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Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

Survive-Nearby-Explosions Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

Putin Walks Away From Explosion

Survive Nearby Explosions

A bomb explodes nearby. The hero must flee the blast uncharred and unharmed.

What Actually Happen

Powerful explosives generate a sphere of compressed, rapidly expanding gas travelling faster than the speed of sound. Although this blast wave lasts just a few milliseconds, it can cause ‘hidden’ injuries whose effects may not become apparent for several days, including brain trauma and ‘blast lung,’ a potentially fatal haemorrhaging of the lungs. Immediately after comes a hurricane force blast wind of negative pressure that can raze buildings, shatter glass, and throw debris large distances. Flying debris can eviscerate, amputate and disintegrate body parts, smash bones, cause deep penetrating wounds and kill. The heat from the explosion can cause burns and if the bomb is laced with nails or other shrapnel, the risk of injury is increased. “If you’re close enough to the blast, you’re one of the things that’s thrown,” says Michelle Hoffman of Biodynamics Engineering, a US company that studies the physics behind accidents. No one, except the most extreme of terrorists, plans to be near a bomb when it blows, so for the most part, survival comes down to good fortune – the size and type of the bomb and your distance from it. America’s Federal Emergency Management Agency offers guidelines on safe evacuation distances for bombs. To avoid injury from a suicide bomber wearing 9kg (20lb) of TNT, stand at least 415m back. Or a mile back from a van packed with 13,607kg (30,000lb) of the same.

Is It Possible?

Get real. Stand too close and no-one is going to walk away from an explosion unharmed. Not even Iron Man.

Gunfight-Scene Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

Gunfight Scene

Fight On After Being Shot

The villain is shot several times, but just keeps on going, ‘Terminator’ style.

What Actually Happen

The scientific study of what bullets do to bodies is called wound ballistics. Travelling at speeds of well over 250 metres per second, bullets are pumped with kinetic energy, much of which is then rudely transferred to the unlucky target. The injury inflicted is related to this kinetic energy, which in turn is related to the bullet’s size and velocity. High-speed, high-calibre bullets are likely to floor a man, as are bullets designed to expand on impact, the likes of which are used by the US police force. Smaller, slower, pointier bullets can pass straight through a body, and because skin and tissue are elastic, the cavity created may close up. There doesn’t have to be huge, immediate blood loss, and a person may be able to keep going, especially if fuelled by methamphetamine, adrenalin or the like. Whether or not you fall or flee also depends on where you are hit. A shot to the spine or head will stop you in your tracks. But if the bullets miss vital organs, you may be able to keep going, for a while at least. “I’ve had cases where people have been shot through a major artery and kept running for several hundred feet,” says Parris Ward from Biodynamics Engineering, which simulates wound ballistics for legal cases. “I’ve also had cases where people didn’t realise they’d been shot in the leg because the bullet didn’t hit a bone or an artery.”

Is It Possible?

Provided your vital organs don’t take a hit and the bullet is on the dainty side, you may be able to keep going, but not for long. If the bullet doesn’t floor you, blood loss eventually will.

Escape-From-Car-Underwater Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

Escape From Car Underwater


Escape From A Car Underwater

A hapless victim is in a car that plummets from a bridge into deep water and is sinking fast. They must get out alive.

What Actually Happen

Every year 400 people drown in their cars in North America. Many erroneously think you should let the interior of the car fill up with water, so the door can be opened once the pressure equilibrates. But most people drown well before that happens, says Manitoba University’s Gordon Giesbrecht, who reconstructs underwater escapes from cars in outdoor gravel pits. In reality, you have about a minute to get out alive – the time it takes for the water to seep in and stop the electric windows from working. Giesbrecht’s advice: take your belt off as soon as you hit the water, open the windows, get any children out then get yourself out. Most cars float for about five minutes before sinking, nose down, so the escapees will likely have to manoeuvre through a back window. Calling emergency services wastes time and can be fatal. Giesbrecht laments the recorded 911 calls offering advice to people ‘already dead’, who spent that critical first minute on the phone.

Is It Possible?

Plausible, but only if you get out fast… or are in James Bond’s Lotus Esprit.

Thrown-Through-Glass-Scene Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

Thrown Through Glass Scene

Be Thrown Through Glass

A hero is hurled through a window. They have a smashing time, but don’t get hurt.

What Actually Happen

In the movies, breakable windows are made from sugary stunt glass. But in the real world, there are many types of glass and your injuries will depend on which you have the misfortune to meet. Plate glass, commonly used in buildings, shatters into large shards that can sever arteries and cause deep lacerations. Toughened glass, found in phone boxes and windscreens, crumbles into thousands of tiny, granular chunks that cause smaller cuts and grazing. Laminated safety glass, used in skylights, skyscrapers and storefronts, is incredibly strong. “You can jump up and down on it, or hit it with a huge metal ball and it still doesn’t break,” says materials scientist Mark Miodownik from University College London. If it does yield it creates a hole, but the rest of the glass doesn’t shatter.

Is It Possible?

The safest way to exit a window, undoubtedly, is always to open it first. Smashing through plate or toughened glass could cause serious harm. Run into laminated glass and you’re likely to dent your pride more than the pavement on the other side.

One-of-Movie-Stunt-Falling-From-Building Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

One of Movie Stunt, Falling From Building

Fall From A Building

A hero falls spectacularly from a building – and survives.

What Actually Happen

“It’s not the fall that kills you, but the sudden stop at the end,” says Michelle Hoffman who analyses falls at Biodynamics Engineering in Phoenix, Arizona. In the movies, falls are commonly slowed by trees, power lines, roofs and the like. “Awnings are good,” says Hoffman. “Multiple awnings are really good.” Dividing one big fall into multiple smaller ones slows your descent, reducing the force of impact and increasing the odds of survival. For the same reason, what you land on is also important – you come to a stop more quickly on concrete than you do on bark chips. A few years ago in Melbourne, Australia, a young woman attempting suicide by jumping from a freeway bridge survived by accidentally landing on the back of a truck carrying fruit in cardboard boxes. How you hit the ground also influences whether or not you survive. Land head first from any height and you’re dead. Land on your back, spreadeagled, and by spreading your weight over the largest area possible, you might just live to see another day.

Is It Possible?

Plausible but unlikely. ‘Survival’ is, after all, relative. “If you fell from a 10-storey building into a 6ft-deep snowbank and landed on your back with your arms out, there’s a pretty good chance you could survive,” says Hoffman. “But that doesn’t mean you can hop up and run around.” Brain injury, skull fractures, broken bones and chest trauma are common.

Using-Car-Door-As-A-Bullet-Shield Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

Using Car Door As A Bullet Shield

Use A Car Door As A Bullet Shield

Besieged by gunfire, a cop saves his bacon by sheltering behind a car door.

What Actually Happen

The average car door offers virtually no protection from gunshot wounds. “A handgun bullet can go in one car door and out the other,” says ballistics expert Tom Fleenor from US company International Armoring Corporation (IAC). American police cars with their Kevlarreinforced doors might offer protection from handgun fire, but not from high-powered rifle bullets travelling at up to 850 metres per second. “Police officers do get shot through car doors,” says Fleenor. Fear not, though. If you’ve upwards of $6,000 to spend, IAC can reinforce your car doors with ballistic steel and lightweight, laminated fibres, enabling them to shrug off most high-speed, non-armour-piercing shells.

Is It Possible?

Not unless you happen to own a bona fide armoured vehicle, or have pimped your ride into a mobile panic room.

Jump-From-Train Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

Jump From Train

Jump From One Train To Another

A goodie is on the roof of a fast-moving train being chased by a baddie. They must a) not fall off, b) run away and c) leap across carriages looking cool.

What Actually Happen

As a train moves forward, the air forced over its roof creates a resistive force opposing any would-be train surfer. The faster the train, the bigger the force and the more effort it takes to stay standing. Remove the threat of decapitation by bridges, electrocution by overhead power lines and serious injury by precipitous falls, and the scenario is not so different from being in a wind tunnel. “You can just about stand in winds of 60mph,” says David Marshall, manager of Southampton University’s wind tunnel. “But you’d struggle to walk and you certainly can’t run. And if you tried to jump, the wind would pull you backwards.” In the UK, InterCity trains can reach speeds of around 210km/h (130mph), engineering works permitting, while elsewhere, magnetic levitation or ‘maglev’ trains notch up top velocities of over 480km/h (300mph). Attempt the same thing on one of these moving at full pelt and it’s not going to end well. Added to that, any imperfection on the line or sideways jolt to the carriage is likely to physically tip you over the edge.

Is It Possible?

British trains are more likely to run on time than you are to run along the roof of a speeding train and not get seriously injured or killed. But that doesn’t stop some adrenalin junkies from illegally hitching train roof rides. In 2012, a 24-year-old Moldovan man got off lightly when he was arrested for surfing a Russian Sapsan train wearing nothing but purple pants, but many others have died.

Slice-Steel-With-A-Blade Blockbuster Movie Stunts, In Real World and The Science Behind It

Slice Steel With A Blade

Slice Through Steel With A Blade

A samurai cuts effortlessly through steel using nothing but muscle power and a sword.

What Actually Happen

Who needs adamantium, the indestructible metal used by Wolverine that can cut through anything? In industry, carbidetipped steel rotary blades are used to cut steel. “A steel sword could do the same thing in principle,” says materials scientist Mark Miodownik. “But it would need a high enough velocity to melt the steel it’s cutting.” So it’s best to make your sword relatively thick, and coat it with tungsten carbide: with a melting point of 2,870°C, this will stop the blade from melting. Or just hope the steel you’re slicing is as wimpy as a tin can. “If steel is thin enough, you can cut it with scissors,” says Miodownik.

Is It Possible?

Machines can do it, but we humans lack the muscle power to wield a sword fast enough to cut through thick steel – unless you’re a mutant freak, that is.

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