Trope-ic Thunder: The Mail Bag Column

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By Drew Parton

This week, I take time to answer some questions about science in movies and in general that have been piling up in my mailbox:

“How do nuclear weapons work? Like, what is the explosion and where does it come from?”

Well, for starters, nuclear weaponry is a super techincal business. It takes multiple PhD’s and billions of dollars of research, development, production, and deployment to get one of those monsters ready. When we talk about “nukes” we really have to distinguish between Fission bombs (“Atomic Bombs”) and Fusion bombs (“Hydrogen Bombs”). Fission and Fusion are two different types of atomic reactions. Fission is like a fissure (share the same root), one atom splits into two atoms. We dropped two Fission bombs on Japan in 1945. One traditional fission warhead as the equivalent explosive force of 500,000 tons of TNT. Now, what’s actually occurring inside the bomb is some of the craziest shit you can imagine. We basically use another bomb to either A) fire a wad of radioactive material at another wad, or B) compress a wad of radioactive material until it’s super-duper dense.

en.wikipedia.org

Now, if you’ve ever packed a snowball really tightly, you know that it starts to actually melt a little. That’s because nothing really in the universe likes to be compressed a lot; when you put more and more pressure on a substance, it produces energy. Now imagine that that snowball is a fat load of plutonium–already containing energy and unstable, excited particles–and your hands are a ton of conventional explosives. Eventually, the plutonium atoms are split, releasing radiation and a metric fuck-ton of energy.

dayonepatch.com

Nothing that a refrigerator couldn’t stop, of course. No, seriously, that part of this scene is the most plausible. Radiation is a general catch-all term that covers a lot of things: everything from sound and heat to cosmic waves and neutrinos. Some radiation put off from a nuclear bomb could be stopped with a moderate amount of cotton, while other particles of radiation require thick walls of lead. No, the real reason Indy would have been a fine red paste would be the explosive force, which would not be damped in the least by the hard refrigerator walls.

Now image USING AN ATOM BOMB EXPLOSION TO START ANOTHER EXPLOSION, because that’s what happens in a fusion bomb. Now, we’ve never ever used a fusion bomb in warfare (and even nuclear reactors use fission), mainly because it’s much more difficult, expensive, and ABSOLUTELY GODDAMN HORRIFYINGLY TERRIBLE. The United States can be crazy some times, but we’re not that crazy.

derekbateman.co.uk

In the case of fusion, like the name suggests, two atoms get fused together. The Sun is doing fusion all the time, compressing hydrogen molecules into helium using great amounts of energy, but putting out even greater. In traditional fusion weapons, we use a fission bomb to send hydrogen particles at each other at absolutely ludicrous speeds until eventually a couple of them hit each other hard enough to turn into a particle of helium. The most powerful nuclear weapon every detonated was a Russian Hydrogen Fusion bomb that released energy equal to 50 million tons of TNT. Doesn’t that make you feel glad about nuclear reactors?

Well, it actually should. You see, nuclear reactors are actually much safer than most conventional fossil fuel power plants, and provide much more energy to boot. And, yes, sometimes a nuclear reactor melts down. And, yes, it’s scary as hell. In fact, I’ve already mentioned how people are disproportionately more scared by a man-made disaster than a natural one. And media is partially to blame. When nuclear reactors “melt down” or “go critical” as some movies and shows say, there isn’t an explosion. It’s NOT like a nuclear weapon, most of the time it’s a small leak of radioactive water (not to say that’s not horrendously bad, though). One of my favorite shows is a large offender of this, Mobile Suit Gundam. In that show, you’d just freaking touch a robot’s fusion reactor and it explodes.

 

What are the chances of earth getting hit by a huge asteroid, and how do you think we would deal with it if one were headed towards us?

Short answer: very bloody slim. Yes, we’ve had some asteroids and meteors come rather close to us, but nothing that was anything close to Armageddon, and nothing that we wouldn’t see coming. I’ve talked about the incredible enormity of space before: asteroids are far apart. As you might remember from watching Bill Nye The Science Guy in 5th grade, the closest asteroids to us are just past the orbit of Mars in the appropriately named Asteroid Belt. Now, the asteroid in Armageddon is claimed to be “the size of Texas” or about 870 miles in diameter. In the movie, this Asteroid is really the core of a comet. Now, let’s first say that that’s not really how comets work- they’re balls of very cold and dusty ice that got clumped together. Secondly, that asteroid is roughly twice as big as the biggest one we’ve ever seen. Thirdly, the plan to deal with the asteroid is to dig a hole “800 feet deep” and put a nuke in. Let’s talk about that- for an asteroid 870 miles across, 800 feet is absolutely nothing. All the nuke would do is blow a crater in the near-side of the asteroid. Instead of destroying the asteroid, this would A) hurl smaller chunks of asteroid at the earth and B) barely slow the progression of the Asteroid. Let’s for the sake of argument say that like in the movie the “fissure cracks the rest in half,” great. Now we have TWO meteors… that both get pulled into the earth by gravity. If an asteroid get’s that close, we’re pretty much space dust.

tvtropes.org

But that’s a very large IFlarger than the asteroid itself. You see, even with the constant horrific slashing of NASA’s budget (which is another article-long rant in and of itself), there are still a number of Asteroid-monitoring sites across the company and globe. These stations are designed to detect any asteroid or celestial body long before it ever poses a risk. Now, true, these are being rapidly and constantly shut down, but they’re still doing a tremendous job watching the skies. And because both us and the asteroid are moving- and because, again space is seriously massive, the only meteors that hit us are little tiny ones that usually burn up in the atmosphere (shooting stars). In fact, there’s never been a recorded death by meteor–and only one injury.

But it’s a big universe, so what do we do if one’s coming towards us? Well, lucky for us, scientists and engineers watch movies too and have actually prepared a series of possible solutions:

1. “NUKE ‘EM, LET’S NUKE THE BASTARDS”

True, I just ragged on Armageddon for its nuclear solution, but we have an arsenal of ICBM’s that we’ve been waiting for an excuse to use, and if used correctly, could stop an asteroid. The trick is NOT to actually hit the asteroid- which would just split it up into multiple deadly chunks- but to detonate a nuclear weapon right next to an asteroid. The resulting shock-wave of force and energy would slow the asteroid’s descent and hopefully force it away from the earth.

2. BILLIARDS

Kinetic energy is the energy of an object due to its motion. The greater the kinetic energy, the greater the damage when it collides.

astronomyonline.org

astronomyonline.org

The cool thing about kinetic energy is that velocity is much more important than mass. So a faster, smaller object will have more kinetic energy than a larger, slower object. Thus, we can send a smaller, but faster spaceship to collide with the asteroid and bounce it away–much like a cue ball hitting a billiard ball.

3. Tug-Boats

en.wikipedia.org

en.wikipedia.org

Yup. Simple as that, park a ship right in the asteroid and fire her away. We could use this to push or pull an asteroid slightly off of its path (trying to reverse its direction would be much harder) so that it’d pass by earth.

 

Why do people play idol games like cookie clicker?

I’m gonna be honest. I had never played Cookie Clicker before I read this email. So I had to give it a shot. A couple of hours later, I had named my bakery “Bushidough” and was cranking out some 20 million cookies per second. Not to brag or anything.

Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 10.07.36 PMWe bake Samu-rye.

So why did it become the 2nd most searched-for game of 2013? One word: Skinner. BF Skinner was the father of behaviorism and of what he called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is all about rewards and punishments. There is no other point to Cookie Clicker besides making more cookies to buy upgrades to make more cookies faster to get more upgrades and so on ad infinitum. That next upgrade, that next reward is just around the corner. The rush of dopamine and serotonin when you get enough cookies to buy a new upgrade makes you more and more likely to keep playing. It’s not that far off from a drug addiction, the same reward-circuits light up.

 

What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to movie science?

THIS! THIS RIGHT HERE!

YOU DON’T USE ONLY 10% OF YOUR BRAIN! YOU USE ALL OF IT ALL THE TIME! DIFFERENT PARTS OF YOUR BRAIN DO DIFFERENT THINGS! YOU CAN’T JUST MAKE THEM ALL DO WHAT YOU WANT! YOU CAN’T MAKE YOUR HYPOTHALAMUS DO MATH PROBLEMS, IT’S IN CHARGE OF YOUR AUTONOMIC SYSTEMS LIKE HORMONES AND HEARTBEATS. EVEN IF YOU COULD, DOING SO WOULD JUST KILL YOU. LUC BESSON, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?!? I’VE REVIEWED TWO OF YOUR MOVIES BEFORE! I LIKE THEM!

Whew. I’m settled. Anyway, be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films on Mondays: Mindless Action Mondays

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Have a science-related question? Ask it! Also send me fan/hate mail!

 

 

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