Physics Degree Pays Off

Have you ever wondered when you will really use physics in every day life? Physics students are taught to look past their textbook problems and into the real world but often struggle to see the big picture. For a STEM student, problem solving skills learned in the classroom are highly applicable in the real world and alumnus Ben Migirditch proved that they can even be lifesaving. Embarking on a journey across the pacific ocean with friends, he found himself with a faulty water generator and less than a weeks supply of drinking water. Using the skills he learned while obtaining his BS in Physics, Ben designed a functioning still, using what little supplies he had with him on the boat.  Ultimately, he saved himself and his travel companions from dying of dehydration.  What a lifesaving way to apply a physics degree!  Read more below for his story.



"My trip began in Mexico last year where three friends and I were prepping a sailboat for a Pacific crossing. We added solar panels and other essential gear and had her sea-worthy by April. Everything checkedout except for the water generator. Life at sea creates one of the cruelest ironies in the world – you’re surrounded by water, but drinking it will kill you. The generator we had purchased was a refurbished desalination pump that just barely met our daily requirements and was prone to leaks... I nearly stayed back because of my doubts about it, but foolishly, I decided to trust the old pump.

Then, 1,000 nautical miles out at sea (but only ten days into the month long voyage) one of the generator tubes burst. We didn't have the tools or resources to fix it, because it operated at relatively high pressures. We were hosed. All of our remaining water was stored in just two 20 liter emergency jugs. The four of us would go through that amount of water in less than five days.

So after a moment of panic and nervous laughter, I got to work on a backup water generator. I had a kerosene stove, a pressure cooker, tin foil, some hosing, zip-ties, and a refrigerator. My plan was to make a still. The design was simple enough - steam is routed down through the hose to a cold surface (foil+ fridge) where condensation gathers and then drips down into a jug. The construction ended up being a lot more difficult than expected thanks to a constantly rocking boat, but eventually we managed to get a functioning model together! It was far from perfect, but we made tons of water with the thing and ended up not dying from dehydration. Also the rain helped us quite a bit - we all ran onto the deck like fools whenever squalls passed by, desperately catching water from tarps and the sails themselves while also trying to steer the boat...

So all in all it was an unforgettable adventure that made me appreciate just how useful a basic understanding of physics can be!"

Published: Mar 18, 2019 11:13pm