Writing a science fiction where the air outside is not breathable for long periods of time. Some characters get high from the air, but large amounts of it cause the user to become paralyzed or black out.

Would there be a real world equivalent to this? Or something close?

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting question. Just to clarify: what order of magnitude should we roughly be thinking when you say "long periods"? $\endgroup$
    – NofP
    Feb 10 '18 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate that green check, but if you hold off awarding it for a few days you might get more answers. Good first question by the way and welcome to Worldbuilding. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Feb 10 '18 at 22:38

We live in such a world.


Narcosis while diving (also known as nitrogen narcosis, inert gas narcosis, raptures of the deep, Martini effect) is a reversible alteration in consciousness that occurs while diving at depth. It is caused by the anesthetic effect of certain gases at high pressure. The Greek word ναρκωσις (narcosis) is derived from narke, "temporary decline or loss of senses and movement, numbness", a term used by Homer and Hippocrates.[1] Narcosis produces a state similar to drunkenness (alcohol intoxication), or nitrous oxide inhalation. It can occur during shallow dives, but does not usually become noticeable at depths less than 30 meters (100 ft). ... The relation of depth to narcosis is sometimes informally known as "Martini's law", the idea that narcosis results in the feeling of one martini for every 10 m (33 ft) below 20 m (66 ft) depth.

The intoxicating effect has to do with the partial pressure of the gas responsible, which here is good old nitrogen. Nitrous oxide is famous for producing a similar effect though at sea level you need to breath a gas which is mostly N2O. Even xenon can do it.

http://www.kylesconverter.com/pressure/atmospheres-to-feet-of-water The conversion is 1 atmosphere of pressure to 33 feet of water. So 66 feet down you have 2 atm + 1 atm of gas = 3 atm.

You can have nitrogen narcosis at sea level if you have your world have a higher column of gas than ours and so a higher atmospheric pressure at sea level. Or have heavier gases (N2O would qualify) and get a higher atmospheric pressure that way, like Venus does (with a CO2 rich atmosphere). The nice thing is that "rapture of the deep" has been well described and is truly trippy, and you can lift that for your world.

from Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World

"'The light does not change color as it usually does underneath a turbid surface. I cannot see clearly. Either the sun is going down quickly or my eyes are weak. I reached the hundred foot knot. My body doesn't feel weak by I keep panting. The damn rope doesn't hang straight. It slants off into yellow soup. It slants more and more. I'm anxious about that line, but I really feel wonderful. I have a queer feeling of the beatitude. I am drunk and carefree. My ears buzz and my mouth tastes bitter. The current staggers me as though I had to many drinks. "I forgotten Jacques and the people in the boats. My eyes are tired. I lower on down, trying to think about the bottom, but I can't. I'm going to sleep, but I can't fall asleep in such dizziness. There's a little light around me. I reach for the next knot and miss it. I reach again and tie my belt on it. Coming up is merry as a bubble. Liberated from weights I pull of the rope and bound. The drunken sensation vanishes. I'm sober and infuriated to have missed my goal. I pass Jacques and hurry on up. I am told I was down seven minutes.'

  • $\begingroup$ Now for the followup question: how come life exists in this world? $\endgroup$ Feb 10 '18 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ So, if I'm understanding correctly, this could only exist at sea level if the atmospheric pressure was much higher? (John, life barely exists in the world. It's on it's last leg with only humans and some rugged plants left) $\endgroup$ Feb 10 '18 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ Depending on how humans live, the last survivors might be cockroaches, not us $\endgroup$ Feb 10 '18 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Craig James: You start getting nitrogen narcosis at 3 atmospheres. Venus at sea level has 90 times the atmospheric pressure of earth. You could increase the mass of an Earthlike atmosphere by adding more oxides which are heavy: CO2, N2O etc. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Feb 10 '18 at 20:37

Nitrous Oxide

I was surprised to learn that nitrous oxide exists in our atmosphere today, and that it is a greenhouse gas. However, the amount you'd need to get a buzz off it would necessitate the air's composition to contain at least 20% of it. It would have a long-term detrimental effect on animals or people breathing it.

I don't think it breaks down very easily. At least that's what this article seems to suggest. You could delve more deeply into the possibility of a planet with massive quantities of it. I don't know how it would get so bad, though, without some sort of mechanical means.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Interesting. The world is supposed to be a future version of our world. I originally had this aspect as an all-encompassing mystery, but I would like to figure out a way to make it (mostly) work in reality. What kind of mechanical means do you think could cause a circumstance like that? $\endgroup$ Feb 10 '18 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ I'm no expert by any stretch of the imagination. However, the articles seem to suggest that intensive agriculture creates nitrous oxide as a result of soil microbial activity. - DDM $\endgroup$
    – user47438
    Feb 11 '18 at 17:04

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