Previous: Why Avocados Still Exist
Next: enough



View count:5,395
Last sync:2021-10-29 16:45
I just think this is really really cool...

Also, it's a great way to teach about how evaporation and condensation work in a way that is terrifying and very memorable.

Subscribe to our newsletter!
And join the community at
Help transcribe videos -
Learn more about our project to help Partners in Health radically reduce maternal mortality in Sierra Leone:
If you're able to donate $2,000 or more to this effort, please join our matching fund:
John's twitter -
Hank's twitter -
Hank's tumblr -
Book club:
Good morning, John.

In the year 2000, Juan and Pedro Sanchez, two brothers in Mexico, were drilling down in a mine, uh, like, a leaded silver mine.

It was hot down there. Like 130º Fahrenheit. It was, I imagine, unpleasant and dangerous work.

And mines are always contending with a lot of different hazards. One of them, though, is water because mines are underground and water goes down. 

People and equipment both work best when they are not submerged in 130º water, so mines almost always have huge pumps that remove a tremendous amount of water from the ground so that people and machines can work down there.

Well, in this mine in Mexico, something magnificent had been uncovered by those pumps. With that water taken out, those brothers drilled down into a giant cave full of some of the largest crystals ever discovered on Earth.

Now, an important thing to know: you cannot go visit these crystals. One, because the mine has since stopped pumping the water out and so that cavern is now filled with water again.

But maybe more importantly, the scientists who did get a chance to go down into this cave. They had to wear some very special suits, and those suits were designed to do two things.

One, keep them cool. Because not only is it 130º Farenheit, that's 55º Celcius, it was also extremely humid because, like, there's a lot of water down there and all that water was evaporating into that very hot air.

And so it was, like 90-99% humidity in there, which meant that the water that you sweat can't evaporate from your skin into the air.

There's no room left in the air for more water so you have no system for cooling yourself off and you would overheat and die.

And more terrifyingly, they also had to wear basically SCUBA equipment; they had to breathe air that they carried around with them.

But why? Cause the air down there isn't poisonous. There's not, like, some weird alien spores that are gonna infect their lungs.

It turns out that 130º air can hold a lot of water, right? So 100% humidity with 130º air, that's a lot of water in the air.

And when you bring the temperature of air down, it can hold less water. So that water condenses out. That's why lots of water vapor going up into the atmosphere condenses into clouds when it reaches higher, colder areas of the atmosphere.

Yes! That's where clouds come from.

Also why a glass of cold ice tea has water condensing on the side of it, cause the—the air hits the side of that glass, cools down, and the water falls out.

But when it's 130º and 100% humidity outside, you know what's cooler than the air? The inside of your lungs.

So if you didn't have a tank of air on your back, every breath you would take in this cave would condense a little bit more water in your lungs. A little more, a little more, until you drown.

Now, this did not happen to anyone, they knew that it was a thing and so they were able to plan around it, but still, that's WILD.

This is a really really really cool planet.

But in a sense, like, we kind of never should have seen that cave. And now that the mine is no longer pumping the water out we can't see it anymore, it's just down there.

And we had this very narrow slice of, like, five years during which we could examine and study these giant crystals.

We only got to see those crystals because of a truly bizarre series of coincidences.

This reminds me of how in Rome they've spent 40 years trying to build a single subway line but every time they dig they find some other, like, truly irreplaceable, remarkable archaeological site.

There's just so much that remains hidden from us. I told Katherine about these crystal caves and she, like, exclaimed on our walk home, "The Earth is an alien planet!"

Which is just such a good line, because of course, like, there is nothing less alien than the planet that we evolved to exist on, that we as a species have barely ever left, that sustains us every day.

But also, it is, right?

Even after all of this inquiry it remains full of the unknown. And it's so inhospitable to us in everywhere except the very narrow slice just at the surface.

And, yet, as we continue to prove over and over again, these unknowns are knowable.

And I know that this doesn't make any, like, philosophical sense, but making those unknowns known, whether they are about avocados and mega-fauna or giant crystal caves, it just seems like a very good use of time.

John, I'll see you on Tuesday.