In this week’s Newscripts, I wrote about some of the science Dan Brown used to spice up his latest novel, “The Lost Symbol.”
As mentioned, Brown uses the concept of “liquid breathing” in the book as a way to snatch his hero, Robert Langdon, from the jaws of death. That Langdon survives really shouldn’t surprise anyone: A) He’s the main character and therefore cannot die, and B) Brown couldn’t write another cash-cow story about symbology and secret societies without the code-breaking protagonist. But I apologize if I’ve ruined it for you.
So Langdon survives being trapped in an enclosed tank that ultimately fills with liquid. It turns out that the tank is a total liquid ventilation (TLV) chamber, and Langdon is “drowning” in oxygenated perfluorocarbons rather than water. No fewer than eight chapters go by while Langdon is enveloped by the fluid, seemingly in limbo. (Yes, I said eight.)
I asked Thomas H. Shaffer, professor emeritus of physiology and pediatrics at Temple University School of Medicine, whether the scenario Brown describes is plausible. According to Shaffer, “a person could survive for a limited time without circulation of [perfluorocarbons], provided the liquid was rich with oxygen and devoid of carbon dioxide.” In addition, he says, if the fluid is cold (to lower metabolism) and treated with drugs to alter the subject’s state of mind (as Brown mentions), it could assist the process.
However, Shaffer notes, the book “sadly only reflects a rather dark application for the use of breathing liquids.” In Newscripts, I mention the use of the technique for treating respiratory illness in infants, but oxygenated perfluorocarbons also have application in head cooling (for stroke and cardiac-arrest victims), drug delivery, deep-sea diving, and space travel.
In addition, current medical use of liquid breathing doesn’t usually rely on TLV, but on partial liquid ventilation (PLV). In this method, Shaffer says, a volume of liquid is added to a distressed lung to reexpand it. Then, a conventional ventilator is used to exchange respiratory gases, and perfluorocarbons are continuously added (they evaporate during ventilation).
If Brown’s use of liquid breathing to save Langdon still seems ridiculous to you, that’s all right. I’m sure you feel the same way about Langdon surviving a fall from a plane sans parachute in “Angels & Demons.” I gently remind you that, although Brown uses history and science to shape his stories, they’re still fiction. Sometimes, you just have to enjoy the ride.
Whether Brown needs an editor is another subject. “The Lost Symbol,” in true Brown form, makes judicious use of italics
But maybe that’s just me. What do you think?
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