Thursday, January 22, 2009

Drowning While Breathing

This is a rather morbid post, but I recently was alerted to a fatality that occurred at one of our contractor’s fabrication yard, and it proves to be a most peculiar way to die.

A man went into a narrow shaft to inspect a pipe fitting, and he never returned. When he was noticed missing, he was found dead from asphyxiation. Death by asphyxiation (lack of oxygen to the bloodstream) is usually associated with drowning, strangling, or suffocation… but it can also occur to a person who is standing, walking and breathing.

All it takes is for the oxygen in the air to be displaced. In the case of this guy, he went down to check a pipe, but the chamber that he was in was being prepped for welding. Before welding a line or pipe, it is often purged with an inert gas (Argon in this case) to insure that all flammable products are cleared from the line. The worker had no idea that the chamber was filled with Argon. Argon is non-toxic, so when he descended down the ladder to the chamber he would not have noticed anything was awry. But since Argon is denser than air, the body was being deprived of oxygen. So in this case, and in many others, the worker goes about his work unaware that anything is awry. By the time you realize that something is wrong, it is too late. You collapse and drown in Argon.

Now that I think about it, a similar thing happens in the ‘natural world’. Dead zones are growing in certain parts of our oceans, and one of the largest is in the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf which is a relatively warm and salty is the depository for one of the US’s largest rivers, the Mississippi. An interesting thing happens when Mississippi freshwater meets the salt water of the Gulf. The fertilizers used in farming along the Mississippi are carried along the river and into the sea, where the chemicals in the freshwater soak up all the oxygen and nutrients in the sea water. Because freshwater is denser than saltwater, it sits on top and acts like a ceiling to the fish and organisms that may try and escape it. So they end up ‘drowning’ underwater. It is actually a fairly large problem, but it is the consequence of our dependence on fertilizers.

Interesting world we live in. Sorry for such a random return to blogging, but it was on my mind.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

What would you do?

The hypothetical is one of the greatest tools humanity has at its disposal. The great ‘what ifs’ in life let us ponder and learn things outside of the limitation of reality. When I was younger, my mind would wander to these philosophical manifestations by instinct and really formed the basis for my knack for questioning things. What I want to talk about today is one of my favorite old ‘what ifs’.

Here is the situation.

On an average high school day, you find yourself in a very scary predicament. Armed robbers have taken over your school. Teachers, students, staff all are gathered into the auditorium, and they have an announcement to make. They declare that they do mean to harm people, and that there is no way they are going to change their minds. They explain that money, fame, or bloodlust is of no consequence to them, they simply want to perform an experiment. They will need one volunteer. No one raises a hand. So instead, the lead gunman walks up to the bleachers and selects the first person that caught his fancy. He selects you.

He escorts you to the auditorium floor and sits you in a chair, where he begins to explain the experiment. You are to choose a path that will affect everyone in this room. You are to survive the experiment, but you must make a choice. The gunman explains:

“One of two things will happen over the next hour. Everyone in this room will die (excluding you), or one person in this room will die. The catch being, you would have to commit the single murder.”

That is the premise of the ‘what if’ and it usually takes a few more statements before the person is ready to answer the question. Can you kill yourself? No. Can you succeed in killing the gunmen? No. Can you try? No. What happens if you don’t believe them? They demonstrate their resolve. Who would I have to kill? A randomly selected person. Ad nausea.

A morbid mind I have, I know, but that’s the situation, and I liked to put certain people under the hot seat with it. The results are what surprised me. The most upsetting answer was the non-answer. This being “It’s a hypothetical so no matter what I would say is moot because you never know what you are going to do until you are actually in the situation.” True you don’t know what you would do, but I am asking what you think you would do. And that would give some indication as to what you are likely to actually do in the situation. Besides, to avoid the hypothetical because they have yet to materialize is akin to leaving an umbrella at home despite the weatherman’s prediction of rain. You can plan for the future before it becomes the present.

The second answer, the one I assumed 90% of people would choose, was that you shoot the person. That was the answer that I always thought made sense, and had always held that as my personal choice. Unfortunately, very few seemed to share this viewpoint.

But the surprise came in the third, and most popular, answer. You let the men kill everyone. The reason being, you do not commit a sin to prevent a ‘greater’ sin. The blood would be on the hand of the gunmen if everyone were to die, and while you may feel guilty, you did not commit any acts of violence.

This thought experiment hints that there are two types of people, those that are practical and those that are idealistic. The practical person tends to believe the end justifies the means, and the idealist that immoral means will corrupt any end. I know longer have the same conviction that I would pull the trigger as when I originally dreamt up this situation, but I still believe that is the answer.

The reason this ‘hypothetical’ has floated back in to mind, is tied to the Israel/Gaza conflict and the fact that hard decisions are made every day. When you consider a President ordering an air strike against a town, a city, a group of terrorists, they are making that choice in the auditorium. They are committing acts of violence to prevent greater acts of violence, and those initial acts of aggression are not always against the ‘bad guy’. The ‘moral corruption’ has made me wary of most of the professions that I feel most talented to do. My potential talent as a lawyer was pushed aside because I did not want to decide the judgment of my fellow man. I squirmed at the idea of pursuing public policy or politics because eventually I would have to make decisions that make a direct impact on others, good and bad.

But I am now entering a phase where I define morality as more than what was taught to us in Bible school or social interactions. Morality now seems more complicated than, though shall not kill or treat others as you wish to be treated, and it makes the world a much scarier place.