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Mastering the “Master Switch”

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In 1949, a stocky Italian air force lieutenant named Raimondo Bucher decided to try a potentially deadly stunt in a lake on the island of Capri. Bucher would sail out to the center of the lake, take a breath, and go down 100 feet to the bottom. Waiting there would be a man in a diving suit. Bucher would hand the diver a package, then kick back up to the surface. If he completed the dive, he’d win a 50,000-lira bet; if he didn’t, he would drown.Scientists warned Bucher that the dive would kill him. An equation called Boyles Law indicated that the pressure at a hundred feet would shrink Bucher’s lungs to the point of collapse. He dove anyway, delivered the package, and returned to the surface smiling, with his lungs perfectly intact.Bucher’s dive resonated with a long line of experiments that seemed to indicate water might have life-lengthening effects. More than 50 years earlier, experiments found that immersion in water allowed animals to survive up to three times longer without oxygen.Then in 1962, Per Scholander, a Swedish-born researcher working in the United States, examined the effect of water on h …

Excerpted from Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves, by James Nestor. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Reprinted with permission.


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