Fun Fact - The Lava Game

From May of 2011 to November of 2017, a grueling 6.5 year period of my life, every day seemed like a game of lava. Did you play lava with your siblings when you were young? We use to scatter pillows across the floor, then my sister and I would jump from couch to pillow to cushion to chair to pillow to cushion to end table, and so on, and if we so much as touched the floor we would burn, for it was hot lava. We took care not to collide with each other, for that would surely knock one or both of us onto the floor. I could almost picture the carpet as red hot in my mind. The pillows and cushions were islands in a sea of molten lava. Not sure where our Mom was at the time, I don't think she would have sanctioned us jumping all over her furniture, including the end tables and the nice diningroom chairs.

Now, as I write this article, the game is real. We must dodge the parallel specters of poverty, and homelessness, and illness, and drugs, and domestic strife, and jail. In fact we were forced to move 5 times in 5 years. I'll spare you the details. Suffice to say, it takes all our intelligence and judgment just to survive. Each day we must jump from here to there, and make this happen, and arrange the next step, and if we miss, some member of our family, or maybe the entire family, falls into hot lava and burns to death. Skin chars in an instant, then water (60 percent of our bodies) turns to steam and bubbles up through the roiling red-hot liquid. Volume increases by a factor of 1700 when water turns to steam, so there's a lot of steam spattering lava about. Don't try to save us; just step back! Even protein degenerates to carbon and water. Does human fat cleave into monoglycerides, then jettison the COOH to become hydrocarbons, like fossil fuel in the earth, or is the 2000 degree heat sufficient to separate each chain into carbon and hydrogen, wherein the latter bubbles up and ignites in the presence of oxygen, creating little flash flames above the red-hot sea? An interesting thought experiment to be sure. Well we aren't facing literal lava, but it may as well be. I wake up each morning and wonder what chain of pillows we must traverse today. Can we jump from here to there safely, and what if we miss? Wendy and I hold hands and jump together. “I love you. Ready, set, jump!” Pillow, cushion, pillow, couch - safe for another day. 🛋 Trust me, the childhood game was much more fun. I hope life improves soon.

Throughout history, cultures that lived near volcanos often tossed people in, as sacrifices to the gods, or for other reasons. Their deaths are probably horrific, as described above, or if they're lucky, they might die on the way down the slopes, hitting their head on a rock or some such. Surely nobody could survive a fall into molten lava. And yet, one man did. A volcano in Tanzania is classified as "cold", with lava flowing at a mere 500 C, 930 F, rather than the 1000 C or 2000 F that is the norm for other volcanos. It's not quite hot enough to glow red, so the lava is black. A local Maasai porter fell in, climbed out in a hurry, and survived, though one arm and both legs were horribly burned. Why not his entire body? Because lava has a density of 3.1, 3 times as dense as the human body. It is liquid rock after all. Thus it is not possible to sink into lava, as the movies depict. The only question is, which parts of your body are burning, and which parts are floating above. Somehow he managed to remain upright, with his legs below and his torso above. He climbed back out onto the rocks and lived to tell the tale.

Earlier, I said that water expands by a factor of 1700 when turned to steam. I found that on the internet, but we don't have to look it up, we can derive it from first principles. That sounds like fun, doesn't it? A mole of gas, any gas, is 22.4 liters at standard temperature and pressure (STP). That's the neat thing about gases. Molecules could be big or small, heavy or light, no matter, the same number of gas molecules bounce about within a fixed size container. There are fewer molecules if the gas is hot, more if it is cold, and more if it is under pressure, so we fix the container at 22.4 liters, and the pressure at atmospheric, and the temperature at 0 degrees C (freezing). There we are, a mole of steam at STP; wait a minute, we can't have steam at freezing temperatures. I have to work at 100 degrees C, the boiling point of water, thus we measure the expansion due to the phase change from water to steam, and not any changes in temperature. Water expands hardly at all from 0 c to 100 c, so that's not a problem. A gas expands by Charles law, by the ratio of absolute temperatures. That's 22.4 × 373 / 273 = 30.6 liters. A mole of water is its molecular weight in grams, H2O = 18. 18 grams of water is 18 cubic centimeters, or 0.18 liters. Divide, and get a ratio of 1700, on the nose. Pretty cool eh?

All this talk of steam made me wonder, can you put your hand in boiling water? You can, under certain circumstances. The internet says you can immerse your hand in 130 degree water for a short time, a few seconds. I'll call it 55 degrees C. Vapor pressure at that temperature is 0.155 atmospheres, or 2.33 psi. We're use to 20% oxygen at 15 psi, so that's somewhat comparable to 100% oxygen at 3 psi. When the astronauts go on a space walk, they have decompressed down to 5 psi and pure oxygen, and they're able to work strenuously for 6 hours. Granted, it takes a while to get there. They have to decompress over night in a special room to get from 15 psi down to 5, but they know how to do it, and it works. So I figure it's not a big step from 5 psi down to 2.33, if it's just for a short time and you're not doing physical work. So … step into a specialized room, decompress over night, wake up in pure oxygen and 2.33 psi, heat water to 55 C 131 F, watch it boiling away on the stove, and put your hand in it, for a short time. You can feel the bubbles coming up around your hand. Make sure somebody captures it for youtube, cause you're probably never going to go to all that bother again.

I suppose it would be simpler to find a liquid that boils naturally at a lower temperature; and if it was clear, so much the better. How bout carbon disulfide, CS2? It's a clear liquid that boils at a comfortable 115 F, 46 C, ideal for our purposes. It has a nasty smell however, and you dare not light a match, and oh yes, it's a bit toxic. Don't let it boil for very long, or vent the vapors away, because 2000 parts per million can start to spell trouble. Still, it's a chance to experience a boiling liquid first-hand (pun), if that happens to be on your bucket list, and it's easier than building the aforementioned decompression chamber. Is there a safer liquid out there?

Further Reading

The physical and chemical properties of lava, and the man who fell in.