# Spiderman at the intersection of physics and biology

We’ve all noticed that, in the Spiderman movies, the hero ejaculates tremendous amounts of protein constantly to make those spider threads he’s swinging on and splattering all over the bad guys. Part of that is plausible; spider silk is amazingly strong stuff, and if you could produce it, sure, thin strands would support your weight. The problem is the volume. Mark Lorch calculates how much protein Spiderman would have to consume to make the thread for one scene in the movie.

From the time of Spidey’s fall, we can calculate that he fell about 240m (wow, that’s one high balcony). Plus, assuming the silk stretches to its maximum, a stopping distance, it will be a fall of about the height of the Eiffel Tower. The impact force on the silk rope as they slow down would be about 35 times their weight.

Which is about six times greater force than when Spidey is just hanging around on the end of his line of silk. But taking into account the length of the fall (240m) and the extra force, he will need 1.3 kg of silk to catch his fall. So I reckon he must have had about 900 eggs for breakfast that morning, just to have enough silk for that one scene. I think Aunt May might have noticed.

In the movies, he is spontaneously producing this stuff biologically, but as I recall from the comic books he instead built some gadgets that squirted the spider silk. That doesn’t solve the problem! He’d then have to carry around a silk reservoir that, in that scene, would have weighed roughly 100 pounds, and would have been completely depleted at the end.

This is the kind of thing that just ruins comic book movies for me. Good thing I really enjoy reality.

1. azhael says

For some reason i’ve never been bothered by magical powers in fiction, the wizard, witch, mythological creature kind, but have always found it very annoying that superheroe’s powers (supossedly not magic) were so frequently preposterous. I think it’s the pretense that it’s “not magic” that ruins it for me…if you are going to use magic, go ahead, but don’t pretend otherwise.

2. Athywren, Social Justice Weretribble says

He stores eggs and/or spare techsilk in a negative space pocket. I mean, duh? Do you even comics?! :p

The gadget/natural silk thing depends on which universe’s spidey we’re talking about (there are many, which is why people have nothing to stand on if they complain about the films for continuity/lore reasons)… there’s even one (at least) where spidey is properly spidey and has eight limbs.

So, as you can see, science schmience! The laws of physics and biology are really only guidelines anyway.
*flies off into the sunset*

3. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

Eh, I see it the other way round. I’ve been teaching my daughter that the joy of fiction is that anything, literally anything, is possible in fiction. That disregard for reality is one of the beauties of it. An idea that also has the implication that the stuff in a book or on a screen might not conform to reality. A good starting point for discussions of evidence and reason, or so it seems to me.

4. Sven says

as I recall from the comic books he instead built some gadgets that squirted the spider silk.

Well, it’s a synthetic polymer, and not actual spider-silk. Yes, I get that it’s another layer of fantasy obfuscation, but just saying. :p

5. latveriandiplomat says

Didn’t they go back to mechanical webshooters in the Andrew Garfield films?

I suppose that theoretically the chemicals are more mass efficient than protein based spider silk (though it’s hard to imagine what that could be). It also had all kinds of other useful properties like evaporating in a few hours.

One of the classic moments of Silver Age spidey is when a desperate for money Peter Parker tries (as Spiderman) to sell his web formula to a chemical company. Despite it’s amazing properties, they refuse to pay him anything for it until there’s a version that doesn’t evaporate. He should have tried Tony Stark, I guess.

Me, I just wonder where Bruce Banner buys such durable pants, and do they come in a color other than purple?

6. jd142 says

Now if we’re going to start attacking comic book science, we’ll be here all day.

Seriously though, in the first Stan Lee/Steve Ditko(and maybe a little Jack Kirby) runs of Spider-Man, running out of webbing was often a plot point. They used it to show that their hero was just a poor boy from a poor family and couldn’t afford to buy all the materials constantly. Plus, there was a limited amount of space in the little containers. IIRC, there must have been something like 4 on each hand or so. I definitely remember scenes where Spidey’s webbing fizzled out in the middle of a fight.

Even Iron Man used to run out of power during a fight back then, and he’d have to quickly get somewhere to recharge the suit so his heart wouldn’t give out.

7. consciousness razor says

I’ve been teaching my daughter that the joy of fiction is that anything, literally anything, is possible in fiction.

Well, I’m not aware of any fiction which has attempted to make possible something like 2+2=5 or 1=0 or P & not-P … if that’s even something fiction could do….

Or perhaps the idea is that all possibilities can be actual in fiction, in contrast to the real world which seems to have only one set of possibilities which are consistent with themselves. I guess that’s an improvement on the idea, but we still don’t even try to explore all of the possibilities. For a lot of people, it’s not about that at all.

8. Athywren, Social Justice Weretribble says

@consciousness razor, 8

Well, I’m not aware of any fiction which has attempted to make possible something like 2+2=5 or 1=0 or P & not-P … if that’s even something fiction could do….

What? You’ve never heard of the DaVinci Code?

9. barbaz says

Didn’t you pay attention? It super spider silk, so 9 eggs per breakfast are clearly sufficient.

What bugs me way more are these superhero crossover stories, like Avengers. A single guy getting bitten by a poisonous genetic nuclear death-ray accident and getting inconsistent super powers instead of dying on the spot? OK, I’ll buy it. He’s special, that’s why he is the protagonist. But several guys (and gals), all independently caught in similarly unlikely events and then they all meet because they also all happen to live in New York? I’m out.

10. says

Well, Spider-Man started out with mechanical web shooters in the comics. But movie Spider-Man had the organic ones, so they decided to do a storyline that gave him those. Which should be simple, right?

Yeah, no. It’s terrible.

See, in the Changes storyline, Spider-Man comes up against the Queen, who has insect-based superpowers, so obviously she wants Spider-Man for mating purposes, because his powers are…not insect-based but just go with it. She’s ludicrously powerful, despite never having been heard of before, so she wins, and kisses him. Which makes him turn into a giant spider. And he’s pregnant. Despite being male, and not having mated with the Queen. But, unfortunately, maybe because the Queen’s powers are about insects which spiders are not, Spider-Spider-Man has seizures and dies. The Queen is heartbroken, leaves, and misses Peter Parker bursting out from the corpse of the spider that he had turned into. Fully aged. With all his memories, including where he is at the time.

Clearly, having Spider-Man turn into a spider and give birth to himself was the easiest way to get him organic web shooters. Oh, and he can talk to insects now, not that he’s ever used that power in the many years since that storyline.

11. Athywren, Social Justice Weretribble says

@barbaz, 10

Hey, some of us are fans of characters who have only recently reached 100 solo comics, despite being around since the ’70’s. Don’t you go taking our teams away! You monster!

12. twas brillig (stevem) says

too often arguments about some implausible use of a science in a SF movie will be rebuked with, “yes, it is Science FICTION. What part of That do you not understand??”
Which often drives me bonkers: as an attack on my criticisms of some outlandish SFx in SF movies. The key word in my criticism is “plausible”, not “scientifically accurate”, like warp drive in Star Trek and the wormhole in Interstellar. But when the Enterprise warp drive fails, near the Moon, and it then immediately starts falling to the Earth; I strongly object to the complete disregard of physics. As for Spiderman, though. I know too little biology to ever object to his endless supply of silkfluid. I just thought he had an organ in his mutated wrist to produce that silk whenever he bent his wrist correctly. The physics of the webbing is irrelevant to the comic story of swingin around the streets of NY to rescue randoms, wherever.
I am always amused at objections to comic book use of science, where “science” is really a euphemism for “Magic”.

13. consciousness razor says

What? You’ve never heard of the DaVinci Code?

No, I don’t read garbage like that. But my impression is that it’s just run-of-the-mill garbage, not writing about a fictional world in which it’s the case that 2+2=5 along with any other nonsense that would entail.

14. latveriandiplomat says

Spoilers for a late ’70s out of print Superman novel.

http://www.amazon.com/Superman-Last-Krypton-Elliot-Maggin/dp/0446823198

A McGuffin is that some aliens get very interested in Earth because of a rumor that some human has figured out how to trisect a (general) angle.

Now this is problematic, because

a) it’s been known since the 19th century that this is impossible. (Yes, 2+2=5 impossible).

b) Why would any alien civilization share the Ancient Greek fascination with compass and straightedge construction?

That said, it’s a fun read if you like that sort of thing. It features an entertaining use of bronze age renegade-scientist Luthor (as opposed to the current corporate tycoon version) and it features a heart-warming if implausible guest appearance by Albert Einstein.

15. =8)-DX says

Silly PZ, the spider that bit him had changes in its spider-spinning genes, so he was essentially weaving carbon nanotubes into the silk (a couple of slices of bread with his two eggs should do the trick). Also it was Mutanted™ and Radiationed™.

16. borax says

Spiderman can easily carry the 100 pounds of spidergoo that is squeezed through the artificial spinnerets. Its the gigantic tanks of compressed gases that spray the goo that are unrealistic.

17. says

So, where does all that new mass come from when Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk?

Did our yellow sun mutate Superman’s eyes, or are the mechanisms needed to create heat rays and x-ray beams a natural part of Kryptonian physiology that evolved for some reason but is dormant until exposed to a yellow sun, for some reason.

And Batman doesn’t have superpowers? I call bullshit on that. I don’t care how much you train, no human is capable of doing what Batman does.

18. borax says

Left out “he would need to”. Sorry. 12 hour shifts are hard.

19. says

@consciousness razor #8

Bob Shaw’s novel “The Ragged Astronauts” is happening in an alternative universe with attributes very similar to our own, but where π=3 exactly. I do not remember reading any sci-fi about 2+2=5, but I would not dismiss that completely.

20. says

There’s a book that I loved called “The Physics of Superheroes” that looks at similar things such as the Flash’s running. It’s actually a great read, and if I taught physics in high school, a lot of my examples would come from this book.

21. says

That’s by Jim Kakalios, who teaches a course for undergraduates at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities out of that book.

22. borax says

Tabby Lavalamp. Marvel used to explain the added mass as coming from another dimension. I think the term was “extra-dimensional mass”. The description also used the word “somehow” with great regularity.

23. latveriandiplomat says

@20: It depends on how you define pi. There are curved space-time geometries where the ratio of a circle’s diameter and circumference are not pi. But I’m not sure that such a space can have a single value that works for all circles like pi does in flat spacetime. This page says no:

http://mathforum.org/library/drmath/view/55021.html

And there are other, purely numerical definitions of pi (e.g. some infinite sums) that would still add up to our pi.

24. consciousness razor says

I do not remember reading any sci-fi about 2+2=5, but I would not dismiss that completely.

I wouldn’t either, I guess. I’m not even sure I understand what it would mean to dismiss that. The point wasn’t narrowly about that specific equation, at any rate. I was trying to express the fact that fiction isn’t generally concerned with such things, much less “literally anything” including all sorts of impossible stuff. Mostly, writers of fiction get paid for telling stories, preferably ones which are interesting to people. That’s what they’re up to. They’re not usually exploring conceptual space or anything so highfalutin and sophistimicated as that.

25. @latveriandiplomat: To be fair, the aliens were also stealing Xerox photocopiers because they couldn’t do better, so who knows what topics their mathematicians might still be wrangling over.

26. Helicam says

I’ve always liked to note that the dramatic rescue of a falling person (by Superman or Spiderman, among others) just before they hit the ground isn’t much better for the faller than hitting the ground. Sudden deceleration isn’t your friend either way. I think more recent movies have tried to make things look better by having a longer deceleration zone, but I’m curious whether they’re long enough to avoid serious injury.

27. Good thing I really enjoy reality.

Everyone has different “gimmes” they’re willing to give a story. It’s not so much a function of “enjoying reality” as it is of not enjoying fiction that requires much suspension of disbelief.

28. woozy says

There’s *lots* of short stories where mathematics doesn’t work; pi is a different constant– 13 is composite– 2 + 2 = 5– someone discovers a previously unknown integer between 3 and 4, etc.

They are all very short and all very “meta” because it’s really only considered a philosophical question whether one can even imagine a variation of the rules of mathematics and whether it makes “sense” to talk of a universe was anything can happen as “obviously” 13 “has to” be prime.

29. Rob Grigjanis says

latveriandiplomat @25:

But I’m not sure that such a space can have a single value that works for all circles like pi does in flat spacetime.

It can certainly have a varying value (e.g. on the surface of a sphere). That it can’t have a single value other than pi is clearer if you picture an imaginary circle of varying size. To maintain a constant circumference/diameter ratio, the ‘convexity’ of space would have to vary with the size of the imaginary circle.

30. Owlmirror says

31. David Marjanović says

Clearly, having Spider-Man turn into a spider and give birth to himself was the easiest way to get him organic web shooters.

…That’s a plot of almost Christian contortion.

our yellow sun

Fun fact: unlike some other stars out there, it’s white – unless there’s too much atmosphere in the way.

32. clsi says

@consciousness razor, 8

“Well, I’m not aware of any fiction which has attempted to make possible something like 2+2=5…”

How ’bout 6 x 9 = 42?

33. says

While we’re at it, there are works that purport to be nonfiction in which p&~p is true for some p. The oldest of these is probably Heraclitus 49a. Hegel also seems to be a dialetheist, and quite a few modern logicians who work with paraconsistent logics have views that are at least tending towards dialetheism, at least about liar sentences or other degeneracies.

Not that that is super important to the main topic.

34. Owlmirror says

$6 \times 9 = 42_{13}$
/nerd

35. anym says

This is the kind of thing that just ruins comic book movies for me. Good thing I really enjoy reality.

There was a thing not so very long ago where someone worked out that Aquaman would have to eat a terrifying volume of food in order to do all his swimming, and he’d have horrendous bone disorders as a result of high pressure effects from spending too long underwater and probably he’d explode from barotrauma when he surfaced as well, or something. I don’t recall the specifics, and am certainly too lazy to go look it up again.

Problem was, the author missed the bit where the subject in question has telepathic control over fish. Making the whole thing, y’know, clearly fantastic with no pretense to being real.

Spiderman is magic. Simple.

It is his whininess and uselessness and idiocy of his opponents that spoiled the comics and films for me. Far too much wangst.

36. David Marjanović says

“Division by Zero”, by Ted Chiang

I actually like that, and would urge the main character to publish.

37. Owlmirror says

Huh. Looking at the Math Fiction archive, and choosing the Motif “Insanity”, I see that there is indeed “2 + 2 = 5“, by Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson. Same basic idea as the story linked @# 30.

38. jd142 says

What we’re all dancing around is ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’ Although it isn’t what Marianne Moore meant, exactly, it has some meaning here. You might even say that what we want is real gardens with imaginary toads.

We will accept one or more impossible/implausible/incredible things, warp drive, something bigger on the inside, mutant healing factor, x-ray vision, light sabers, etc., but these incredible things must take place in a world that is otherwise like ours and acts like ours. That’s what draws us in to the story. These things are taking place in a world we understand and we know the rules. Spider-man can swing from building to building, but Gwen Stacy’s neck still snaps because she was accelerating at 9.8 m/s2 and is stopped suddenly.

Another example of books that change fundamental laws, checkout David Brin’s Practice Effect. I won’t spoil it, even though it is 20+ years old. Suffice it to say he changes a fundamental physical law and extrapolates from there in a way that makes perfect sense in story.

39. brett says

Next you’ll be telling us how Super Strength is nonsensical because of Newton’s Third Law! Or how Ice Power Guys should be accidentally generating fire-storms every time they use their powers! Or how Tony Stark should be dying from getting punched super-hard in his Iron Man suit because Momentum means he’ll be turned into a fine jelly regardless of the armor! When will it end?

Ah well. They were always somewhat absurd anyways, with lots of “Real World plus X” set-ups that make absolutely no sense because the “X” should drastically change things in the “Real World”. Iron Man’s portable miniature Arc Reactors alone . . .

40. woozy says

Another example of books that change fundamental laws, checkout David Brin’s Practice Effect. I won’t spoil it, even though it is 20+ years old. Suffice it to say he changes a fundamental physical law and extrapolates from there in a way that makes perfect sense in story.

No, it doesn’t. The law reversed requires direction and how that one direction out of the infinite possible directions is determined (magic telepathy? divine providence?) is never explained.

41. Owlmirror says

Another example of books that change fundamental laws, checkout David Brin’s Practice Effect. I won’t spoil it, even though it is 20+ years old. Suffice it to say he changes a fundamental physical law and extrapolates from there in a way that makes perfect sense in story.

No, it doesn’t. The law reversed requires direction and how that one direction out of the infinite possible directions is determined (magic telepathy? divine providence?) is never explained.

Teleological backward causation . . . sense perfect makes !!

42. Amphiox says

Well, I’m not aware of any fiction which has attempted to make possible something like 2+2=5 or 1=0 or P & not-P … if that’s even something fiction could do….

Alice in Wonderland, IIRC, is an example of a work of fiction where the author attempted to portray a world where things he considered mathematical impossibilities were real.

43. Amphiox says

Obviously, Spidey has secondary superpowers.

It’s either energy-mass conversion (one way only) or matter teleportation (from the giant tank he built under Aunt May’s backyard which no one ever talks about….)

44. Amphiox says

Real life spiders will eat their own webs, so precious is the protein store that they use to make the silk….

45. Amphiox says

We will accept one or more impossible/implausible/incredible things, warp drive, something bigger on the inside, mutant healing factor, x-ray vision, light sabers, etc., but these incredible things must take place in a world that is otherwise like ours and acts like ours. That’s what draws us in to the story. These things are taking place in a world we understand and we know the rules. Spider-man can swing from building to building, but Gwen Stacy’s neck still snaps because she was accelerating at 9.8 m/s2 and is stopped suddenly.

Internal consistency.

There is no drama without it. Why should we worry if our fantasy hero is menaced by a villain with a sword, or a dragon with fire? It is the laws of physics that state that a sword will cut flesh when stabbed into it. It is the laws of biology that state that an organism punctured or slashed in the wrong places suffers injury or death. It is the laws of chemistry that tell us that living matter can be set afire, and that fire does bad things to said living matter.

If ALL the laws of science were suspended because “duh, MAGIC” then why can’t our hero just laugh as the sword phases harmlessly through his body? Or walk through the dragonflame untouched? Why would there even BE cause for conflict between hero and villain if the laws of causality were not in effect?

46. PaulBC says

I still remember the cartoon theme song from my childhood (already old but in continual UHF syndication):

Is he strong? Listen bud.

When anyone expresses skepticism about Spidey’s abilities, I recite it like a mantra. If that doesn’t settle matters, what does?

47. latveriandiplomat says

@30: I’m all for philosophical speculation in fiction. But, there’s so much trippy mathematics out there, I’m not sure the authors are typically aware of. For example, there is a set of numbers that has a well defined subset of prime numbers and 13 is not one of them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaussian_integer

I suppose this is true for any field where people have had a little speculative fun that appeals to the general reader. It’s kind of a “there are more things that someone once wrote an academic paper about, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your speculative fiction.” deal.

@31: Thanks Rob Grigjanis. I knew constant curvature wouldn’t work, but I also figured that one could vary the curvature such that all circles centered at one specific point had a fixed ratio of C to d. That wouldn’t be true of circles centered on different points in that space. I didn’t trust my intuition to rule out some really clever way of varying the curvature could work, but thinking about continuously varying circles centered at arbitrary points as you suggested makes me inclined to agree that no curved space can have constant ratio for all circles centered anywhere.

48. says

When he was a lad he ate four dozen eggs
Ev’ry morning to help him grow fast
And now that he’s grown he eats five dozen eggs
So his webbing is able to last!

49. PaulBC says

Amphiox #48

If ALL the laws of science were suspended because “duh, MAGIC” then why can’t our hero just laugh as the sword phases harmlessly through his body?

There are limits to what the audience is willing to accept–and it varies by audience–but that’s not the same as saying that there is a coherent rule-based model for it.

Personally, I don’t find see how the spider silk thing is even an issue. Who says it’s protein based? Maybe it’s monomolecular wire, a staple of “hard” science fiction such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise.

But that’s besides the point. You have drama if and only if the audience is willing to believe in the capabilities and limitations as laid out. The audience can spot cheating. You can even cheat without defying the laws of physics, through some technically possible but contrived deus ex machina (new characters, hastily introduced skills or personality changes that don’t fit expectations).

I agree that “duh, magic” is not a very instructive retort. You definitely need consistency. I just don’t think dramatic consistency is that easy to pin down, and it has very little to do with biology or physics.

50. moarscienceplz says

The heck with spidey silk. I want to know what kind of engine and fuel powers Green Goblin’s flying snowboard.

51. woozy says

If ALL the laws of science were suspended because “duh, MAGIC” then why can’t our hero just laugh as the sword phases harmlessly through his body? Or walk through the dragonflame untouched? Why would there even BE cause for conflict between hero and villain if the laws of causality were not in effect?

If you are seriously asking, the answer is psychologically what seems to be true. Dragons can seem to be true even though they can not be whereas swords piercing bodies leaving the body intact do not seem to be possible. What we can accept as suspension of disbelieve is subjective and illogical so there’s not really much point in discussing it. (No, Laura Croft can *not* ski in hiking boots! It just doesn’t make *any* sense. And stopping time and turning a bullet in the other direction will not reverse momentum. And, no, it doesn’t matter how many sled dogs drag you, if you are wearing *hiking* boots you can *not* ski!)

It’s also why I’ll read any comic book with no problem but give me a novel or television show set in the present day with a fictional president (like the West Wing) and I simply will *not* be capable of accepting it. That guy is simply *not* the president of the united states, the show doesn’t seem to be set in the future so he can’t be a president 8 years from now that I haven’t heard of yet. I can *not* accept that. Now, if there are alternative universes and there is a science fiction explanation for this and it’s explained that is a world where they don’t have the technology to know that they are an alternate reality but *we* know that they are, I can watch it but otherwise, nope, I just don’t get it.

52. jd142 says

No, it doesn’t. The law reversed requires direction and how that one direction out of the infinite possible directions is determined (magic telepathy? divine providence?) is never explained.

Spoilers for a 30 year old book below.

No, there is a bit of an explanation, involving a little handwaving of course and not scientifically accurate, but it is explained. It’s a combination of advances in reality alteration and bioengineering. The Krenegee beasts are telepathic and have the ability to reverse the laws of thermodynamics. They have a low-level telepathic field across the whole planet which affects non-living matter when used by humans. The low-level effect across the planet is kind of assumed. If they are in contact with a person, the effect is magnified immensely.

Two things have to be true for the effect to work on an object. The object has to be minimally suited for the task. You can’t turn an axe into a cart. The humans practicing the object have to have a goal in mind, which is why I assume the low-level field applies across the planet. There’s a scene where the lead realizes that because he is perceiving dungeon walls as being impenetrable, he’s actually practicing them for his captor.

The Krenegee reminded me of fire lizards, which would have been published around the same time. Not human intelligent, but enough in tune with the people around them telepathically that they seem human level intelligent at times. And they seem to be drawn to people who are imaginative and create new artifacts.

The only real sticking point is the robot’s practice. It was a non-living artifact being used by a human. But the hero isn’t around to know what the robot is even doing and it is still practiced, and in ways he didn’t expect/intend. The hero even wonders about the limits and details of the rules himself. Quick thought: we have all of this automated testing equipment, slamming doors to check hinges, simulating thunderstorms to test windows, a billion things. Would that work? The robot would get better at slamming the door and the door would get better at being a door forever. And that’s the kind of pedantic thinking that can kill a good story. :)

Yeah, you might as well say magic as talk about advances in bio-engineering, telepathy, and localized reality distortion. But that goes for a metric boatload of good, well written, and well loved SF. Might as well complain that because they only had human actors all(most) of the aliens on ST:TOS were humanoid, and that’s incredibly implausible.

53. Rob Grigjanis says

Different folk, different disbelief suspension cables. I had to give up on A Game of Thrones (I mean the first book of the Nlogy) well before the end, because seasons of unpredictable length. White walkers and reanimated corpses? No problem.

54. PaulBC says

Dragons can seem to be true even though they can not be whereas swords piercing bodies leaving the body intact do not seem to be possible.

Well, it depends. The Percy Jackson series makes much use of this trope with different weapon materials (e.g. “celestial bronze”) that affect gods, monsters, mortals, and demigods in different ways. There is sufficient attempt at consistency to make it work out as a story. Of course, none of it really makes sense.

Other than that, I agree that the question is about what people are willing to accept.

55. woozy says

The Krenegee beasts are telepathic and have the ability to reverse the laws of thermodynamics. They have a low-level telepathic field across the whole planet which affects non-living matter when used by humans. …

Two things have to be true for the effect to work on an object. The object has to be minimally suited for the task. You can’t turn an axe into a cart. The humans practicing the object have to have a goal in mind,

Wow. Somehow I totally missed that. Not sure how, but I stand corrected.

Maybe I was just so sure I had found a hole (“Why should an axe become a better axe when it could just as easily become a better hammer– the exact opposite of an axe”) that I just accepted that it was a hole and I assumed it wouldn’t be explained so that when it finally was explained I simply missed it.

Well, “magic” or not, that does explain a pretty serious hole.

I think that the law of conservation of mass is one of the most disregarded in fantastic fiction, and its violation is the least explicable.

Mmm, eggs for lunch!

57. Ray, rude-ass yankee "I'd have gotten away with it if it wasn't for you meddling kids!" says

Wasn’t the lounge’s ancestor “the eternal thread” hatched in a similar post to this about the movie Watchmen?

58. Pierce R. Butler says

Alas, I can’t cite chapter or verse, but I do recall that, sometime back in the early ’70s when eco-stuff was all the rage and Tony Stark converted all his factories from weaponry to recycling-machinery production, Peter Parker went back to his bedroom laboratory and whipped up a fast-dissolving biodegradable webbing formula specifically so as not to leave New York City looking like a Halloween-show set.

When my turn comes to make a superhero movie, Pete has to switch back to the old formula.

59. says

one of my longtime peeves is power-inflation.

i understand that writers are desperate to keep ongoing characters interesting but this strategy is self-defeating because unless the opponents, challenges and stakes are amped-up even further, it becomes increasingly implausible for the hero to suffer defeat.

one would think that by now writers would have learned this lesson. (and perhaps they have, because interestingly enough, the level of power exhibited in the linked image hasn’t been seen or mentioned again.)

60. miles says

Pshaw – it’s easy to explain away silly physics of any sort in movies or on TV or books…

QUANTUM.

61. says

Owlmirror @44:

Teleological backward causation . . . sense perfect makes !!

Have you got a bad case of causality? Nothing that a dose of Thiotimoline can’t cure.

62. gilgamesh says

Not exactly 2+2=5, but in the Discworld books octagons tessellate and the speed of light is only a few hundred miles an hour (because it is being slowed down by a high magic field, and this explains why they have different time zones on a flat world). Octagons tessellate because eight is the highly mystical number in this world. Of course, Sir Terry never explains how or what this looks like, but that’s sort of the point really. It’s a setting where the whole point of Wizards is that they know all of this world shattering magic for the express purpose of not using it, instead spending most of their time at committee meetings and lunch.

63. Grewgills says

@PaulBC 49
I’ve been singing a version of his theme song to my daughter.
Spider baby, spider baby
Does some things a spider can maybe
Can she spin a web? Probly not,
She catches bugs in a flower pot
Hey, hey here comes the spider baby

64. Menyambal says

I haven’t seen the Lara Croft bit where she uses hiking boots as skis, but there is a Clifford The Big Red Dog book where they put a pup in a boot so he can use it as a sled. I mean, a snow-boot sole is the thing MOST designed to NOT slide on snow. Granted, I have worn some crappy boots, that did slide, but anything in the universe should make a better sled than an upright boot does. Put the dog on your slick nylon jacket, for instance.

That kind of stuff is what put me off DC comics. They’d have some mysterious situation where the answer turns out to be some completely unworkable non-magic technology, like rubber lips, or a motorcycle disguised as a wolf, or a movie projected on a slate roof in broad daylight. Marvel would at least make it magic, or hand-wave the tech.

Peter Parker making his own webshooters was a favorite of mine. I knew it was damn unlikely, but it was kinda science-fiction, and made a great story. The kid was smart, but he had to work for it, too. (In the first Iron Man movie, they showed some of the struggle it took to develop the suit.)

Thanks, PZ, for bringing up the similarities between Spiderman’s web and semen. Dammit, why would a radioactive spider scratch-mutate web-spinners on a guy’s arms when the penis is right there ready to modify? ( I kinda want to see that movie, now.) Spidey building his own widgets avoids that whole issue … or emission.

65. woozy says

I haven’t seen the Lara Croft bit where she uses hiking boots as skis

She … walks over to a dog team and puts a leash on them and gives the leash a little jerk and they run ahead … and she … stands there and they pull her as she stands there … and … the pull her along … and … what the fuck… I mean I can *do* suspension of disbelief. But I have to be have something to disbelieve. I mean, you can’t just walk up to a wall and … walk *through* it and dismiss my confusion as mere nit-picking and say “well, walls and air are both made of molecules so we do you have to be so technical”. Nor can you have a Batman movie with Arnold Schwartzenegger as Mr. Freeze in which he builds a twenty foot rocket and Batman … holds on with his fingers??? … um, okay, and then they blow off the doors in the air and Batman and Robin each hold on to one as it plumets to earth and sways and twirls in the air resistance ??? and okay so Batman and Robin stand on the solid metal doors falling through the air and they …. surf the air currents …. ???? … and the land in a skid on the city street to a gentle stop and step off and … um … just what exactly is it that I was supposed to have just seen happen and what am I suppose to suspend again?

66. Amphiox says

f you are seriously asking, the answer is psychologically what seems to be true. Dragons can seem to be true even though they can not be whereas swords piercing bodies leaving the body intact do not seem to be possible.

Dragons may not be true in aggregate, but their individual components must still obey consistent rules, and not infrequently, they obey real world science.

Dragons in fiction typically have wingspans way too small for flight to be realistic, but, crucially, most of them still *have* wings, and they still must *flap* those wings to fly. In other words they still follow the general principles of lift and thrust, even if they deviate on the specifics of the actual numbers.

Likewise with their fire. It may not be biologically feasible for an animal to breath fire, but dragon fire still burns like regular fire (sometimes exaggerated). It is still *hot*.

Similarly, dragons are recognizably animals, most of the time. They are vertebrates with limbs, spines, ribs and joints. They have claws and teeth that work on regular physics (though their muscle power might be unreasonably exaggerated, as is the strength of their bones with the square-cube ratios).

You’ll likely never see any fictional dragon that is shaped like a cube, flies by antigravity levitation, eats using hydraulic cutting instead of teeth, and locomotes on the ground with wheels, with lightsabers instead of claws.

If you add up the total number of scientific laws that dragons explicitly obey, and compare it with the ones that they explicitly break, I think you’ll find that they obey more than they break.

And the same will true with almost any fantasy element.

67. Amphiox says

There are limits to what the audience is willing to accept–and it varies by audience–but that’s not the same as saying that there is a coherent rule-based model for it.

There isn’t often a coherent rule-based model for it because most writers take the easier shortcut of simply borrowing the coherent rule-based model of the real world for any and all elements outside of whatever specific fantasy element they want their narrative to focus on, which they will take time to present to their audience. With every other background detail one can usually assume that it will either follow real world science, or be close enough on a first approximation to serve the needs of the narrative.

The audience comes into a work of fiction with a whole bunch of learned, instinctive, and subconscious assumptions based on living a life in a universe that obeys the real-world scientific principles. Their suspension of disbelief is far easier to achieve by cleaving to those expectations for all the background and support elements.

Similarly, the writers too grew up living in a world that obeys the real-world laws of science, and have themselves many ingrained instincts, learned responses, and expectations about how things work in such a world. Sticking to those principles for the majority of the background stuff in their work helps them avoid narrative inconsistencies.

And if the writers simply don’t give any conscious thought to those aspects, then likely that part of their work will end up cleaving to “normal” science, simply because that is what the writers are used to, and they will tend to, unless they make a deliberate conscious effort to deviate, write what they know/experience.

68. johnhodges says

I second the comment that real-world spiders eat their webs to salvage the protein. I recall reading an article in NATURAL HISTORY about a slug-like thing from southeast Asia that ate its own slime for the same reason.

The worst abuse of physics I’ve ever seen was in a bad movie “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” or some title close to that; the bad guys had built a base underwater in the arctic, and planted explosives in a circle on the underside of the ice sheet above them, for some reason. At the climax, rather than let their base be captured, they set off the explosives and big chunks of ice came down to crush the base. I was yelling at the screen, ICE FLOATS! ICE FLOATS!

69. Rob Grigjanis says

johnhodges @72:

ICE FLOATS! ICE FLOATS!

You could make it sink if you had enough bubbles rising beneath it.

70. chigau (違う) says

It’s QUANTUMN.

71. Grewgills says

@chigau
Is that a tiny bit of Fall?