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.
When people say or write things like “nothing is impossible”, they normally mean this as a motivational slogan intended to overcome life’s difficulties. They don’t literally believe that nothing is impossible, but rather that talent, focus, hard work, and dedication can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve success. And you know what? I’m fine with that. It may not be accurate, but I understand that people may need a little oomph in their lives. If some accuracy needs to be sacrificed to help people succeed, I am willing to look the other way, so to speak. However, some people actually believe that the maxim “nothing is impossible” is true, and not only in the realm of personal achievements, but also in the field of science. I have had a few discussions with these mystics that left me wishing that I had applied Alder’s Razor. I have tried to explain that our world functions based on a set of rules that clearly delineate what is and what isn’t possible, and that science is in the business of finding what these rules are. In response to this, I normally get a list of things that scientist thought to be impossible that were later demonstrated to be possible, along with comments like “scientific theories have been proven false again and again” and some interspersed subtle and not so subtle hints that my mind is not sufficiently open.
To these criticisms, I answer that science sometimes moves forward by trial and error, and, like these critics point out, scientists have made mistakes or have underestimated the complexity of the phenomena they were studying. But, as more knowledge was generated and explanations were refined, sufficiently developed scientific theories were established that allowed accurate discrimination of the possible from the impossible. Additionally, I have already pointed out not only that the vast majority of scientific theories have not been proven false, but that there are dangers in keeping your mind too open.
Nevertheless, the more important point, that seems to be ignored by the “nothing is impossible” crowd, is that our very lives depend on knowing what is possible and impossible in the world around us. Think about it. When we walk on a cement surface, we know that it will not suddenly turn into quicksand and swallow us up. When we approach a tree, we know it will not suddenly uproot itself and attack us. When a cloud passes over us, we know it will not suddenly turn to lead, fall, and crush us. We have a very clear understanding of how cement surfaces, trees, clouds, and myriads of other things work, and we know with absolute certainty what they can and cannot do. We know what can and cannot happen. We know what is possible and what is impossible. If this understanding of how our world works were false, our lives would be in peril. But our capacity to gain this understanding is nothing new or even limited to the human species.
In nature we observe that animals also gain an understanding of how their surroundings work through individual experience and from observing other animals. They develop an understanding of what is edible and what isn’t, of what prey is safe to attack and what prey is dangerous, of what places are safe to be in and which are not, and so on. There is a rhyme and reason to this understanding that animals gain. They grasp that certain things are possible and other not, and they exploit this knowledge to negotiate the complexity of their environments and survive.
The animal ancestors of humans acquired this information like other animals through their individual experience and from observing others. However, as ancient humans developed the capacity to think and communicate to an extent that was orders of magnitude higher than that of their animal kin, the knowledge they derived from experience became insufficient. There were many scary things happening in the world that they did not understand and could not control like earthquakes, storms, volcanoes, droughts, pests, and disease that could dramatically affect their lives. And there were also other things like eclipses, comets, shooting stars, or the moon acquiring a red hue that were mysterious. Ancient humans were able to formulate questions. Why did these things happen? Was there something or someone making them happen? How can I prevent bad things from happening? How can I be spared? Ignorance and fear begat superstition and the belief in the supernatural in order to allow humans to make sense of their surroundings and gain a measure of control over their existence.
But then some humans started investigating how the world around them worked. They observed. They experimented. They found regularities and patterns. They asked and answered questions and made predictions based on the answers, which they then refined from experience. Science was born. And science was able to deliver explanations regarding the nature and inner workings of those scary things and those mysterious things allowing us to understand them, and in many cases control them, or at least reduce their detrimental effects on our lives. Viewed from this vantage point, science is just merely a more effective way of obtaining the information that we once obtained through experience.
Knowledge of what is possible and not possible is key to our survival, and science has been the most successful way in which we gave gained this information. To those who say “nothing is impossible” I just have one word: balderdash!
Image from Pixabay is free for commercial use (Creative Commons CC0)