In Space, No One Can Hear You Fart

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 18 2013 2:15 PM

In Space, No One Can Hear You Fart

FT-131218
Flatulence: one of space's lesser-known dangers

Still from YouTube.
Picasa

A fun new ad is making waves on the Internet this week. It’s got astronauts, a ferocious monster, and a product un-endorsement that’s both simple and clever. I don’t want to ruin it for you, so just watch.

It seems silly to pick apart an ad for a can of beans on the basis of scientific accuracy—especially when it stars a mauve moon monster—but there are a few things to note here. For one, as astronomer and Slate’s expert on all things space Phil Plait jokes, there’s no air on the moon, and air is necessary for sound waves to travel, so the monster technically wouldn’t have been able to hear the fart. But then, if a creature were to evolve for life without air, it would probably have a few other tricks up its purple sleeve.

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“The vibration from the noise inside the suit would travel via conduction through the ground, and maybe the creature detected that,” Plait humored me. “But then it would’ve heard his breathing and heartbeat, too. So I’m going to have to say this is not entirely scientifically accurate.”

Great. Next you’re going to tell me Santa Claus isn’t an old white dude.

Of course, scientists have already looked into space flatulence. Passing gas is exactly that, an expelled burst of waste molecules, some of which are harmful in large quantities and in confined spaces. And who spends more time in confined spaces than astronauts?

A paper published in 1969 revealed that studies were conducted to measure the breath and flatulence output of astronauts while eating certain diets, like the one enjoyed on the Gemini missions. Apparently different foods produce different amounts of flammable gas, and a bland diet could be used to minimize flatulence. It’s not clear whether NASA or any other space agency has tailored its meal plan in response to these findings. (Fun fact: The Apollo astronauts avoided eating because they didn’t have real toilets.)

But even if it doesn’t seem to be a particularly threatening bodily function, space gas is an issue. Now-retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield explained in a Reddit AMA that astronauts actually break wind more often in space than they do on Earth. Why? Well, weightlessness makes it impossible to burp, and all that gas has to go somewhere.

By the way, the beans don’t even exist. The whole spot is a clever marketing effort for visual effects company Cinesite. And thus concludes this session of Things You Can Learn from a Fake Bean Commercial.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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