Issue Date: December 7, 2009
Dan Brown Thrills With Science
Dan Brown books, such as "The Da Vinci Code," that feature the character Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor of symbology, stick to a formulaic plot that, so far, has been pretty successful. Specifically, Langdon always finds himself in some life-or-death predicament, racing around a famous city while using his code-breaking skills to save the day. Add to that a secret society, a diabolical villain, a bit of popular science, and—voilà—a best-selling thriller is born.
Brown's latest, "THE LOST SYMBOL," released in September, does not stray from this formula. This time, Langdon is working against the clock to decode a mystical Masonic pyramid and save a friend's life in Washington, D.C. The story caught the attention of Newscripts, though, because it contains some popular science previously covered by C&EN.
In one gruesome scene in "The Lost Symbol," the villain, Mal'akh, gains access to the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Support Center (MSC) and kills a female data analyst by drowning her in a tank holding a giant squid specimen. MSC is an actual storage and research center for the Smithsonian's collection and houses hundreds of thousands of preserved species.
Brown specifies that the analyst dies in an ethanol-filled tank that looks like "a series of glass phone booths ... fused end to end." This description evokes a story published in C&EN last year about museums searching for new preservation fluids (C&EN, Nov. 3, 2008, page 25). In an attempt to find a nonflammable, nontoxic replacement for traditional preservatives such as formalin, Smithsonian curators are testing a new fluorinated fluid on the giant squid currently on display in the institution's National Museum of Natural History. This fluid, called Novec 7100, is composed of two isomeric hydrofluoroethers.
When Newscripts checked in with Michael Vecchione, a zoologist and Smithsonian curator, about the ongoing Novec experiment, he said that the fluid "continues to work well, with no visible signs of specimen deterioration." As for Brown's take on the science, Vecchione noted that the squid stored in MSC is actually submerged in 50% isopropyl alcohol, rather than pure ethanol. However, he said, "I suspect that either would be an especially painful way to drown."
Another portion of Brown's latest novel has Langdon trapped inside an enclosed tank slowly filling with liquid. Mal'akh interrogates Langdon, threatening to let him drown if he doesn't help decode the all-important Masonic pyramid. In the end, the treacherous Mal'akh allows the fluid to envelop Langdon and leaves him to die.
Langdon survives, of course, and Brown explains the character's miraculous escape from death with oxygenated perfluorocarbons: The symbologist was apparently breathing in these biologically inert compounds rather than water while in Mal'akh's total liquid ventilation chamber. According to Brown, this "liquid breathing" concept has been around since 1966, "when Leland C. Clark successfully kept alive a mouse that had been submerged for several hours in an oxygenated perfluorocarbon." C&EN wrote about the late Clark and his work in 2005 (C&EN, March 28, 2005, page 36).
Today, doctors use various types of liquid ventilation to treat premature infants with respiratory distress. "This is not science fiction but science fact," says Thomas H. Shaffer, professor emeritus of physiology and pediatrics at Temple University School of Medicine. Infants are "perfect" for oxygenated perfluorocarbons because their lungs have just come from an amniotic fluid environment, says Shaffer, whose group was the first to demonstrate the method in humans. In fact, "we are currently working with FDA to start a new trial for infants with hypoxic respiratory failure," he adds.
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