What-If Scenarios, Played Out Through Physics

21:05 minutes

What would happen if you stuck your hand in a particle accelerator? Credit: CERN

Some of the biggest questions in science can come from day-to-day observations and pure curiosity about how the world works. What would happen if you stuck your hand in a particle accelerator? Or if you dug a hole to China and jumped in? Would you survive that journey? In the new book And Then You’re Dead, co-author and physicist Paul Doherty ponders how disaster scenarios like these would play out. He joins Ira to discuss how considering “what if?” can help to communicate science.

[Read an excerpt from And Then You’re Dead.]

Segment Guests

Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty is the co-author of And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling Over Niagara (Penguin Books, 2017). He’s also a senior staff scientist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You know, science tries to tackle some of the most profound questions in life, like, how did all the stuff in the universe form? Or, if we build machines with advanced computing power, will they eventually become conscious? You can get lost in thought for hours turning over some of these ideas in your head. But some of the biggest “What if?” questions come from day-to-day observations, pure curiosity. Like, what would happen if you stuck your hand in a particle accelerator? You think, does that keep you up at night? Or if you dug a hole to China and jumped in, where would you come out? And would you survive?

These are some of the extreme ideas that my next guest explored and answered in the new book, And Then You’re Dead. What really happens if you get swallowed by a whale, or shot from a cannon? Or go barreling over Niagara? He did the calculations, and hopefully not too many experiments, to figure it out. Paul Doherty is co-author of, And Then You’re Dead. He’s also Senior Staff Scientist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. If you have a “What if?” question, a disaster question you’ve been thinking about, and you want Paul to try and work out the physics behind it, give us a call. 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri.

Welcome, Paul.

PAUL DOHERTY: Hi, Ira. It’s great to be on Science Friday again.

IRA FLATOW: It’s always great to have you back. How do you weed through all the “What if?” questions? What makes a good “What if?” question? Something that you can really run the numbers for.

PAUL DOHERTY: Or one that when you hear it, it causes you to smile, and you think of all the really interesting stories you know about people that have actually done the body-on experiment, exploring this way to die.

IRA FLATOW: Have you actually figured out what happens if you get swallowed by a whale?

PAUL DOHERTY: Well, yeah, so– and in fact, when you bring up sperm whales, they cut them open and look at what’s in their stomach. And you’ll find a multi-hundred pound squid eaten and swallowed by that sperm whale. So they’re not going to have much trouble with you. Now, of course, the beaks of those squid irritate the innards of the sperm whale. And they cover them with spermatocyte, which is this wax-like substance that eventually comes out of the sperm whale, floats around in the ocean, washes up on beaches, and becomes this really valuable ambergris. And so we’re wondering would your human bones be surrounded by this incredibly valuable perfume substance. And we think yes.

IRA FLATOW: Are you ready to tackle questions from our listeners? Because they have a lot of them.

PAUL DOHERTY: Oh, my word. Sure. Fire away.

PAUL DOHERTY: OK. Let’s go to Salt– excuse me. Let’s go to Salt Lake. Sean in Salt Lake, welcome to Science Friday.

SEAN: Hey, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Hey, there. Go ahead.

SEAN: OK. So I was wondering if I was on Mars in my spacesuit, and my helmet came off or something bad happened to my suit, what would happen? And how would that compare to what would happen, say, on the moon?

PAUL DOHERTY: OK. So the atmosphere on Mars is 1/100 as thick as the atmosphere on the Earth. And it turns out that at that low pressure, if you had an open glass of water on Mars, it would boil. So eventually the water in your body would boil. But it turns out that chemists, when they go to boil fluids, they throw in things called boiling beads. And they have little scratches on them and it promotes the actual, gentle beginning of boiling. But you don’t have boiling beads inside your skin.

So your helmet comes off. You’ve got maybe 15 seconds– and people have tested this– before the blood in your body bursts into boiling and you swell up. I think just like Arnold Schwarzenegger did in that movie once. I think actually they got that part right. Of course, then they restored the entire atmosphere of Mars in the next few seconds and that’s probably pushing the science a little bit far.

IRA FLATOW: Do you get a lot of questions about space, stuff like that, you know–


IRA FLATOW: –because we have a half a dozen on the board here, that– and basically the same question.

PAUL DOHERTY: Yeah. So it turns out, I’m a planetary scientist. I’m the discoverer of the shape of the Martian snowflake. So I’ve actually done research on the Viking mission on Mars. So go ahead, ask again.

IRA FLATOW: OK. You asked for it, as the old show used to say. Let’s go to Clyde in Spokane. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

CLYDE: Hello, and glad to be here. My question is, what if we were in a submersible in the oceans of Europa, how deep could we go before the pressure is a problem, a potentially fatal problem?

PAUL DOHERTY: Oh, yes. So we’re going to have that ocean on Europa. It’s the density of water. Now the gravity on Europa is a little bit less than the gravity on water, so you’ll be able to go a little bit deeper. So we know that on Earth, we can go to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. But the oceans on Europa are probably even deeper. So eventually as you’re going down in the oceans of Europa, the pressure will probably exceed the ability of any vessel we’ve ever built so far and crush you.

And so it might be an interesting experience for the first few kilometers you’re going down. You’d get to see what is it out there swimming in the oceans of Europa. But eventually, yep, the pressure is going to win. You’re going to get crushed. Even with the lower gravity.

IRA FLATOW: I’m hoping they bring that fabled Styrofoam cup down there. You know what I’m talking about?

PAUL DOHERTY: I do. And just picture your brain as the Styrofoam cup. So as your spacecraft submarine gets crushed, that’s what happens to your skull and your brain, just like that Styrofoam cup that squeezes down to tiny nothingness.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know in your book– and this is a great book. I’m talking to Paul Doherty, if you just joined us. Author of Then You’re Dead. Great title. We’ll look at that in a second. Are there questions you imagine that have actually happened? Someone did put their body into a particle accelerator?

PAUL DOHERTY: That’s right. A Russian scientist by the name of Bugorski was working on a U-70 particle accelerator in Russia, and it happened to turn on while he had his head in the way of the beam. So it not only went through his hand, it went through his head, from the back of his head to the front. And he said he saw a flash, the brightness of 1,000 suns. And they all thought he was going to die. I mean, he had this particle beam the diameter of a pencil lead go right through from the back to the front of his face.

But it turned out much to everybody’s surprise, he survived the radiation. He actually went on and got his PhD. And– but it paralyzed the left side of his face. And it turns out, if you look at a picture of him now, the left side of his face is smooth and unlined and looks just like he did when he was a student, and the right side is all wrinkled like it should be at his age. So maybe if you really want the ultimate beauty treatment, you just stick your head in a particle accelerator and survive.

IRA FLATOW: You do that.

PAUL DOHERTY: No, no, no. I think I won’t.

IRA FLATOW: Here’s a tweet. A tweet from Cookie, who writes, “What would happen if I was taking the subway or driving across the Manhattan Bridge, which is here in Manhattan, and the bridge collapsed? Any chance of surviving?”

PAUL DOHERTY: Not much. It turns out the Air Force has done lots of studies on people falling into things, so falling into water. So for example, I’m from San Francisco. And if you fall off the Golden Gate Bridge, that’s a couple hundred feet down to the water. Your chances of surviving are just a few percent because that water, it weighs 8 pounds per gallon. And when you hit it, your body’s traveling over 60 miles an hour.

So imagine what it would be like to be hit in the face by an 8 pound mass going 60 miles an hour or more. It’s got to really hurt, maybe kill you. But, in fact, that plunge into the water, if you’re out of the car, will almost certainly kill you. But in the car, maybe the airbag would inflate and save you from that collision with the water. So maybe there’s a slightly better chance in the car. Of course, then you’ve got to get out of the car.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I’m a little stunned by that. You’ve figured out these numbers by using the Fermi problem solution. What is that?

PAUL DOHERTY: So, I was an undergraduate student at MIT. And Professor Tony French, day one of class, said, before you solve any physics problem numerically, you should estimate what the answer is and know what the answer is approximately before you do it. And he told us the story of Enrico Fermi, famous scientist who once was asked, how many piano tuners are there in the city of Chicago? And he went through how many people are in Chicago, what fraction of them have pianos, how often do they need to be tuned, and he came up with a number. And then you could go through the hard work and check out in the Chicago phone book what the answer was.

So for example, in the book we wondered about jumping in a hole to China, and thinking about, well, wait a minute, what if that hole that goes through the Earth has air in it? And, you know, if you go up in a mountain, that the air gets less dense by a half every 15,000 feet. So that’s the basic knowledge you need to be reversed as you go down in the hole. Every 15,000 feet you go down the hole– that’s only three miles– you get air around you that’s denser by a factor of two. In 150,000 feet, that’s 10 doublings. The air is going to be roughly the density of water. And you’re going to stop. You can’t get through unless you evacuate the hole.

That’s the Fermi answer. You take that little knowledge about the atmosphere, and you turn it on its head and use it to get an approximate answer. And then you publish it in a book, and every scientist in the world takes aim at you to show you how you’re wrong. That’s how science gets it right.

IRA FLATOW: It’s like my staff here. Our number, 844-724-8255. Let’s go to the phones to Beth in Baltimore, or Balmar, as they say. Hi, Beth.

BETH: Hi, Ira. I’m a teacher and my students are studying electromagnetic radiation right now. And they were wondering what would happen if all of the electromagnetic radiation from the sun was able to reach us here on Earth.

PAUL DOHERTY: Oh, boy. Well, it turns out there’s ultraviolet C. So , of course on Earth we get visible light, and we get ultraviolet A, B. And the ultraviolet A and the ultraviolet B give us sunburns. But the upper atmosphere of the Earth stops the even more powerful ultraviolet C. And when that’s used on Earth in hospitals, it’s germicidal. That ultraviolet C kills cells. So if you’re out in space and you get exposed to the sunlight, you probably get sunburned or you get a dose of radiation that would cause a sunburn in about 15 seconds. So you better thank the atmosphere of Earth for stopping that ultraviolet that would get through. In fact, it’s been estimated that our atmosphere is about sunblock 256. So if the ozone layer goes away, you’re going to step outside without sunblock, you’ll get sunburned in 15 seconds, which is not something good.

IRA FLATOW: We also have the big belt, radiation belt that sort of protects us from other kinds of radiation.

PAUL DOHERTY: Oh, yeah. So particle radiation, the particles coming out of the sun that are gathered in by the Earth’s magnetic field and deflected and captured in the radiation belts. So you don’t want that either. And, in fact, on the way to the moon, the astronauts blast through those radiation belts really quickly. First of all, you have to go fast to get away from the earth to get to the moon. But you don’t want to spend time in those radiation belts.

And when we go to Mars, we’re going to be traveling outside of the Earth’s radiation protection field, the Earth’s magnetic field. So the astronauts heading off to Mars are going to need protection in the spacecraft against the particle radiation of the sun.

IRA FLATOW: Big problem. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI Public Radio International. Talking with Paul Doherty, co-author of the new book, And Then You’re Dead. Did your publisher love that title? Everybody dies in this scenario.

PAUL DOHERTY: Yeah, well, originally were going to call it something like Gruesome but we thought that was too gruesome. And we liked, And Then Your Dead, as a better answer. And we do have some people that survived, so that’s always good.

IRA FLATOW: Here’s a tweet from Beakerhead, who writes, “A person fave from the kids. If everyone jumped at the same time, would anything happen?”

PAUL DOHERTY: Well, you know, that’s a classic problem, was that if you had everybody jump and you synchronized them, perhaps instead of even jumping at the same time, you had a wave. So it started in New York and the people just– at the speed of the wave propagation, people would jump and add in their energy and make a focused beam of seismic energy to destroy things. But alas, as massive as the people are on earth, we don’t have nearly enough energy to make a seismically destructive wave.

IRA FLATOW: What was your favorite– well, you know, you [? child ?] your book. What’s your favorite fun thing in the book?

PAUL DOHERTY: It was the one where the Japanese scientists investigated the slipperiness of banana peels. And they actually did this with banana peels and all other peels they could find. And they found out that banana peels were particularly slippery, that if you stepped on a banana peel, it had something called a coefficient of friction of 0.07. And that gave you a 90% chance of falling if you just hit a banana peel. And of course, a human falling 6 feet up, your head hits the ground– that can crack your skull and lead to internal bleeding and kill you. So you got to watch out for those banana peels. But the fact–

IRA FLATOW: I hate it when that happens.

PAUL DOHERTY: The fact that they actually measured the coefficient of friction for banana peels, that’s the science.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me ask you this question. They have a slipperiness scale, right? Well, I think wet ice is the most slippery thing. But have they measured banana peels on that scale or where it might fit in?

PAUL DOHERTY: That is the scale. That’s the coefficient of friction. And rubber souls on wet ice is the friction coefficient of 0.15. And banana peels were a coefficient of friction of 0.07, which is slipperier than wet ice with a rubber shoe. Of course, you have to actually specify the shoe you’re wearing to get a correct scientific answer.

IRA FLATOW: Well, before we get to the break, let me get to a question I brought up during my introduction. What would happen if your airplane window suddenly popped off? Would your seat belt help you stay inside, or would you be sucked out the window?

PAUL DOHERTY: So if you’re sitting right next to the window, we went out and looked out the hydrogen– the fluid dynamic calculations about how fast the air is going to rush out the window if you’re at 35,000 feet. And we found out that the initial wind would blow out that window at 300 miles an hour. That’s the wind speed in the worst tornadoes. And that is enough to suck you out of your seat belt and toward the window.

Now, luckily you are big enough that you’re not going to fit through that airplane window that’s what’s going to save you.

IRA FLATOW: So you become the cork that saves everybody else.

PAUL DOHERTY: That’s exactly right. And we found this case of a pilot, who they mis-installed the pilot window, and it blew out of his jet, a British Airways jet. And even though he had his lab belt on, the 300 mile an hour burst of air shot him out the window. But his legs tangled in the controls. And a flight attendant who happened to be in the cockpit grabbed his legs and hung on for 18 minutes while the copilot got control of the plane, brought him back down.

IRA FLATOW: Great segue. I want everybody to hang on for the rest of our segment. Paul Doherty, author of And Then You’re Dead. We have an excerpt for the book on our website at sciencefriday.com/dead. He’ll be back after the break. More questions, stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking with Paul Doherty, co-author of the new book, And Then You’re Dead. He’s also Senior Staff Scientist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Lots and lots of questions, Paul. A tweet came in which I cannot ignore because I’m thinking people want to know. A tweet from Matthew says, “I was wondering if I were naked in the International Space Station and I farted, would I be propelled?”

PAUL DOHERTY: Pretty much for sure you would. That’s action and reaction at it’s finest. And if there were an ignition source, we know that the fart contains methane, which will ignite. And that would make a little explosion, might give you a little extra boost like an afterburner.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm, I’ll have to find out what official policy is about that. Let’s go to the phones to Andrew in Sutton, Mass. Hi, Andrew. Welcome to Science Friday.

MATTHEW: Hey guys, thanks for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

MATTHEW: I got to say this is a topic I’m very enthusiastic about. My question is about electromagnetic [INAUDIBLE], which are kind of a threat to the power grid, as we know. And my question is, since humans ourselves have so much electrical energy going on inside our bodies, what would happen if someone stood next to an EMP when it was set off?

IRA FLATOW: In other words, the pulse itself. Would what would happen to a person?

PAUL DOHERTY: OK. So that’s a really great question and I’m not exactly sure. However, we’ll take an actual case. Let’s say you’ve got a lightning strike right next to you and that’s quite a dose of electromagnetic pulse. And unless that lightning actually goes through you and starts triggering off your neurons, maybe even erasing a little bit of your brainstem, you’re probably OK.

In fact, I think there was a Futurama episode, where the robots on this planet were trying to kill the invading human. And they kept bombarding them with electricity and magnetism and nothing happened. And the final solution was to run a stick through them. And the robots decided, boy, that’s amazing you could take the largest amount of an electromagnetic pulse we could give them and nothing happened, but he succumbed to a sharp stick. Anyway, I think that’s the answer there.

IRA FLATOW: Someone wants to know, what happens if you drink a lot of Coke and then eat Mentos? That’s a tweet from Aaron.

PAUL DOHERTY: Of course, well, if you’re a rat, you die because rats can’t vomit. But thank goodness you’re a person. And there are a couple openings that allow the gas build up to escape. So I believe you might suffer some real problems with pain of the gas, but I think you won’t die. Although in the last example in our book, we find out how many cookies can you eat before your stomach bursts. And where actually in the stomach does the bursting start? And that will kill you.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s a good cliffhanger for everybody to get a copy of the new book, And Then You’re Dead. Paul Doherty, also a Senior Staff Scientist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. It’s a lot of fun, the book, Paul. Good luck with it. It’s a really interesting reading.

PAUL DOHERTY: Thank you, Ira. It’s been great to be on Science Friday.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. We also, as I say, have an excerpt of the book up on our website. It’s sciencefriday.com/dead.

Copyright © 2017 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

Explore More