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Physics students required to test realities of imaginative pop culture conundrums

Could Bruce Willis really have blown up that asteroid? Students getting their Master's degrees at the University of Leicester ran the numbers to find out.

Lots of people have used physics to test contemporary myths – everything from science fiction to comic book heroes to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Only one school in the world makes it a graduation requirement.

In order to earn a Master’s degree in physics from the University of Leicester, grad students have to apply their expertise to an “imaginative” pop culture question.

This year’s edition of questions and answers has just been published.

One trio of students say they’d long been told that spiderwebs are stronger than steel, so these students wanted to test whether that would hold true with a scaled-up version, Spiderman-size.

They asked whether Spiderman, for instance, could really stop a runaway subway train with nothing but his spidey-webs, like he did in the movie “Spiderman 2?”

First, the students calculated the speed and momentum of the brake-less runaway train, along with the time it would take to slow it down once the web strings were attached. Then they determined the stiffness and the toughness of Spiderman’s webs based on the qualities of a Bark Spider’s web, deemed the strongest in the spider world. Using terms like gigapascals, newtons, and megajoules, the students concluded that Hollywood actually got this one right – Spidey webs really could stop a runaway train. Amazing.

Next up is the Batman in Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman trilogy. Could he really fly over Gotham City with that cape of his?

Batman’s rigid cape has a 15 foot wingspan which is only about half that of most hang gliders. The students determined that if the caped crusader jumped from a building 500 feet high, he could glide for about 1,200 feet. That’s not bad for distance. The problem is he’d be going at least 50 miles an hour when he touched down, which would be fast enough to ground Batman permanently: That’s right, it would kill him.

Okay, so Spiderman was accurate, Batman not. Our next test involves the movie, “Armageddon.” The students asked themselves whether Bruce Willis could really save the world from an asteroid the size of Texas heading right at planet Earth.

In the movie, we send Bruce Willis to bury a nuclear weapon deep inside the onrushing asteroid, so that when it explodes it will split the asteroid into two halves, each clearing opposite sides of the planet.

Based on clues in the film, the students calculate the asteroid is a thousand kilometers wide and is detonated 63,000 miles from Earth. But even if we used the biggest, most powerful bomb ever made to try to split this asteroid, the students determined it would fail spectacularly to do the job, by over nine orders of magnitude.

Even if it could have split the asteroid, the students determined it would not have been far enough away to do the trick anyway. Instead, both halves would have hit us. That would have been Armageddon for real.

In my favorite “laughable but ingenious” gimmick of the last few years, the movie version of the “A-Team” has an M1 military tank, with its crew inside, parachuting down from a great height. When two of its three parachutes are destroyed, the tank hurtles downward. The crew then starts shooting high velocity rounds to slow the rate of descent. In the movie, that strategy leads to a rough but not fatal landing.

But the students say the movie may be right in principle but it misses the mark in reality. They say it would have to shoot off 11 rounds in succession without any breaks in the action for it to have any measurable effect. The film shows a lot fewer than 11 rounds, with lengthy breaks between each round.

Finally: “James and the Giant Peach.” In the classic children’s book and movie, a gigantic peach flies across the Atlantic Ocean with the help of seagulls. But it turns out that a peach of that size would take 2.5 million seagulls to carry it, not the 501 suggested by author Roald Dahl.

Thank you science.

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