07 June 2010

Avoiding my homework, Or, Chris Rangel makes me sad

I have some enthralling legislative language to read before a meeting tomorrow with a local legiscritter. (Yeah, I'm no longer an amateur wonk; I also get paid for this stuff.) I don't want to read it. I've opened the email that contains the bills, I've considered clicking on the PDFs to open them, I've gotten up and gotten a beer, I've opened the PDF's but hidden them, I've chatted with my wife, I've just about emptied my feedreader and I still don't want to get to work.

So I'm going to write a post about Iron Man instead.

First of all, as a long-time comic book geek, I loved both the Iron Man movies. They exactly captured the spirit of the comic, with understandable adaptations for live action. (I always liked the cover story of Tony Stark being paraplegic. I was bummed when they "cured" the character.) Anyhoo, if you have an iPad, don't, I repeat don't download the Marvel App. Seriously, I've been in recovery from my comic addiction almost as long as Tony Stark has been in recovery from his alcoholism, and the Marvel App is like a shot of pure heroin for an ex-junkie (if I may mix my metaphors). I downloaded it to show my wife a little about Thor (apparently the next Marvel movie adaptation), and immediately spent like $30. It's a beautiful app, though, and the "frame by frame" animations are simply stunning. I'm firmly back on the wagon now. I haven't deleted the app yet, but I swear I will tomorrow.

So where was I? Oh yes: Chris Rangel, MD.

He's been med-blogging like forever, even longer than me and I am rapidly becoming a grizzled veteran of the blogosphere. He's a good writer and always a lively read. I'd have him on my blogroll if I had updated it at any point since the days of Flea and Barbados Butterfly. (I think I'm going to leave my blogroll as it is forever, preserved as it were in amber, like a window back into the heady days of 2007.) Dr Rangel recently wrote about Iron Man, with some choice words regarding the plausibility of the "palladium poisoning" that was afflicting Tony Stark and the other issues with the biochemistry of the film.

Now first of all, let nobody cast the first stone here regarding the fisking of a fictional story's technobabble. As a proud owner of the Star Trek Technical Manual back in the day, I and my friends went through the science of Trek in meticulous detail; we may have actually been forced to learn some real physics in the process. My favorite invention remains the "Inertial Dampening Field." So there's a long and storied history of nerdy science-types getting a little too interested in, and bent out of shape over, the implausible technical details of the story and the scientific liberties that are necessary to make science fiction work.

But c'mon, man. If you want to get all bent out of shape about the science of Iron Man and the first thing that you can think of to criticize is the biochemistry, you're missing the forest for the trees, my friend. I mean, it's completely bogus on so so many levels. For example, consider the forces applied to the suit of armor that Stark wears. When Iron Man first escapes from the bad guys in the first movie, he doesn't really have control over his jet boots and he slams into the sand at a speed of about 84m/s, with a resultant deceleration force of 3267 m/s2. So at under that sort of force, the armor can maintain the integrity of the body and maybe even the skeleton (which is closely coupled to the suit) but the internal organs will move around and that sort of force will wreak havoc on your soft and plump innards. The heart is heavy and pendulous -- it sort of hangs off of the aortic root, which is firmly tethered in place. Sudden stops can cause the heart to swing forward and shear right off the aorta, which is not real good for your health. That sort of acceleration is probably not so good for solid internal organs like the liver or spleen, either. They're not real elastic and deceleration forces against the abdominal wall can bruise or even shatter them. Later, when Iron Man goes toe-to-toe against the other robot-dude and he gets punched in the head by a heavy steel fist? The armor, once again, will protect the skull and maybe even the face, if the fit is snug enough. But the brain is mobile within the cranial cavity. It is slightly less dense than the CSF, so when the skull is abruptly decelerated the CSF displaces the brain away from the site of injury and the brain bangs into the interior wall of the skull away from the impact causing a countrecoup injury (fun fact: it was a high school kid who demonstrated this mechanism). This impact can cause bleeding around the brain or bruising and axonal shear within the brain parenchyma.

So all I am saying is that if you really want to poke holes in the science of Iron Man, the biochemistry is pretty rarefied territory to be mucking around in, when the basic kinematics of the whole concept are entirely impossible. Hmm. Maybe if Stark integrated an inertial dampener into the suit that just might work! It's trek technology, but I'm almost certain that an "arc reactor" would generate more than enough energy for an IDF, and if he had a solid-state accelerometer the response time would be quick enough....

OK, I think we can make this work. But, please, nobody tell Dr Rangel that there's really no such element as kryptonite, OK? It'd really ruin Dark Knight for him.

Note: hat tip to science blogs' Dot Physics for some really superior science fiction geekery.


  1. Oh, I see what you're doing there by mixing your supes. You are trying to tick off both the Superman and the Batman people, aren't you?

  2. I grow more enamored with you every day. A geek's geek who's perfected the art of procrastination? Be still my heart!

  3. I second The HipCrip. Long time reader, and long time fan.

    And it keeps getting better.

    Interesting discussion of the real (and not so real) logistics and science-fiction side of the films, especially for a non-medical person.

    And the blogosphere, and your blog provides excellent material for one's own procrastination, btw (you know, should that desire to avoid work ever arise).

  4. I know Dr. Rangel well enough to know that he looks at the accuracies or inaccuracies of movies as fun and entertaining. Basically he loves to be the thorn in the side and bring up something nobody even bothered to think about. The only way the movie was ruined for him was by some annoying guy laughing at every single scene in the audience, but I kind of like the fact that he can take the conversation to the next level, where most people can't catch up. :-)

  5. A little late, but I finally saw Iron Man2 a couple of nights ago.
    Thanks for pointing out the obvious.
    As an engineer, I cannot help looking for the technical analysis of things I see in movies. I can still enjoy the movie, but as in #1 I was amazed by his ability to melt & cast Palladiun with the crude tools he had.


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