Noon with some really bad science. I am talking, of course, about Outland.

The writers of Outland had a very strange idea of what a one atmosphere pressure differential would have on the human body. They seemed to think it would explode. I think this was even dumber than Goldfinger getting sucked out the airplane window.

However, since I was eally tired of thinking about the Apollo 13 problem, I thought about this one for a while. What would it be like to go from one atmosphere to no atmosphere in short order? How would it be different from the one atmosphere pressure change you'd experience if you quickly swam to the surface from 33 feet under water?

Obviously, the gasses in the body are going to want to expand and/or escape. But solids and liquids aren't terribly compressable, nor is the body likely to fly apart merely because there's no air pressure holding it together. There might be some seeping or oozing, and some evaporation over time, but nothing like the explosive decompression depicted in the movie.

If you're scuba diving and you surface too quickly, depending on how long you've been down and at what depth, you might get "the bends" or decompression sickness when dissolved gasses form bubbles in the tissues. Or, if the pressure difference is great enough and you don't let it out, the air in your lungs can expand and cause an air embolism.

Not to mention the discomfort that the pressure differential would have on the ears. Ouch.

I expect you'd be dead before the decompression sickness had any effect, and you caould avoid an embolism (assuming the pressure differential is great enough in the first place), by merely exhaling to equalize the pressure.

Which leads me to the question for the physician, if there's one in the house. Sure you'd be dead, but would it hurt?

One of those things I seem to remember being told in some high school biology class is that the impulse to breath is triggered not by a lack of oxygen but by carbon dioxide accumulating in the lungs. This might explain why one can inhale two lungs full of nitrous oxide and hold one's breath until one passes out without experiencing discomfort (or so I've been told). Would complete decompression be similar?

And we can even tie this back in with the Apollo 13 problem. Elton John (or Bernie Taupin, if you prefer), tells us that Mars is "cold as hell," but what about a vacuum? Since there's no air to whisk away the heat, would it even feel cold over the time period we're talking about?

Strange questions, no?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, my middle of the night wake up thoughts are so pedestrian compared to yours. I wish I had your thoughts not mine at the moment.


Saturday, November 20, 2004 9:59:00 PM  
Blogger Laurie said...

I work the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle (online) every Sunday...Monday...Tuesday...well, it takes me a while. One night, the answer to a clue that had been driving me mad for days came to me while I was sleeping. So, my advice to you is, take a pill, get some sleep and write everything down as soon as you wake up.

The crossword clue: Forty-five on a slab (3 letters)

Sunday, November 21, 2004 4:34:00 PM  

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