Air is something we easily ignore – despite the fact that it’s in every breath we take. But a soft breeze is not the only form in which air can manifest itself. Air can pack a hard punch – in the form of champagne bubbles or airbags.
Take a breath. A deep breath. Let go. Breathe in again. Nothing could be more natural. And more necessary. We learn to breathe the moment we are born and keep on breathing until the moment we die. But now try a little experiment. Take a deep breath. Fill your abdomen, your stomach, your lungs and your mouth with air. Close your lips tightly, let your cheeks puff out and hold that breath. As long as you can. And now let go.
What a difference. The first breath – soft – was hardly noticeable. The second breath – hard – probably gave you a dizzy feeling in your head. Air seeps softly, silently and odorlessly into everything. But, once it’s trapped and placed under pressure, air becomes hard with explosive potential.
Consider decompression disease, which can affect both astronauts who ascend into the heavens and divers who descend into the seas. At extremely high and low altitudes, air pressure may change too rapidly for humans, causing bubbles to form inside the body. Since bubbles can form anywhere in the body, the symptoms range from mild pain in the joints to memory loss in the brain. In extreme cases, decompression disease can lead to death.
But what about air that unites these two extremes of soft and hard? The pleasure of breathing and the danger of death? Indeed, since air seeps into everything, one should expect to find a whole
range of experiences. So, take a long breath and enjoy the tour.
The most pleasant combination of soft and hard air comes from champagne. According to legend, the French Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon invented the bubbly in the late 17th century, although previous examples of sparkling wine have been recorded as early as the 16th century. Nevertheless, the Dom’s infamous declaration – »Je bois des étoiles!« (I’m drinking stars!) – evokes both the celebratory pop of the cork and the sensation of thousands of little bubbles exploding on the tongue.
The bubbles – produced inside the bottle through a secondary fermentation process – account for many distinguishing features, from the bottle’s sturdy dark glass to the cork’s solid wire fastening, which prevent the bottles from exploding. A far cry from mere air, the bubbles play a crucial role in champagne’s taste – even more crucial than the actual liquid – because they carry a host of heady aromas. The tinier the bubbles, the finer the drink. Some specialists – including Adam Lechmere of Decanter – are worried about the recent move to use lighter bottles, which could reduce the pressure during thesecondary fermentation and thus increase the size of the bubbles. While easier to ship by plane – and easier on the environment – the lighter bottles could weight down champagne’s starry taste.
Flying is not the only mode of travel for a special group of insects which have been dubbed »Jesus bugs« due to their ability to walk on water. Scientists – who call the insects »water striders« (Gerris remigis) – long believed that a wax secreted by the legs repelled the water and prevented the insects from sinking. That belief changed after Xuefeng Gao and Lei Jiang from the Chinese academy of sciences found a more airy solution, reported in Nature journal. Using microscopic images, the Chinese researchers discovered that the water strider’s legs are covered with tiny hairs that trap even tinier air bubbles, which allow the insects to float, much like a toddler wearing water wings in a swimming pool.
The »microsetae« hairs – each measuring less than 3 micrometers in diameter (a human hair can measure up to 100 micrometers) – remain invisible to the human eye. Grooves on the microsetae are even smaller and can be measured only in nanometers, which are billionths of a meter. Air trapped between the microsetae and the nanogrooves effectively creates tiny air cushions which prevent the legs from getting wet and which allow the bugs to move elegantly across puddles, ponds and lakes. However tiny, these air cushions are so powerful – so hard – that the water striders can carry fifteen times their body weight and will not sink even during a heavy rainstorm.
The air bags used in cars are visibly bigger yet guarantee the same safe trip for human drivers. Instead of using air to repel water, the safety device inflates after being activated by a set of sensors, which can detect a frontal impact or a rapid deceleration. Hidden around the front seats – from the steering wheel to the dashboard, from the seats to the doors – the air bags protect the driver and the front passenger by turning the hard crash into a soft landing. Although the design was developed in the 1950s – when wearing seat belts was not yet mandatory – air bags became a standard safety feature for most automobiles by the 1990s.
Most recently, the Swedish industrial designers Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin have brought the benefits of air bags to cyclists. These safety devices are not hidden inside the bicycle’s handle bars. Instead, the cyclist wears a large collar around the neck, much like a scarf – a more attractive and a less cumbersome option than the standard bicycle helmet. Haupt and Alstin call their invention the »Hövding« (Swedish for headman or chieftain), which inflates in 0.1 seconds with the help of a small built-in gas generator. Much like the car’s air bag, the Hövding is inflated by sensors that can detect any abnormal movement in the cyclist.
Russia is using another type of protection, which reduces modern warfare to hot air. As the BBC reports, the Russian military has developed inflatable weapons: gigantic plastic forms that can be blown up like balloons to a life-size arsenal, including tanks, rocket launchers, fighter jets and even entire radar stations. Cheaper to produce, easier to transport and quicker to deploy than real weapons, the inflatable versions are made from a special material which can register on enemy radar and can even fool high-tech thermal imaging. Stitched together in a former hot-air balloon factory, the inflatable weapons are among the most advanced decoys in military technology: menacingly tough to see, yet soft to touch.
More recently, The Guardian’s Chris Michael became part of an artwork by Lawrence Malstaf, who combines the hardness and the softness of air in the most extreme way. The title of Michael’s report on this unique collaboration with the Belgian artist – »I was shrinkwrapped for art« – tells all about the performance which was carried out at the Abandon Normal Devices festival in Manchester last fall. Enclosed between two giant sheets of plastic held in a massive frame, Michael felt the air slowly disappearing around his body: crushing his nose, flattening out his cheeks and closing in around his mouth. While being slowly shrinkwrapped, Michael could breathe – and control the suction as well as any feelings of panic – through small vacuum tubes. »You wonder how much air you really have,« wrote Michael. Indeed, there’s still plenty to go round.