Movies often take artistic license when it comes to well-known physical, chemical, and biological principles, and there are certain stunts in movies that do not resemble the actual occurrences that happen in reality. However, most of these things are hardly noticed by the majority of the public who, truth be told, is there to mostly have a good time and not to nitpick about whether what is depicted could happen in the real world. There are, of course, some limits. You do not want to show something so laughable that will compromise your viewers' suspension of disbelief, but where do we draw the line?
In this post we are going to examine some of things in films that defy the laws of nature.
Decapitation or Brain Destruction
Occurrence: In movies you sometimes find that a character is decapitated, or their brain is destroyed, yet its body nevertheless lingers on in the same position for a few dramatic seconds before falling.
Reality: Maintaining the posture of a body with joints (for example knee and hip joints) against the force of gravity is a continuous second by second task. Upright standing bodies even at rest are maintained this way due to the forces of muscles contracting and pulling against bones. If these muscles were to relax, the body will immediately collapse like a puppet suddenly deprived of its strings. What makes muscles contract is the action of the brain. The brain constantly sends signals through the nerves for the muscles to contract to a greater or lesser degree in order to keep bodies upright and regulate posture. If the brain is severed from the body or is destroyed these signals cease, muscles relax, and the body falls instantaneously to the ground.
Occurrence: When people in movies lose consciousness and fall from a standing position, they never seem to clearly bang their heads or certain areas of their bodies against the ground.
Reality: Falls in real life can be life threatening mostly because of the damage sustained by head impacts. In movies, the actors or their stunt doubles fall in ways that protect the head and other areas such as the tailbone from injury. These “Hollywood Falls” are designed to dissipate the energy of the fall and avoid injury. In the real world, when a person loses consciousness and falls, they cannot maneuver their bodies into the right position to avoid serious damage, especially to the head.
Growth of Mass
Occurrence: Some movies feature an entity or a character that undergoes a transformation which greatly increases their size in a matter of seconds or minutes.
Reality: A living thing cannot just grow to a large size without an equally sizeable input of mass and energy (for example carbon dioxide and sunlight). Any added mass has to come from somewhere. You can’t get something from nothing. Additionally, there has to be a mechanism to generate the extra mass from a precursor, and any such mechanism would presumably require a number of steps and would take time not only to generate the extra mass but to distribute it properly. For example, a type of algae called kelp can use the carbon dioxide in the water to make plant material through photosynthesis, and it can grow in optimal conditions up to two feet per day! This makes it one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet, but still far short of the growth spurts exhibited by some monsters, aliens, or other fantastical entities in the movies.
Explosions in Space
Occurrence: When people within a spaceship witness a large explosion in space, they hear the sound of the explosion and the spaceship is rocked by the shock wave.
Reality: Shock waves are areas of compression of a medium such as air. The explosion pushes air molecules into each other, and that effect propagates to neighboring air molecules and so on forming a shock wave that upon reaching our ears is perceived as a loud sound. The medium of space is not dense enough to propagate the type of shock waves that would rock spaceships and be audible to human beings.
Freezing or Blowing Up When Exposed to the Vacuum of Space
Occurrence: Movies depict people freezing or blowing up when exposed to the vacuum of space without wearing a space suit.
Reality: Because space is largely devoid of mass, two of the three ways by which the body loses heat, conduction and convection, are missing. Heat can then only be lost by radiation. A person suddenly exposed to outer space would not instantly freeze and in fact would only feel mildly cool. Similarly, a person exposed to the vacuum of space will not explode. The air in their lungs would expand causing serious damage if it is not exhaled, and a certain amount of the water in the blood and soft tissues would transition to the gaseous phase (ebullism) which will lead to significant swelling and bruising of the body, but not an explosion. The greatest threat is lack of oxygen which would lead to loss of consciousness in a matter of seconds followed by death.
Groups of Animals Surviving by Preying on Themselves
Occurrence: Some movies show a large group of animals in a deserted or isolated environment that have survived solely by preying on each other.
Reality: This situation is untenable because conversion of energy is not 100% efficient and doesn’t happen at once. Several animals would have to be consumed over the life cycle of a single animal for it to reach maturity and procreate. The new animals would fail to produce a replacement for the animals they have consumed. Each generation of the animals will become progressively smaller until they become extinct.
Humans or Monsters of Very Large Size
Occurrence: In movies, huge beings, many several stories high, are depicted with bodies that are not that different in proportions from the bodies they would have if they were much smaller.
Reality: As bodies change in size, several of their parameters do not increase by an equivalent measure. An increase in body size leads to a much higher increase in body volume, and this creates all sorts of problems. Consider, for example, that a higher volume leads to a higher weight which has to be supported. The reality is that all those colossal beings depicted in the movies with those body plans would collapse under their own weight and also experience a host of other issues affecting things such as regulation of body temperature, blood circulation and aeration, metabolism, etc.
Do any of these differences between the movies and real life bother you? Please leave a comment and let me know.
Image of Godzilla from pixabay is free for commercial use.
Every now and them when I have the patience, I take a deep breath and visit pseudoscientific websites. These websites are laden with misconceptions, misinformation, and lies that tend to make my blood boil, but it is important to try to read what these people are arguing so you can counter it effectively. Recently I was reading a creationist website, Answers in Genesis, when I happened upon an article regarding whether we really landed on the moon. The article goes over the skepticism that some people, including Christians, have expressed about whether we really landed on the moon. The author of the article stated that he could rebut point by point the arguments made by the moon landing skeptics, but since that has already been done, he pursues what he calls a “much more straightforward approach”.
The author of the article mentions that two of the twelve men who landed on the moon are now born-again Christians, and that they wrote books about their experience as astronauts. Thus, to doubt the moon landing is tantamount to accusing two fellow Christians of lying. And because the standard in the Bible to establish the truth of certain issues requires two or three witnesses, the testimony from these two reliable Christians should be enough to allow other Christians to accept that the moon landing is true.
Reading this I chuckled. Of the 12 men who landed on the moon, there were 10 non-born-again Christians that would have told you exactly the same thing that the two born-again Christians would have told you. However, because these ten men were not in this religious category, their testimony is presumably not as trustworthy as that from the two born-again ones. Although the author acknowledges that there is other evidence and arguments that could be brought to bear on the issue, he considers this the most straightforward approach. People should accept this is true because those who they should trust claim it is true.
As it turns out, this method of settling the truth is in fact very ancient. People may not understand the arguments regarding an issue, and they may not have confidence in the evidence, but they will believe those who they trust. And those who they trust have been traditionally those who they know and those with whom they share the same values. In fact, this phenomenon is so well recognized that when governments or organizations wish to disseminate a message of public importance, they often contact respected members of the target community who are willing to transmit the message. For example, Dr. Fauci has outlined a government strategy to increase vaccination levels that involves recruiting “trusted messengers” in communities across the country to explain why it is important to get vaccinated. Finding these trusted messengers is as important as the message itself.
Most of the time these trusted messengers belong to the circle of family, friends, or those who are known in the community (preacher, police officer, etc.). People may also trust total strangers as long as they are convinced that the strangers share the same beliefs and values as they do. From antiquity, this propensity to trust those who you know and those who share your beliefs and values has created bubbles that have insulated groups of people from outside influences, so much so that throughout history a lot of time and effort has been spent by people or groups of people figuring out how break past these bubbles to earn the allegiance of others.
The advent of mass media has made it possible for individuals and groups to penetrate these bubbles and reach people at the very heart of their communities, and this process has accelerated with the advent of the internet and has had a cascading effect. Nowadays total strangers can reach with ease people they have never met and deliver to them messages to earn their trust which they then pass to others. Sometimes this is a positive development as, for example, when people are convinced that vaccination is important. However, individuals who do not provide people with factual information can also gain their trust. One example of this was the fraud claims of the 2020 election.
The 2020 election will go down in history as one of the most scrutinized and contested elections. The large amount of court cases, recounts, audits, and other investigations that were, and are still being conducted is breathtaking, not only for the sheer numbers, but also for the fact that no evidence of significant election fraud has been uncovered. But what was even more remarkable is what happened to Republicans who had been trusted members of their communities and parties, and then acknowledged the reality that there is no evidence of significant fraud.
For example, Georgia’s top election official, Brad Raffensperger, called Georgia’s election for Biden and reaffirmed that after two recounts and an audit. Raffensperger is a pro-life Republican who has never voted for a Democrat, and who twice voted for Trump. Nevertheless, he received death threats to himself and to his family and had to go into hiding for a week. The death threats kept coming even months after the election. Instead of supporting him, the Republican party of Georgia censured Raffensperger, and it looks like Republicans will not support him for reelection.
Another example is, Ed McBroom, a state senator for Michigan who headed an exhaustive 8-month investigation into the legitimacy of the Michigan election. McBroom, a fourth-generation farmer and a pro-life Republican who is music director of his church, reviewed claim after claim, found no evidence of fraud, and issued his report. Almost overnight, people who had known him for years, supported him, and believed him to be honest, ceased to trust him. McBroom also received a barrage of emails, texts, and phone calls insulting him and threatening him.
The above has also happened to many other Republican officials ranging from election operatives to governors who declared they did not find any significant fraud in the results of the election. It seems that the ancient bubble that protected people from outside influences has been busted forever. People now regularly anoint as trusted messengers individuals from outside their immediate communities whom they don’t know and have never met. And this happens to the detriment of the trust they would otherwise normally place in family, friends, acquaintances, or those whom they know for sure to share their beliefs and values. This power in the right hands can be used to do good, but in the wrong hands it can be used to isolate people from reality and manipulate them.
Such is the unsettling power of the trusted messenger.
Trust sign by Nick Youngson from Picserver.Org is used here with no modification under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Those opposed to vaccines (antivaxxers) are fond of quoting government figures to argue that there have been many adverse events due to COVID vaccines. They then proceed to state that because the government figures underreport these adverse events this means that the problem is much, much, worse. They also argue that there is a conspiracy to keep this information from the American public, and they demand that COVID vaccination should stop.
What are antivaxxers talking about? What are these government figures? Are they quoting them correctly? What do the numbers mean?
By the time vaccines are allowed to be used on the US population, they have gone through multiple clinical trials and other evaluations that have certified they are safe. But this vaccine safety is based on data gathered from at most a few tens of thousands of people. Therefore, it is understood that when vaccines are applied to a population of tens or hundreds of millions there may be some low frequency adverse events that may have not been detected in the clinical trials with a smaller group of people. To account for this, the government in 1990 created a federal database called VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) that is meant to act as an early warning system to detect possible safety problems with vaccines.
However, VAERS is a passive reporting system. This means that anyone can file a VAERS report regardless of its nature, and that report is entered into the database and cannot be removed without the permission of the person who reported it. Although knowingly filing a false VAERS report is a violation of Federal law, if you are convinced that the adverse event you are describing, no matter how outlandish, is tied to a vaccine, it will be incorporated into the database.
For example, Dr. James Laidter mentioned in the neurodiversity weblog that back in 2005 he entered a VAERS report claiming that an influenza vaccine had turned him into the incredible Hulk, and the claim was accepted into the database. However, due to its unusual nature, a VAERS representative did contact him, and after an amicable discussion about the limitations of VAERS, the representative requested his permission to remove the claim to which he agreed. If he had not agreed to that, the claim would have remained in the database. Another example, Kevin Leitch writing for the Left Brain Right Brain science blog mentions that he submitted a VAERS report claiming that a vaccine had turned his baby girl into Wonder Woman, and he is not even a US resident!
However, even when considering reasonable adverse events, it must be understood that VAERS reports do not stablish that there is a link between the adverse events reported and vaccination. Each day thousands of people develop a health problem and/or die in the United States in a manner unrelated to vaccines. If any of these people received a vaccine around the time they developed the health problem or died, they could be reported to VAERS thus constituting a false positive.
The experts understand that the VAERS database has a high number of these false positives, and they use the database as a very preliminary step to perform more research, gather more data, and establish for sure whether a given event being reported is a real adverse event due to vaccines or not. These experts know that quoting numbers directly from the VAERS system is meaningless insofar as learning anything about the safety of vaccines is concerned. But this is exactly what antivaxxers do! And while some antivaxxers may be ignorant about the nature of VAERS, many of the leading antivaxxer influencers know the shortcomings of VAERS and nevertheless choose to continue reporting or quoting the raw numbers to advance their platforms and promote their agendas.
Antivaxxers are also prone to saying that VAERS vastly underestimates the number of vaccine adverse events by as much as 99%, so in some of their alarmist literature they suggest that VAERS numbers should be increased by large multiples. However, although reporting to VAERS of non-serious adverse events such as soreness at the injection site is indeed very low, estimates of the sensitivity of VAERS to serious adverse events, while variable, is much higher than antivaxxers would like us to think. For example, for anaphylaxis due to seven different vaccines, estimates of VAERS reporting sensitivity ranged from 13% to 76%, while for Guillain-Barre Syndrome after three different vaccines the sensitivity ranged from 12% to 64%.
Despite its shortcomings, the VAERS system has been useful for detecting rare side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines. For example, an elevated risk of myocarditis and pericarditis has been detected in males 12-29 years of age who have received mostly two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. This is a treatable disease that involves inflammation of the heart or its surrounding membranes. The CDC convened a meeting of experts (the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices: ACIP) to analyze these cases. The analysis involved weighing any harm caused by the vaccine against its benefits. The committee concluded that the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks. However, now that we know that this age group is at an elevated risk of myocarditis/pericarditis, vaccine providers and healthcare professionals have been alerted to this side effect and its treatment.
This is the way VAERS and science are supposed to work. Rare adverse events of a vaccine are detected, and the risk/benefit is determined after a thorough evaluation of the data available. Then a rational course of action is pursued to achieve the greatest benefit with the least harm. The irresponsible use of VAERS by antivaxxers’s to concoct alarmist articles and memes promotes vaccine hesitancy which in turn prolongs the pandemic, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths and may give rise to new variants of the virus that are more resistant to the vaccine.
Photo of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from Max Pixel is in the public domain.
More than 200 years ago Marie Shelley published her novel “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus” which told the tale of a scientist playing God and the nasty consequences that ensued. The story became a literary success which captured the imagination of generations and moved into the realms of theater and then film and television almost as soon as these were invented. It was in the 1931 film directed by James Whale (in which the master of horror Boris Karloff played the monster) that the current view of what the monster looks like was cemented in popular culture. Since then, all visual references to the Frankenstein monster have those emblematic electrode bolts sticking out of the sides of his neck.
It was also in this movie that the actor Colin Clive embodied in popular culture the image of the mad scientist with his deranged scream of, “It’s alive!”.
It is interesting that most people associate the name Frankenstein with the monster, even though the monster never had a name. Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who created it: Victor Frankenstein. It is also interesting that Frankenstein’s creation is considered to be the monster when reality is a bit more complex. This is described in a clever joke that differentiates knowledge from wisdom.
Knowledge is understanding that Frankenstein is not the monster.
Wisdom is understanding that Frankenstein is the monster.
But one of most remarkable aspects of Frankenstein as a cultural phenomenon is how we have ended up using not only the full name but also the word “Franken” as a prefix. Anything preceded by the prefix “Franken” can mean several things such as something monstrous or deformed, or something made out of many parts, or something dead or dormant which has been reanimated, or a created entity that is unusual in some real or imagined negative way or that turns on its creator. I will go over some examples in this post.
In the 1980s, the CIA supported and trained Islamic rebels (the mujahedin) fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan including Osama Bin Laden. The late president of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, warned President George H. W. Bush that he was creating a Frankenstein. And sure enough, after the rebels defeated the Soviets, they turned on the US. with ever increasing acts of terrorism, culminating with the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon.
The large hurricane that wreaked havoc upon the East Coast of the United States in 2012 killing 280 people and causing 65 billion dollars in damage, Hurricane Sandy, was dubbed a “Frankenstorm”.
In the cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants, there is a 2002 episode in which SpongeBob creates a doodle bearing his likeness that acquires a life of its own and runs amok causing all sort of mischief. The name of the episode is, of course, “Frankendoodle.”
When my daughter was in middle school, she brought home a project from her ceramics class. It was a strange dark green shape with two knobs sticking out at right angles and what appeared to be stiches on its surface. I asked her what it was and she replied, “It’s a Frankenapple!”
In the 1990s, several dog breeders began crossing purebred dogs and creating new breeds (for example crossing a poodle with a Labrador will yield a labradoodle). These new dog breeds were called “designer dogs” and unleashed a craze to buy these expensive canines which were dubbed Frankendogs by those people scandalized with the practice.
In 2002 the invasive Asian snakehead fish made the news when several of them were found in a pond in Crofton, Maryland. Since then, the snakehead has become established wreaking havoc in the ecosystem of the Potomac River watershed. Its voracity, resilience, and ugliness have earned it the name of “Frankenfish”. Hollywood decided to commemorate this event by releasing a movie with an eponymous title.
The punk rock band The Dead Kennedys put out a record in 1985 called “Frankenchrist.” Inside the record cover they ill-fatedly included a poster by artist Hans Rudolf Giger entitled “Penis Landscape.” In a true Frankenstein-like fashion the resulting obscenity trial nearly drove the band’s record label out of business.
In 2012, a teacher wrote an article about an unsuccessful attempt to conduct a reading class employing e-books. The title of her article? Frankenbook.
In 2015 a large 30,000-year-old virus was discovered in Siberia, and researchers planned to revive this pathogen which was dubbed a “Frankenvirus”.
In 2012, filmmaker extraordinaire Tim Burton brought to the screen a story about a boy named “Victor” who brings his dog “Sparky” back to life with a lot of unintended consequences. The name of the movie? Frankenweenie!
The folks at the Urban Dictionary define Frankenjob as “a job consisting of a variety of different, often largely unrelated, tasks and duties, often resulting from corporate downsizing, restructuring or layoffs that cause many people's jobs to be combined into one.” They give the following example: After all those layoffs, management gave Fred so many different people's work, he's got a real Frankenjob now.
Environmentalist and consumer advocacy groups often refer to genetically modified foods as Frankenfoods and to genetically modified crops as Frankencrops. Related to this, a rumor got started in 2000 that involved the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants. When the franchise began calling itself “KFC” to reflect that it offered a wider variety of food choices, the rumor originated that they did this because they were not serving chicken anymore in their restaurants but a genetically modified organism that they could not legally call chicken. So what were they rumored to be serving? Frankenchicken!
In a 1990 film a medical school dropout endeavors to bring back to life his dead girlfriend using parts obtained from dead New York prostitutes. The result? Frankenhooker!
The examples above are some of the many uses of the frankenprefix. Have you heard about a particular use that I have not listed here? Please leave a comment and let me know.
The photograph of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster from Universal Studios is in the public domain.