physics, science

The Moment a Nuke Goes Off

Nuclear weapons give me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I really like explosions and physics and crazy shit. But on the other hand, I don’t like that somebody thought “You know what the world needs? A bomb capable of ruining the shit of everybody in an entire city. And you know what we need? Like fifty thousand of the bastards, all in the hands of angry buggers that all have beef with each other.”

That aside, though, the physics of a nuclear explosion is pretty amazing. Especially when you consider that nuclear bombs were developed at a time when: there was no vaccine for polio, commercial airliners hadn’t been invented, the big brains in Framingham hadn’t even started to work out just what causes heart disease, and a computer needed one room for all the vacuum tubes and another for its air conditioning system.

There’s an absolutely awesome 1977 paper by Glasstone & Dolan that describes, in great detail, and from beginning to end, the things that happen when a nuke goes off. The paper’s also surprisingly readable. Even if you’re a little rusty on your physics, you can still learn a hell of a lot just by skimming it. That’s the mark of a good paper.

To me, the most shocking thing in that paper is just how quickly the actual nuclear explosion happens. But first, a little background. This is what the inside of an implosion-type fission bomb looks like (This is the type that was dropped on Nagasaki, and seems to be the fission device used in modern arsenals. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

Fat_Man_Internal_Components (1)

(Source.)

It looks complicated, but it’s really not. The red thing at the center is the plutonium-239 that actually does the exploding. The dark-gray thing surrounding it is a hollow sphere of uranium-238 (I’ll explain what that’s for in a second). The light-gray thing is an aluminum pusher (I’ll explain that in a second, too). And the peach-colored stuff is the explosive that sets the whole thing off. The yellow things it’s studded with are the detonators.

When the bomb is triggered, the detonators go off. Spherical detonation waves spread through the dark-peach explosives on the outside. When they hit the light-peach cones, the shape of those cones forms the thirty-two separate waves into one smooth, contracting sphere. That spherical implosion wave then passes into the dark-peach charges surrounding the aluminum pusher. So far, the process has taken roughly 30 microseconds.

When the implosion wave hits the pusher, it crushes the aluminum inward, generating remarkable pressures. This takes something like 10 microseconds.  The pusher’s job is to evenly transfer the implosion force to the core.

The imploding pusher then crushes the uranium tamper in roughly 15 microseconds. The tamper serves two purposes: it helps reflect the neutrons generated by the plutonium-238, and, being such a dense, heavy metal, its inertia keeps the core from blowing itself apart too quickly, so more of it can fission.

Speaking of the core, a whole bunch of crazy shit is about to happen in there. Normally, I don’t think of metals as the sort of thing you can compress. But when you’ve got hundreds of kilos of high explosives all pointing inwards, you can compress anything. The core is a whopping 6.4 kilos of plutonium (14 pounds). That’s how much plutonium it takes to wreck an entire city. But just having 6.4 kilos of plutonium lying around isn’t that dangerous. (Relatively speaking.) 6.4 kilos is below plutonium’s critical mass. At least, it is at normal densities. That implosion wave, though, crushes the plutonium down much smaller, until it passes the critical limit by density alone. (There’s also a fancy polonium-210 initiator in the center, to make sure the core goes off when it’s supposed to, but this post is already getting too rambly…)

Once the plutonium passes its critical limit, things happen very quickly. Inevitably, a neutron will be emitted from an atom. That neutron will strike a Pu-238 nucleus and cause it to fission and release a couple more neutrons. Each of these neutrons sets off another Pu-238 nucleus, and bam! We’ve got the right conditions for an exponential chain reaction.

Still, from the outside, it doesn’t look like much has happened. It’s been approximately a hundred microseconds since the detonators detonated, but next to none of the plutonium’s fission energy has been released. Here’s a graph to explain why:

Nuclear Explosion

(Generated using the excellent fooplot.com)

Here, the x-axis represents time in nanoseconds. The y-axis represents the number of neutrons, expressed as a percentage of the number needed to release 21 kilotons-TNT of energy (the amount of energy released by the Fat Man bomb that destroyed Nagasaki). At time-zero, the neutron that initiates the chain reaction is released. And by time 240, all of the energy has been released. But the thing to notice is that it takes all of 50 nanoseconds for the vast, vast majority of the fissions to happen. That is to say, the plutonium core does all the fissioning it’s going to do–releases all of its energy–within 50 nanoseconds.

21 kilotons-TNT released over 50 nanoseconds is equivalent to a power of 1.757e21 Watts. That’s ten thousand times more power than the Earth receives from the sun. That’s roughly 5 millionths of a solar luminosity, which sounds small, until you realize that, for those 50 nanoseconds, a 14-pound lump of gray metal is producing 0.0005% as much power as an entire star.

The nuclear explosion happens so fast, in fact, that by the time it’s finished, the x-ray light released just as the chain reaction took off has only traveled 15 meters (about 49 feet). Everything happens so rapidly that the bomb’s components might as well be stationary. The casing might be starting to bulge outward from the detonation of the implosion device, and the bomb, while still bomb-shaped, is rapidly evaporating into plasma as hot as the core of the fucking sun. But even at those temperatures, the atoms in the bomb haven’t had time to move more than a couple centimeters. So, by the time the nuclear detonation has finished, the bomb and the surrounding air look something like this:

Fat Man End of Detonation.png

But perhaps the wildest thing of all is that we’re not limited to hypothetical renderings here. We actually know, thanks to the incomparable Harold Edgerton, exactly what those first moments of a nuclear explosion look like. Doc Edgerton developed the rapatronic camera, whose clever magneto-optic shutter is capable of opening and closing with an exposure time of as little as 10 nanoseconds. The results of Mr. Edgerton’s work speak for themselves:

Glowing Shot Cab

The thing above is the “shot cab” for a nuclear test. It’s a little shack on top of a tower, with a nuclear bomb inside. In this picture, the bomb has already gone off. Those white rectangles are actually the cab’s wall panels, being made to glow brightly by the scream of X-rays bombarding them. And those ominous-looking mushroom-shaped puffs are where the X-rays have just started to escape into the air and make a nuclear fireball. A moment (probably measured in nanoseconds) later, the fireball looks like this:

Very Early Fireball

I take my hat off to Mr. Edgerton for having the guts to say “Oh? You need a photograph of the first microsecond of a nuclear explosion? Yeah. I can probably make that happen.” (Incidentally, both those photos are taken from the paper “Photography of Early Stages of Nuclear Explosions”, by Edgerton himself, which is, regrettably, behind a fucking paywall. Grumble grumble.)

And, thanks to sonicbomb.com, we can see the evolution of one of these nightmare fireballs:

Hardtack_II

Progressing from left to right and top to bottom, we can see the shot cab glowing a little. Then glowing a lot. Then erupting in x-ray hellfire. And after that, just sort of turning into plasma, which things that close to a nuclear explosion tend to do.

Soon enough, this baby fireball evolves into a nightmarish jellyfish from the deepest pit in Hell:

Tumbler_Snapper_rope_tricks.jpg

(Source.)

The horrifying spikes emerging from the bottom of the fireball are caused by the so-called “rope-trick effect”: they’re the guy wires supporting the shot tower vaporizing and exploding under the onslaught of radiation from the explosion.

And soon enough (after about 16 milliseconds), the fireball swells into a monster like this:

Trinity_Test_Fireball_16ms.jpg

(Source. Note, this is the fireball from the Trinity test, humanity’s first-ever nuclear explosion.)

It’s worth noting that, at this point, 16 milliseconds after the bomb goes off, your retinas have barely had time to respond to the flash. In the roughly 75 to 100 milliseconds it takes the retinal signal to travel down the optic nerves and reach your brain, you are already being exposed to maximum thermal radiation. And after a typical human reaction time (something like 150 to 250 milliseconds), about the time it takes to consciously register something, you’re probably already on fire.

So nuclear explosions are cool, and they’re awe-inspiring, but I must pose the question once again: who the hell saw the plans for these hell-bombs and thought “Yeah. That’s a thing that needs to exist. We need to have that nightmare hanging over humanity’s head forever! Let’s build one!”

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A piece of a neutron star.

In the previous article, I talked about neutron stars, and like pretty much everybody else who’s ever tried to describe a neutron star’s absurd density, I explained that a piece of a neutron star the size of a 500-micron grain of sand would weigh as much as a small cargo ship.

That’s the kind of scientific example I like: it uses to comprehensible objects to illustrate something that would otherwise be pretty much impossible to visualize. I know the mass of a cargo ship isn’t exactly intuitive, but it’s more intuitive than saying 2e17 kilograms per cubic meter.

But one thing such examples gloss over is just how hard it is to pack this much mass so close together. In order to reach the pressures and temperatures necessary for fusion, we need the mass of the entire Sun, and that still only compresses the Sun’s core to 1.5e5 kilograms per cubic meter. It takes a truly massive star that has no way to maintain its internal temperature to compress matter the rest of the way and keep it there.

Neutron stars are supported almost entirely by neutron-degeneracy pressure, which, to seriously oversimplify matters, is a product of the fact that neutrons don’t like to occupy the same quantum state, and therefore don’t like to be brought too close together. It produces a lot of pressure. Enough to support 1.38 solar masses or more against a surface gravity of 100 billion gees. It also means that if we got really literal and took an actual piece out of a neutron star, it would not end well.

Let’s say we teleported a cube of neutron fluid, at a density of 2e17 kilograms per cubic meter and 3,000,000 Kelvin, into the air a meter over an empty field on Earth. The pressure exerted by all those neutrons packed too close together is complicated to calculate, but would probably be in the neighborhood of 5e33 pascals, or about 5e18 atmospheres. That’s a million trillion times higher than the pressure during the detonation of a hydrogen bomb.

That’s a lot of energy in one place, but as we’ve learned while trying to kill humanity with a BB gun and contemplating killer asteroids, even when you deposit a ridiculous amount of energy into a small volume, if there’s enough matter around it, eventually, it’ll be converted into a more ordinary form. This is another way of saying that, up to a certain limit, all explosions are going to behave a lot like scaled-up nuclear explosions.

But a whole lot of interesting shit is going to happen very rapidly before we get to that point. First, our grain of neutronium (which, admit it, sounds way cooler than “neutron superfluid,” cool as that one is) will expand rapidly. This will cause its pressure to decrease, and so it’ll be a lot like ascending through the layers of a neutron star, moving from outer core to crust. When the pressure drops low enough, many of the neutrons will decay into protons, emitting electrons and neutrinos. Neutrinos are infamous for carrying off energy, and also for refusing to interact with things. They might heat the ground below them by a few fractions of a degree, but considering that they pass right through the Earth without difficulty, they’re probably not important, except in the fact that they’ll cool the nuclear matter down.

Now, our grain of neutronium is a slightly larger grain of protons and neutrons all mashed together. Without the surrounding pressure to force them unnaturally close, the protons will naturally repel each other. They’ll still be attracted to each other and to the neutrons via the strong force, but once again, without the ridiculous pressures provided by the bulk of a neutron star, their clustering will be limited by the short range of the strong force. That is to say, they’ll stop being a soup of nucleons and go back to being atomic nuclei.

These nuclei will start out quite heavy, but the falling pressure will cause them to rapidly fission and give off a lot of radiation. There’ll be a lot of gamma rays, a lot of stray protons and neutrons, a lot of alpha particles, and probably a lot of beta decays producing protons and electrons from neutrons. It’d take a particle physicist to tell you exactly what elements to expect in the fallout, but I’d wager it’d mostly be lead, iron, hydrogen, and helium, with a smattering of lighter and heavier elements.

By now, we’re dealing with energies too low for massive neutrino emission, so the only way this expanding sphere of plasma can lose energy is by emitting traditional electromagnetic radiation and by expanding. It is now, for all intents and purposes, an extremely hot and extremely small version of a nuclear fireball.

How big would the fireball ultimately get? That depends on a lot of things: first, on how much energy was initially contained in our deadly granule. Second, on how much of that energy got carried off by the snobbish non-interacting neutrinos. It’s hard to be certain how much potential energy would have been in the grain to start with, but I’ve read that the neutron degeneracy pressure of neutronium is one third of its mass density. E = m * c^2, so mass density is just energy density. One third of the energy density of our grain of neutronium comes out to about 7.5e23 joules, which is of the same order of magnitude as the Chicxulub impact. So, even though we’re dealing with a very exotic explosion, we know that it’s not the kind of explosion that’s going to blow off the entire atmosphere or boil all the oceans. And actually, since so much energy is likely to be lost to neutrinos (neutrinos carry off 99% of the energy in supernovae, which considering that they still shine as bright as 10 billion suns, is horrifying to contemplate), it could be an almost-ordinary thermonuclear explosion. But, because I don’t know exactly how much energy we’re losing to neutrinos here, I’m going to assume the whole 7.5e23 joules is going to get deposited in the atmosphere.

Using this number, we can estimate the relevant parameters by using the excellent Impact Effects program, written by some very nifty folks. This program is, as far as I’m concerned, justification enough for the existence of the Internet all by itself. By assuming a stony asteroid 12 kilometers across, impacting perpendicular to the ground at 22 kilometers per second, we get an impact energy in the right ballpark.

The fireball would grow to massive proportions. As we learned from nuclear tests, hot plasma is pretty much completely opaque to radiation, since it’s got electrons flying around loose, and since photons like to bounce off of electrons. An initial burst of gamma rays would escape, but much of the radiation from our exploding grain of neutronium would be trapped in the plasma bubble, bouncing around while the bubble expanded at high speed. This bubble would reach a radius of 95 kilometers, reaching vertically to near the edge of space and pushing a massive shockwave out in front of it. Anything that happened to be caught within the fireball wouldn’t be destroyed. It wouldn’t even be vaporized. It would be flash-ionized into hot plasma. But, once the bubble had expanded to 95 kilometers in radius, it would finally have cooled enough to de-ionize and become transparent to ordinary radiation again.

This is very briefly good news for the people in the surrounding area, since it means they’re not going to get smacked in the face with a wall of plasma at 5000 degrees. Then, it becomes very bad news, since there’s a lot of thermal energy in that fireball that can now suddenly escape. The fireball would be visible from 1,100 kilometers away, and possibly farther, if you’re unlucky enough to be in an airliner or on a mountain. And if this fireball is visible to you, that pretty much means you’re dead. We’re looking at flash-fires and third-degree burns for five hundred miles in every direction.

About an hour later, the people at 1,200 kilometers, for whom the fireball was below the horizon, would stop being lucky: the blast wave would arrive, bringing overpressures of almost 2 atmospheres (enough to blow down just about any building) and wind speeds of 610 miles an hour (enough to blow down just about any building).

But the disaster would only just be beginning. Here, the peculiar origin of the explosion would make itself apparent: there would likely be a lot of radioactive fallout, and it would be made of peculiar isotopes generated in a flash when those protons and neutrons were separating into nuclei again. Not only that, with all the ionizing radiation, there would be even more nitric oxide in the plume than usual. Imagine if you will a pancake-shaped incandescent cloud hundreds of kilometers across–the size of a country. This cloud glows from within a larger, dark-red cloud of nitric oxide, ozone, iron, lead, and radioactive dust. Over the course of hours, the upper half of the cloud collapses downward as it cools, while the other half rises buoyantly upward. Within days, there’s a sheet of opaque vapor thousands of kilometers across, trapped in the stratosphere, blowing with the winds, fed from below by a firestorm of a kind not seen for 65 million years. Smoke and dust circle the planet within weeks. Temperatures drop far below freezing. People and animals are poisoned by toxic gases. With the sunlight blotted out, plants die. People starve. There’s a mass extinction. Only the hardiest species survive. After the dust settles out and the climate rebounds, new creatures populate the Earth. The only reminder of the catastrophe is a thin layer of exotic elements, and a crater 160 kilometers across and 2 kilometers deep. Perhaps if Earth ever spawns another species that spawns paleontologists, they will think the crater came from an asteroid impact. But it didn’t. It was created by an object the size of a grain of sand.

So take this as a grim warning: Under no circumstances should you take a useful scientific analogy so literally that you actually remove a piece of an exotic compact star and transport it to a planet. And they say you can’t learn anything from psychotic bloggers!

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Could you kill the human race with a BB gun?

As you might have guessed, this post is heavily influenced by xkcd’s brilliant weekly What-If blog

While pondering meteorites striking the earth with absurd velocities, I got to wondering whether or not you could actually kill the human race with a single BB. Because physics is a frightening place, the answer to questions like this is usually yes.

To simplify the first stage of calculations, we need to know how much energy is required to kill the human race. I will call this constant the “ohgod,” and I will set it equal to the kinetic energy of a 15-kilometer-wide stony asteroid traveling at 22 kilometers per second, which would be more than sufficient to cause a mass extinction which would almost certainly wipe out the human race. One ohgod is approximately 1.283 x 10^24 joules, or about 2.6 Chicxulubs (or, as people who fear the awesomeness of Mesoamerican words put it, 2.6 dinosaur-killers). 

The mass of a BB is surprisingly hard to find, although there is a very handy chart listing the masses of high-end BBs in grains, which can easily be converted to grams. By my reckoning, a standard 4.5-millimeter (0.177 caliber) BB should weigh about 0.4 grams. In order to figure out how fast a 0.4-gram BB would have to be moving to have 1 ohgod of kinetic energy, we must solve the relativistic kinetic energy equation for velocity. The relativistic kinetic energy equation is a little unwieldy:

E = [(1/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2)) + 1] * m * c^2

I actually had to get out pen and paper to solve this equation for v. Here’s my math, to prove that I’m not a lazy cretin:

Image

When I calculated v and plugged my numbers back into the relativistic kinetic energy formula on WolframAlpha, I was greeted with one of the most satisfying things a nerd can ever see: I got back exactly 1.283 x 10^24 joules, which means I didn’t have to do all that algebra again.

As it turns out, in order to have a kinetic energy of a species-killing asteroid, a BB would have to be traveling quite fast. I would have to be traveling at 0.9999999999999999999996074284163612948528545037647345 c, in fact. That speed is slower than the speed of light by only a few parts in 10^22, which is to say by only a few parts in 10 billion trillion. A few parts in 10 billion trillion equates to a bacterium-sized drop of water added to an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Feel free to insert your own joke about homeopathy here.

Our lethal BB would be traveling almost as fast as the fastest-moving particles ever detected. I’m thinking here about the Oh-my-God particle, which was (probably) a proton that hit Earth’s atmosphere at 0.9999999999999999999999951 c. The Oh-my-God particle is faster by a hair. But our BB is still traveling a ludicrous speeds. Light is fast. A beam of light could circle the Earth in 133 milliseconds, which, if you look at reaction-time data, is about half the time it takes a human being to detect a stimulus and for the nerve impulse to travel down their arm and make a muscle contract. Very few physical objects can hold their own against light. But our BB could. If you raced our BB and a beam of light head-to-head, after a thousand years, the BB would only be lagging 3 millimeters behind, which is about the diameter of a peppercorn, which is ridiculous.

But the question here is not “How fast would a BB have to be traveling to have the same kinetic energy as a humanity-ending asteroid.” The question is “Could you actually use a hyper-velocity BB to kill the human race,” which is much more interesting and complicated. 

First of all, the BB would have an insane amount of kinetic energy. E = m * c^2, of course, and from that, we know that our BB’s kinetic energy (its energy alone) would have a mass of 1.428 * 10^7 kilograms, which is about the mass of five Boeing 747 jet airliners. I would have to be a very gifted physicist to tell you what happens when you’ve got atoms with that kind of energy, but I suspect that there would be very weird quantum effects (aren’t there always?) which would conspire to slow the BB down. Because of quantum randomness, I imagine the BB would constantly be emitting high-energy gamma rays, which would decay into electron-positron and proton-antiproton pairs. Which is to say that our BB would be moving so fast that, rather than leaving behind a wake of Cherenkov radiation, it would leave behind a wake of actual physical matter, conjured seemingly from the ether by the conversion of its kinetic energy. 

As for what would happen when the BB actually hit the Earth, that’s beyond my power to calculate, on account of I don’t have access to a fucking supercomputer. But we can assume that the BB would pass straight through the Earth with no physical impact: all of its interactions with our planet would probably be on the level of ultra-high-energy particle physics. And from that, we can estimate its effects.

The BB would cut a cylindrical path 4.5 millimeters across and 1 earth diameter long. If it deposited all of its kinetic energy along this track, it would raise the temperature of the rock by 10^15 Kelvin, which would make it one million times hotter than a supernova, which would most certainly be more than enough to kill all of us and vaporize a significant fraction of the Earth.

But the BB would only spend 44 milliseconds passing through the Earth, and somehow I doubt that regular matter would stop it entirely. Let’s assume instead that only one tenth of its energy got deposited in its track. We’re still talking a temperature a hundred thousand times that in the center of a supernova, which is ridiculous and would, once again, kill us all and peel the skin off the planet.

What if the BB only loses one one hundredth of its energy as it passes through the Earth? Same result: the Earth is replaced by a ball of radioactive lava.

But if, because of its ridiculous speed, it only loses one one millionth of its kinetic energy interacting with Earth, it still heats its needle-thin track to 3 billion kelvin, which is hot enough to fuse Earth’s silicon into iron and produce a violent explosion that would spawn earthquakes and firestorms and might, in spite of the energy losses, kill us all anyway.

But when you consider how much energy even the mighty Oh-my-God particle (which was, let me remind you, moving so fast that light was having trouble staying ahead of it) deposited just by hitting the atmosphere, I’d say the BB would lose quite a bit more than one one-millionth of its kinetic energy on impact. And I’d say that that kinetic energy would be spread over a fairly wide area. I’m thinking it would leave behind a column of hydrogen-bomb-temperature fusion plasma in the atmosphere, then hit the crust and fan out within an ice-cream-cone-shaped volume of the mantle. The nastiness of the results depend entirely on how big an ice-cream cone we’re talking, but it’s likely to be fairly narrow and fairly long, so we’re probably looking at a near-supernova-temperature column of fusing rock plasma with a length measured in kilometers. The explosion would be worse than anything the Earth has ever seen and would, yes, almost certainly kill all of us. If the immediate radiation didn’t get us, then the explosion would expose the mantle and lift enough dust to darken the sky for years.

You know, at the start of this, I thought I had an idea I could pitch to Daisy Outdoor Products. Now that I think about it, I think I’ll put the proposal in a drawer and forget about it.

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Decibels of DEATH!

Ear Protection

When I see the word “decibel,” I think two things. First, I think “Noise.” Then, I think “Oh god, decibels confuse the hell out of me…”

Well, I think I finally understand the decibel. It’s kind of a weird unit, but it’s also nifty, and it showcases one of the coolest things in mathematics: the logarithm.

Here’s how you compute the decibel-level of a sound. First, you figure out the acoustic power of that sound, probably using a microphone (or using a sound engineer who has a microphone and understands better than I do the difference between “acoustic power” and “sound amplitude.”) The acoustic power tells you the maximum pressure the sound wave exerts on things (say, your eardrums). Most of the time, you measure that sound pressure in pascals. Take that sound pressure and divide it by 20 micro-pascals. 20 micro-pascals is a semi-arbitrary reference point. It’s about the sound pressure where a 1000-Hertz sine wave first becomes audible to a human ear. It’s not a lot of pressure. The pressure 10 meters underwater is about twice what it is at sea level, which means the overpressure is about 1 atmosphere (1000 hectopascals. I’d like to note that Hectopascal would be a good name for a movie villain.) Well, the depth of water it would take to get an overpressure of 20 micropascals is 2 nanometers, which is about the diameter of a strand of DNA. Did you know human ears were that sensitive? I didn’t.

Anyway, you can use decibels to express a wide range of noise levels without using too many digits (Because, let’s face it, we all start zoning out after you get beyond about six digits, give or take.) To get the decibel number, you divide your sound pressure by 20 micropascals, take the base-10 logarithm of that, and multiply the result by 20. For example: a sound pressure of 20 micropascals gives you 20 * log10(20/20) = 20 * log10(1) = 20 * 0 = 0 dB.

With a title like Decibels of Death, you knew this article was going to be all about extremes. The quietest officially-measured place in the world is the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories. It’s a room encased in a foot-thick concrete vault. The room itself sits on I-beams which are on springs to isolate external vibration. The inside of the room is full of wedge-shaped foam blocks which prevent echoes and dampen the sound from outside even further. The Guinness Book of World Records measured the sound level in the Orfield anechoic chamber at -9.4 decibels. That works out to a sound pressure level of 6.8 micropascals. To produce an overpressure that small, you’d only need a layer of water 0.612 nanometers thick. At that point, it’s less a puddle and more a molecular stack. That’s pretty damn quiet.

It’s actually intolerably quiet, apparently. The longest anybody’s ever spent in the chamber is 45 minutes, according to that Daily Mail article I linked above. I’ve heard stories about people who freaked out in the chamber because, all of a sudden, they can hear their heartbeats. And some people have auditory hallucinations when deprived of sound long enough, which probably makes the Orfield chamber even scarier.

So -9.4 dB is quiet enough to make you crazy. 0 dB is the threshold of hearing. 10 dB is about the quietest environment you or I will ever experience, and that’s only if we don’t breathe too loud. 25 dB is a very quiet room. According to a funky app I’ve got on my smartphone, the noise level at this desk is 51 dB. The EPA (the US environmental agency) recommends your everyday environment not exceed 70 dB. 85 dB can cause hearing damage over the long-term. 130 dB is painful. 150 dB can rupture your eardrums. This is what I was talking about earlier: logarithmic scales allow you to convert numbers orders of magnitude apart into nice numbers with low digit counts, which makes it easier to compare them side-by-side. When we started out, back at -9.4 decibels, the pressures were so low they were almost impossible to measure. Now, they’re so high they’re doing organ damage.

And speaking of organ damage… The strength of a blast wave is measured by its overpressure, just like the strength of a sound wave. In this fascinating and unnerving paper, some doctors report the effects of 62,000-pascal blast waves on rats. They speak of “minimal to mild alveolar hemorrhages,” as though there were such a thing as a mild case of bleeding fucking lungs. The upshot of all this is that, although 150 dB may burst your eardrums, 189.9 decibels (which is the decibel equivalent of 62,000 pascals overpressure) can actually damage your guts.

But if you’re catching a 190-decibel blast, you’ve got more serious things to worry about than bleeding lungs. Yes, really. There are a lot of reports of soldiers who have been hit by blasts from roadside bombs and car bombs and other such nasty things. Some of these soldiers, although they didn’t hit their heads on anything and nothing hit them in the head, developed serious cognitive problems: difficulty concentrating and short-term memory loss, enough to pretty much spoil their day-to-day lives. In another experiment, rats exposed to a blast overpressure of 20 kilopascals (180 decibels) experienced similar symptoms, and when they were dissected, had lots of dying brain cells. Which is all really pretty damn sad.

As it turns out, there’s actually technically a maximum sound pressure, at least if you want an undistorted sound wave. A pure tone has the shape of a sine wave: the pressure rises a certain amount above atmospheric, drops in a graceful sinusoidal curve, falls that same amount below atmospheric pressure, returns to atmospheric pressure, rinse and repeat. The thing about these kinds of sine waves is that, after their maximum overpressure, they have to drop that far below atmospheric pressure. And if the sound pressure of your sine wave happens to be greater than atmospheric pressure, that can’t happen: pressure is a number that doesn’t go any lower than zero, which is a vacuum. So a sine wave with a sound pressure larger than 1013 hectopascals (1 atmosphere) will sound all right when the pressure goes up, but will get cut off (“clipped,” the sound-engineer people call it) when it goes down. (And when I say “Will sound all right” I mean “Will rupture your aorta, destroy your lungs, tear your limbs off, and knock your house down,” as we learned from nuclear tests.) The maximum for unclipped sound, therefore, is 194.1 decibels.

But since we’re already blowing everything up, why worry about a little distortion? You know the Barrett M82? The big-ass .50-caliber sniper rifle? That one from that movie The Hurt Locker? The big scary one? Well, when that thing fires, its cartridge sees a blast wave of 265.5 decibels, which is just one more reason not to live in a rifle barrel.

You would experience 270 decibels if you were standing about 100 meters (350 feet) from a 1-megaton nuclear bomb when it went off. I use “experience” loosely here, since you wouldn’t have long to enjoy the racket before you were spread over an alarmingly large area.

Now, let’s say you were standing on the surface of a star just as it went supernova. Well, you’d be exposed to a blast pressure of something in the (very rough) neighborhood of 476 decibels, which I’m pretty sure the EPA would classify as “potentially hazardous.”

As it turns out, there’s a maximum pressure that is still physically meaningful, at least according to our current understanding of physics. It’s called the Planck Pressure, and it’s very large. It’s the kind of pressure you get inside black holes. It’s the kind of pressure the universe experienced (we think) right after the Big Bang. The Big Bang had a noise rating of 2,367.3 decibels. The explosion that set the current universe in motion had a pressure which can be quantified in five significant digits.

That’s what I mean about logarithmic scales being awesome. They turn unimaginable cosmic numbers into nice, manageable, comprehensible numbers. You’d better believe I’m going to be playing with logarithmic scales again soon. Which sounds way dirtier than I intended.

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