In scuba diving, pressure increases by one atmosphere with each ten meters of depth. As pressure increases, people breathing standard air mix gradually get silly. This is mainly caused by the increasing nitrogen pressure, and is called nitrogen narcosis, or sometimes, rapture of the deeps. The effect of nitrogen narcosis is a bit like being drunk – closer to sniffing nitrous oxide.
The effects are measurable, and sometimes noticeable, at one extra atmosphere, ten meters down. As a rough guide, divers sometimes cite ‘Martini’s Law’, the notion that the effect of nitrogen narcosis is like that of an martini for each extra ten meters of depth.
Deep divers deal with this problem by using funny air mixes that replace some or all nitrogen with helium, which doesn’t cause narcosis.
All this has an obvious implication that I have never seen discussed. If breathing two atmosphere of nitrogen is like having one drink, what would people be like if they were breathing a zero-nitrogen mixture? The natural conclusion is that they would be one drink under sober. Technically, they would be slightly knurd.
They should have slightly faster reflexes. Actually, this is known to be true, from studies of pilots breathing pure oxygen. In other respects, you would expect that the changes would be in the opposite direction to those caused by intoxication. Instead of a warm glow, a bit of dysphoria, Since a little narcosis causes a mild impairment in reasoning and judgment, you might see a mild improvement. This could be important, since the world suffers from a glaring shortage of good judgment.
If this idea is correct, how would we go about implementing it? Pure oxygen isn’t the right approach. The normal three pounds of O2 pressure, by itself, is too low: buildings would implode. A full atmosphere of oxygen is bad for your health. Obviously, we would want a full atmosphere of pressure, 80% helium and 20% oxygen. With that, you need to make a building airtight, but that’s all: there are no structural problem. This all costs money, so we (government and market) would provide this boon to people whose intellect and judgment are of unusual importance. The doors of Congress and the White House would be replaced by airlocks. You’d see top-notch research professors wearing breathing masks and carrying an air tank. Any professor walking across campus with a bare face would be low-status, probably a sociologist or cultural anthropologist. High-class hedge funds like Renaissance Technologies would put their whole campus under a transparent dome.
Since the US is the main producer of helium, we would have the world by the trachea. We could strictly limit helium exports, just as China has limited rare-earth exports, giving the US a strategic edge.
When talking on the phone, you would immediately know that you were talking to a real scientific player – say a member of the National Academy of Sciences – because he would sound just like Donald Duck.