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The science of extraterrestrial olympics, Brad Pitt’s punches and Breaking Bad gore

02 May 2014 Leicester, University of

University of Leicester students apply sophisticated scientific principles to pop culture scenarios – with intriguing results

How would athletes fare if the Winter Olympics were held on Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

How realistic was the grizzly downfall of one of Walter White’s most bitter rivals in Breaking Bad?

And just how forceful was Brad Pitt’s character One-Punch Mickey in the film Snatch?

These are just some of the subjects tackled in a series of interdisciplinary science papers by University of Leicester students as well as students at McMaster University, Canada.

The students applied sophisticated scientific principles to a colourful range of scenarios drawing from pop culture, day-to-day life and science fiction for this year’s Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics.

The journal aims to show the students the nuts and bolts of scientific paper writing, peer review and publishing – so while the findings may be fun, the science must be accurate.

Crucially, it helps to teach the students how to work as professional scientists.

Here is a taster of the papers in this year’s journal.


Extra-terrestrial Olympics would be “calmer and safer”

Forward-thinking Leicester student David McDonagh pondered a future scenario in which Winter Olympics organisers are forced to look beyond the Earth for a suitable location for the games.

David, 24 from Brighton, identified Saturn’s sixth moon Enceladus as a possible destination for astro-athletes – as it is thought to hold 100 metre-thick blankets of very fine snow, making it “ideal for Winter Olympic events”. 

Interestingly, he found that events such as the ski jumping large hill event would actually be a lot “calmer and safer” than it is here on Earth.

This is due to the fact that the moon’s gravity is only a fraction (1.15 per cent) of the Earth’s – coupled with an atmosphere less than a billionth as dense as ours.

This means for an event such as the large hill ski jumping event of the Sochi 2014 slope, the average distance reached would only be a fifth of that seen on Earth.

In addition, it would take 30 seconds to get to the end of the slope compared to around 5 seconds as seen at Sochi.

The time taken for the initial jump as the skier takes off would nearly double on Enceladus.

You can read the full paper here:


How realistic was Gus Fring’s downfall in Breaking Bad?

There can’t be many TV drama fans who will have missed the almost universally-acclaimed Breaking Bad series.

Viewers may remember the character of Gus Fring – a cold and ruthless drug dealer who establishes himself as a key rival for the shows’ anti-hero, Walter White.

Needless to say, Mr Fring meets a particularly gruesome end. After finding himself on the receiving end of a homemade bomb, Gus is seen walking out of the room with half of his face completely blown off, revealing underlying facial muscles and skull.

After calmly adjusting his tie, the villain collapses dead in the doorway. You can see for yourself here:

As TV death scenes go, it is certainly memorable – but could a person die in this way in real life?

According to student Somaya Turk, certain elements of his dramatic demise can be backed up with what we know of human biology – but there are also a few stumbling blocks for the scene’s claim to scientific accuracy.

Theoretically, someone who has sustained fatal injuries in an explosion could indeed retain the ability to stand up and walk. In such an event, the body initiates an acute stress response – with cell signalling molecules such as epinephrine and cortisol increasing the energy and blood circulation to parts of the body which are in most need.

In Gus’s case, this prevents him from feeling any pain for a few brief moments before collapsing to his death.

But Somaya concluded it was unlikely Gus would be able to walk out of the room in such a calm and collected manner. The body’s response would also release a chemical called norepinephrine which stimulates the brain and would make Gus behave erratically.

Given the extent of his injuries, it is also unlikely Gus would be able to walk if other parts of his body had been affected to the same extent as his head.

You can read the full paper here:


How much force goes into “One-Punch” Mickey’s one punch?

Guy Ritchie’s acclaimed crime caper Snatch features an unforgettable performance from Brad Pitt as “One-Punch” Mickey – a deceptively adept bare-knuckle boxing champion who is consistently able to dispatch his opponents with a single blow.

Many a boxing enthusiast may well have wondered exactly what Mickey’s secret is – and how they might be able to pull off a similar feat themselves.

Thanks to McMaster student Daim Sardar, they might be a step closer.

Daim calculated an estimate for the character’s punching force by estimating the momentum of Mickey’s fist as it hits the other boxer’s head.

To do this, he made rough estimates for the weight of the opponent’s head (8 kg), the time of contact between the hand and the head (0.03 seconds) and the distance the head moves during contact (0.2 metres).

This meant he was able to calculate the momentum at 6.67 metres per second. He then rearranged this equation to calculate the force – which he found to be 1780 newtons, equivalent to 400lbs of force.

This is entirely possible given maximum punching forces recorded by real life middleweight boxers of up to 2625 newtons. But Daim stressed that the key to Mickey’s success is his placement and style of punch.

He pointed out that delivering a “hook punch” to the jaw – as Mickey does in the film – makes it much more likely that the opponent will be knocked out. This is because the snapping motion causes the brain to move faster and hit the side of the skull, causing concussion.

You can read the full paper here:


These are by no means the only pop culture scenarios to be given a dose of scientific scrutiny in the journal. Other papers cover:

  • Evidence suggesting Winnie the Pooh may have vitamin B12 deficiency
  • The impact Miley Cyrus would actually experience if she really did “come in like a wrecking ball”
  • The number of lies Pinocchio could tell before the weight of his nose would cause his neck to break

Dr Cheryl Hurkett, a Teaching Fellow at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, who leads the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics module, said: “This journal helps them to see how their knowledge can be applied to the real-world an interesting and creative manner and it also shows them - and the general public - how integrated science is to everyday life. If it is wrapped around an appealing and funny topic then it will be all the more memorable.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is that students gain a knowledge of publishing and peer review as well as scientific principles if they want to go onto an academic research career.

“Students are not necessarily encouraged to pick zany or pop culture scenarios but they often find it is easier to write a concise and accessible paper based on these topics.

“It is generally easier to write a paper around a series of simple calculations or a single mathematical model that applies to a known situation than it is to discuss a scientific concept in a dry or abstract manner.

“Submitted papers must be original: the underlying science obviously does not have to be ground-breaking but the application or final numerical answers should be new and novel.”

You can read all of this year’s papers here:

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