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Can Studying Physics Save Your Life?

PayScale always tells you that picking a STEM major can make your life better by upping your chances of earning more money, but a recent article on Slate indicates another key benefit -- it can save your life.

PayScale always tells you that picking a STEM major can make your life better by upping your chances of earning more money, but a recent article on Slate indicates another key benefit — it can save your life.

Harrison Okene, a 29-year-old cook on a Chevron oil service tugboat, survived his boat’s capsize in the waters off Nigeria thanks to a trick of physics. Maxim Umansky, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, explained the trick of his survival to Slate. In short, Okene was lucky enough to find an air bubble large enough to sustain him during the three days he was trapped in the overturned tug.

The air bubble acted as a diving bell, the ancient (think Aristotle) device used for centuries to enable divers to perform work underwater. The cold water surrounding Okene’s air bubble was also probably a factor. Carbon dioxide dissolves more quickly in cold water, which means that the size of the air bubble, temperature of the water, and depth of the wreck all contributed to Okene’s survival.

Here’s Slate’s explanation of the physics problem involved:

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“Humans require 10 cubic meters of air per day. So for Okene to continue breathing for 60 hours, he needed 25 cubic meters of air. (Even if his metabolism changed in the cold water, Umansky says, this is still a safe estimate). But Okene was breathing at 100 feet, or 30 meters, below the surface of the water. For every 10 meters a person descends, one atmosphere of pressure is added. This compresses gas and makes it denser, according to Boyle’s law,” writes Rachel Nuwer.

Of course, a lot of Okene’s escape was due to luck. Still, it wouldn’t have hurt to have some knowledge of physics in his situation.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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