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James Bond: Everyone needs a hobby …
Raoul Silva: So what's yours?
James Bond: Resurrection.
Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, could be considered the Golden Jubilee for the franchise, as the first Bond film was released 50 years ago. This is the third Bond film with Daniel Craig in the role of 007, following Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. (Don’t get me started on that title …) A Bond film’s plot is not as important as the quality of the action scenes, but a few interesting points are worth noting. Skyfall opens with an extended chase scene that includes motorcycles roaring across rooftops, an innovative use of a backhoe, and a train-top fistfight between Bond and an assassin. In the process, 007 is shot by the assassin (more on that later), then hit by friendly fire that sends him falling off the train and into a river. It appears that 007 has met his end. Of course, he has not.
Bond’s survival of the fall from the train is particularly impressive (and improbable) when you consider that is about 95 meters (300 feet) from the bridge to the water. Medical literature considers falls less than 8 meters to be generally survivable, and falls greater than 30 meters to be non-survivable. I found a case report of a rock climber who survived a fall of 95 meters (caution: the site contains graphic images of the injuries), but her survival is attributed to conditions Bond does not enjoy. This climber fell and landed feet first, so that the impact was spread out in time as her legs bent. Only later did her hips and back hit the ground. Bond falls backward, hitting the water with the back of his head first, with a fatal spinal injury virtually certain. Second, the rock climber received first aid and was transported to a trauma center very quickly. Bond plunges into a river far from help, and it is very unlikely he ended up in a hospital of any kind. (For those of you thinking that falling into water would soften the blow, note the Golden Gate Bridge is only 75 meters above the water, and only about 2% of those who fall from the bridge survive. Water just doesn’t get out of the way quickly enough to cushion a fall from this height.)
James Bond about to hit the water after falling off a train crossing a bridge in Skyfall.
Weeks later, when Bond learns of an attack on the headquarters of MI6, he returns to London and reveals himself to M (played by Judi Dench). He undergoes a battery of fitness tests and is cleared to return to the field, even though his performance is sub-par. During the testing, Bond pauses to remove from his body some fragments of the bullet with which he was shot in the opening chase. He drops them off with an MI6 technician, ordering, “Get these analyzed.” Later we learn that the fragments are depleted uranium, and Bond uses this information to determine the identity of the assassin.
Depleted uranium (DU) is the isotope of uranium remaining after the more radioactive U-235 has been removed. DU is about half as radioactive as natural uranium, and the remaining isotope, U-238, has a very long half-life, more than 4.5 billion years. Importantly, DU is very dense—about 19 g/cm3, where lead has a density of about 11 g/cm3. Because of this high density, DU is used in a number of armor-piercing cartridges, as ballast, in ship keels, and also as radiation shielding in some medical apparatus. When powdered, DU can spontaneously ignite in air, which is another reason it is used in weapons. A good deal more information about uranium is available in this video from The Periodic Table of Videos. DU’s toxicity is significant enough that some countries have proposed a moratorium on its use in armor-piercing shells.
My concern in Skyfall is that because DU is a very toxic metal, Bond would likely have been suffering significant symptoms, both locally around the bullet fragments, and more generally. Ingesting less than 1 gram of DU could cause kidney failure and even death in an otherwise healthy adult. Studies have also found impaired neurological function after exposure to the metal, and a wound with DU fragments in it would likely not heal very well. Though not stated in the movie, perhaps some of Bond’s poor performance on the fitness tests could be attributed to the uranium.
Komodo Dragon Lizards
Bond is able to dispatch the DU-armed assassin, but is unable to identify his employer. A poker chip labeled “Macau” in the assassin’s case leads Bond to an encounter at a very expensive floating casino. The entrance includes a footbridge over a pit containing several Komodo dragons. Komodo dragons are the largest living lizards, with some animals reaching 3 meters (10 feet) in length and weighing up to 70 kg (about 150 lbs). 007 redeems the chip for a briefcase full of cash, apparently the assassin’s payment. He is warned casino thugs will not allow him to leave with the money, but of course, Bond is victorious. In the process, 007 dispatches an attacker by distracting him long enough for one of the Komodo dragons to grab the man by the leg. The creature drags him out of sight to (presumably) be eaten. This is a nifty way to be rid of a bad guy, but isn’t terribly realistic. Komodo dragons mainly eat carrion, dead animals they encounter in their natural habitat. They do take live prey, but rarely attack humans. It is also unlikely that one Komodo dragon could kill a man very quickly.
In the end, Skyfall is a fun action film that overestimates the lethality of a lizard, but significantly underestimates the danger of a high fall and depleted uranium. The film’s physics, medical physics, and biology content presents a good combination of topics for teachers to examine.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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