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Gulp! The Science Of Breathing Liquid
(That's a really big Nope from me, mate.)
Hello! Welcome to Everything is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity, science and joyful, friendly stupidity.
Here’s a cat-Phantom wishing you happy Easter:
In a few days I’ll be throwing us all back into the ocean for more of this season’s deep-sea curiosity (and this time, it won’t be another megaflood - even though it was fun learning about the one in the Mediterranean and the one off Britain).
And as a side-dish to that immensely watery main course to come, I’d like to talk to you about one of my favourite moments in modern cinematic science fiction: the bit when they drowned Ed Harris.
It’s 1994 (in fictional terms), and for complicated but also quite simple reasons, deep-sea drilling engineer Virgil "Bud" Brigman is about to take the dive of his life. He’s strapping himself into a very special dive-suit with a huge curved plate-glass helmet, the kind made famous by Alien a decade beforehand.
The complicated reason for all this is geopolitics, bad-weather-induced engineering disasters, a deranged SEAL team leader suffering from high pressure nervous syndrome (which is real), and mysterious aliens that can make tubes of water hang in mid-air (which, as far as I’m aware, is not).
You probably know about this last bit, because it won the film an Oscar in 1989:
(Thirty years on, this is still such a beautiful effect. Whew.)
But this part of James Cameron’s The Abyss (probably better known now as The Only One Of Those Underwater Action Thrillers That All Came Out At The Same Time That Was Actually Any Good) has become pretty simple.
The protagonists, including Bud, are in an underwater drilling rig that’s perched at the edge of a terrifyingly deep chasm. Around two miles underneath them lies the remains of a submersible carrying an armed nuclear warhead. Someone has to go down there to turn it off before it blows - but all the rig’s submarines are trashed.
However, there’s another way. Someone can get into the experimental diving suit that uses that new liquid-breathing technology that allows humans to descend to incredible depths without the pressure making the dissolved gases in the blood & tissue bubble out and kill them - the famous decompression sickness, or ‘the bends’.
So they immediately drown him:
It’s a surprisingly gut-wrenching scene. I mean, I’m a big fan of The Abyss - it’s a mostly taut thriller with some terrifically exciting set pieces, underpinned by the kind of innovative practical effects that did wonders for Cameron’s early career - and all the actors absolutely give it their all.
(And if it goes off the rails later on, lurching into over-sentimentality and a string of false endings that would give Return Of The King a good run for its money - well, if it’s a failure as a film, it’s a really glorious one.)
But that liquid breathing scene! Bloody hell! I mean, can you imagine?
In fact, imagination isn’t as necessary as I first thought - because it’s a real thing. Or at least kinda real. Ironically enough considering the scene in question, it’s perched right on the edge of actually being real.
Here’s the science, as far as I understand it.
As the story goes (and this is a widely-repeated tale that I haven’t been able to track back to a rock-solidly credible source), at some point in the 1980s, James Cameron attended a talk by Dr. Johannes A. Kylstra, the lead scientists of a project at Duke University, funded by the Office of Navy Research. In the talk, Dr Kylstra outlined his findings into the practical application of a liquid-breathing system for humans - and announced that a volunteer, the commercial diver Frank Falejczyk, had just become the first person to successfully breathe oxygenated liquid.
For one thing, “successfully” seems a stretch - Falejczyk developed pneumonia shortly afterwards and was lucky to pull through. But also, he definitely wasn’t the first. As one of the characters in The Abyss points out, every human being who ever lived has done it - including you and I:
“We all breathe liquid for nine months, Bud! Your body will remember.”
It’s a weird thing to think that our bodies don’t exactly need the air we breathe. They absolutely need the oxygen it contains - but as long as that oxygen gets into our bodies somehow, that should be enough to keep us alive.
For this reason, it was recently proposed that human beings could - now here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write - ‘breathe’ through their rectums.
No, come back. I’m not joking and this is real science. Researcher Takanori Takebe at Tokyo Medical and Dental University wondered if, like fish, mammals were capable of absorbing oxygen through their intestines. Why not? We already do something similar with many of our medicines, hence the undignified marvels of the modern suppository. Does oxygen work the same way?
Answer: yup, seems like it should be a thing.
(And all this may sound ludicrous, but it could be a lifesaving procedure for prematurely born babies, or anyone suffering from a collapsed respiratory system. After all, oxygen starvation can kill within minutes.)
So, as long as the oxygen gets in, we can stay alive. Or rather, as long as the oxygen keeps going in (inhale) and the carbon dioxide keeps goes out (exhale), otherwise the latter will quickly poison our cells.
Enter the miracle liquids known as perfluorocarbons: synthetic oxygen carriers that can absorb unusually huge amounts of the gas. In theory, if you could get enough oxygen into a perfluorocarbon, and get it at the right temperature - could it be breathable?
The Abyss says HELL YES, HOORAY, LET THE PLOT CONTINUE.
Modern science says WOAH, hold your horses a second.
In practice, there are huge problems to overcome here. The first is down to viscosity - the ‘thickness’ of a gas or liquid and its resistance to being deformed by pressure. As you know from breathing in and out all your life, air has very little resistance and your muscles have had a pretty easy time in sucking all that air in and blowing it out.
But doing it with a liquid? That’s going to require much more effort - and considering that it looks like perfluorocarbon-breathing would require a person to breathe between five and ten litres of the stuff every minute, you’re going to have to hyperventilate like an Olympic sprinter hitting the finishing line - except, every single second, continually.
On top of that, what damage would all that effort do to your delicate respiratory system? Spare a thought for everyone who has faced the horror of being ventilated these last few years: a process where air is forcibly pumped into your lungs, rarely without hurting them badly. And that’s air. If you tried the same thing with a liquid, what would that do to you?
Then there’s all that carbon dioxide you’re breathing out. Where does it go? Maybe a CO₂ scrubber could be installed in your suit - but in The Abyss, Ed Harris doesn’t seem to have one? (He does run out of liquid air to breathe - but, spoilers, it takes a while. )
Nevertheless, it seems there’s something here. It’s possible a partially perfluorocarbon-filled lung may get oxygen into a patient while also allowing them some measure of normal breathing (although I can’t imagine that would be a pleasant feeling). Medically, there’s grounds for optimism.
But liquid-breathing might also help us when we’re up in space.
And in particular, doing high-G turns to save humanity from protomolecule-related conspiracies and narcissistic terrorists.
I admit it: this whole newsletter is just a thin excuse to plug Amazon Prime’s The Expanse, perhaps the greatest science fiction show that ever was.
I say “was” because for now, it’s under the category of “cancelled” after 6 glorious seasons, correlating to the first 6 of the 9-book series of Expanse novels by James S.A. Corey (the pen name used by collaborating authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).
If the show had continued - or (*crosses fingers hard enough to draw blood*) if the showrunners find a way to come back to film the final 3 books, then liquid breathing will make an appearance on a super-advanced battleship of the final story arc’s Big Bad Threat - the upstart Laconian Empire.
Throughout The Expanse, it’s been made clear time and time again that human beings just aren’t built for space combat. Not really. They’re too fragile, too squishy. One really fast turn in a spaceship and they’re a mass of broken bones - or in the case of one stomach-churning scene in season 3, one cataclysmic full-stop and…really, really messy things can happen.
Star Trek gets around this with some hand-wavey technology called inertial dampeners, which somehow nullify all the effects of acceleration-induced G forces. But The Expanse sticks to the hard science: no “deflector shields”….
…and no “warp drives” - and definitely no inertial dampening.
As with modern-day jetfighter combat, there are hard human limits to what aerobatic hijinks you can wrench your spaceship through. They can be stretched a little with the inclusion of intravenous drugs (seen as a white gunk that pumps into the crew’s bloodstream just before they go into combat) but no further. Go further, and people start dying in their seats.
So the Laconians devise a workaround. Their battleship can accelerate like no ship in human history because its crew are immersed in oxygenated liquid - breathing it, surrounded by it, safe from a lot of the crushing effects of G force.
(There’s a real-world analogue for this: the Libelle Suit, used by fighter pilots, which pumps liquid around the body during combat. Since liquids don’t compress in the same way as human tissue, the suit absorbs the shock of each high-G turn, allowing the pilot to stay conscious during maneuvers that would otherwise make them black out. And if this cushioning was internal as well with a liquid breathing system…well, I guess the sky’s the limit.)
So - liquid breathing could very well be a thing. An amazing, life-saving thing. And it could unlock the next wave of manned deep-sea exploration.
But holy hell, I can’t imagine it’s ever going to be fun to do. That little shake of his head that Ed Harris does (which is mainly acting, he wasn’t really breathing the stuff, although his helmet was filling up with liquid…)? Yeah. That, times a bazillion. In this particular instance, I’m quite happy for the future to take its time getting here.
Rather you than me, Bud.
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