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Contemplating death from inside a grave, going blind in space, and other tales from the field

On a space walk, flying blind

space walk flying blind

“That slide of time is as clear and vital and beautiful and important as any other time in my life.”

illustration by Jungyeon Roh

Time is your enemy on a spacewalk. When you’re outside the ship, everything that keeps you alive is on a clock.

Carbon-dioxide-absorbing chemicals work for only a certain number of hours. Your batteries wind down. You carry a fixed amount of oxygen. There’s very little room in the schedule if something breaks or if there’s an emergency.

During my first spacewalk, our mission was to install an ­antenna and a robotic arm on the outside of the International Space Station. About five hours in, I noticed droplets of liquid floating around inside my helmet. Then, my left eye started burning. It slammed shut, and I couldn’t see out of it. I couldn’t rub my eyes, because of the space suit, and tears don’t drain without gravity. I tried to keep working, but the burning spread into my right eye too. I was blind in both eyes, in space. I didn’t know what was causing it, or whether my eyes would be permanently damaged. But what bugged me most was the passage of time. I had a lot of stuff to get done, and I could almost hear the clock ticking. Eventually I realized that I could get rid of the irritant (which I later learned was soap and oil from my helmet defogger) by venting oxygen from my space suit to create airflow. After a while, my tears evaporated and I could see again.

We’d lost half an hour and hustled to catch up, but there were still moments when I had to stop and marvel at the beauty ­surrounding me. Like when it was dark just south of Australia—suddenly we go through the aurora, and all the colors of the rainbow are rippling around us like this great curtain. When you’re in one of those moments, everything seems crystal clear, both at the time and afterward. I’ve been alive for 57 years. I’ve been outside in space for only about 15 hours. Yet that slice of time is as clear and vital and beautiful and important as any other time of my life.

As told to Sarah Fecht

A Trip To The Other Side

trip to the other side

“Because the definition of death has changed before, we know it will shift again.”

illustration by Jungyeon Roh

I study the intersections between death, dying, and the deceased. What does it mean to be dying, to be dead? The answer has changed a lot throughout history.

It’s not hard to figure out how I got here: My dad was a funeral director. I grew up around death. In the early 2000s, he called and asked if I’d help him exhume a grave that was about 30 years old. Unfortunately, the concrete around the casket had cracked, and the whole thing was full of water. It was a big, brown soupy mess. I got into a haz­-mat suit and climbed down with a bucket and a rope.

I filled up the bucket, scoop by scoop, and my dad hauled it up when it was full. That experience really seared itself into my mind. It made me think about what it means to move a body when time has broken it down and about what it means to be dead in the first place.

Around the time that man passed away in the 1970s, the discourse around our final mo­­ments was shifting. Life-support machines changed our definition of what it means to be alive, raising all these ­questions about when death happened and what it really meant. We moved away from defining dying as when the heart stops and toward an understanding of personhood as being in the mind. That was important in deciding that when a brain is dead, a person is gone.

Because the definition of death has changed before, we know it will shift again. As our DNA comes to identify us, will we say that if it still sends instructions to our cells, we’re still alive? I have no idea what death will mean in the future, but I can tell you that it will change.

As told to Rachel Feltman

Smell ya later

the nose knows

“Corpse smell is easy to get.”

illustration by Jungyeon Roh

Scents give you a sense of continuity with the past. That’s why I study how to preserve the odors of historic places.

The molecules floating off pages at the J.P. Morgan Library in New York, for example, reveal how it smelled before the books were all behind glass. We create chemical cocktails of those molecules to bottle up historic perfumes, and we hope to share them with visitors someday.

We can re-create the smell of specific moments too. When Morgan died in 1913, the family laid out his weeks-old corpse in the library for viewing. Corpse smell is easy to get; it’s used to train police dogs. Records say 5,000 pungent roses masked the stench, so they’re in our mix as well.

It’s all about capturing the essence of a space. Visitors might not care to smell Morgan himself, but these scent snapshots can help preserve the library’s magic forever.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Hammer time

Hammer time

“We’d learned our lesson about baby-blue hammers.”

illustration by Jungyeon Roh

In 2010, I was on my first research trip to visit Antarctica’s Skaar Ridge, a 2-mile-long stretch of rock and fossils near the side of a mountain. It can be accessed only via helicopter, so it doesn’t see much foot traffic. The last research team to visit did so back in 1990, and they had left behind one unfortunate casualty: my colleague Professor N. Rubén Cúneo’s hammer.

We joked about rescuing our fellow scientist’s old tool, but the odds of finding it were incredibly slim. A hunk of metal and wood could certainly survive a couple of decades in that barren, frozen landscape, but Skaar Ridge is a big place, and wind constantly blows the snow around in Antarctica. There’s a reason it got lost in the first place.

You can imagine our surprise when just two days in, we spotted a handle poking out of the snow. How were we certain that it was Cúneo’s, you ask? Its head was painted baby blue. The 2010 expedition carried only hammers painted fluorescent pink, to make them easier to spot if and when we dropped them into the snow. We’d learned our lesson about baby-blue hammers back in 1990.

As told to Jason Lederman

I catch clouds for a living

cloud in jar illustration

“We want to know what makes each seed grow.”

Laura Breiling

Daniel Cziczo, Associate Prof. at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

I study clouds because they both trap heat and reflect solar radiation to cool us. So figuring out their net effect helps us create climate models as the planet warms.

The water droplets and ice crystals that form clouds only start gathering together when they cling to tiny ­particles—little cloud seeds made of dust and minerals. We want to know what makes each seed grow.

At Mount Washington Observatory, a system of tubes captures and heats the cloud moisture, evaporating everything but the particles. We put similar seeds in a chamber and tweak humidity and temperature until we have a new cloud. Then we can see how it behaves under various conditions. But first, you have to catch a cloud.

As told to Kelsey Atherton

Departing the waters

helicopter drawing

“All told, I helped rescue 127 people.”

Laura Breiling

Dylan Hernandez, U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Maintenance Technician

The first two people I ever rescued—during a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, flood in 2016—were a mom and daughter. They had a very high back deck, and the water was right there. We flew past them at first in our chopper, and when I turned to look behind us, I just happened to see a guy waving. So we made a turn and lowered our swimmer. He put them in one at a time, and we picked them up in two separate hoists. The father decided not to leave. A lot of people didn’t want to leave their homes that day. We did two days of nonstop back and forth, refueling, going back, saving people.

We were all nervous, but the conversation that goes on between you, the pilot, and the swimmer, you do it so many times that it becomes natural. You know where to position the helicopter and how many you can fit on board.

All told, I helped rescue 127 people. I’m not sure what happened to that dad. I believe a boat came by later, and he decided it was finally time to go. I hope he got out, because when we went back a few days later, the deck was completely submerged.

As told to Eleanor Cummins

The night we evacuated Oroville

dam drawing

“I had 30 family members and their pets staying with me.”

Laura Breiling

Matt Murray, civil engineer/liaison officer at Oroville Dam

At 770 feet tall, the Oroville Dam, where I work, is the tallest dam in the United States and holds the second-largest reservoir in California. I’m from Oroville, and I was there this past February, the day the dam threatened to flood thousands of homes.

In just six weeks, storms had delivered six months’ worth of water to the region. The last one hit us much more squarely than we thought it would. The reservoir was rising fast. To drain it, we had to first let it reach the top so it could run into the spillway—the emergency overflow outlet we use only for catastrophes. We sent out about 20 engineers and geologists to monitor potential erosion on the dirt slope.

Then on February 12, one of our monitors radioed that the water was destroying the hillside. He estimated that in an hour, the erosion would reach the barrier holding back the reservoir. If it failed, 30 feet of water would race downhill, flooding several communities.

That’s when the sheriff, who was in a control room with us, took over. He said this emergency wasn’t about moving water anymore; it was now dedicated to saving lives. Then he shouted, “Does everyone support that plan?” The entire room yelled in unison, “Yes!”

We evacuated about 188,000 people downstream. I had 30 family members and their pets staying with me. Luckily, the spillway held. In the end, we corralled one of the largest storms this area had ever seen. Months later, we’re still rebuilding. We’re making half a million cubic yards of concrete on-site rather than trucking it in so we can work faster and repair the damage by the end of the year, when water ­season begins again—there is no other option.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Exit, pursued by bear

Polar bear boat drawing

“At first seeing a polar bear up close was exciting.”

Laura Breiling

Laura Levy, Postdoctoral Researcher in Geoscience, Aarhus University, Denmark

The Greenland ice sheet is shrinking faster than anticipated. But it’s not like it’s never changed before. I study how the sheet responded to previous climate shifts so I can compare that growth and shrinkage with what we see today. That means giving up my warm Danish springs to travel to Greenland.

When my team travels to the far north to take sediment core samples from lakes, it’s so cold that our instant meals sometimes freeze solid in minutes. Climate change is shortening that cold season, which means less sea ice. Because polar bears use sea ice to hunt prey, warm temperatures leave them hungry—and dangerous.

About three years ago, as we worked from a sailboat in the fjords, one of those hungry bears swam up and swiped a barrel of emergency supplies from a raft tied to our ship. He ate the chocolate bars inside and ­immediately swam back for more.

At first seeing a polar bear up close was exciting. But we realized that if he really wanted to get onboard, he could. That was less exciting. We lit flares and scared him off. But he came back a few hours later—so we lit more flares. The next day he was sitting on shore watching us, like a dog looking for scraps. That’s when we decided to move. You don’t want to be a bear’s favorite lunch spot.

As told to Kendra Pierre-Louis

99 fried weather balloons

ben franklin with a key and a kite

“Some flashes stand out, even to me.”

Laura Breiling

Don MacGorman, physicist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory

I’ve studied lightning for more than 40 years. It’s beautiful from afar, but my team gets pretty close. During storm season, we hang sensors from weather balloons and launch them up to study the bolts—sometimes from directly beneath a squall.

Lightning forms when ice particles smash into each other. Our imager captures them as small as one-tenth of a millimeter. Another sensor measures the electric field’s direction and magnitude. Understanding how this ­unfolds helps improve forecasts.

Some flashes stand out, even to me. There’s bead lightning, where parts of the strike stay bright longer so it seems to break into a string of gems. Spider lightning stretches along the bottom of a cloud, forming a web from one horizon to another.

Sometimes sensors show a huge electrical buildup—then zilch. That means a balloon’s been struck. But the sacrifice is worth it.

As told to Cici Zhang

A not-so perfect storm

drawing of tornado

“It was exhilarating.”

Laura Breiling

Jamey Jacob, professor of aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University

When most storm chasers want to see inside a tornado, they set down sensors in its path. But those just sit in one place while the storm passes over. We build rugged drones that collect temperature, pressure, and humidity data to hopefully improve weather forecasting—while we keep our distance. Sometimes that means flying into extreme weather just to see what happens.

This past year, we were setting up equipment in a field when a tornado suddenly formed about a mile away. In our world, that’s right on top of you. This massive cloud wall dropped down, like a cliff. We could smell it emitting ozone and feel its electricity. It was exhilarating.

Tornadoes typically last less than five minutes once they touch down, so we had to act fast and launch an off-the-shelf quadrocopter with just a few sensors on it. You can’t get much data from one drone, but we did learn the winds weren’t as violent as we thought: about 40 or 50 miles an hour.

Now we have drone swarms that fly in different configurations, giving us multiple data points for each storm. Hopefully we’ll be ready next time one forms on top of us. You never know. Forecasting has a long way to go!

As told to Sarah Fecht

On tears and rocket fuel

rocket

“I still choke up over that motor.”

Peter Oumanski

Victor Singer, former Structural Engineer for Orbital ATK

My first interplanetary rocket motor was a ­solid-fuel ­Star-24. I can still picture it: 24 inches in diameter, almost spherical, with a nozzle sticking out. That nozzle was mine. I designed it. NASA employed the Star-24 on its 1978 Pioneer Venus multiprobe, which studied the planet’s atmosphere. Once the probe reached orbit, the rocket’s job was to slow the Pioneer enough so it would fall toward Venus, gathering data until it burned up. During the week prior to launch, the company left our newly minted design in the final assembly building so we could say goodbye. I remember it was there in the shipping box. I stepped in, put my arms around the motor, and I cried. It’s a privilege to put your hands on a rocket destined for another planet. I still choke up over that motor. It’s a piece of me.

As told to Sara Chodosh

Six Flags is my science lab

six flags ride

“Luckily it took me only 25 runs.”

Peter Oumanski

Larry Chickola, Chief Corporate Engineer, Six Flags

I’m responsible for all of Six Flags’ amusements, from the kiddie rides to the roller coasters, in all 18 parks in North America. Right now we’re considering making a new roof for Zumanjaro, the world’s tallest drop tower.

The seats have mesh roofs to protect riders as they shoot 415 feet into the air and plunge into free-fall. We want to make the whole roof bigger because that would make certain design changes easier in the future. But we don’t want to increase the air resistance on a ride that relies on speed. That means finding a light mesh that will cut through the air with less resistance.

So I hooked my laptop to sensors that measure air pressure 1,000 times per second, and brought it over to Zumanjaro with some mesh samples. I needed my laptop to stay open while it rode up and down, so I figured I’d just strap in and hold it myself.

We found a material that lowers the roof’s wind resistance by 30 percent, and weighs half of what we use now. Luckily it took me only 25 runs—and I got an amazing view.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Shaping the nation’s biggest ships

ship

“The biggest challenge is seeing how the millions of pieces fit together—that’s my job.”

Peter Oumanski

Kari Wilkinson, VP of Program Management at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, MS

This is an 800-acre shipyard. When I first came here after college, I saw the massive equipment and huge ships, and realized how little I actually knew about naval engineering. Ingalls has built nearly 70 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet. We have 11 military vessels under construction, and nearly 12,000 employees. The biggest challenge is seeing how the millions of pieces fit together—that’s my job. To build one of these boats, which can reach more than 800 feet long, we create units. These are the building blocks, like Legos, that we connect and stack together to make bigger sections of the craft. Some units are four decks high, and some are a single level. We lay down the lowest units along the keel in a cradle while we’re putting together sections of piping and electrical components for the water, cooling, and propulsion systems.

Later, we launch the ship but continue to finish it in the water. You start seeing the paint and the deck covering and the furniture. At the very end, we’re testing everything, from the toilets to the water that cools the engines. It takes three to six years to build one of these ships, and by then, it’s almost like it’s part of your family. I’ve never been on a cruise liner, but I’ve been on sea trials plenty, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. When you feel the engines start and it takes off under its own power, there is no better place to be.

As told to Sophie Bushwick

I got my hand stuck in a cow—for science

fistulated cow

“The cow isn’t really bothered by this process at all. It’s remarkable. Sometimes the patient keeps eating during the surgery.”

Peter Oumanski

Matthias Hess, assistant professor at the University of California at Davis

I’m fascinated by cow guts. The microbes in the rumen—the largest of four sections in a cow’s stomach—break down plant materials extremely well. Studying that process can help us design better cow feed, which could minimize the greenhouse gases cattle emit. It could even help us find ways to optimize our own guts.

To study these questions in the lab, I designed an artificial cow-gut system. It looks a lot like a beer fermenter. But for the system to work, I need live rumen samples, and for that I have to literally reach into a cow’s stomach. You do this using a fistulated cow. That’s one where a veterinarian cuts a hole in its side, and inserts a tube between the rumen and the skin that can be sealed with a plastic stopper. The cow isn’t really bothered by this process at all. It’s remarkable. Sometimes the patient keeps eating during the surgery.

Once a cow is fistulated, you can stick your hand in and pull stuff out of the rumen whenever you need to. Liquids are easy to get: You place a tube in the opening and suck it out. Solids can get tricky, though. It starts out simple enough—you just put your hand deep into the opening. But it’s pretty packed in there. And the gut muscles are constantly moving. You can get your arm stuck. That sounds bad, I know. But you just have to stay calm and wait for the muscles to relax. Or you do what I do, and let your students handle the dirty work while you watch them get stuck. Don’t worry, they think it’s pretty funny.

That’s why my favorite cow is the artificial one in my lab. I can switch it on and off, and I can control all the variables, so every result is ­predictable. And your hand doesn’t get stuck in a gut.

As told to Claire Maldarelli

Pushing the limits of a giant plane

plane

“If there’s damage, your boss will want to know what happened.”

Peter Oumanski

Mark Feuerstein, Boeing test pilot

As a youngster, I liked airplanes, and I knew I wanted to be a test pilot. Today, I fly Boeing’s 747s, including the 747-8, the world’s longest passenger jet. We push planes to their limits, sometimes doing hazardous maneuvers so engineers can enhance the safety of the airliner. For instance, we’ll purposely stall an engine and let the craft pitch nose-down to make sure it behaves well without pilot intervention. Jets today generally recover quickly.

One of the most fun things we’ve done is a million-pound takeoff. One million is a big round number! We were testing how the 747-8 flies at its maximum certified takeoff weight of 990,000 pounds. Normally, as you burn fuel, that weight drops before you can get in the air. The extra 10,000 pounds of gas got us off the ground so we could see how the plane handles airborne at 990,000 pounds. When it’s that heavy, it’s harder for the structure to absorb a firm landing, so you have to be a little careful. If there’s damage, your boss will want to know what happened.

As told to Kelsey Atherton

What it’s like to drink you own pee

astronauts drinking

“Youʼre drinking recycled sweat and urine.”

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Jeff Williams, NASA astronaut and U.S. record holder for total days spent in space

“On Earth, not all water tastes the same. Some water is delicious, but some can leave a funny taste in your mouth—the result of a particular mineral or metal. This doesnʼt happen on board the International Space Station, even though youʼre drinking recycled sweat and urine. You donʼt sense any unusual flavors. The water—and the beverages we make from it—consistently tastes pretty good.

The process of treating wastewater up there isnʼt all that different from the natural water cycle on Earth—the runoff, the evaporation, clouds, and rain. The planetʼs water cycle turns water we might consider nasty into water we consider drinkable; so do the ISSʼs systems. And we test it almost every single day, so weʼre confident that our drinking water is clean. NASA has very strict standards for it. We joke about it a lot, but we really donʼt think much about what our drinking water used to be. Iʼve been on board with 55 or so different people, and Iʼve never seen anyone hesitate to drink it. We drink the Russian water, and they drink ours.”

As told to Sarah Fecht

Battling a waterborne plague

giant bacteria

“We had to work quickly to get clean water to small communities fighting against the disease.”

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Rick Gelting, U.S. Public Health Service Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“When you’re in a water emergency, it’s really not the time to try something new. In 2010, when the cholera outbreak hit Haiti, the local government invited us to help implement a water-cleaning system. We had to work quickly to get clean water to small communities fighting against the waterborne disease. But we also couldn’t introduce any new technologies or products that local workers and residents might not be familiar with.

Chlorine was our go-to: It’s available, inexpensive, and incredibly effective. Problem is, there are different types of chlorination, so we had to trace where people got every drop of their water—whether they piped it in, hauled it from wells, or got it elsewhere. This is where local knowledge comes in handy.

For large community water systems, we used locally available materials to drip a liquid chlorine solution directly into storage tanks, a method that Haiti’s national water and ­sanitation agency (DINEPA) developed. But some people were bringing in small batches of water from other places. In those cases, special chlorine tablets and solutions let ­individual households treat their own water.

Working with DINEPA was key because they knew the local conditions and communities better than we did. Local knowledge ­ensures that what you build will sustain itself and make a difference in the long term—­because you will eventually leave.”

As told to Claire Maldarelli

Flying straight into a tempest

Flying straight into a tempest

“We wound up hitting such a strong updraft, maybe 60 miles per hour, that we hit zero g for a couple of seconds.”

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Robert Rogers, meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization

“When we fly Hurricane Hunter aircraft into cyclones, a lot of the data we gather is to monitor for “rapid intensification.” That’s when a storm increases in strength by 35 miles per hour or more within a 24-hour period, and it’s a big concern for the forecast community. The nightmare scenario is for this to happen to a Category 1 hurricane just before landfall on the U.S. coast: It goes from a Category 1 to a catastrophic Category 4, and no one has any warning.

Back in 2007, during Hurricane Felix, we flew into a Category 2. But at 10,000 feet, I saw flashes—at first I thought someone took a photo, but then I realized it was lightning. When you see lightning in the core of a storm, it’s a sign that it’s really intensifying. We wound up hitting such a strong updraft, maybe 60 miles per hour, that we hit zero g for a couple of seconds. My notebook started to float, and drops of water from the cup next to me were hovering in the air. At that point, the mission switched from collecting data to just getting home safely.”

As told to Rachel Feltman

That time I bombed Antarctica

blast in antarctica

“Explosives happen to be a great source of sound.”

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Nick Holschuh, Geophysicist at the University of Washington

“If you were to melt Antarctica, the global sea level would go up by around 60 meters, which would obviously be pretty bad. But to understand how and when the ice sheet might melt, we need to measure its physical properties—the material of the rocks beneath, the temperature of the ice, defects gliding through the system. For something one and a half times the size of the United States, thatʼs a crazy-difficult task.

So how do we do that? Well, if you use a thermometer to measure temperature, youʼre actually measuring the behavior of alcohol or metal within the thermometer itself. I used a similar principle to measure temperature through the ice. We sent sound waves down into the subsurface to get information on physical properties—like temperature—that affected them on the way.

Explosives happen to be a great source of sound. First, we bored a 20-meter hole down into the ice with a hot-water drill. Then we stuffed in a pound of Pentex H boosters and packed them in with snow. We covered the surface in an array of microphones. Then—boom!

After the explosion, we listened for echoes. Logistically speaking, itʼs not the simplest method of measuring the properties of ice, but having a variety of data-collection techniques at our disposal helps us understand how human behavior affects this massive system.

On quieter days, I use radio waves to peek through the ice sheets—to look at the configuration of the ice and the properties of the material itʼs sitting on top of—and I use satellite data to see how the surface is changing over time.”

As told to Sophie Bushwick

Slip and slide

female storm chaser

“It’s like driving on black ice in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception.”

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Emily Sutton, meteorologist and storm chaser at KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City

“When you’re chasing a storm, hydro-planing and hail are usually scarier than the tornado itself. It’s like driving on black ice in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception.”

As told to Rachel Feltman

The mysterious case of the cat-scented faucet

The mysterious case of the cat-scented faucet

“We sprayed chlorine dioxide into the air, and sure enough: cat urine.”

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

Andrea Dietrich, water consultant for utility companies

“About 25 years ago, some people would turn on their ­faucets and smell cat urine. It was one apartment in a building, or one house in a neighborhood. Residents would say, ‘We don’t have a cat.’ We were stumped for more than a year until a utility employee said, ‘It’s not our water; it’s residents’ new carpets.’

He was half right, anyway. At the time, maybe 0.1 percent of utilities in the United States disinfected their water with chlorine dioxide. But chlorine dioxide isn’t water soluble, so when people opened their faucets, it would quickly fill the surrounding air. There, it reacted with chemicals in new carpets to create the signature stench. My colleague and I went to his church, which had a new carpet, to test the theory. We sprayed chlorine dioxide into the air, and sure enough: cat urine.”

As told to Sarah Chodosh

These articles were originally published in the March/April 2017, May/June 2017, July/August 2017, and September/October 2017 issues of Popular Science, in the “Tales From The Field” section. Read more of them here.

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