Archive for Science in the Movies

My Opinion on the Science behind Avatar

// January 4th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Uncategorized

Avatar Movie Still

Have you seen it yet? It’s the best movie of the decade, and it just became the fastest movie to make $1bn in ticket sales. This post contains spoilers, so if you’re lagging behind the majority then run along now, come back later. I’ve held back from this post to give people a chance to see it, but I’m gonna explode like cannon fire if I don’t do it now. Note: This post be me opinions, and make no mistake, I want to believe.

What struck me most about the movie is how REAL it was, after seeing it I had this overwhelming urge to go there, to see it for myself, even if just in a dream. To feel authentic, an animated world needs to pay extreme attention to detail to how the real world works. Director James Cameron brought in Jodie Holt, chairwoman of the department of botany and plant sciences at UC Riverside, as an expert. She helped suss out the plant-communication thing and how a botanist would study plants on another planet. After that she helped put together a massive tome called Pandorapedia, with Latin names (yay!), taxonomy and descriptions of the plants.

According to this interview, Jodie Holt had one major problem with the movie – Grace smokes in the lab. A big no-no, not only for OH&S but also because of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus which dwells in tobaccy and can be unleashed on unwitting plants causing mass destruction. I counter with this – why would a virus that evolved on Earth have any effect on plants that evolved on Pandora? Viruses and the cells they infect usually evolve together. Sure, some viruses can jump species (like HIV) but not, you know, species from another planet. Plus in the future we might have wiped out the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, indeed, she might be smoking some non-cancer-inducing super-tasty tobaccy from the future.

These communicating plants though – that’s something else. Very cool. It actually reminded me of an Animorphs book (the Andalite Tales, anyone?) I think talking trees is definitely possible – Strawberries can communicate a caterpillar attack to other bushes in the network (albeit connected together by runners) so the other bushes can protect themselves. Given the right environment, I think it’s entirely possible that a whole ecosystem could evolve to communicate for mutual protection, and over time I think it could give rise to consciousness. Hell, that’s how we did it, right?

Actually, a lot of the plants and animals look mighty similar to Earth counterparts… I always thought if we met aliens they would be completely and utterly different to us. My sciencey explanation for this is that a meteor containing biological building blocks started life on Earth (the “a rock did it” theory), and one of those same meteors hit Pandora. With the same start and similar environments, it’s not altogether impossible that similar life would start on both, is it?

Finally, the Avatars themselves. How can you get your mind to control another body? Was the Avatar brain computerized to respond to the movement sensors in that sensor-bed? The human-alien hybrid concept is pretty out-there, and the idea of DNA being important to a mind-body link is something totally new, but think of this. As shown in the making of – Avatar was made mostly by motion capture. The actors performed in front of a screen and then a 3D image of the alien was mapped over them. Isn’t that exactly like being an Avatar?

Rhododendron Poison – Truth behind the science of Sherlock Holmes

// December 27th, 2009 // 11 Comments » // Uncategorized

I saw Sherlock Holmes last night with SexyMan, the cinema was packed and we sat in the second row from the front. I watched the movie like a fan watches a tennis match, but surprisingly it was still good!

It might have helped that any great expectations had been dashed by a friend on facebook, but nonetheless I thought it was an enjoyable, action-packed, fast-paced fast-talking very sexy flick.

But then I’m not a film critic. I am, however, a science geek. This post has been carefully written to avoid spoilers, but if you want to play it safe go and see the movie and come back in 3 hours. K?

At one point in the movie they talk about rhododendron poison, but don’t explain at all what it is.

Rhododendrons (and azaleas, the dwarf (midget) version) are a moderately toxic group of plants. If you’re out strolling the mountains near the eastern side of the Black Sea in Turkey, or generally in the USA or UK, then don’t eat this plant:

Rhododendron ponticum.

Not all members of the genus are poisonous, but play it on the safe side and don’t eat random plants.

It’s not HUGELY poisonous, about 100 grams need to be ingested by a 25 kg child to seriously poison them, but it is a problem for livestock – particularly sheep, goats and cows – who munch on the flowers and get seriously sick.

Of course, if you boiled it down and concentrated the liquid… well that’s a different story. The toxin is water soluble, so it can be extracted from the leaves and flowers.

The toxin is called grayanotoxin. It binds to specific sodium ion channels in cell membranes (which I’ve talked about before) and prevents inactivation, causing persistent activation of muscle and nerve cells. This causes a range of symptoms based on where the activated cells are located, such as muscle weakness, vomiting, sweating, salivation, seizures, and either dangerously slow or dangerously fast heartbeat, depending on the dose. In the end, it can cause death.

Don’t think you’re safe just because you don’t make a habit of eating plants – the toxin is also found in the nectar of flowers, and bees that feast on them can make “mad honey.” It took out an army in 401 BC lead by Xenophon of Athens against Persia – hundreds of soldiers vomiting and unable to walk for a day. No-one died, unlike in 67 BC, where the army of Mithradates IV killed Pompey the Great’s soldiers while they were incapacitated. It’s biological warfare, victory has never tasted sweeter.

Mad honey is still a problem today – not so much the stuff in a grocery store (which is diluted and problem tested and stuff) but organic honey direct from the beehive can be risky. Plus some men use it as an aphrodisiac. Idiots.

That’s the rhododendron poison, making a comeback after 2400 years on a big screen near you! What did you think of the movie? There were lots of sciencey deductions made that weren’t very well explained, so if you have any questions, post a comment and I’ll do me best!

Frankenstein’s Monster

// October 29th, 2009 // 6 Comments » // Uncategorized

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open . . .

Frankensteins Monster

A body composed of executed murderers, brought to life by the power of electricity and the mad wantings of a scientist. We all know the story of Frankenstein, but is there any truth to it?

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 at the age of 21, but the idea came to her in June 1816, when she had a nightmare of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show the signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” This nightmare was brought about by a conversation she overheard between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, her husband. They were discussing whether electricity could bring someone to life.

The first experiment of this kind happened in 1780, when Luigi Galvani made frogs twitch with a spark of electricity. By 1803 the experiments had progressed through the animal kingdom and were ready for human trials. On January 17, 1803, in London, Giovanni Aldini (Luigi’s nephew) took it to the next level, and hooked up the body of an executed man to a 120-plate battery. They reported that “on the first application of the arcs the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” He also made it’s back arch, the chest rise and fall, and the arms move. The guy didn’t come back to life, but it made a hell of a show.

How does it work?

Nerves, like some people I know, are always slightly negative on the inside. In the case of cells, this is because of the things that float in the cytoplasm having a net negative charge. Cells also have more potassium ions (K+) on the inside, while the exterior has more sodium ions (Na+). That’s how they like it when they’re at home with their feet up. When nerves receive a signal, they get off their ass and open up sodium channels, causing a sudden in rush of sodium ions (which like it in the cell because it’s slightly negative, and low on sodium). The cramming in of positive ions cause an area on the long arm of an axon to become positive all of a sudden.


This is called depolarisation, and it triggers two things. First, the signal moves along the nerve by opening nearby sodium channels, a process called propagation. Second, it opens a bunch of potassium channels which cause potassium ions to exit the cell, causing the charge inside to become negative again. In fact, it works a little too well, and causes the area to become even more negative than it was before which stops the signal going back the way it came. That’s called hyperpolarisation.


After that it starts up sodium/potassium pumps in the depolarised area, which pumps out all the sodium and brings back potassium, repolarising the cell. The area goes back to normal, puts it’s feet up and takes a rest. The signal continues to propagate in one direction until it causes the eventual reaction intended, like, say, to contract a muscle and make my fingers type along the keyboard.


It’s electricity, dear Watson! So fire up a dead body with a ton of electricity, and the nerves will contract like they’ve got signals coming in from all sides. Nerves just go nuts, and the muscles spasm in response!

Can electricity bring a dead body to life? Well, yeah… CLEAR!

If that dead body is assembled from a lot of other dead bodies that have been buried and dug up by a mad scientist? Not so much…

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