if/then

‘Proud Homophobe’ Jonathan Katz Could’ve Solved The BP Oil Disaster If He Didn’t Get Kicked Off Obama’s Super Spill Team

It’s too bad Jonathan I. Katz, the Washington University physics professor who wrote a whole paper defending homophobia and describes himself as a “proud … homophobe,” had to get kicked off Obama’s BP oil spill clean up team last year for being an asshole. Because he found the secret to plugging the massive Gulf Of Mexico oil spill that could’ve shed weeks off the contamination! And his solution even has a cute name: “oobleck.”

Katz, who describes homophobia as a perfectly acceptable practice that’s merely a “moral judgement upon acts engaged in by choice,” and calls on gays to “forever suppress these desires,” says oobleck — a combination of cornstarch and water — could have sealed that oil spill up like a butt plug in an asshole. That because, as NPR notes, when the material “moves slowly, it flows like a liquid. Move it fast, and it freezes into a solid.” And it would work like so:

The problem, as Katz saw it, was that oil and gas blasting up the well tended to break up the drilling mud into fine particles, and a light mist like that ends up getting shot up the pipe and dumped onto the seafloor. Katz wondered whether there was some kind of fluid that wouldn’t immediately be dispersed into tiny particles when it encountered the rapidly flowing oil. “I realized after a while that cornstarch suspension — oobleck, the kids call it — has this wonderful property that if it’s not flowing rapidly, it’s a liquid that flows pretty well,” Katz says. “But if you try to make it flow rapidly, it suddenly turns stiff and it doesn’t flow at all.”

Oobleck versus a stream of bubbling hot oil? Really? Yep.

“I made some rough estimates; it looked like it was going to work,” Katz says. And Katz had an inside track here — being on the energy secretary’s advisory panel, he participated in daily telephone briefings and frequent e-mail exchanges. He had about as much access as you could hope. “So I certainly sent it to everybody on the lists. I don’t know who read it — you can never tell,” he says. […] Cornstarch is cheap, but the rest of the operation would not be. “And of course the drilling mud industry isn’t used to mixing cornstarch into their stuff, so it was completely new for them,” he says. “It wasn’t something they had available in their tanks ready to go. They would have had to prepare a custom solution and take it out to the well.”

But would it have really worked? Katz says yeppers.

[A]fter BP stopped the well through more conventional means, Katz and some associates at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory did a small-scale experiment with the cornstarch mixture and mineral oil. They report in that Physical Review Letters article that it performed as Katz had predicted under these highly idealized circumstances. Whether it would have worked in the real world is an open question. Prof. Steve Wereley, who teaches fluid dynamics at Purdue University, says the concept is clever. “The problem with using something like cornstarch and water is getting it where it needs to be,” Wereley says. You’d have to pump a lot of it, fast, into the well if it’s going to work. And there might be trouble pumping it — remember, oobleck gets stiff when it’s put under pressure. “It would tend to create that same reaction when you’re trying to pump it down the hole.” Wereley calculates that you’d have to pump it so slowly that you couldn’t get it down the hole faster than the oil was rushing up. And that’s a big problem.

BP, meanwhile, says it looked into Katz’s research and concluded oobleck would never do the job. So I guess it’s back to test tubes, beakers, and bullshit for Katz: “What of those cursed with unnatural sexual desires? Must they forever suppress these desires? Yes, but this is hardly a unique fate. Almost everyone has desires which must be suppressed. Most men and women think adulterous thoughts fairly often, and find themselves attracted to members of the opposite sex to whom they are not married. Morality requires them to suppress these desires, and most do not commit adultery, though they feel lust in their hearts. Almost everyone, at one time or another, covets another’s property. They do not steal. Many people feel great anger or intense hatred at some time in their lives. They do not kill.”

[NPR]