If Whales Could Fly

When Ottorini Respighi wrote his symphonic poem Pines of Rome, he was not imagining flying whales. Instead, the last movement of his work invokes the imagery of a Roman Legion marching along the Via Appia Antica.  When I would listen to the drumming and droning of the orchestra I never imagined whales flying either, at least prior to the year 2000.

But somebody at Disney Studios did, as evidenced by Fantasia 2000. The flying whales animation, accompanied by Respighi’s score, is now one of my favorite segments of the Fantasia 2000 DVD.

With a name like Fantasia, we should fully expect fantasy, fantasy being defined as an art form devoid of any requirements for plausible scientific foundations.  And Fantasia has always delivered that art form in abundance.

In contrast, science fiction may have fantastic elements in it, but there is an expectation that the writers’ creations be somewhat defensible on the basis of known scientific principles. So, what if whales could fly? What would be the real world consequences of such an improbable occurrence? What does science have to say about it?

For one thing, flying whale babies would not have to worry about being eaten by Orcas, as mentioned in my last posting. So whale populations would increase, unless the inexperienced calves flew into wind farms and airplanes.

As a pilot and airline passenger, my first concern would be whether airborne whales could be detected on radar. Is the whale’s smoothly rounded shape, it’s tough but flexible skin and potentially radar absorbing blubber stealthy in the same way that stealth bombers elude detection by radar?  If so, the air traffic control system would have real problems. Sure, flying whales would be easy to see in day light, but can you imagine encountering them at night or in clouds without benefit of radar? I shudder to think.

And yes, whales migrate continuously, night and day, so they would be a gargantuan risk to air traffic in low visibility conditions. Compared to a whale strike, bird strikes would be a minor affair.

What if flying whales blunder into restricted air space, like over the White House? There are missiles there, I hear, capable of shooting down intruders. But would I want to be the one to pull a trigger that blows a whale to blubbery bits all over Washington D.C.?

Perhaps whales would be granted an exempt status, like migrating geese. But what if terrorists took advantage of that and managed to bring down an intact whale in the middle of the White House Rose Garden? I haven’t calculated the kinetic energy of a full grown falling Gray Whale, but at a weight of 40 tons or so, I doubt anything trapped under the  whale would survive the impact.

Unfortunately, a science fiction writer envisioning flying whales can’t avoid the inevitability of whale poop. While bird poop is an inconvenience, falling whale products of digestion would likely prove lethal. What a lousy way to die. (OK, I admit I was thinking of using a different adjective.)

The Achilles’ heel of any flying whale story would have to be buoyancy. It has been estimated that approximately half of a grown whale’s weight is derived from blubber. What if a whale replaced all of its blubber with hydrogen? [While I could choose helium as a buoyant gas, helium is not produced biologically, whereas hydrogen is, as a product of flatulence.]

Hydrogen has a specific buoyancy of approximately 71 lbs per 1000 cubic ft, so a 20,000 lb whale (stripped of all blubber) would need about 282,000 cubic feet of hydrogen to be neutrally buoyant (to float in air). To put that into perspective, the Goodyear Blimp weights 12,840 lbs, and has a volume of 202,7oo cubic feet. So a flying whale would have to be roughly 50% larger than the Goodyear blimp. [I leave a more exact calculation to high school physics students looking for an imaginative problem to solve.]

From a science fiction standpoint, that is entirely conceivable. Buoyant whales would be much larger than modern whales.

As for a means of propulsion, I don’t think whale fins would suffice; they don’t look enough like wings.  But with a little imagination, I bet most school kids could think of a means of propulsion that would be akin to, dare I say, jet propulsion.

I think I now have the makings of a science fiction novel. I’ve got the science figured out: all I need now is a plot and some interesting human characters.

To be continued, perhaps …

Only Classical on Sunday

Music Appreciation classes notwithstanding, I sense that the best way to become absorbed in music is to sit in the middle of it, in an orchestra or choir, and to be part of the organic music-making machine. Although I am not from a strongly musical family, my mother was a dancer and dance instructor, and we owned one of those cool Hammond Drawbar organs, on which I learned basic chord structure. Mom and Dad bought me a clarinet in 4th grade, letting me graduate to a beautiful LeBlanc clarinet by the time I was in high school. It is still, many years later, one of my greatest treasures.

In college I usually traded the clarinet for a guitar, which was a more sociable instrument for the college crowd.

Sadly, I let my musical skills atrophy somewhat with age, but that instrumental passion has been replaced by a broader love of good music, and an imperative to pass that love on to my children and grandchildren.

My wife is a keyboardist, and we have owned two pianos and two organs, with our living room currently filled by a Yamaha Grand piano. Our family room is, I shouldn’t say filled, exactly, but accented by a “Baby” Grand, to wit a pink Barbie Grand just the right size for a 2-3 year old toddler/preschooler.

Although I am not a music professional, I started training my children with a simple rule. You guessed it, “Only classical music on Sunday.” We could rock our hearts out six days of the week, but Sunday was for God, and classical music.

I guess that simple rule paid off: my son sings and plays the guitar, and was the leader of a darned good band in high school and college. He married a violinist and pianist, and they own a piano that his 10-year-old daughter plays superbly. She is far more accomplished than I was at her age.

Our daughter recently retired her electronic key board “with piano-like action”, and bought a real piano, with far-better feel to it. She plays our  Grand with a skill and beauty that is mesmerizing.

Now, this is where the fun begins: the musical education of a 3-year old, my daughter’s daughter.

So, where to start?

I began with an animated version of Peter and the Wolf, starring Kirstie Allie and my Sea Hunt diving hero, Lloyd Bridges. While the animation captures the attention of our preschooler, she cannot help but be affected by the Sergei Prokofiev score. Of course, I point out to her which instruments are portraying which characters, with my favorite being, no surprise, the clarinet – aka the cat!

It helps that the little one sits in my lap so I’m free to cuddle her, and ooh and awe over the beauty of the music, and when suitably inspired, conduct the orchestra, as if it needed my conducting. At any rate, she gets reinforcement that the music is special – not just the animation.

Now for diversity. The next music I started playing was found in Fantasia, both the original version that I loved as a child, and the 2000 version which I’ve only recently seen. They are both spectacular on a hi-res computer monitor – and I don’t even have Blu Ray.

What prompted me to write this blog is the stunning compatibility between the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of my favorite composers, and the Disney animators who put Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” to music. This combination must send this 3-year old into sensory overload. At least it has that effect on me.

Just as I was immersed in music during my formative years, Little Preschooler is close to the screen, surrounded by the music, and getting positive reinforcement from Granddaddy. Isn’t that how you teach music to children?

Let me share with you Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Remember, the actual DVD is far better quality.

[youtube id="_TjKAENb85o"]

– John