Science » Technologies and discoveries
Author`s name Michael Simpson

Russian Students Live Under a Virtual Sea

How did Diogenes manage to remain so clever in his barrel?


A unique experiment has been held in the Moscow Institute of Medical and Biological Problems (IMBP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Two volunteer subjects spent eight days in a metal barrel at the sea bottom. Instead of their habitual air, they inhaled the inert gas helium. When the experiment was over, they came to the surface fantastically satisfied.

I was let into a large hangar covered with placards warning that access is restricted and prohibiting entry. Nikolay Kulinenko, a student at the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI) says this is the place where they submerge. Recently, the student took part in the experiment in the metal barrel for the third time. The last time, the “submersion” was performed in the context of Nikolay's pre-diploma hands-on experience.

I looked at the massive iron-concrete floor and couldn't believe that a giant underground well was actually hidden under the floor. Nikolay explained that the depth test chamber does not move and remains dry. Simulation of a deep-water descent is accomplished by changing the pressure inside the barrel. The submersion in which he participated was very serious, and the pressure came to about four atmospheres. This is considered to be quite a trial even for people with strong nerves.

Nikolay says his fellow student, Alexey Porotikov, and he liked the experiment very much and abandoned the barrel only reluctantly.

The pressure inside the depth test chamber is increased in increments of one atmosphere; if the chamber were actually submerging, it would increase at a rate of one atmosphere per 10 meters of depth.. A human being cannot stand more than 10 atmospheres and may suffer spasms, bleeding, deep fainting and cardiac arrest as a result of differential pressure.

The head of the project, Dr. of Medical Sciences Boris Pavlov, the chairman of the IMBP department of hyperbaric physiology and diving medicine, asked me if I would like to try the submersion myself. The cheerful-looking man resembled the great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. He told me that no one had fallen victim to the experiment yet: "Some people lost some of their hair and some stammered for five years, but nothing more." I hope he said it jokingly.

I risked getting inside the depth test chamber. This bathoscope, of 15 cubic meters in volume, is equipped as living quarters. There are beds fastened to the walls like shelves, a library, a small kitchen, a toilet like that a railway car and a large variety of equipment on which the volunteer "Diogenes" conduct their experiments. There are no electronics or computers inside the chamber, as equipment of such a kind fails at a great depth. The subjects communicate with the outer world through massive headphones resembling those of pilots.

Depending upon the depth of “submersion,” the testers are offered to inhale different gas compositions. At a small depth, they have already tested argon, the gas with which the Martian atmosphere is saturated. It is likely that, in the near future, the first explorers of Mars will breath it in: if the gas is not risky for health, explorers won't have to take nitrogen cylinders to the Red Planet.

According to Boris Pavlov, the first argon tests caused much excitement. They said that submersion in an argon atmosphere at the depth of 10-20 meters produced the same effect as a glass of vodka: People were said to be experiencing the same intoxication. If the experiment proceeded with increase in depth, people might lose their self-control and be unable to perceive instructions coming from outside. The reaction of different people to the experiment are different: Some became very aggressive, and some, on the contrary, felt euphoria. Everything depends upon individual psychological peculiarities. However, when the experiment was over, none of the volunteers who took part in it shook fists at each other; on the contrary, they joked that it was very nice to be "drunk" and never feel hung-over in the morning.

Joking apart, the experiments with argon and other gases are of extremely great scientific importance. How will people feel outside their habitual earthly atmosphere? What is to be done to avert unfavorable consequences in such a situation?

So as not to risk the lives of his students, Boris Pavlov himself spent hours in the metal barrel to try out different gases and drugs. The son of the scientist, Nikolay Pavlov, also participates in the experiments. He is a medical institute post-graduate student and is going to defend a dissertation on the basis of the experimental data he has obtained.

Boris Pavlov says that the helium-oxygen cocktail that subjects breath in at a great depth is of considerable medical importance. On the basis of experiments held on the gas’ properties, special apparatuses were developed. They are something like helium cushions, or hoses, to be exact: Inhaling of the inert gas cures heart failure, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia and sick headaches.

Boris Pavlov says that helium is a very promising element; it can cure several ailments and change the terrestrial ecology for the better. What is more, a pressure of 10-11 atmospheres, which is extremely dangerous for people under regular conditions, can be endured more easily in a helium atmosphere.

A participant in the experiment, Alexey Porotikov, relates that the subjects felt well at a “depth” of 400 meters: "Before the submersion, my lung volume was only 75 people, and it increased to 110 percent after I got out of the test chamber." Some difficulties arose by the end of the experiment: They felt limp and weak and experienced asthenia of the body. They couldn't read the textbooks that they had taken to the experiment; instead they wanted to read not scientific, but easier, books. "I cannot imagine how Diogenes managed to remain so clever in his barrel," Alexey says.

Another volunteer tester says the experiment was great fun on the whole. "Under pressure changes, the voice becomes different, it sounds funny. We were fed wonderfully, like at a seaside resort."

Food enriched with proteins and vitamins was delivered to the test chamber through special airlocks: Unlike regular airlocks, they regulated not the level of water, but the level of pressure, and everything delivered to the volunteers passed through them. Beer and cigarettes were prohibited.

Special sums are paid by the institute by experiment participants. The sums, though, are certainly smaller than those paid to participants in similar experiments abroad: 6,000-7,000 rubles, which is not paid on time. The students participating in the experiments think the sum is good enough for them, but don't complain about the delay: It was their own decision to participate, and they are ready to wait for the money for some time.

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