Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2023
What would it be like to sit in a bathtub full of mercury? “Toxic,” you might say, and perhaps so, but I think I'd chance it, to sate my curiosity - as long as there was a shower in the same room. I couldn't immerse myself in the liquid metal, because it is 13.5 times as dense as water. I would float on top, with just 7% of my body below the surface. That's fine - less to wash off in the shower. As I run my hands through the silvery liquid, it feels cold, like a metal, but it flows past my arms, like a thick soup. As I pull my hand out of the bath, silvery beads cling to my skin. I can almost feel the weight of these droplets on my hands. I am careful to keep my hands below my neck at all times, never touching my face or my mouth. I'm crazy, but I'm not crazy. This is just a daydream, but it's fun to imagine.
There are two other elements that are liquid at room temperature. One is bromine, and that attacks the skin fiercely. You don't even want to touch it. The other is gallium, symbol Ga, atomic number 31. It isn't quite a liquid at room temperature; it melts at 30 °C, 86 °F. If I want to immerse myself in liquid gallium, it is like a warm bath. This metal has a density of 6, not as heavy as mercury, but still heavier than me. 17% of my body is below the surface, perhaps my butt and half of my legs. As I swish my hands through the liquid, it feels a bit like mercury, but not as heavy, not as dense, and not as viscous. If I stay too long in the bath, and it cools, I could be locked into a solid block of gallium.
Did you play the lava game 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.
This game is not possible in reality. If a woman stands on a platform in a pool of lava, the heat from the surrounding lava would broil her alive. She does not have time to jump from rock to rock to rock, and then to safety.
What happens if a person actually falls into hot lava? Perhaps she is thrown in, as a sacrifice to the gods. 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. 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 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.
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. The presence of sodium and calcium lowers the melting point of the rocks. It's not quite hot enough to glow red, so the lava is black. During a geological expedition in 2007, a local Maasai assistant 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 portrait. 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.
Has anyone fallen into a vat of liquid metal, perhaps from an industrial accident?
In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair describes such accidents, and says most of them went undisclosed. The worker simply didn't come home that night, and the factory didn't know anything about it.
There was a row of brick furnaces, shining white through every crack with the molten steel inside. Some of these were bulging dangerously, yet men worked before them, wearing blue glasses when they opened and shut the doors. One morning as Jurgis was passing, a furnace blew out, spraying two men with a shower of liquid fire. As they lay screaming and rolling upon the ground in agony, Jurgis rushed to help them, and as a result he lost a good part of the skin from the inside of one of his hands. The company doctor bandaged it up, but he got no other thanks from any one, and was laid up for eight working days without any pay.
Sinclair was trying to expose the frightening consequences of unregulated capitalism, as Charles Dickens had done before him.
More recently, a man fell into a vat of liquid zinc. Zinc has a melting point of 420 °C, 788 °F, so the metal was at least this hot. Again, the density is 7.1, so most of his body remained above the surface. His courageous co-workers pulled him out, but he only lived for six hours.