Death by Centrifuge

WARNING! Although it won’t contain any gory pictures, this post is going to contain some pretty gory details of what might happen to the human body under high acceleration. Children and people who don’t like reading about such things should probably skip this one. You have been warned.

In my last post, I talked a bit about gee forces. Gee forces are a handy way to measure acceleration. Right now, you and I and (almost) every other human are experiencing somewhere around 1 gee of head-to-foot acceleration due to the Earth’s gravity. Anyone who happens to be at the top of Mt. Everest is experiencing 0.999 gees. The overgrown amoebas at the bottom of the Challenger deep are experiencing 1.005 gees.

But human beings are exposed to greater gee forces than this all the time. For instance, the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 experienced up to 4 gees during launch. Here’s an awesome graph from NASA:

Fighter pilots have to put up with even higher gee forces when they make tight turns, thanks to the centrifugal acceleration required to turn in a circle at high speeds. From what I can gather, many pilots have to demonstrate they can handle 9 gees for 10 or 15 seconds without blacking out in order to qualify to fly planes like the F-16. Here’s an example of things not going right at 9 gees:

Yes, it’s the same video from the last post. I spent fifteen or twenty minutes searching YouTube for a better one, but I couldn’t find it. I did, however, discover this badass pilot in a gee-suit who handled 12 gees:

The reason we humans don’t tolerate gee forces very well is pretty simple: we have blood. Blood is a liquid. Like any liquid, its weight produces hydrostatic pressure. I’ll use myself as an example (for the record, I’m pretty sure I would die at 9 gees, but anybody who wants to let me in a centrifuge, I’d love to prove myself wrong). I’m 6 feet, 3 inches tall, or 191 centimeters, or 1.91 meters. Blood is almost the same density as water, so we can just run Pascal’s hydrostatic-pressure equation: (1 g/cc [density of blood]) * (9.80665 m/s^2 [acceleration due to gravity]) * (1.91 m [my height]). That comes out to a pressure of 187.3 millibars, or, to use the units we use for blood pressure in the United States, 140.5 millimeters of mercury.

It just so happens that I have one of those cheap drugstore blood-pressure cuffs handy. You wait right here. I’m gonna apply it to the fleshy part of my ankle and check my math.

It’s a good thing my heart isn’t in my ankle, because the blood pressure down there is 217/173. That’s the kind of blood pressure where, if you’ve got it throughout your body, the doctors get pale and start pumping you full of exciting chemicals. For the record, my resting blood pressure hovers around 120/70, rising to 140/80 if I drink too much coffee.

The blood pressure at the level of my heart, meanwhile, should be (according to Pascal’s formula) (1 g/cc) * (9.80665 m/s^2) * (0.42 m [the distance from the top of my head to my heart]). That’s 41.2 millibars or 30.9 mmHg. I’m not going to put the blood-pressure cuff on my head. To butcher that Meat Loaf song “I would do any-thing for science, but I won’t dooooo that.” I can get a good idea of the pressure at head level, though, by putting the cuff around my bicep and raising it to the same height as my head. Back in a second.

Okay. So, apparently, there are things I won’t do for science, but there aren’t many of them. Among the things I will do for science is attempting to tape my hand to the wall so my muscle contractions don’t interfere with the blood-pressure reading. That didn’t work out. But the approximate reading, because I was starting to fear for my sanity and wanted to stop, is 99/56. 56 mmHg, which is the between-heartbeats pressure, is higher than 41.2, but it’s in the same ballpark. The differences are probably due to stuff like measurement inaccuracies and the fact that blood vessels contract to keep the blood pressure from varying too much throughout the body.

Man. That was a hell of a digression. But this is what it was leading to: when I’m standing up (and I’ve had coffee), my heart and blood vessels can exert a total pressure of about 131 mmHg. Ordinarily, it’s pumping against a head-to-heart pressure gradient of 41.2 mmHg. But what if I was standing up and exposed to five gees?

In that case, my heart would be pumping against a gradient of 154.5 mmHg. That means it’s going to be really easy for the blood to flow from my brain to my heart, but very hard for the blood to flow from my heart to my brain. And it’s for that reason that the handsome young dude in the first video passed out: his heart (most certainly in better shape than mine…) couldn’t produce enough pressure to keep the blood in his head, in spite of that weird breathing and those leg-and-abdomen-straining maneuvers he was doing to keep the blood up there. People exposed to high head-to-foot gees see their visual field shrink, and eventually lose consciousness altogether. Pilots call that G-LOC, which I really hope is the name of a rapper. (It stands for gee-induced loss of consciousness, in case you were wondering).

You’ll notice that, in almost all spacecraft, whether in movies or in real life, the astronauts are lying on their backs, relative to the ground, when they get in the capsule. That’s because human beings tolerate front-to-back gees better than head-to-foot gees, and in a rocket launch or a capsule reentry, the gees will (hopefully) always be front-to-back. There is at least one documented case (the case of madman test pilot John Stapp) of a human being surviving 46.2 front-to-back gees for over a second. There are a few documented cases of race drivers surviving crashes with peak accelerations of 100 gees.

But you should know by now that I don’t play around. I don’t care what happens if you’re exposed to 46.2 gees for a second. I want to know what happens if you’re exposed to it for twenty-four hours. Because, at heart, I’ve always been a mad scientist.

There’s a reason we don’t know much about the effects of extremely high accelerations. Actually, there are two reasons. For one, deliberately exposing a volunteer to gee forces that might pulp their organs sounds an awful lot like an experiment the Nazis would have done, and no matter you course in life, it’s always good if you don’t do Nazi-type things. For another, building a large centrifuge that could get up to, say, a million gees, would be hard as all hell.

But since I’m playing mad scientist, let’s pretend I’ve got myself a giant death fortress, and inside that death fortress is a centrifuge with a place for a human occupant. The arm of the centrifuge is 100 meters long (as long as a football field, which applies no matter which sport “football” is to you). To produce 1,000,000 gees, I’d have to make that arm spin 50 times a second. It would produce an audible hum. It would be spinning as fast as a CD in a disk drive. Just to support the centrifugal force from a 350-kilogram cockpit, I’d need almost two thousand one-inch-diameter Kevlar ropes. Doable, but ridiculous. That’s the way I like it.

But what would actually happen to our poor volunteer? This is where that gore warning from the beginning comes in. (If it makes you feel better, you can pretend the volunteer is a death-row inmate whose worst fears are, in order, injections, electrocution, and toxic gas, therefore making the centrifuge less cruel and unusual.)

That’s hard to say. Unsurprisingly, there haven’t been many human or animal experiments over 10 gees. Probably because the kinds of people who like to see humans and lab animals crushed to a pulp are too busy murdering prostitutes to become scientists. But I’m determined to at least go through the thought experiment. And you know what, I’m starting to feel kinda weird talking about crushing another person to a pulp, so for this experiment, we’ll use my body measurements and pretend it’s me in the centrifuge. A sort of punishment, to keep me from getting too excited about doing horrible theoretical things to people.

The circumference of my head is 60 cm. If my head was circular, I could just divide that by pi to get my head’s diameter. For most people, that assumption doesn’t work. Luckily (for you, at least), my head is essentially a lumpy pink bowling ball with hair, so its diameter is about 60 cm / pi, or 19.1 cm.

Lying down under 1 gee, hydrostatic pressure means the blood vessels at the back of my head will be experiencing 14.050 mmHg more pressure than the ones at the front. From the fact that I don’t have brain hemorrhages every time I lie down, I know that my brain can handle at least that much.

But what about at 5 gees? I suspect I could probably handle that, although perhaps not indefinitely. The difference between the front of my head and the back of my head would be 70.250 mmHg. I might start to lose some of my vision as the blood struggled to reach my retinas, and I might start to see some very pretty colors as the back of my brain accumulated the excess, but I’d probably survive.

At 10 gees, I’m not so sure how long I could take it. That means a pressure differential of 140.500 mmHg, so at 10 gees, it would take most of my heart’s strength just to get blood to the front of my head and front of my brain. With all that additional pressure at the back of my brain, and without any muscles to resist it, I’m probably going to have to start worrying about brain hemorrhages at 10 gees.

As a matter of fact, the brain is probably going to be one of the first organs to go. Nature is pretty cool: she gave us brains, but brains are heavy. So she gave us cerebrospinal fluid, which is almost the same density as the brain, which, thanks to buyoancy, reduces the brain’s effective mass from 1,200 grams to about 22 grams. This is good because, as I mentioned, the brain doesn’t have muscles that it can squeeze to re-distribute its blood. So, if the brain’s effective weight were too high, it would do horrible things like sink to the bottom of the skull and start squeezing through the opening into the neck (this happens in people who have cerebrospinal fluid leaks; they experience horrifying headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, a metallic taste in the mouth, and problems with hearing and balance, because their leaking CSF is letting the brain sink downwards and compress the cranial nerves).

At 5 gees, my brain is going to feel like it weighs 108 grams. Not a lot, but perhaps enough to notice.

But what if I pulled a John Stapp, except without his common sense? That is: What if I exposed myself to 46.2 gees continuously.

Well, I would die. In many very unpleasant ways. For one thing, my brain would sink to the back of my head with an effective weight of 1002 grams. The buoyancy from my CSF wouldn’t matter anymore, and so my brain would start to squish against the back of my skull, giving me the mother of all concussions.

I probably wouldn’t notice, though. For one thing, the hydrostatic blood pressure at the back of my head would be 641.100 mmHg, which is three times the blood pressure that qualifies as a do-not-pass-Go-go-directly-to-the-ICU medical emergency. So all the blood vessels in the back of my brain would pop, while the ones at the front would collapse. Basically, only my brainstem would be getting oxygen, and even it would be feeling the strain from my suddenly-heavy cerebrum.

That’s okay, though. I’d be dead before I had time to worry about that. The average chest wall in a male human is somewhere around 4.5 cm thick. The average density of ribs, which make up most of the chest wall, is around 3.75 g/cc. I measured my chest at about 38 cm by 38 cm. So, lying down, at rest, my diaphragm and respiratory muscles have to work against a slab of chest with an equivalent mass of 24.4 kilograms. Accelerating at 46.2 gees means my chest would feel like it massed 1,100 kilograms more. That is, at 46.2 gees, my chest alone would make it feel like I had a metric ton sitting on my ribs. At 100 gees, I’d be feeling 2.4 metric tons.

But at 100 gees, that’d be the least of my problems. At accelerations that high, pretty much everything around or attached to or touching my body would become deadly. A U.S. nickel (weighing 5 grams and worth 0.05 dollars) would behave like it weighed half a kilogram. But I wouldn’t notice that. I’d be too busy being dead. My back, my thighs, and my buttocks would be a horrible bruise-colored purple from all the blood that rushed to the back of me and burst my blood vessels. My chest and face would be horrible and pale, and stretched almost beyond recognition. My skin might tear. My ribcage might collapse.

Let’s crank it up. Let’s crank it up by a whole order of magnitude, and expose me to 1,000 continuous gees. This is where things get very, very messy and very, very horrible. If you’re not absolutely sure you can handle gore that would make Eli Roth and Paul Verhoven pee in their pants, please stop reading now.

At 1,000 gees, my eyeballs would either burst, or pop through their sockets and into my brain cavity. That cavity would likely be distressingly empty, since the pressure would probably have ruptured my meninges and made all the spinal fluid leak out. The brain itself would be roadkill in the back of my skull. Even if my ribs didn’t snap, my lungs would collapse under their own weight. The liver, which is a pretty fatty organ, would likely rise towards the top of my body while heavier stuff like muscle sank to the bottom. Basically, my guts would be moving around all over the place. And, at 1,000 gees, my head would feel like it weighed 5,000 kilograms. That’s five times as much as my car. My head would squish like a skittle under a boot.

At 10,000 gees, I would flatten. The bones in the front of my ribcage would weigh 50 metric tons. A nickel would weigh as much as a child or a small adult. My bones would be too heavy for my muscles to support them, and would start…migrating towards the bottom of my body. At this point, my tissues would begin behaving more and more like fluids. This would be more than enough to make my blood cells sink to the bottom and the watery plasma rise to the top. 10,000 gees is the kind of acceleration usually only experienced by bullets and in laboratory centrifuges.

By 100,000 gees, I’d be a horrible fluid, layered like a parfait from hell: a slurry of bone at the bottom topped with a gelatinous layer of muscle proteins and mitochondria, then a layer of hemoglobin, then a layer of collagen, then a layer of water, then a layer of purified fat.

And finally, at 1,000,000 gees, even weirder stuff would start to happen. For one thing, a nickel would weigh as much as a car. But let’s focus on me, or rather, what’s left of me. At 1,000,000 gees, individual molecules start to separate by density. The bottom of the me-puddle would be much richer in things like hemoglobin, calcium carbonate, iodine-bearing thyroid hormones, and large, stable proteins. Meanwhile, the top would consist of human tallow. Below that would be an oily layer of what was once stored oils in fat cells. Below that would come a slurry of the lighter cell organelles like the endoplasmic reticula and the mitochondria. The heavier organelles like the nucleus would be closer to the bottom. That’s right: at 1,000,000 gees, the difference in density between a cell’s nucleus and cytoplasm is enough to make the nucleus sink to the bottom.

I think we’ve gotten horrible enough. So let’s stop the centrifuge, hose what’s left of me out of it, and go ahead and call up a psychiatrist.

But before we do that, I want to make note of something amazing. In 2010, some very creative Japanese scientists decided to try a bizarre experiment. They placed different bacteria in test tubes full of nutrient broth, and put those test tubes in an ultracentrifuge. The ultracentrifuge exposed the bacteria to accelerations of around 400,000 gees. Normally, that’s the kind of acceleration you’d use to separate the proteins from the membranes. It’d kill just about anything. But it didn’t kill the bacteria. As a matter of fact, many of the bacteria kept right on growing. They kept on growing at an acceleration that would kill even a well-protected human instantly. Sure, their cells got a little weird-shaped, but so would yours, if you were exposed to 400,000 gees.

The universe is awesome. And scary as hell.

Actually, I think I’ll let Sam Neill (as Dr. Weir in Event Horizon) sum this one up: “Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse.”


11 thoughts on “Death by Centrifuge

  1. Pingback: Centrifuging Fruit | Sublime Curiosity

  2. Really well thought out, you can tell you spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to word your sentences while still getting your point across. We really enjoyed reading it, and our most squeamish undergrad gave us the thumbs up that it wasn’t too gory. Nature is really fascinating, and we learn a little more about it every day!

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