The Basic Chemistry of Nitrogen Dioxide

“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.

2NO + O2 → 2NO2.  (This is really nasty stuff!)

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.  

According to current estimates, that is exactly what happened in Beirut.

Apparently, an industrial fire caused the thermal decomposition of large quantities of ammonium nitrate, which energetically broke down to form massive quantities of nitrogen gas, oxygen and water.

2NH4NO3 → 2N2 + 4H2O + O2.

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.

But then again, this is 2020.

Ocean on Top

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 than seawater.”

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.

Harry Clement Stubbs, aka Hal Clement.

The original version of his story was a Magazine serial version, copyrighted in 1967 by Galaxy Publishing Corp., for Worlds of If.

First publication.

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.

Promo image for the movie, Aquaman.

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 human species.

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.

Cover for the second edition.

Phobos, Chariot of Fear


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.

NASA video made from 14 Hubble Space Telescope images.

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.

Mars at a realistic distance.

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.

If I Had Written the Score to Interstellar

If I was Hans Zimmer, I would be a bit annoyed.

What is arguably the best score Hans Zimmer has ever written, the music for Interstellar, has thrilled me to my core. However, I came to that conclusion by an indirect route.

Like many of you, I saw the movie in all it’s cinematic glory when it was released in 2014. But it was not until 2017 that I fell in love with it, both the movie and the score.

In preparation for an after-dinner talk to a panel of the American Heart Association’s 2017 Science Conference, I was looking for an inspirational way, preferably with great video and sound, to describe the sport of competitive free diving. This past summer I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s best free divers and free diving instructors in a Colloquium put together by the University of California at San Diego, Center of Excellence in Scientific Diving.

I had pretty much given up on finding something to help me illustrate the beauty, and challenges, of competitive free diving. That changed, however,  when I came across a posting from a group of tactical military divers. In a short 3-minute video the young French diver Arnaud Jerald set his personal free diving (CWT, Constant Weight Dive  discipline) record of 92 meters in a competition in Turkey. He placed third in a field which included world record holders in the same event.

Three things made the diving video great, in my opinion: 1) the subject matter which vividly shows a human activity little known by most people, and understood by even fewer; 2) steady and clear video produced by a new underwater camera, the Diveye, and 3) the accompanying music.

A film score is only successful if it aids the audience in generating an emotional response to a movie scene. In that respect, a great movie hinges not only on good acting and script, but on an almost telepathic connection between the film director/producer and music director/composer.

In the free diving video clip, the accompanying music swelled in concert with the audience’s tension, generated perhaps unconsciously in response to the drama of the moment. And then there was organ music at just the right point. For me a pipe organ truly is the most impressive and grand of any musical instrument.

And just when the cinematic moment was right,  you could hear the heart beats, helping us realize what a strain it must have been on young Jerald’s heart as he reached his deepest depth, far from the surface, and air.

Indeed, when I gave the presentation, the video clip seemed to have the effect on the audience that I was looking for. But afterwards, I was relieved that no one had asked me where that music came from. I had no idea.

I don’t recall what led me to Interstellar as the music source: it may have been a random playing of movie soundtracks on a music streaming service, but once I heard a snippet, I recognized it. “That’s it!” I shouted to no one in particular.

It wasn’t just me; my family, including a nine-year old granddaughter had heard me rehearse my talk many times, and they also immediately recognized the similarity between the free diving video, and part of the Interstellar soundtrack.

The closest musical correlation to the diving video was the “Mountains” track in the movie soundtrack. Strangely, the match was not perfect. In fact the differences were easily notable, a fact I discovered after I bought both the movie and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack. And I must note, I think the music in the diving video is better.

Perhaps the full music was present in the original version of the movie, and perhaps some fancy mixing in the sound room deleted it. If so, too bad. But I must admit, the quiet musical nuances would have been missed during the cacophonous sound of a 4000 foot tall tidal wave sweeping upon a tiny spacecraft. There was lots of shouting and screaming.

As for my opinion that Hans Zimmer might be annoyed, well, I suggest you watch the portion of the full movie where the Mountain track rises to prominence. That is the part where the tidal wave, initially mistaken as mountains, appears on the horizon of the first planet the Horizon space craft landed on outside of our galaxy.

As exciting as the action was, and as wonderfully crafted the dialog and acting, it obscured the finer points of the music. Fortunately, the free diving video, coming as it does with no dialog at all, puts the music in the perspective that I, at least, can completely enjoy.

I find it fitting that in both videos, the incredibly powerful music was used to showcase humans extending themselves to their absolute limits. Of course, one of those stories is fictional, and the other is real.




The Return of Souls – A Science Fiction Theme

“I believe we don’t stay dead long”, said Robert Forbisher, a talented composer created by David Mitchell for his epic novel, “Cloud Atlas”.


I recently watched for the second time the complex and potentially disturbing movie adaptation of “Cloud Atlas”. The first time I watched it I simply held on for the ride, trying to make sense of the action and changing plots and characters. On second viewing, it was still a page turner, so to speak.

During my second viewing I noticed, apparently for the first time, that short sentence uttered by Robert Forbisher; “We don’t stay dead long”. It was an introspective comment in a letter directed to his lover, and pretty much summed up the entire movie.

In spite of the perplexing current interest in a zombie apocalypse, the “Cloud Atlas” book and film is not about the undead. It’s about reincarnation.

In my opinion there are two themes in science fiction that make for almost limitless possibilities — time travel and reincarnation.  “Cloud Atlas” uses the latter theme as a platform for topics far more meaningful than the tired theme of man meets giant worm, worm eats man, man’s friend kills worm, and so on. Regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about souls or reincarnation, they do make for interesting theater.

Another bit of narration from the movie, this time from Zachry Bailey (played by Tom Hanks) struck a chord with me for it accurately reflected a seriocomic theme in one of my previous posts, Conversation with a Cloud.

In Bailey’s words, “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?”

In my own less artful words, quoting a sentient and telepathic cloud that knows it will die at the end of the day, “I am not a cloud. I am moisture. A cloud is my physical appearance, but that changes throughout my life. And regardless of how I look, what I am, vapor, still exists.” 

Fire in the skyIf we accept that almost all religions propose the survival of a soul after death, then the essential question raised by David Mitchell’s story is whether or not an eternal soul is granted only one chance to incarnate.

If you accept the concept of a soul, then you may accept the concept of a God who created  souls. And I would be a very presumptuous man to decide what God would or would not do with one of his creations throughout an eternity of time, an eternity that I cannot even imagine.

Unfortunately, there is no data with which to debate the return of souls. That is, there isn’t if you ignore what seems to be documented anecdotal accounts such as a recent one involving a three-year old Druze boy who seemingly identified his murderer, with supposedly witnessed proof of the crime.

That story, and others like it, make for interesting and mind challenging reading for those steeped in western religion, like myself. As I understand it, in Eastern and Middle Eastern regions such stories are rather commonplace.

Of course the story of the Druze three-year old could be fictitious, an elaborate deception. Regardless of the truth of the existence of souls, and soul mates (a currently popular meme with a subtle assumption of reincarnation) there is a literary aspect to consider. To state the obvious, fiction does not have to be true to be entertaining.

If I were capable of writing a sequel to “Cloud Atlas”, (which I am not), I would be unable to resist adding Karma to the mix. The notion that you get what you deserve, in this life or the next, is simply too enticing to ignore, whether it be truth or fantasy.

For instance, suppose a chapter in a sequel covered the life of Jack the Ripper, of both historical infamy, and future infamy; except in the future, his would-be victims are packing heat (carrying a gun). Jack’s story of infamy would end abruptly.

Based on such a karmic premise, the literary possibilities are endless. With the proper writer in control, they could also prove endlessly entertaining.










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 …