the sometimes senseless ravings (and the occassional rant) of an aspiring marine ecologist who may enjoy killing things a little too much

Friday, April 22, 2005

Ahh, Darwin

so, i was browsing through the darwin awards, as i sometimes do when i'm bored...or when i've done something stupid, and i need to reassure myself that i am not, in fact, the dumbest person on the planet. anyway, i ran across this one, and it made me think, "wow. that is so something chad would do. he should read this." and it also reminded me of the time that i electrocuted myself. don't know that story? it's kind of funny. let me enlighten you. if you don't know me, you aren't aware that for three years during my undergraduate career, i worked with seagrass. well, one november during that time we were preparing an experiment in which we were infecting turtlegrass with a protist whose growth slows during cold weather (actually, most of our experiments did the same thing, but most of them were conducted over the summer). since it was november, the ambient water temperature at perdido key, fl (our collection site) was too cold for the protist to be infectious. so, we had to use aquarium heaters in the lab to bring the water up to near-summer temperatures before we inoculated the plants. so, i went in on the morning that we were supposed to put the plants into the tanks to check the water temperature in each tank. since there were twenty tanks and only two thermometers, i had to move the thermometers from tank to tank. well, i stuck my hand in one tank to retrieve the thermometer, and i noticed that the water was cold. then i felt something weird. it felt sort like minnows nibbling at my fingers. it didn't hurt. it just felt weird. so, i'm standing there with my hand still in the tank for maybe 30 seconds trying to figure out what i'm feeling. then it hits me - duh, stupid. the water's cold - the heater is busted, and you're getting shocked. and that's when i removed my hand from the tank, and unplugged the heater. then, i took it out of the tank, and sure enough, the glass on the bottom is broken, exposing the coil inside to the highly conductive salt water. i laughed at myself for being such an idiot. then i went and told my advisor so i could replace the heater. well, she didn't think it was funny. neither did my mom, for that matter. my arm was pretty tingly that day, but that was all. i turned out ok. and for some reason, i feel the need to tell people this story, even though it makes me look dumb. but not nearly as dumb as this guy. read on.

Resistance is Futile
1999 Darwin Award Nominee
Unconfirmed by Darwin

(1999) A US Navy safety publication describes injuries incurred while doing don't's. One page described the fate of a sailor playing with a multimeter in an unauthorized manner. He was curious about the resistance level of the human body. He had a Simpson 260 multimeter, a small unit powered by a 9-volt battery. That may not seem powerful enough to be dangerous… but it can be deadly in the wrong hands.

The sailor took a probe in each hand to measure his bodily resistance from thumb to thumb. But the probes had sharp tips, and in his excitement he pressed his thumbs hard enough against the probes to break the skin. Once the salty conducting fluid known as blood was available, the current from the multimeter travelled right across the sailor's heart, disrupting the electrical regulation of his heartbeat. He died before he could record his Ohms.

The lesson? The Navy issues very few objects which are designed to be stuck into the human body.

August 2000 Dan Wilson elaborates:

I'm a former Navy petty officer, enlisted for six years as an electrician aboard a US Submarine. I got a lot of training. This story was used frequently during my training in the US Navy as an example of what can happen when procedures and safety measures are not followed. I considered the story an urban legend until I found the incident report referenced in the official Navy electrical safety guidelines. I now know it is true.

The actual event is slightly different than described above, and even more deserving of a Darwin award. This sailor stuck the sharpened ends of the probes through his thumbs intentionally. You see, he had just taken a course that taught a critical concept called "internal resistance."

Internal resistance is resistance to electrical power flow that exists inside any power source. It causes the terminal voltage to drop when load (current) increases. You can demonstrate this concept, if you're careful, by monitoring your car battery's terminal voltage, while someone starts up the engine. The reading will be ~13 volts while the engine is off, but during the period where the starter is cranking it will drop to 8-9 volts. The voltage drop is due to the internal resistance of the battery.

This sailor, like all other electricians in training, had already been through a safety class in which one of the excercises is to measure your body's resistance by simply holding the probes between your fingertips. (Most people read 500Kohms to 2Mohms.) Evidently, adding information from the internal resistance class, this sailor wanted to determine his own body's "internal resistance.". So he intentionally pushed the sharpened probe tips through the skin to elimate the rather high skin resistance and get only the "internal resistance". This, of course, caused his death.

How, you might ask, with only a 9V battery? Easy. One of the "rules of thumb" that the Navy teaches is the 1-10-100 rule of current. This rule states that 1mA of current through the human body can be felt, 10mA of current is sufficient to make muscles contract to the point where you cannot let go of a power source, and 100mA is sufficient to stop the heart. Let's look at Ohm's law. Ohm's law (for DC systems - I will not discuss AC here) is written as E=IR, where E is voltage in volts, I is current in Amps, and R is resistance in Ohms.

When we did the experiment in the electrical safety class to determine our body's resistance, we found a resistance of 500K Ohms. Using 9V and 500K Ohms in the equation, we come up with a current of 18 microAmps, below the "feel" threshold of 1mA. However, removing the insulation of skin from our curious sailor here, the resistance through the very good conducting electrolytes of the body is sharply lower. Around 100 ohms, in fact, resulting in a current of 90mA - sufficient to stop our sailor's heart and kill him.

As my electrical safety instructor said, "The reason we now have to teach the electrical safety course to all electricians at least twice per year is because some joe was bright enough to be the one person in the world who could figure out how to kill himself with a 9V battery." © 1994 - 2004
Submitted by: Brian Lallatin
Enhanced by: Dan Wilson
References: US Navy Safety Publications

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