“The U.S. President was on the phone with the President of China when a video from the International Space Station came in from the NASA feed to the Emergency Operations Center. A huge burnt-orange cloud was covering the entire southern Pacific, extending all the way up to Hawaii and down to New Zealand. This was no ordinary nuclear explosion.”
The recent deadly explosion in Beirut, and the science fiction thriller, Atmosphere, book 3 of the Jason Parker Trilogy, both involve a toxic, brownish-orange gas, nitrogen dioxide. Of course, one involvement is fictional, and the other, sadly, is not.
From the first chapter of Atmosphere, we find a description of the effects of a gamma ray burst hitting the Earth. “Rampaging winds began spreading toxic nitrogen dioxide clouds around the planet, and within days, the earth was fully affected.”
Considering the violence with which nitrogen dioxide is associated, the way it is created is relatively simple. Some chemists will no doubt claim that the following discussion is too simplistic, but I’ll let them fill in the blanks, if they so choose. As advertised, this is just the basics.
Given enough energy, and localized temperatures on the order of 3000°C, nitrogen molecules (two atoms of nitrogen, N2) combine with oxygen molecules (two atoms of oxygen, O2) to form a chemically unstable gas, nitric oxide, NO.
In chemical terms, N2 + O2 → 2NO
If the searing NO gas is cooled rapidly in the presence of oxygen molecules, the toxic, brownish-orange gas, nitrogen dioxide, is formed.
It’s been known since at least 1911 that the temperature of an electrical arc (6000° – 8000°C) is enough to cause N2 and O2 to form NO. If the hot gaseous NO is then rapidly cooled, NO2 results.
In the science fiction novel, NO2 was created high in the atmosphere by a cosmic burst of high energy gamma rays (GRB) colliding with nitrogen molecules in the presence of oxygen. Lightning also creates nitrogen dioxide, although in relatively small quantities. But if you increase the energy and the quantity of nitrogen and oxygen, “a huge burnt-orange cloud” would be formed.
The resulting high temperature N2 and O2 instantly combined to form the toxic burnt orange cloud of nitrogen dioxide, as seen in the above photo.
The exact mechanism of NO2 formation likely differs among the progenitor sources (GRB, lightning, explosion), but the basics should be the same.
What happened to the poisonous cloud of NO2 after it formed? Unlike what would happen in the upper atmosphere during a GRB, near the surface there is enough moisture for the NO2 to quickly combine with water to form nitric acid.
3 NO2 + H2O → 2 HNO3 + NO
Nitric acid rain would not be pleasant, but would not be as bad as nitrogen dioxide.
So, imagine if you will, a cosmic event (a GRB) far more violent than any man-made explosion. Imagine the entire atmosphere turning into a cloud like that in the photo above. Arguably, that is what would happen after a devastating GRB from within our galaxy.
Actually, that toxic nitrogen dioxide cloud would be the least of the planet’s troubles. It would be a very bad day on Earth.
The good news is that such an event would be very unlikely.
It was dark, the only light coming from the red glowing numerals of my digital alarm clock. I hadn’t set it to alarm—I needed to sleep as long as I could.
It was also quiet in my bedroom, quiet enough for me to hear my breathing as I lay still, trying to sleep. The breath sounds were rhythmic and calming, breathing in with a hiss, and out with a coarser and louder “huh,” endlessly repeated.
I had just been released from our local hospital after five days on oxygen, diagnosed with “respiratory failure” of unknown origin. The medical term for unknown origin is “idiopathic,” but that word added no clarity to what had happened.
What had happened has been described in a previous blog post, a post that correctly warned that if the illness that almost killed me was any indication, we should NOT expect COVID-19 to abate during the hot and humid months in the American South.
Whatever virus I picked up in Thailand in July, seemed to have a predilection for the hot and humid summer weather of Florida. In other words, it had made itself right at home in my lungs. The result was a puzzling but treacherous case of silent hypoxia, or as some have called it, happy hypoxia. In that regard, my respiratory failure was every bit as inexplicable and potentially deadly as COVID-19.
Thankfully, my viral infection had not yet reached the level of transmissibility of COVID-19. Otherwise, my wife of fifty years would certainly have been affected as she sat by my side for those long and frustrating days in the hospital.
But now, it was time for celebration. By sheer willpower and some tricks of the respiratory physiology trade, I had gotten myself discharged from the hospital. But that’s another story.
At home once again, my finger-tip pulse oximeter showed I was oxygenating reasonably well on air (in the low 90 percentile), but I was not back to normal (the high 90s). My lungs still had some healing to do before I could claim I was 100% normal.
As I now lay quietly as night enveloped me, entering almost a meditative state listening to my breathing, I noticed a strange sound. Alerted, I listened more intently. And what I heard scared the hell out of me.
There was something alien in my body. I couldn’t feel it, but I could hear it. When I breathed in, it breathed out. When I breathed out, it breathed in. It was clear as day, something was breathing in my chest, and it wasn’t me.
I had a monster in my chest.
At times like that, it is hard to be objective. But with years of training as a scientist, I forced myself to collect data and analyze the results before, well, FREAKING OUT!
The first thing I noticed, was that the asynchrony between my breathing and the other’s breathing, was invariant. They were 180 degrees out of phase, and that never changed.
Professionally, I’ve dealt with probability my entire scientific career. So, if there were in fact some other living thing in my chest, the odds that it would never change its breathing rhythm seemed unlikely. Unless—it was waiting for my lungs to have a full “tidal” breath” before IT took a breath.
Of course! That is exactly what I would do if I was in some giant’s chest. I’d wait until their lungs were full before I’d steal air from them. After all, how else could I, as a little monster, breathe?
But wouldn’t X-rays at the hospital have shown its presence? Well, yes, and no. They didn’t do an MRI. If IT was soft bodied, and growing, it might not have been detected. And going an analytical step further, that could explain why my arterial oxygen saturation levels were not back to normal. IT was stealing oxygen from me.
My heart rate was increasing, which was the last thing I wanted it to do. The more blood I sent the thing, the faster IT would grow. I had to stay calm. But how?
I began thinking about physiology text books. That would put anybody to sleep. But that was also the magic moment. That was when I put a name on the creature in my chest.
I called it, Pendelluft.
Until that night, Pendelluft had been to me of little more than academic interest. I’d read about it, but I knew it is primarily found in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); which I do not have. I’ve also never been a smoker or asthmatic.
I knew of the diagrams which explain it, but I never thought that I would be able to hear it, in my body, and especially without a stethoscope.
An illustration of the mechanism of Pendelluft from a humorously named web site, Deranged Physiology.
After I explored the medical literature, I’m not sure anyone in the medical field thinks it possible for a patient to hear his own Pendelluft. But it must be true, since the monster never reared its ugly head, and my arterial oxygen level regained its expected normal value only after the “monster” faded away.
I was pleased when I read that one of my mentors, Dr. Arthur Otis, the one time Department Head of the Physiology Department at the University of Florida School of Medicine, had done the pioneering research on the subject.
I have to admit that I smiled when I read that 2012 article. I was questioning how much money was spent on that very elaborate medical investigation. Arguably, it was fine work and contributed nicely to the field.
But, I wondered, did they try asking the patient, “Do you hear a monster in your chest?”
The voice on the other end was from the Pentagon. That was the last thing I’d expected to hear on Saturday morning, March 21st, 2020.
On October 1, 2018, I had happily retired after forty years of Federal service. I had remained engaged with the Naval Sea Systems Command and the Navy Experimental Diving Unit as their one and only Volunteer Scientist Emeritus, until I received that call.
Within 90 minutes, I had been reinstated with full security clearance and told to pack my bags.
The next day as I was flying on government orders in an almost empty plane to New Hampshire, I had no idea that the company I was sent to help would begin a ventilator design effort from scratch, that same day. I also couldn’t imagine that the resulting ventilator would receive FDA approval 41 days later.
The company, Wilcox Industries, in Newington, New Hampshire, has for twenty years built hybrid self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for the military. In fact, twenty years ago, with full Navy support, I helped them design and test their first Scout (now Patriot), life-support system for Tier One operators. But when the COVID Task Force phoned me, Wilcox had no experience with medical devices, especially ventilators. But with the can-do attitude so typical of military support manufacturers, they were willing to learn. In fact, no one I met at Wilcox questioned that it could be done.
All it took was the drive and leadership of Jim W. Teetzel (center of the photo), a brilliant engineer, businessman and CEO who holds more patents than he can probably remember, young engineers who never considered failure being a possibility, a nimble supply system that provided needed parts within 24 hours, and the magic words which opened every door. Those words were, “COVID Task Force.”
Through the Wilcox network of friends and family, patient ventilation circuit parts almost magically appeared, as did the world’s best mechanical Test Lung.
There was nothing I asked for that did not appear almost as soon as I requested it.
Most important for me was the opportunity to teach by showing, by taking pieces of patient tubing circuits and arranging them in a way that would work with a totally new ventilator concept, the Patriot SAVR (Synchronous Automatic Ventilating Resuscitator.)
Our tasking from the COVID Task Force was not to produce multiple copies of existing sophisticated ventilators that cost as much as a nice car, but to have all hands engaged in producing small, cheap ventilators built to exacting engineering and medical standards. The proof that Wilcox accomplished that goal was the hard won stamp of approval from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA.)
While we want Americans to have the finest medical care money can buy, to include BMW-priced ventilators if the need arises, the fact is that during a world pandemic there simply are not enough of those deluxe models to go around. In the most populous nations of the world where per capita income is low, the availability of hundreds of such ventilators are a luxury few if any outlying hospitals can afford. However, low-cost ventilators like the Patriot SAVR fill that need.
Wilcox is blessed with a retired Marine Corp Colonel, Kevin Dodge (on the left side of this photo), Jim Teetzel’s Chief Strategy Officer. Dodge not only has the experience of managing production and testing programs as complex as that for the V-22 Osprey, but has an understanding of the need for strategically placed world markets.
Together, Jim Teetzel, Kevin Dodge, the “wicked” smart Executive Director of International Programs and Lebanese-born Roula Assadi, and Jim’s senior engineers (Nic Goupil, Gary Lemire, Stan Carter) and their Maestro of Quality Assurance, Lorena Grol, have succeeded in turning a small but wealthy Arab nation into a manufacturing center for the Middle East and North African Region, as well as the huge Indo-Asian continent.
Considering the tactical pedigree of this ventilator, and the company which built it, I foresee that eventually every U.S. military medic or independent duty corpsman will have one or more of the Patriot SAVR units available at their aid station, just in case any Patriots need saving.
“Happy hypoxia,” or more properly, silent hypoxia, has been one of the most puzzling signs and symptoms of patients presenting to Emergency Rooms with COVID-19. The patient’s arterial oxygen saturation can be in the fifties instead of the normal values in the upper 90s, and yet the patient can be cheerful, fully coherent, and even chatty. Normally, with that low an oxygen concentration in the blood stream, a patient would be in severe respiratory distress.
I experienced silent hypoxia after a visit to Thailand in July of 2018, which makes me wonder: was there a coronavirus lurking in Southeast Asia in 2018 that later mutated to become the killer SARS CoV-2? Did I have SARS CoV-1.5?
Summertime was everything you would expect in Thailand. It was warm and humid, but not uncomfortably so. I had twelve hours ahead of me in the Bangkok Airport waiting for my return flight to Taiwan, then the long leg across the Pacific to Los Angeles. Eventually, I would make my way back to my home in Panama City, Florida, which would also be hot and muggy. No surprises there.
What was a surprise, was that a young lady wandering the airport asked if she could interview me for the Thai Ministry of Tourism. She had official looking IDs, and a load of interview questions. I wasn’t interested, and I was busy, I offered, already tired before the twelve hours of dead time even began.
In truth, I wasn’t that busy, but felt it best not to mingle. I seemed to be the only person not speaking Thai, except for that young lady. Surprisingly, she had no detectable accent and could pass for a Southern California blond.
After a couple of hours, she returned when I could no longer claim to be busy. She had a simple, youthful attractiveness and an unassuming manner. So, tiring of the boredom of waiting, I allowed her to sit beside me while she started running down her list of tourism related questions.
She wanted to know why I came to Thailand. It was to give a talk at a medical and scientific conference on sports medicine. My subject was “Oxygen,” a fact that would soon become ironic. I discovered later that my travel, ostensibly paid for by the Thai Sports Authority, was bankrolled by Beijing. But I didn’t know that at the time.
For 45 minutes the questions continued. They were business-like, the type of questions I would expect from a Tourist Bureau. But one thing caused me concern, her occasional hacky cough. She insisted it was nothing, and I was not alarmed. I thought no more about it as I finally boarded the plane for the first leg of my long journey home.
Eight hours after my arrival in Panama City, I felt ill as I lay in bed, trying to sleep after being exactly twelve hours time-shifted. I felt sicker by the minute. Jet lag doesn’t do that.
By morning, I had suffered chills and sweats, and my physician son insisted I be taken to the closest Emergency Room. As we neared the ER I felt I was going to vomit, and I leaned into a trash can that my wife brought for that purpose.
The next thing I heard was her screaming at me.
I yelled back, completely confused and annoyed. “Why are you yelling at me?”
“I thought you’d died,” she said. “You sighed, threw your back into the seat, and your arms were stiff and shaking.”
Apparently I had passed out from a drop in blood pressure. (I had not yet thought about hypoxemia.)
As I was being monitored in the ER, I felt OK. I conversed with my wife, and was half-joking and half-irritated at my unexpected welcome home event.
After awhile, I began to pay attention to the finger tip pulse-oximeter that was monitoring my arterial oxygen saturation. The reading was slipping lower than I had ever seen before, but neither the nursing staff nor the attending physician seemed the least bit concerned. My wife and I continued to chat. I was not in any discomfort, and ignored the monitors until I caught sight of the updated pulse-ox reading. It had plummeted down to a horrifically low 55%.
I told my wife to alert the nurse. They finally started me on a nasal cannula with oxygen. (For those who know, that was an incredibly delayed reaction.) I also knew enough to realize I should be almost stuporous, yet I wasn’t. I was content, except for my circumstances.
Within a few minutes, an ambulance transported me to a real hospital. Being aware of my overseas travel, they assumed I had a pulmonary embolism, which if detected, would have required immediate surgery. But after a perfusion scan, nothing abnormal was revealed.
After settling into a room, I had zero desire for any of the food they brought me. It was all tasteless, and remained that way for two days.
Initially they kept me on 3 liters of oxygen per minute by nasal cannula, which still wasn’t bringing my oxygen saturation above 84 percent. That was a problem.
At the urging of the CDC, the nursing staff came to my room fully gowned and face-shielded, and stuck that infamously long sampling swab up my nose. They tested me for the most recent viral illness in Southeast Asia at the time, the H7N9 Bird Flu virus of 2017. The results were negative.
In spite of my growing displeasure with being in the hospital, and not tolerating the taste, or lack thereof, of their food, I was happy and chatty with the nursing staff. But neither I, a respiratory physiologist, nor the medical staff could figure out what was wrong. My X-rays showed some consolidation in my lingula, a small lobe in the middle of my lungs, but that was not enough to cause hypoxia of the level I was experiencing.
After a while, I began to get a few signs of pneumonia in my lower lung lobes, but not enough to cause any discomfort, or difficulty breathing. While physicians clobbered the growing infection with antibiotics and steroids, I remained happily hypoxic.
After five days in the hospital, and slowly watching my oxygen saturation rise, a respiratory therapist snuck behind me and turned off the oxygen. My saturation remained low, at 88%, but it didn’t drop further.
That meant, I would remain on air until discharge. That encouraged me enough to call for a walking test, walking down the hospital corridor breathing nothing but air. Unfortunately, I failed that test, and was sent back to bed.
About that time, a pulmonologist came by and told me I had a good bit of atelectasis (collapsed alveoli or lung sacs) in my lower lobes. Finally, something I could fix. I knew what to do.
I wore out my incentive spirometer over the next couple of hours, and then called for another walking test. The Respiratory Therapist chided me…I would just fail again, she said. But I do love a challenge. With her by my side, I moved slowly down the hall, refusing to talk, and that time my oxygen saturation did not drop.
Due to that walking test, I was discharged from the hospital with an oxygen saturation of 92% and returned home to fully recover. (That is in itself an interesting story which I’ll write about next.)
However, the point of this post is that as I read about COVID-19, I’m finding that physicians are puzzled about some of the same bizarre symptoms I experienced in 2018, notably a silent hypoxia. I was never “short of breath” as would be expected with an arterial saturation in the fifties.
From my studies of respiratory physiology, I knew that what had happened to me in 2018 should not have happened, according to the text books. I did not have the SARS virus identified in 2017. But viruses mutate constantly. Could my symptoms have been the signs of a predecessor or cousin to COVID-19? Could it have been an unrecognized COVID-18?
When lungs are not filled with fluid from rampant pneumonia, the most likely way to become hypoxic breathing air is through something called ventilation-perfusion (V-Q) mismatch. A pulmonary embolus can cause massive V-Q mismatch, and can quickly kill if untreated.
However, a recent Science article suggested that COVID-19 might cause microemboli resulting in silent hypoxia. It seems reasonable that enough microemboli, if that’s what it was, could have caused my symptoms in the summer of 2018 without being detected on a pulmonary perfusion scan.
And that worries me for the current pandemic. Summer heat and humidity might not kill this virus. It certainly didn’t kill the virus that I presumably caught from a pretty young girl with a “nothing” of a cough in late July of 2018. It may have been nothing for her, but it was sure something for me.
None of my friends at the medical conference got sick upon returning home. I was the only one spending 45 minutes less than a foot away from that coughing girl. I feel pretty confident where I got it. My only question is, did I pick up a version of coronavirus that was beginning to mutate towards the destructive potential of SARS CoV-2 which erupted just over a year later?
I will provide an update on the results of my antibody test for COVID-19. That could prove interesting.
A December, 2019 article in the New York Times has the catchy headline, “Bubble
Subs Arise, Opening Eyes to the Deep Sea.”
From my perspective, it’s always great when anything about the deep sea attracts the attention of major newspapers. In general, well researched and written publications on the subject are hard to find. A happy exception is biologist Bill Streever’s latest book, In Oceans Deep.
Streever’s excellent book has much to say about free diving, Navy diving, and even one-atmosphere diving suits (wearable submarines, if you will.)
But back to the NYT. William Broad’s article on mini-submarines is both colorful and informative. I urge you to read it if you have even the slightest interest in the undersea world.
However, just as the title of this blog post is deliberately hyperbolic, tongue in cheek, the NYT article is a bit misleading. Just because the technology may be new to the New York Times, it doesn’t mean it’s truly new. Bubble Subs have not actually risen of late. They, and the concepts behind them, have been around for a long time.
To prove my point, this blog post republishes the most interesting parts of an article I penned in the Georgia Tech Engineer way back in 1967. It’s called The Depth Challenger. The article is a little technical, which is the norm for an engineering school magazine, but it was also written to appeal to a diverse student body.
The article begins with a short piece of descriptive prose.
star, its arms twitching, spreading across the firm, grey mud, stops as a tracking light sweeps over
it. An instant later the light returns and fixes on the animal as the whirring bubble slides in close overhead. The sphere
hovers briefly then moves off, circling, finally disappearing below a canyon rim. When minutes later the
soft canyon floor, cameras clicking, the two men inside sit gazing, peering, with four miles of water above their heads. These
men are new frontiersmen – the oceanographers.
One of the greatest problems
preventing our full utilization of the
ocean’s potential is the inability of re search devices to withstand the enormous pressures
exerted by deep water. At four thousand feet, the sea exerts one
ton of pressure on each square inch of surface. At thirty-five thousand
pressure is more than seven and a half tons
per square inch. To date, nothing has been developed with
1) withstanding deep sea pressure, 2) containing man for extended periods of time, and 3) enabling
direct visual observation.
However, a solution to these problems may soon be met by glass
submarines. H. A. Perry, research
materials engineer at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory of
Silver Springs, Maryland, is currently researching the feasibility of transparent submarine hulls. Perry states that glass provides a unique degree of buoyancy and safety in
deep submergence hulls.
To test his original hypothesis, Perry and other NOL scientists set sail in 1964 aboard the Navy research vessel Gillis with a cargo of 95 hollow spheres provided by Corning Glass Works and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. Once over the Puerto Rico trench, these spheres were lowered to depths of 300, 7000, 1400 and 2100 feet. Pentolite-charges were set a fixed distance away and detonated. If no leakage of the sphere occurred, the charges were moved closer until the glass finally failed. At this point, a “critical distance” was defined. As depth increased, the compressive strength of the glass also increased. With metal hulls, the results are just the opposite.
(As a side note, a few years later I set sail on the same vessel, by then renamed the RV Gillis, for a research cruise to the Puerto Rico Trench.)
Apparently, the deeper a glass submarine dives, the safer are its occupants; that is, down to an optimum depth of about 21,000 feet where the compressive strength diminishes until buckling finally occurs at a theoretical depth of 55,000 feet. However, the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep, is a trench descending to only 35,888 feet, so the theoretical limit for glass spheres poses no problem. It will be noted, though, that the compressive strength of conventional spheres at relatively low pressures is in itself rather low. The chances of a mariner surviving an accidental collision on down to a depth of several hundred feet is nil. Obviously, there is a need for either foolhardy scientists or “pre-compressed hulls.”
The full article with illustrations can be read here.
In my opinion, the epitome of bubble submarines has been the Johnson Sea Link, pictured here. This revolutionary bubble submarine started operations in 1971, with upgrades in 1972, just a few years after I got wind of it.
When I was a graduate student, I found Hal Clement’s science
fiction novel in the Florida State University Bookstore. I had just completed a
summer in the U.S. Navy-sponsored Scientist in the Sea Program in Panama City,
Florida. Being an avid diver, and a burgeoning scientist, my imagination was
captured by Clement’s book.
I read his book shortly after it was published in 1973, but after
graduating and moving, I lost the book. Unfortunately, I also forgot the book’s
title and the author’s name. Yet I still felt a deep connection with the story,
and for that reason, I spent decades looking for it, without success.
Recently, my luck changed. While browsing the Wikipedia
topic on liquid breathing, I found the source I had long been searching for. “Hal Clement’s 1973 novel Ocean on Top portrays
a small underwater civilization living in a ‘bubble’ of oxygenated fluid denser
There it was, at last. And best of all, that bubble turned out to be perfluorocarbon, an exotic, heavier than water, transparent liquid. In reality, filling a person’s lungs with it, is not as murderous as it would seem.
I was ecstatic: could this really be the book I’d been seeking for decades? Being on travel at the time, I searched for an Audible version of the book. Again, I was in luck: there was a version narrated by Tom Picasso. (Thank-you, Wikipedia and Audible, for providing instant gratification!)
With a bit more research, I discovered that “Hal Clement”
was the pen name for Harry Clement Stubbs. I ordered two copies of his first
edition, one of them signed with both his pen name and real name.
Harry (Hal) Stubbs passed away at age 81, in 2003. Born in 1922, Stubbs was an early leader in the “hard science fiction” genre, where science fiction is infused with scientific facts and logic.
The original version of his story was a Magazine serial version, copyrighted in 1967 by Galaxy Publishing Corp., for Worlds of If.
While the publication of the 1973 book version of Clement’s story might have been influenced by the Energy Crisis of 1973, , the date of the original publication, 1967, suggests that Clement was simply prescient. I would be surprised if in the 1960s, a science fiction writer of ordinary skill could have envisioned the global Energy Crisis of 1979.
Yet, here it is, the publisher’s summary of Ocean on Top: “Aquatic Enigma – The world’s energy was limited… and with overpopulation and a high level of technology, the Power Board had virtually become the real government of the world. Power was rationed, it was guarded, it was sacred. Thus, when three of the Power Board’s agents disappeared at sea, and there was evidence that something irregular was happening to the energy quota in that area, it was cause for real alarm.”
In 1979, while I was stuck in long lines waiting for gas in
Maryland and Washington D.C., I vividly remembered the premise behind the book
whose title evaded me. What a curious prediction that author had made, a
prediction that in part had come true.
Of greater interest to me in 1973, as a newly fledged Navy-trained
science diver, was the book’s prediction of the consequences of contemporaneous
U.S. Navy-funded work on liquid breathing by human divers. In the 1970s, Johannes
A. Kylstra was the primary researcher working on that project in the hyperbaric
laboratory at Duke University.
Some critics say Ocean on
Top was not the best of Clement’s works. Arguably, that honor belongs to
his earlier Mission
of Gravity(1954). However, if you are curious about the
prospects of forsaking the land and living under the sea, his 1973 book raises
some interesting points. One is that it posits the divergence of humans into
two races; air-breathing humans and liquid breathing humans.
It also predicts, convincingly, some of the communication
difficulties such a human divergence would cause. After all, our anatomical
speech apparatus is designed for working in air, not fluid.
Perhaps it was the subliminal memory of Clement’s little book that influenced the storyline in the recent work, Atmosphere, Book Three of the Jason Parker Trilogy. After all, liquid breathing was an exciting science and science fiction concept back in the day, and surely worth a resurgence in this century, based on modern science.
I say “modern science” for two reasons: the first is because
liquid perfluorocarbon is now instilled in lungs for medical treatment.
Secondly, thanks to new molecular engineering technology like CRISPR-Cas9, we
now foresee how genetic engineering can potentially lead to a divergence of the
If Hal Clement was still around, I have no doubt he’d be
writing many more science fiction novels about a future that just might be more
realistic, and with more immediacy, than we think.
Heat pumps have been a boon for efficient residential heating and cooling, at least in those regions of the country where winter temperatures do not consistently hover in the frigid range. In the southern United States, whole house heat pumps are arguably the most efficient way to heat and cool a house. Outside temperatures rarely fall below twenty degrees Fahrenheit, and even at 20°F, there is plenty of ambient heat available to heat a well-insulated home.
Owners of heat pumps have probably noticed that in the summer, heat removed from the home is released into the outside air. Heat coming off the outdoor unit, the actual heat pump, is hot. On the other hand, they may not have ventured out on a winter night to see how cold the exhaust from a heat pump is when it is in “heat” mode. But cold it has to be. Compared to a temperature of absolute zero, winter air is hot as hades. A heat pumps works by extracting some of that heat and sending it into the house to warm the house occupants.
But you can’t get something for nothing. Once the pump extracts a portion of the heat from cold outside air, that outside air must become colder.
Into this thermodynamic saga enters a non-native lizard called the Cuban or Brown Anole. The lizards are invasive, which means they are decimating the native Green Anoles which have long existed in the South Eastern United States. The Cubans are larger, more aggressive than the Greens, and reportedly feed on young Green Anoles.
However, they have a weakness. As you might expect for any species originating in Cuba and the Bahamas, they don’t like the cold. Whereas Green anoles range as far north as the Carolinas, the Browns do not. In fact, after a cold night in the Florida Panhandle I found a Brown Anole hard frozen on my doorstep. Perhaps he sensed warmth seeping from under the front door, and was trying to get in the house. Well, he didn’t make it.
The Greens, on the other hand, apparently shelter on or underground in leafy areas to survive the occasional cold dip.
As the outside temperature begins to drop in the late fall and winter, heat-seeking tropical lizards can be found warming themselves on top of the outdoor heat exchanger of our AC unit. When the proverbial nip is in the air, owners of well-insulated Florida homes plagued with high humidity, continue to run their air conditioning until late in the season.
For the Anoles, that is both a boon and a risk; it can prove to be a dangerous warming strategy. If frightened by the sudden appearance of a homeowner, Anoles run. When in their panic they fall into the running fan, the attempted evasion does not end well.
But the greatest insult is a thermodynamic one, which comes when the outside temperature drops even lower. Naturally, that chill makes the warmth from the heat exchanger even more attractive to the lizards. That is, until one of the human occupants decides it’s time to turn on the heat.
Thermodynamics being what it is, that switch almost instantaneously turns a warming source of air from the AC unit into a frigid blast of air.
Which explains why one morning after turning on the heat, I discovered the freeze-dried carcass of a Brown Anole clutching tightly to the grill of the AC unit. Apparently, the already chilled tropical lizard had what little strength it had left suddenly sapped by the high velocity blast of cold air. It died in place. (I have spared you the photo I took at the time.)
There is a moral to this story I believe.
As we grow cozy with new technology we don’t understand, while basking in the warmth and seduction of advanced engineering with its seemingly miraculous capabilities, perhaps we should remember this little lizard. It had acquainted itself with the bright side of thermodynamics, without realizing there was a dark side. Likewise, with the throwing of a switch, seemingly magical technology could be our undoing.
The title of this posting is no hyperbole. The “Chariot of Fear” is the ancient Greek personification of the mythological God Phobos, described by the ancients as horror riding his chariot across the night sky.
In reality, the diminutive moon Phobos, almost skimming the surface of the warrior planet Mars, is a potentially innocuous place to visit assuming you have a pressure suit and oxygen to breathe. Like Earth’s much larger moon, there is no atmosphere on Phobos. There is also no appreciable gravity.
NASA and Japan are planning a joint unmanned mission to the moons of Mars in 2024. The joint venture is called the Martian Moons eXploration Mission, or MMX. Those unmanned missions may be a prelude to later manned landings since NASA has considered landing astronauts on Phobos before landing on Mars, due to the lack of atmosphere and ultra low gravity of that moon.
Using the Hubble telescope, NASA generated a short video of Phobos as it orbits around Mars.
While researching a new novel, I was looking for a view of Mars from Phobos. Using the astronomy software Starry Night Pro 8, I found it.
Further more, I was able to make a 3 minute video of Mars going through an entire rotation, sped up of course some 150 times.
While the above video is aesthetically pleasing because of the background stars and the entirety of Mars being in the field of view (FOV), in reality Mars is too far away in this simulation. As the NASA movie suggests, the surface of Mars is much closer (about 6000 km away from Phobos), and thus in reality Mars fills a quarter of the celestial horizon as seen from Phobos. In other words, from Phobos the FOV of Mars is about 45°, which yields a more accurate view as shown in the following video, also made using Starry Night Pro.
The shadow of Phobos can be seen racing across the surface of Mars, to the left of center of the Martian equator.
From a writer’s perspective, thanks to affordable but sophisticated astronomical simulation software and a bountiful database of space objects and trajectories, both near and far, there is no longer an excuse for science fiction writers not getting their scenes setup correctly, assuming their stories are based on the observable universe.
As for the unobservable universe, well that’s where this thing called imagination comes into play. In an imaginary universe, there’s no fact checking allowed.
Almost exactly a year ago, I began writing one of my third novel’s introductory chapters. I am sharing a sample of that chapter at this time because of what seems to me to be a recently discovered coincidence.
“There is never an end to a thing once it is started, according to astrophysicist Peter Green. We can call it an end, but that doesn’t make it so.
A person can be born, grow old and die, but his or her energy goes on, somehow. It may not be recognizable, but physics says it must be that way.
Even a universe is born, grows for a seeming eternity, yet eventually it too must die. Some say in its end, there is a new beginning.
Dr. Peter Green knew those facts better than most. As an astrophysicist working with colossal machines of physics research at CERN, Switzerland, machines that have the power to peer into the beginning of the universe, he’d often thought about not just the beginning, but the ending, the ending that precedes what comes next.
His specialty was dark matter, and something perhaps related, dark energy. We can’t see either, but physics says they must exist for the universe to be what it is.
Either that, or physics is wrong, and neither Green nor his scientist colleagues had ever found physics to be in error.
But he did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales?
And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?
Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really. At least that’s how Dr. Peter Green saw it.”
Arguably, that’s a pretty unconventional thought, Dr. Green had, even for cosmologists who, as a whole, are renowned for unconventional thinking. And at the time that I wrote it, I thought it was a good way to illustrate that the character Peter Green was brilliant, but a bit odd.
Well, he is odd no longer.
I say that because just today I saw a LiveScience article, from which I quote:
“Physicists have found what could be evidence of ‘ghost’ black holes from a universe that existed before our own.
The remarkable claim centers around the detection of traces of long-dead black holes in the cosmic microwave background radiation – a remnant of the birth of our universe.
According to a group of high-profile theoretical physicists including Oxford’s Roger Penrose (Ph.D. in mathematical physics), these traces represent evidence of a cyclical universe – one in which the universe has no inherent end or beginning but is formed, expands, dies, then repeats over and over for all eternity.
“If the universe goes on and on and the black holes gobble up everything, at a certain point, we’re only going to have black holes,” Penrose told Live Science. “Then what’s going to happen is that these black holes will gradually, gradually shrink.”
When the black holes finally disintegrate, they will leave behind a universe filled with massless photons and gravitons which do not experience time and space.
Some physicists believe that this empty, post-black hole universe will resemble the ultra-compressed universe that preceded the Big Bang – thus the entire cycle will begin anew.
If the cyclical universe theory is true, it means that the universe may have already existed a potentially infinite number of times and will continue to cycle around and around forever.
Penrose is clearly one of the great minds of the world, as you can perhaps appreciate from this YouTube clip.
As a reminder, this is also what the fictional cosmologist in the upcoming novel, Dioscuri, believed.
“He did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales? And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?
Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”
At precisely 10:09 this morning I was in an office discussing awards, and the lack thereof, for civilian service members in military organizations. It was a matter of fact discussion, contrasting the award system for civilians and the military. And at that moment, Napoleon’s famous quote came to mind. I reminded that executive of the above quote.
My fellow workers and I talk frequently, and there have been numerous discussions in that office, and elsewhere, that have been of a sensitive nature.
As I turned and returned to my office, I heard a familiar voice coming from my pocket. “That’s not nice!” it said.
In utter dismay, I pulled my iPhone from my pocket where it had lain untouched and unused for quite some time. And that was when I saw the following plainly written on my phone’s screen.
Siri was scolding me!
Unknown to us, Siri had been listening, transcribing what it THOUGHT I was saying, clearly imagining vulgarity where there was none. After I ended the conversation, Siri addressed me like she was my mother.
Now, a human would know those transcribed words were ludicrous, nothing but gibberish, but not the phone’s AI system controlling Siri. Unbelievably, that system took the gibberish seriously, perhaps by parsing a few words out of context. And in spite of that stupidity, Siri felt led to judge me!
Perhaps smart phone AIs are taking themselves too seriously. Perhaps they think they have advanced enough that they now think they can pass judgment on human speech.
A few years ago, in another meeting, in another room, Siri spoke up unbidden while we were discussing sensitive project planning.
The door to the conference room had been closed so we wouldn’t be disturbed. But disturbed we were when Siri suddenly spoke and said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
Everyone at the table stared first at my phone and then at me, perhaps wondering if I’d been recording the planning meeting.
AI is certainly becoming increasingly intrusive. But as shown by Siri’s text message to me today, it’s still not smart. And arguably that’s a scary thing.
For example, supposedly China is using data collected from social apps (collected by various AI systems) to rate the trustworthiness of its citizens. That’s bad enough, but what if the data collected is garbage like the recorded text today, and the AI uses that faulty data to make a perfunctory and wildly incorrect judgment?
And, scary thought, what if that social monitoring trend were to spread to the U.S., and your character could to be judged based on the digital algorithms of certifiable AI idiots?
If that doesn’t worry you, perhaps it should. It certainly did me, enough to cause me to shut down all access to Siri … for almost 24 hours, until I was driving home and said, “Siri, call home.”