Five science myths perpetuated by your favourite movies and TV shows

Movies and TV shows are notorious for sacrificing sound science in favour of cinematics that capture audiences’ attention. While this provides good entertainment, viewers may be shocked when scientific reality does not match up with fantasy. The McGill Tribune busts five incorrect portrayals of science in the popular media.  

Myth 1: Antidote to the rescue!

You may be familiar with action movie plotlines, involving the manufacture and distribution of an antidote to counteract a poison in a timeframe of mere days. For instance, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), Shredder’s evil plan revolves around spreading a virus and then using the teenage mutant ninja turtles to create and distribute an antidote—all within the time span of a month. Most of these films feature certain characters with a natural resistance toward the poison who then provide their antibodies as a cure.

In real life, however, manufacturing an antidote would take much longer than a few days—even if the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations were ignored and a production process was already in place. A real-life parallel of antidote manufacture is snake antivenom, which is made by injecting horses with venom to produce antibodies. The process takes at least 18 months to complete and involves breeding snakes and milking their venom, and then purifying the antibodies produced by horses upon exposure.

Myth 2: Charge to 100—stat! 

Defibrillators, a very common occurrence in movies and medical dramas, are often used to put audiences on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if their favourite character will survive the shock.

In shows, defibrillators are mostly employed when a character’s heart suddenly stops beating. However, in a real emergency, defibrillators cannot be used on people with extremely slow heart rates or none at all. They are also not placed side-by-side on the chest as shown in movies, but at specific angles on the chest; one above the right nipple and the other on the left side just below the chest area.

Myth 3: Walking away scot-free

Many movies feature action heroes that are seemingly invincible: They walk away from huge explosions and destruction relatively unharmed—think any movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While fire and shrapnel are both dangerous side-effects of an explosion, there is a more insidious way explosions can kill: Through blast waves. If a person is close enough to the explosion to be propelled by its shockwave, they are close enough to be killed. 

When an explosion occurs, it creates a vacuum which is immediately filled by surrounding air. Pressure changes of three pounds per square inch (psi) can cause 164 kilometre-per-hour winds—gusts strong enough to collapse most residential buildings. Anyone close to the explosion would not only feel the blast, but also the immense wind pressure it creates. Such high pressure can cause serious ear, lung and bowel damage—sorry, Tom Cruise.

Myth 4: The BOOM in space

Battle sounds and noises made by ships as they move through space are found in many science fiction movies, like Star Trek and Star Wars. If these movies were true to science, there would be only deafening silence in space.

The reason for the silence is because space is a vacuum, and sound needs a medium to travel through to be heard. This fact was first proved in the 17th century by Irish physicist Robert Boyle, when he conducted an experiment that placed a ringing alarm clock inside a glass jar. After sucking out the air from the jar using a pump, creating a vacuum, Boyle discovered that when the air disappeared, so too did the sound.

Myth 5: The chloroform kidnap

Kidnapping scenes in movies tend to involve a dark figure descending upon an unsuspecting victim from behind, muffling their screams with a chloroform-soaked cloth. The victim typically loses consciousness only seconds later. 

Though it is a powerful anaesthetic, chloroform is a slow-working substance. It would take an adult human at least five minutes to lose consciousness—during which they could potentially fight off their attacker. Moreover, chloroform’s efficacy also depends on its dose: If the attacker is imprecise, overdose of chloroform can cause death. This is one of the reasons why chloroform is no longer used in surgeries. 

Despite the inaccurate portrayals of science that would make any expert shudder, most people continue to consume such media without question. After all, why go to the movies if not for an escape?  

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