# More hurricane nitpicking

In Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, he states, “Water is the only element that offers more resistance the harder you hit it, and at fifty miles an hour it might as well be concrete.”

I’ve got a couple of problems with this statement.

We all know that water is a compound, not an element. So let’s assume he’s talking euphemistically. There are four elements: Earth, air, water, fire.

Air also offers more resistance the harder you hit it. Witness the space shuttle upon re-entry to the atmosphere, vice our everyday movements within the ocean of air which surrounds our planet.

In fact, all liquids and gases offer more resistance the harder you hit 'em. The resistance offered by solids can be debated though.

I’m sure Ed would’ve caught this if he was Sebastian’s editor.

I think the writer is talking about surface tension. I don’t know if there are any other liquids that have surface tension like water does (I bet there). Anyway, air and solids and stuff do hurt more when you hit them, as would a non-surface-tense liquid, but water is especially bad at high speeds because it takes time to break surface tension.

Don’t know any of the math behind this, though.

Mecury has a pretty substantial surface tension, probably greater than water.

Both statements would in effect negate Mr. Junger’s assertion.

Boris, I dare you to belly flop off a 12-meter diving board into a pool filled with alcohol (a substance with very little surface tension) and tell me that it hurts less than belly flopping into water.

Unca, quit drinkin’ from the pool.

It’s not surface tension, it’s the uncompressibility of water that is the factor. You can compress gases but you’ll never compress water. Why hasn’t anyone built a high speed underwater craft? You’d think someone would build a minisub that could go 200MPH. The shuttle hitting the atmosphere is going to compress a lot of air in its path and soften the impact considerably.

Going with your assertion, Al, would still negate Mr. Junger’s statement.

Also, even with the “give/compression” you ascribe to air, the faster the shuttle hits the air the more the resistance the air gives.

A body traveling at 1,000 mph will smack the air harder than one traveling at 10 mph even with the compression of the air factored in.

Hitting the atmosphere at high speed doesn’t seem to me to be the same as hitting water, although I’ve heard that a spacecraft at a shallow angle can ricochet off the atmosphere. The speed of the spacecraft means it has to displace a lot of air and that volume is what increases the resistance.

I’ve been brooding on this. I thought about explosions in air and in water. An aerial explosion doesn’t seem to be encountering increased resistance. It seems that the bigger the explosion the less resistant air is and a huge wave of compressed air travels outwards. A few decades ago an underwater mountain that was a hazard to navigation was blown up off the Canadian Pacific coast. The technical details on that huge underwater blast would be illuminating. Explosions in water (from my vast experience of watching television and movies and childhood experiments with firecrackers) seem to sort of “blurp” and be encountering some kind of inordinately tremendous resistance.

The swimming pool full of alcohol is also food for thought. It may be that if you belly flopped into it at high speed you might find that you smack into the bottom of the pool. Someone jumping off the Golden Gate bridge might find an impact into warm alcohol less traumatic than smacking into seawater. Is alcohol compressible depending on its temperature? If you freeze alcohol is the volume greatly reduced? Would it make a big difference if the alcohol in the swimming pool is warm or cold? There’s a sale on at the local liquor store this weekend but I don’t have a swimming pool. Time for an experiment by Cecil?
Chemistry and physics aren’t my areas, no doubt about that. I’m surprised a chemist hasn’t weighed in here and explained, in context, what’s special about water. When impacting into something, the faster you impact the more likely you are to overcome the “resistance” and penetrate, but in the case of water, usually a very penetrable substance, speed of impact results in a huge increase in inpenetrability. My feeble layman’s brain keeps defaulting back to it all being related to the density of the material being impacted and I can’t visualize anything unique about water other than its high density/easy penetrability (at low speeds).

In any case, we can’t be too rough on Mr. Junger. He’s an artist and was obviously using “element” as a literary device - the “elements of nature” perhaps. Still, there’s a lot of science in that terrific book and he deserves to be fact-checked.

Anyway, Chief, I’m going to kick back and wait for a chemist to put it in a nutshell. You may have to float a thread saying “chemist needed” to direct them to this thread. Surely there’s marine engineers on your ship and a good technical library. This is a worthy topic that might interest Cecil.