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Why Deep Saturation Diving Is Like Going to the Moon, and Beyond

This week, as the Space Shuttle is making its last circuits around our planet, I lament what has happened to our space program. Yet, I am reminded of another exploration program that has, like the shuttle and the moon programs, reached incredible milestones only to retreat to a less exotic but still impressive status. That other program is experimental, deep saturation diving.

I have been privileged to conduct human physiological research on several deep saturation dives, one being a record-breaking U.S. Navy dive at the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) in 1977 to a pressure equivalent to that found at 1500 feet sea water (fsw), or 460 msw*, and on a 450 msw (1470 fsw) dive at the GUSI diving facility at the GKSS Institute in Geesthacht, Germany in 1990. For perspective, the safe SCUBA diving depth is considered to be 130 fsw, although technical and cave divers often descend deeper, to 300 fsw or so.

NEDU, Panama City, FL

Dives in hyperbaric chambers like at GUSI and NEDU are simulated; the divers don’t actually go anywhere. But the effects of the high pressure on the divers’ bodies are just as they would be in the ocean. Of course, even in simulated dives, divers wear Underwater Breathing Apparatus, and descend into water contained within the hyperbaric complex.

In 1979, NEDU again set the U.S. Navy record for deep diving to 1800 fsw (551 msw). At Duke University in 1981, the U.S. record for pressure exposure was set by three saturation divers inside an eight-foot diameter sphere. The internal pressure was 2250 fsw (686 msw). One of those divers went on to become the senior medical officer at NEDU, none the worse for his high pressure exposure.

The French company Comex, of Marseille used an experimental gas mixture of hydrogen-helium-oxygen to reach 675 msw, before being forced back to 650 msw due to physical and physiological problems with the divers. However, like teams attempting the summit of Mount Everest, one diver from the dive team was pressed to a world record of 701 msw (2290 fsw), just squeaking past the U.S. record.

There is a poorly understood physiological barrier called the High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS) that limits our penetration to ever deeper depths. In spite of the use of increasingly exotic gas mixtures, helium-oxygen in the U.S. Navy, helium-nitrogen-oxygen at Duke University, and hydrogen-helium-oxygen at Comex, all attempts to dive deeper have, to date, been rebuffed.

Just as I had thought as a young man that trips to the moon would be common-place by now, I had also assumed diving to 3000 feet would be routine. But it is not.

In my early research days I was interested in the effects on organisms of very high pressure, 5000 psi, which is equivalent to a depth of over 11,000 feet (3430 meters). We now know those effects can be profound, altering the very structure of cell membranes. Reversing those effects while maintaining high pressure, at great depth, is a daunting scientific task. We don’t yet know how to do it.

What we do know is that reaching 1500 feet can be done without too much difficulty. In the 1980s it became almost routine to dive to 1000 feet at both the Naval Medical Research Institute (Bethesda) and NEDU. Deep saturation diving is a thriving business in the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea.

Click for a larger image.

But as for the similarity between deep saturation diving and NASA’s moon missions, in the Apollo program it took slightly over three days to get to the moon, and almost an equal time to return. But as the above dive profile shows, it took sixteen days to reach the maximum depth of 1500 fsw, and seventeen days to safely return. Over that period of time astronauts would have whizzed past the moon and been well on their way to Mars. Unlike spacecraft and astronauts, divers must slow their descent to avoid HPNS, and must slow their return to the surface to avoid debilitating and painful decompression sickness. Diving without submarines or armored suits is very much a demanding, physical stress.

Politically, exceeding our current depth limits of approximately 2000 feet is akin to returning to the moon, and going beyond. We could do it, but at what cost? Should we? Will it ever be a national priority?

Maybe not for the United States, but I have a suspicion that other countries, perhaps not as heavily committed to space as we, will find the allure of beating current diving records irresistible. If there are medical or pharmacological interventions developed for getting divers safely and productively down to 3000 feet, then that would be a scientific achievement comparable to sending men to Mars.

*[The feet to meters conversion is slightly different from the feet of sea water to meters of sea water conversion. The latter represents pressure, not depth, and therefore includes a correction factor for the density of sea water.]

Searching for Native American Roots

A few years ago I sat next to a half Native American woman at a family Thanksgiving dinner. Among our conversation topics was reincarnation; she believed in it, strongly. That interested me enough to do a little research, whereupon I discovered a book called  “Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief Among North American Indians and Inuit.” It was published in 1994 by the University of Toronto Press, edited by two anthropologists, Antonia Mills and Richard Slobodin.

I had no idea that American Indians ever believed in reincarnation.

Shortly after that discovery, I began work on the manuscript for a science fiction novel that includes segments on the Osage Tribe in Oklahoma. The Osage were originally from the Missouri River valley, later “relocated” to Oklahoma, close to the location of the Cherokee Nation.

One of my first discoveries on the Internet was a set of historic photos in various archives. Two of them, immediately below, struck me as being particularly noteworthy.

Click for a larger image.
Click for a larger image.

The first photo of a young Osage mother with a child (pappoose) on her back continues to hold my attention. Although the mother is only in profile, the way her baby is looking toward the photographer is particularly fetching.

As I studied the mother’s face, I realized that she had what I perceived to be, in my ignorance, a European appearance. Her cheekbones were high, her nose appeared slim and her face looked silky smooth, showing none of the effects of the rigorous native lifestyle I would have expected. Her skin tone, her clothing, and the manner in which she carried her child were the only signs that identified her as Osage. Her overall appearance was one of lustrous youth. The second photo also showed a young mother; and I would guess the ages of both girls as no more than sixteen.

As I write this, I remember that I used to call my two young children “pappoosem”. I don’t know why, but it was obviously a term of endearment.

A Cherokee in Osage Country

My interest in the Osage compelled me to travel last year to Pawhuska, OK, the seat of the Osage Nation. My only disappointment was that there appeared to be no Osage in town, at least on the weekend.

The Osage aren’t mentioned in “Amerindian Rebirth”, but many closely located tribes are, like the Ponca, even the Seminole. They’re both tribes on reservations near the Osage Nation, although presumably they’re not closely related, genetically. And to be fair, once the Tribes became Christians, many of their former beliefs became hidden.

Now, as my family of descendents is enlarging, my daughter and I are searching for possible Native American relatives. Both my granddaughters are reputed to have relatively close genetic ties to various tribes, one being Cherokee, and the other from an unknown tribe from the North.

Even my wife’s family has an oral tradition, on the female side, of a Georgian who married a Cherokee Princess. I am dubious of that claim, since my genealogical research has so far turned up nothing. And besides, I suspect Cherokee Princesses were few and far between back in the 1700s, when my wife’s relatives were in contact with the Cherokee.

But we’re still looking.

Outsmarted by an Octopus

Jim Duran and I started a night dive in about sixty to seventy feet of water several miles off the beaches of Panama City, FL. I was wearing double 80 tanks, held a collecting bag and lights, and fully intended to capture an octopus, alive.

At the time I was working in an invertebrate physiology laboratory at Florida State University, under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Greenberg. I had been impressed by the reputed high intelligence of the octopus, and was also interested in the effects of high pressure. The Navy base at Panama City had a new high pressure chamber, capable of simulating deep-sea pressures. Since I was in training in the combined Navy and NOAA program called the Scientist in the Sea, it seemed logical to me to catch an octopus, and study it to see if it would be a suitable candidate for testing in the Navy’s  giant hyperbaric chamber.

It sounded like a reasonable plan to me, and Jim Duran was willing to follow along as my assistant critter catcher. And to begin with, the plan worked. We spied our quarry only a few minutes into the dive. The gray-brown octopus was crawling over the sandy bottom, and initially seemed unaware of our intentions. But as the two of us closed in on him, specimen bag flapping in our self-generated current, he sprang off the bottom and squirted away.

But we were strong swimmers, and our quarry was in the open, maybe eight feet off the bottom. He had nowhere to hide – silly thing. Keeping our lights on him, and stroking like mad, I began gaining on him, at which time he let loose with his ink. I was prepared for that, and continuing to kick I soon caught up with him and got my hands on him, trying to stuff him into my bag. But he would have none of that.

Off we went again. What we didn’t realize was that the clever invertebrate was constantly turning to our right. We of course were too intent on capturing him to notice his strategy. And besides, invertebrates were incapable of strategic planning – or so we thought.

Apparently the octopus was determined not to be touched again, or else we were tiring, for we never quite caught up with him. So close, and yet so far away.

And then a curious thing happened. He collapsed his tentacles upon themselves, streamlining his body shape, and shot like a rocket from our depth to the sandy bottom. Once on firm ground again, he spread his tentacles as wide as he could, and his entire body turned white. I froze in shock.

In another instant, before I could recover my senses, he collapsed his body down to the width of an apple and slithered into his hole in the sea floor.

He was gone.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the chase had started near his home, and he had led us at a furious pace in a large circle, which ended precisely where it had begun. He had maneuvered us to within striking distance of safety.

Humbled, and now growing low on air, and embarrassingly empty-handed, we headed back to the off-shore platform where our dive had begun.

It had seemed like such a good idea. Who knew that two graduate students would be outsmarted by an invertebrate.

Below is a link to a video showing an octopus’ ability to disguise itself, and some of the defensive behavior we witnessed.

[youtube id=”PmDTtkZlMwM” w=”500″ h=”400″]

You’re Not a Mad Dog – So You Must Be an Englishman

Having made several transits from the South to the North, and back again, I’ve become fascinated with the response of people when taken out of their natural element. For instance, my nativity and early childhood were spent in the American South, Arkansas and Texas. When my Dad’s work forced a move to Kansas City, I found that I could no longer do certain things — like talk.

Snowy school bus stop. Photo credit: Cathy Griffin.

It didn’t happen all the time, of course, just when I had to make that icy, snowy walk to my bus stop several blocks from home.  Somehow, the muscles controlling my lips and cheeks got so cold they didn’t move correctly. I felt like one of those Southern green anoles (aka, chameleons) that become so cold they can’t move — until the sun warms them, making their stiff bodies supple again. If I could force words to form at all, they were abnormal, as if I had ice cubes in my mouth. And for a Southern boy, that’s basically how it felt.

My fellow bus stop mates had no problem at all. Why was I different? I now realize that it was because of heritage (Southern) or early childhood environment (Southern). We’re just different, somehow. I have no scientific explanation for it.

Apparently, I eventually grew out of my dysphasia since my travels as an adult to the Arctic and Antarctic did not leave me speechless.

Now that the Florida summer heat is upon us, I realize that Northerners are not only immune to biting cold, or so it seems, but some of them enjoy running during the hottest time of the day.

For you non-Southerners, let me explain why Southerners talk slowly. For those like me who grew up without air conditioning; without air-conditioned cars to drive from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned workplaces, the South could be a torturous place in the summertime, especially in the afternoons. No one thought of doing much of anything physical at a time when the sun was trying to parch the life out of our bodies. When your heart and brain are trying to equilibrate with the temperature of the Sahara desert, talking fast just doesn’t seem worth the energy. 

The other day I drove up beside a friend who had been running at midafternoon, the hottest time of the day, in 95° F heat, with 95% humidity. Borrowing a line from Noel Coward, I said, “I know you’re not a mad dog, so you must be an Englishman.”

I was close. He’s the son of a Norwegian, from an even higher latitude, where they have northern lights.

From the looks of him, he really didn’t seem to be enjoying himself, and he later admitted he’d lost 12 pounds water weight during that run.

Let that fact sink in a bit… 12 pounds of water lost. 

Running in Hades heat

Of course my friend is from the far north, both from recent and olden heritage, for no born and raised Southerner would consider such hellish activity. We were trained at an early age that such unnatural activity would lead to heat stroke. And indeed, I know of cases where it did; so this is not urban legend, or a wives tale. People die in this heat.

But oddly, some people from the Northland seem to be immune.

I do not understand it.

I realize the sample I see may be, as we scientists say, biased. I see the atheletes who are able to lose enough water to keep their bodies at a safe temperature, and I don’t see those who get nauseated at the mere thought of running in the heat. But it’s curious to me that one of my neighbors, a retired elderly man who looks like he should be having a heart attack, thinks nothing of mowing his yard during the hottest time of the day! Oh, did I mention he’s from a far Northern state?

Maybe it’s the northern lights. I’m suspicious that the beauty of northern lights masks the more sinister irradiation of the brain by cosmic particles that destroy some people’s ability to simply rest, drink, read, and contemplate during the heat of the day.

It’s my opinion that God made evenings cool, and mornings even cooler, so that people in hot climates can get some useful work done. It is not a gift to be ignored.

Ecstacy in Flight

There are times when flying family members and myself, medical patients, or colleagues from work, that an aircraft is little more than conveniently fast transportation; a time machine.

Then there are other times, like this weekend, when flying is almost a religious experience.

Friday night I flew to an east coast city to pick up my aviator son who had been deprived of aviation for quite some time. Since it was late, the only air traffic was me, “a little guy” as a paternalistic air traffic controller referred to me, and the commercial jet pilots headed to Savannah, Jacksonville and Orlando. The controller was asking Delta pilots if the weather ahead was likely to be a significant issue for me. They replied it wouldn’t be, and indeed it wasn’t.

I truly appreciated the thoughtfulness of the controller, and the assistance of the Delta pilots. Professional pilots and controllers are good people.

After I followed the flashing approach lights to the active runway at Cecil Field, I found my son waiting for me, eager to get airborne for the return trip. However, storms had closed in behind me, and we had to wait until morning for the flight back. What a good decision that was.

We arrived at the Fixed Base Operation (FBO) when they opened at seven, east coast time. There were high clouds and light breezes that kept the temperatures on the asphalt parking ramp pleasantly cool, something I had not experienced in summertime Florida for over a month. I was quite comfortable following my son around as he preflighted the plane with his usual thoroughness.

Soon we were climbing to 8000 feet, heading west under the watchful eyes of Jacksonville Center. The sun was behind us but we couldn’t see it because of the high cloud cover. At cruise altitude the air was chilly, and I was closing vents to remain comfortable. That was, once again, something I had not done for quite a while, even at 8000 feet.

About the time we were approaching Tallahassee, the high cloud cover started thinning, and ahead we could see brilliant blue sky. And then west of Tallahassee, 60 miles out from our destination, we received a treat that would excite us for the rest of the weekend. Layers of clouds loosely surrounded us, giving the air character and texture. And the air itself had a transparency we seldom see in the Southeast. We could see our destination airport from 55 miles out, and could see hotels and condominiums on the distant coast 100 miles away spotlighted by bright morning sunshine. 

An airline passenger at 36,000 feet does not get the same visual experience as a general aviation pilot and his passengers at 5000 to 10,000 feet. The difference is like being in the audience for a concert, versus being in the middle of the orchestra. Being in the orchestra, or in the small cockpit, is an immersion experience. We were witness to a wide variety of cloud structures, with dynamic shapes and colors, below us, at our altitude, and even far above it, with mares tails reaching above the realm of the commercial jetliners.

8000 feet going home. Click for larger image.

With the sun behind us there was no impediment to our vision. It felt, in fact, as if we had supernatural vision, hard at work taking in all the beauty, both natural and man-made, that was laid out before us.

As we were nearing our destination I was almost sad having to leave our lofty vantage point one and a half miles up. But even the most awe-inspiring spiritual experience is short-lived, and we had just enjoyed one of those magical moments that only aviators can experience; albeit briefly. Perhaps it is its brevity, and rarity, that makes it such a memorable experience.

The recognition that my son and I had shared something very special and beautiful, put a smile on our faces, and a glow in our hearts, for the entire weekend.

Broken Sparrow – Everyone Loves a Fighter

What on earth could make a blog posting on a sparrow worth reading?

Well, people love stories of near tragedy, survival, and salvation, and this has some elements of them all.

A nesting pair of House Sparrows showed up at work this Spring, hidden in the metal framework of a second story bridge connecting two brick buildings of typical government construction. Their nest lay only a foot from the heads of passers-by. No one paid them much attention until the hatchlings started calling incessantly for food. Then the nest became both busy and noisy.

The real story began after a wind storm struck one weekend, leaving behind an injured male sparrow. It was obvious that one of his wings had been damaged for we found him on a Monday morning walking up and down the concrete walkway, trying to dodge the frequent pedestrians, and not flying away to safety. In fact, it looked almost as if a wing had been torn off.

But what got everyone’s attention was the sight of him hopping down 12 feet of metal stairs to get to the ground, search for some food, then hopping all the way back up those stairs to defend his nest site, the best he could by being there, injured. Considering he was only about 3 inches high, those hops would be equivalent to us hopping up and down 232 feet of stairs, repeatedly.

I was probably not the first to test his flying ability, and indeed, when frightened he would fly a short distance to a palm tree trunk not far from the bridge. But then he would climb to a secure spot on top of the palm tree, rather than fly straight to the top. Flying for him had become a last result. It was difficult and seemingly painful for him, although he never cried out in pain or alarm, as I’ve heard sparrows can do.

The next day I borrowed some bird seed from a bird lover, and set out a small pan of water, so the injured bird would not risk being eaten by the feral cats that roam our buildings at odd times of the day. When that seed was quickly eaten, a warrior friend of mine came asking for some seed so he could feed his bird.

His bird? So, I was not the only one taking an interest in this brave little male and his struggle for survival.

Unfortunately for the female, her mate was not able to forage for the young, and she had to work double time. That could be why, as soon as the babies had fledged, the nest was emptied, and the female never returned to her mate for another breeding cycle. She could do better, I suppose.

In spite of his troubles, and probable pain, he remained the strong sounding male, calling, announcing his prime nesting site. Never mind that no other bird wanted it. If they had, they could easily have taken it from him since he was defenseless. But still, he thought, he had a job to do. It was a man-thing.

For weeks we would see that male, starting to hop down the stairs, to look for food, and if he happened to see my warrior friend or I bring food, he would turn around, and hop back up the stairs to eat, rather than risk foraging on the barren ground. He became used to us caring for him. Of course he always kept a safe distance from us.

 One morning my warrior friend was visibly upset.  Three female sparrows and a ring neck dove started mooching off the birdseed. He chased them off, as I did when I saw them, but they were persistent.

“How dare they steal food from my bird,” my friend said. “I’m gonna bring a BB gun and stack their little corpses up like cord wood.”

We both laughed at the irony of it.

And then he said, pensively, “I wonder how many birds I’ll have to kill to save this one?”

Others got into the protection business when three females, perhaps his offspring, ganged up on him when he was on the ground and started pouncing and pecking on him mercilessly. One of our female employees became angered by the attack on the injured male, and chased the females away. After that, the male flew best he could back up to the relative safety of the second story walkway.

And that was a good sign. He was growing stronger. A week later, I saw the sparrow flying instead of walking or hopping, and calling loudly to attract a female back to his nest, without success.

But I think the story is now complete, for today he left, fully healed, perhaps in search of more desirable real estate.

When I told my warrior friend the bird was gone, and that we had apparently saved him long enough for him to heal, he said, “You know, I go bird hunting a lot, but there was something about this guy that made me want to save him. It must be something psychological.”

“He was a brave soldier,” I said, “and you don’t leave an injured man to die on the battlefield without trying to save him.”

He smiled and nodded his head. He knew exactly what I meant.

Liquid Breathing – It’s Not As Easy as It Looks

Who can forget James Cameron’s movie The Abyss!

If I need to remind you, Cameron is the creator of Avatar.

The Abyss was an imaginative movie of the 1980s, where the plot concerned commercial divers who had been hired by the Navy to assist with the salvage of a nuclear submarine. It involved very deep diving, and special technology that actually has some basis in fact.

By far the most memorable part of the movie involves a diving helmet filled with a liquid that the diver, with some trepidation, breathed.

Below is a clip from the movie that demonstrated, quite dramatically, and with a live animal, the concept of liquid breathing.

It’s not a trick – it really works, on small rodents.

In the 1960s and 70s the Office of Navy Research funded basic research at Duke University on liquid breathing, with Dr. Johannes A. Kylstra as the lead scientist on the project. After proving the technique worked on rodents and dogs, it progressed to the point of having a commercial diver, Frank Falejczyk, become the first person to breathe oxygenated liquid.

First, Frank inhaled well-oxygenated saline on an operating table. Unfortunately, extraction of the liquid from his lung did not work as planned. He developed pneumonia as a result of the exposure. But eventually, the researchers found that oxygenated perfluorocarbons could be tolerated by the lung, and could, at least in animals, allow the extraction of dissolved oxygen for a period of time without ill effects.

Eventually, Falejczyk made a presentation on his trials to an audience that happened to include James Cameron.  Apparently, Cameron was impressed.

So, can man breathe liquid and not drown? At least one retired physician says yes. Arnold Lande, a retired American heart and lung surgeon, has patented a scuba suit that would, he suggests, allow a human to breathe oxygenated liquid.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/into-the-abyss-the-diving-suit-that-turns-men-into-fish-2139167.html

Now, making such a device work is in fact a tall order. Although Kylstra’s animal experiments showed that rodents and even dogs could be ventilated for up to an hour, the limiting factor seemed to be the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the body. The perfluorocarbons gave up their stored oxygen readily, but did not adequately eliminate carbon dioxide.

That is a major problem.

In the 1980s an Israeli colleague and I conducted biomedical research on potential Navy applications of high frequency ventilation (HFV), an unusual method of mechanical ventilation that now has many clinical applications. It soon occurred to me that appropriate frequencies applied to the mouth or chest wall could greatly accelerate the diffusion of carbon dioxide in liquid, just as it did in air. However, I never proposed studying liquid ventilation, and if I had, the proposal would likely have been rejected almost immediately on the basis of Frank Falejczyk’s bad outcome.

Dr. Lande has proposed solving the carbon dioxide retention problem by tieing artificial gills straight into the human circulatory system. There are obvious safety concerns with such a plan, but if those concerns could be engineered out, there is still the problem of creating working gills with enough throughput to eliminate CO2 from a working diver.

I once witnessed a demonstration of an artificial gill, conducted in front of several well-educated Navy diving physicians and scientists. After descending about three feet down into a pool, the “inventor” lay motionless for 30 seconds, then bounded up out of the water, breathlessly saying, “Basically, it works.”

His panted words were not convincing.

Based on fairly recent history, and the fact that for deep diving, not one lung but both lungs would have to be completely filled with perfluorocarbon or similar liquid, it seems that a practical and safe liquid breathing system will be a huge engineering challenge. I can envision ways that it could be done, but at what cost, and for what purpose?

I am mindful, being an aviator, that such questions were not allowed to stymie Wilbur and Orville Wright. However, these days, human experimentation involving the complete filling of human lungs would face a formidable hurdle, called the Human Use Committee.  In the U.S. at least, a repeat of Kylstra’s experiments is very unlikely to be approved by Research Ethics committees.

But could it happen in other countries with lessor human research safeguards?

Time will tell.

How Musicians and Pilots Are Alike – It’s in the Chords

I’ve suffered from chord envy for years.

No, I’m not talking about the chord of aircraft wings and some etymological, coincidental semblance to musical chords.

No, the problem is much more serious.

You see, I’m a woodwind player, a clarinetist to be exact, and like brass players, I can’t play chords.

A chord is a musical element with more than one note played at a time. In fact, my most loved musical elements are chords. They can be beautiful, or powerful, but I can’t play them.

Music for Bb clarinet.

With my instrument, I’m stuck with playing one note at a time. And due to years of training to do that one function well, my brain will not allow me to diversify. I can only read and interpret one note at a time. If I was to write a simple chord for woodwinds, I’d have to hire three musicians to play it. But give a chord to a pianist, or guitarist, and they’re quite at home. 

I can in fact play a wide variety of chords on a piano, organ, or guitar, and I have often done just that. And of course I can read the keyboard notes. I just can’t read them and play at the same time. My brain’s not wired to do that.

Music for pipe organ

I’ve watched my wife play organ chords on the treble cleft, bass cleft, and pedals. That is, both hands and feet are playing, at the same time!

How does she do that?

If I’d started playing piano at the same time I’d started playing the clarinet, 3rd grade, I’d have no problem. My brain would have wired itself to, as we are fond of saying, multitask. I suppose if I’d started reading two or three books at the same time, in my early childhood, I could do that now. But I didn’t, and so I can’t.

So you see where the chord envy comes from?

But the other day I had an epiphany. Right out of high school I started flying very simple aircraft; a Piper 140 and a Cessna 150. In some sense they’re like the clarinet. But a long time ago I transitioned to so-called complex aircraft; Bonanza’s, Mooney’s and my beloved Arrows. They’re sort of like pianos, in complexity.

And then came the instrument rating – complexity added to complexity, and with it, a heavy responsibility. The combination of complex aircraft and instrument rating is in some ways like an organ – lots of button, pedal and key pushing, all at the right time, and in harmony with the air traffic control system.

An aircraft instrument trainee (gee, there’s another musical parallel) works hard to develop a scan of the instruments to maintain situational awareness and control the aircraft without outside visual reference. It’s tough in the beginning.

But now, with experience, I don’t even think of a scan. I simply take in the entire panel, with all its separate instruments and subconsciously perform the required control inputs to keep the aircraft headed in the correct direction, right-side up.

My epiphany is, that is exactly what a keyboardist does when they are playing six or more notes at the same time. I can’t play musical chords, but my brain has wired itself with repetitive practice to do essentially the same thing with my aircraft.

So now, when I push in the throttle and start the takeoff roll in my Arrow, it’s like the beginning of  the Fan Fare for Also Sprach Zarathustra. The engine powers up from idle (middle C, 261 Hz, C4) to higher RPM’s (G4, 392 Hz) and then full power (C5, 523 Hz). And as my bird lifts into the sky, that famous two chord sequence strikes at an even higher pitch (C major and a sixteenth note later, C minor.)

[Want to know how the frequencies of those notes roughly relate to engine RPM? Multiply by 4.]

As the chord begins dying away I’m simultaneously pulling up the gear, turning as directed, watching the engine instruments, and heading off into the skies with the reassuring droning note of the engine vibrating through our bodies. It’s that same note that reprises the quiet beginning of Strauss’s ASZ.

I can do it! No more chord envy.

As you already know, the same principle, complexity mastered through training, applies to any complex endeavor where situational awareness is vital, be it soccer field or battlefield.

[Update, I don’t know that musicians necessarily make better pilots, or vice versa, but at least they have their own association (Flying Musicians Association) and web site: http://flyingmusicians.org/]

The Puerto Rico Trench and Denizens of the Deep

(Public domain - from U.S. Geological Survey)
Puerto Rico Trench. (Click once or twice for full image) U.S. Geological Survey

The Puerto Rico Trench is the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, and is only surpassed in its depth by the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean. It is 500 miles long, and at its deepest plummets 28,232 feet down.

After receiving my doctorate with a special interest in deep-sea physiology, I was invited on board the oceanographic Research Vessel (RV) Gilliss for an expedition to the Puerto Rico Trench. I was accompanied on that research cruise by Dr. Robert Y. George, a deep-sea biological oceanographer from Florida State University.

I had been studying the effect of very high pressure on invertebrate hearts. As luck would have it, the largest population of deep-sea creatures indigenous to the deepest places in the ocean are invertebrates (animals lacking  vertebrae, backbones.) But on the way down to the deepest reaches of the trench, you encounter some very strange creatures indeed, such as the Humpback Angler Fish.

Click for a larger image

 

 

 

 

 

 

These bizarre and frightening looking fish inhabit the abyssal pelagic zone (or the Abyss) between 13,000 and 20,000 feet. But below the water containing these abyssal fish lies the zone of the deep trenches, the hadalpelagic zone between 20,000 and 36,000 feet, the deepest point in any ocean.

“Denizens of the Deep” are known in merfolk tradition as the beasts that swallow up the sun at the end of the day, which is somewhat ironic since sunlight never reaches down to the abyssal and hadal zones. Whatever light is there, is produced by bioluminescence. Down there, light means either a meal, or a trap. And since meals are uncommon in the sparsely populated ocean depths, predators seem designed to ensure they miss no opportunities to feed. Their jaws, fangs, and other anatomical structures seem especially designed to snag a hapless passer-by, and provide no chance of escape for those caught.  Fortunately for us, animals adapted to the high pressure, low oxygen environment of the deep ocean cannot survive in shallow waters.

But imagine for a moment that something perturbed that natural order. Time has separated us from man-eating dinosaurs, but the only thing separating us from deep-sea monsters, ferocious predators that make piranhas look playful, is something as simple as pressure and oxygen.  Could things change?

Well, not to scare you, but until 1983 or so, the Puerto Rico Trench was a huge pharmaceutical dumping ground. Massive quantities of steroids and antibiotics, and chemicals capable of causing genetic mutations, came to rest on the sea floor, or were dispersed in the waters above and around the trench.

Read more about that here: http://deepseanews.com/2008/04/dumping-pharmaceutical-waste-in-the-deep-sea/

You don’t need to take just one person’s word for it. Professor R.Y. George himself commented on the issue in his resumé.

July 5 – July 30, 1977. Revisited Puerto Rico Trench (now Pharmaceutical Dump Site) aboard R/V GILLISS of the University of Miami to study Barophylic (pressure-loving)bacteria (Dr. Jody Demming’s Ph. D. work from Dr. Rita Colwell’s Lab. in the University of Maryland), and to study meiofauna, macrofauna and megafauna (in collaboration with Dr. Robert Higgins of the Smithsonian Institution).

Frankly, if I was visiting Puerto Rico, and signed up for a deep-sea fishing trip, I’d ask the boat captain just how deep we’d be fishing. I really wouldn’t want to bring up a Humpback Angler Fish large enough to eat the boat. After all, Angler Fish are fishermen too.

For a NOAA sponsored animated tour of the Trench, play the following high resolution video.

[youtube id=”v1OnsuyFdaM” w=”700″ h=”600″]

 

My Pathway to Writing – Learning from Max McCoy’s “The Moon Pool”

This is not some random book review. I have a personal investment in Max McCoy’s underwater thriller, and to be honest, Max is a friend and mentor.

As the Scientific Director and Senior Scientist of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU), I get some unusual calls from time to time. One of the most memorable was from a novelist, Max McCoy.

Not being an avid reader of Westerns, I had never heard of Max, but he had an interesting question. He wanted to know if our large, high pressure chamber, called the Ocean Simulation Facility, could be used to depressurize a small submarine. He gave me the dimensions of the submarine, and little other information to go on.

The unequivocal answer was yes, it could be done fairly easily. With that affirmation, Max traveled to NEDU. After touring our facilities and meeting with our Commanding Officer, engineers, scientists, and submarine medical officers, he began sketching out a closing chapter of his manuscript, the Moon Pool. NEDU would be prominently featured.

During his visit, over lunch, we talked a little about my non-fiction writing project, a spiritual/supernatural collection of carefully filtered anecdotes. He encouraged me in my efforts, and even shared an amazing story of his own. But what Max did not know was that I was stuck in the style of science writing that had been the mainstay of my scientific career. It was hard writing, and frankly, hard reading as well.

When Max returned to Kansas, he sent me his manuscript, which I devoured. The Moon Pool was a change of pace for Max as well. He had been an avid diver for years, and had a diving related story brewing in his mind for some time. For him, The Moon Pool was a welcome, if temporary, release from the Western genre for which he was so well-known.

When I finished the manuscript I began an almost maniacal writing session of my own — an all nighter — writing how I thought the NEDU chapter should read. Since no one would see it, I featured myself and my buddies, inserting our characters into the story, and with a plausible and action-filled story line. I had never had so much fun writing — the words spilled out of my head onto the keyboard.

I sat on that secret product for probably a week before I told Max what I had done. He asked to see it, and much to my surprise, he and his publisher liked it. Even more to my surprise, my character and those of my friends ended up in the last chapter of Moon Pool, modified of course to meet Max’s needs. That book, published in 2004, has a treasured place in my office at NEDU.

On the back cover is my blurb, “A one-of-a kind underwater thriller. The sinister beauty of the underwater world is painted in hues that only an avid diver and inspired novelist could capture.” On the front cover, my dear friend Bob Barth, the Navy’s first Aquanaut, wrote, “A great book! Compelling stuff.” By the time Max visited us, Bob had authored his own book on the Navy’s historical Sea Lab program.

I owe a great deal to Max, for he taught me just how fun creative writing can be, and how, with proper guidance, it can be turned into a commercial product. I have since written two books, one written in record pace, for me at least.  The novel, working title “Children of the Middle Waters” is a mixed military-science fiction story that involves my favorite things, flying and diving, with a pinch of top-secret government intrigue;  just another day at NEDU.  After a long gestational period, I used the creative writing skills developed in the novel to improve the style of the spiritual/supernatural manuscript. Both Children of the Middle Waters, and the spiritual book have yet to be published. But I’m optimistic that will happen in good time.

I will discuss those works more in upcoming blog posts.

By the way, Max’s Moon Pool begins with a supernatural event that is tantalizing in its originality. Furthermore, my spiritual book contains an anecdote of a supernatural experience Max experienced when young. Finally, as a tribute to Max McCoy, he is the inspiration for an investigative journalist in Children of the Middle Waters.

In retrospect, that was quite an auspicious phone call I took one day eight years ago.

Below are links to Max’s web site and his writer’s blogs.

http://www.maxmccoy.com/

http://www.maxmccoy.blogspot.com/

http://www.signalsandnoise.net