Welcome to Science of the Scare! Every month I will dissect a Big Science Question from a horror movie and talk through it in (mostly) easy-to-digest terms.
Science and horror have a wild, entangled history and have left us with loads of questions to ponder. Deep, important questions like: just how many ways could we have a zombie pandemic? Is genetic engineering always a slippery slope to monstrosity? This month’s Big Science Question:
Would super-fast space travel liquefy the human skeleton?
It’s the year 2047, and the experimental ship Event Horizon, which disappeared several years ago under mysterious circumstances, has reappeared. Its distress signal is a mess of garbled screams and Latin. It’s up to the crew of the exploration ship Lewis and Clark to travel from Earth orbit to where the Event Horizon made its reappearance (near-ish to Neptune). At a distance of about 4.6254 billion km, that’s one heck of a rescue trip out into space. If you were on Earth trying to drive that distance at 100 km/hour, it would take you almost two million days (1 927 250 days to be more precise), or well over 5000 years, to get there. For perspective, the Voyager 2 space probe, which was launched in 1977 to study Neptune and the other gas giants (and is still cruising around space today on an extended mission!) reportedly has a max. speed of 57,890 km/h.
So, obviously, the Lewis and Clark will have to travel way faster if they want to reach the Event Horizon in a useful amount of time. To prepare for travel, the crew members of the Lewis and Clark enter stasis and submerge themselves in liquid-filled tanks. According to D.J. (Jason Isaacs), the medical doctor aboard the Lewis and Clark, “When the ion drive fires you’ll be taking about 30 Gs*. Without a tank, the force would liquefy your skeleton”. (*technically, this should be a lowercase g if we want to use the proper unit for gravitational forces, but uppercase Gs are easier to read.)
Wait a minute- I’m not a physicist, but I do have a degree in biomedical biology, so I know a good bit about what the human body can handle. There’s a lot to unpack in that line.
“When the ion drive fires you’ll be taking about 30 Gs. Without a tank, the force would liquefy your skeleton.” – D.J.
The liquid in the stasis pods would dampen the effects of inertial forces on the body during rapid acceleration. Being suspended in liquid would distribute the forces as pressure in all directions and across all parts of the body, instead of focusing on one point or one direction, which would be more likely to cause injury. For best results, the liquid must be breathable, would fill any cavities on the inside of the body, too, and would have about the same density as water. This seems to be the method that the Lewis and Clark is using, since the crew isn’t using any other breathing apparatus while in the stasis pods (a good candidate for breathable liquid has not yet been identified IRL).
Unless the crew somehow smack into the sides of the stasis tanks during acceleration and deceleration and break some bones, their skeletons should be up to the task of handling 30 Gs. Come to the think of it, the human meat moss of soft tissue and bones coating the inside of the Event Horizon‘s bridge might have been the result of faster-than-light acceleration or deceleration slamming the ship’s crew into the walls, since we know from the ship’s log that they weren’t restrained in any way or in stasis pods. But I digress.
In reality, the bigger concerns when it comes to having a sudden increase in g-forces pulling on the body are your soft tissues and blood flow. If we remove the stasis pods from the scenario and replace them with harnessed seats (like astronauts would use for a shuttle launch or a pilot would use in a fighter jet) we see all sorts of different effects on soft tissues.
The heart is a powerful muscle, but now it has to compete against massive acceleration forces. Depending on the direction of the forces affecting you, you could cut off circulation to parts of your body. Astronauts are positioned in such a way that during launch, rapid acceleration will force blood flow toward their backs, which is less dangerous than if, say, blood were being diverted away from the brain. Fighter pilots and astronauts are also suited up in G-suits that put pressure on lower parts of the body and the lungs (often using liquid-filled pouches to do this) to prevent blood from pooling away from the brain and to support breathing at high acceleration. Even with these suits, blackouts (if you’ve heard of g-LOC in a space movie, that stands for g-induced Loss of Consciousness) and greyouts (partial blackouts) are not an uncommon experience.
Much of what we know about what gravitational forces the human body can handle is thanks to a man named John Stapp. Stapp was a WW2 army flight surgeon who became obsessed with studying the effects of sudden deceleration on the body to improve fighter pilot safety (you can also thank him for today’s seat belt designs in cars). His post-war experiments were nothing short of metal: he’d strap himself into rocket sleds equipped with brakes and a track designed to stop suddenly and completely. He’d measure the effects on his body, and then he’d do the experiments again, with greater speed and higher g-forces slamming into his body. His peak experiment in 1954 broke the land-speed record at 1,017 km/h (632 mph) and hit him with over 46 Gs.
” [John Stapp’s] post-war experiments were nothing short of metal: he’d strap himself into rocket sleds equipped with brakes and a track designed to stop suddenly and completely.”
Of course, Stapp didn’t walk away unscathed from these experiments. He broke his wrists and ribs, and at one point was temporarily blinded when g-forces ruptured arteries in his eyeballs, causing retinal bleeding. As it turns out, blood vessels in your eyes (and your eyes in general) are especially sensitive to pressure changes associated with gravitational forces. This has nothing to do with the eye horror in Event Horizon; the glimpses that we get through the ship’s video log suggests that the Event Horizon‘s former crew probably gouged their own or each others eyes out while they were in a Hell-Drive mutilating frenzy.
Stapp allegedly believed that the upper limit of g-forces that the human body can tolerate have not been measured yet and that humans are made of tougher stuff than we think. Of course, in the universe of Event Horizon there are worse things than potentially destroying your body tissues by traveling at speeds that generate upwards of 30 Gs of force. After all, the Lewis and Clark doesn’t even approach lightspeed travel. I’m talking, of course, about taking a trip using the eponymous ship’s experimental gravity drive, which enables super-fast travel via black hole.
I’m not going to get deep into black hole physics because the black hole in Event Horizon is a goopy and wildly inaccurate portal to another dimension (watch Interstellar instead). Black holes are weird as hell and there is a lot that we still don’t understand about them. Here’s a handful of ideas of what could have happened to the crew of the Event Horizon as they passed through the singularity of their own making:
- death by spaghettification (that’s the technical term), where the tidal forces of the black hole tear the body apart and stretch it into noodles along a plane (like how the moon can affect our oceans with its gravity, but noodlier);
- death by atomic rearrangement, because gravitational forces of black holes have the potential to warp and tear apart atoms. maybe that’s why the ship’s log showed at least one crew member with his eyeballs displaced to the palms of his hands;
- death by radiation poisoning; or
- survival? Physicist and Interstellar science consultant Kip Thorne suggests that there are different types of singularities. Some might be labeled “gentle” singularities that could hypothetically survivable if a human were to enter one.
Or maybe, you know, it was none of the above and the crew died because they played with science that they didn’t understand and couldn’t control and their ship became an eldritch abomination. That would also do the trick.
If faster-than-lightspeed travel were humanly possible, would you be game? Have a Big Science Question from horror that you’d like to see answered? Let us know over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!