A blog explaining science and technology through the movies ... or explaining the movies through science and technology, depending on the point of view. English is not my first language, so I apologize for the mistakes you are likely to find in the posts

Friday, November 17, 2006

Lost: osmosis stuff

As most readers will know, the great North American series Lost deals with the adventures and misfortunes of some plane crash survivors fighting for their lives as modern Robinson Crusoes in a remote tropical island. When water stored in the plane starts becoming scarce, the idea of drinking water from the ocean comes to Walt’s, the kid in the story’s, mind. His father forbids him to do it, but when the boy asks why he doesn’t know how to answer. He might as well tell him sea water can’t be drunk because it makes you even more thirsty, taking the risk the boy wouldn’t believe it and would try to check it on his own. The wisest thing to do then is to tell him that it is the osmosis’ fault: the boy will be speechless then.

Well, the osmosis in question consists of the following: we have two solutions, one of them full of salty water and the other one full of fresh water with little salt. If we link them through a small tube, the less salty solution will give part of his water to the saltier one. This water movement will continue until the concentration of salt is equal in both solutions.

When we drink fresh water, it is absorbed into our bodies by osmosis in an attempt to lower our salt concentration, since our digestive system is saltier than water. But if water is saltier than our body we can’t filter it. Our body will lose water instead, as osmosis will try to reduce sea water’s salt concentrarion (the water movement always goes from the least salted to the more salted area). We will dehydratate even quicker then, and we will hurt our kidneys with salts we can’t filtrate besides.

Osmosis is the way plants get water from the ground as well. Plants dry out in very salty soil because they lose water instead of absorbing it, so that their salt concentration becomes the same as that of the soil. That’s why in the past the victor of a war would salt the enemy’s land to destroy the harvest. It is also the reason why river fish can’t live in the sea and vice versa. If we throw a river fish into the sea it will lose water and become reduced and skinny. If we throw a sea fish into the river instead, since it is used to salty water, it will absorb fresh water until it bursts in its attempt to make water concentrations equal inside and outside of its body. Changing from fresh to sea water is traumatic: species that can make it must go through a long and slow adaptation. Osmosis stuff.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Basic instinct 2: a wet body

Today we shall speak again about our old dear friend Catherine Trammell, whose new adventures were released on the big screen this year. We know already that wherever this woman passes by people start dying in a rather strange way, as happens at the start of Basic instinct 2. One poor guy sitting next to her in her car dies when the vehicle falls into the Thames: the police need to know whether the cause of the death was drowning, or if the man was already dead when he reached the water from an overdose of some substance not available in shopping malls.

This isn’t exactly a difficult question because it is very easy to know wether someone has died from drowning or was already before hitting the water: you only have to see if the body floats, or, since a drowned body is something quite unpleasant to see, just take a look at its condition. Human bodies float on water because our lungs are full of air. We can all check this if we let ourselves go and assume the dead man’s float position when we are swimming, especially in seawater, because it’s denser and it allows us to float more easily. A drowned man sinks instead, because his lungs are full of water. Even if someone falls unconscious into the sea or into a river and doesn’t make an effort to breathe, his airways will automatically become open wide when oxygen is lacking: swallowing water can’t be avoided. Liquid swells and dislocates our face and makes us heavier and sinkable. To make a long story short, the good murderer’s handbook includes a chapter explaining the need of attaching the victim’s body to a rock on the bottom of the sea if we don’t want it to float and be seen. However, all these precautions are less necessary with drowned people.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hannibal Lecter, Catherine Trammell and Tom Ripley: movie psychopaths

Since we were talking about psychiatry in the last post, we will go on with this subject, but dealing with psychopaths this time. It is usual to link psychopath with serial killer in the movies. Actually, most psychopaths aren’t murderers and many murderers aren’t psychopaths either.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder. It consists of being quite unable to feel emotions and empathy towards other people. Psychopaths find it hard to stand in other person’s shoes, feel sympathy for someone else or know how he or she feels. That’s why they can be cruel and sadistic to someone and not feel guilty about it. They aren’t sick and they know they are hurting someone, but they are only able to understand it rationally. Since they don’t have any feelings, they can’t really understand what other people are going through.

As humans are social and emotional beings, a psychopath has some quite serious obstacles to develop his personality and skills. These handicaps are incompatible with the intelligence and the ability to make plans and strategies of murderers like The Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) or Basic Instinct’s beautiful and people-user Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone). Psychopaths are actually childish, moody and unable to make long or medium term plans. Although they can be intellectually bright in determined areas they are usually not gifted since, to some extent, the human brain learns by watching the effects our actions have on others. That kind of information can’t be assimilated by these people.

The game Hannibal Lecter plays with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The silence of the lambs, or the one Catherine Trammell plays with men in Basic instinct and its sequel, in which one does or tells something guessing the other one will react in one way or another until a certain target is reached, is rather impossible for a psychopath.

A quite more accurate approach to psychopathy was made by great writer Patricia Highsmith. Most of the main characters in her novels have a psychopathic personality. Her most famous creature is Tom Ripley, a chameleonic man with no past, no family, no friends and no private life of any sort. This reflects the psychopath’s lack of affective bonds. Ripley doesn’t kill in a planified way but in violent outbursts he is unable to control, just like a child who breaks his toys for no reason. Tom murders his friend Dickie Greenleaf unexpectedly, following his instinct at that moment in a clumsy way. It doesn’t mean that he won’t be able to take profit of his acts and take the personality of the man he killed afterwards: psychopaths are wise in any situation when it is time to handle other people for their own benefit.

The first of the series of novels Patricia Highsmith devoted to this character has been adapted for the screen twice: the first adaptation was Plein soleil (1960), starred by Alain Delon, and the second and more recent one had the same title of the novel, The talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and was starred by Matt Damon. The old movie is certainly better, and not only due to the more skilful acting and directing. It also does a much better portrait of the main character: in the confusing Matt Damon version Ripley kills his friend because he is in love with him and the feeling isn’t reciprocate: psychopathy and passion crimes are actually incompatible.

For his lack of emotion and humanity, a psychopath is someone as close as it gets to real evil. The diagnose of this disorder ruined down the whole concept of anti-psychiatry. According to anti-psychiatrist theories there was no such thing as mentally sick people: capitalist society itself was sick and it caused all psychic disorders. Actually, the film Citizen X (1994) tells how the former communist regime in Rusia tried to hide the existence of the worst serial murder in history. Such things couldn’t be taking place in socialist paradise … but they could. Even in the most perfect of worlds some crimes will be committed. Which doesn’t mean that ruthless, competitive and individualist capitalism nature isn’t a trigger for psychopathy. This disorder has a probably biological origin, but its development is very related to surrounding factors. And a society can’t work with a high percentage of psychopaths …

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lost highway: David Lynch's psychogenic fugue

Up to the present, we haven’t dealt with a science as thrilling as psychiatry in the blog, so it is about time. In 1997 David Lynch released a movie that got little attention then, but that reached a cult status years later, when its author was fashionable again with Mulholland drive. We are talking about Lost highway, the story of someone going through a personality change named a psychogenic fugue by Lynch.

Well, this psychogenic fugue isn’t a filmmaker’s invention, it exists actually and is considered as a dissociative disorder. Nevertheless, it is better known as fugue state or dissociative fugue. A dissociative fugue is a getaway, which means those who go through it run from their home and their environment, including a total or partial amnesia about their previous life. The patient may end up building a new identity. It usually happens after a dramatic event, as a war or an accident. Running away from their own personality to avoid difficulties or feelings of guilt is actually a way of defending themselves.

Lost highway is told from the main character’s, Fred’s, point of view. Fred has killed his wife, or at least wants to do it. To avoid accepting the harsh truth, he escapes his real personality and creates a new one, becoming an innocent, much younger man. The viewers share Fred’s fantasies and see him living a new life in a new environment with another face. It is nevertheless difficult to get away from our own nightmares, so the guy’s happiness will soon be shattered again by the same ghosts he was trying to escape from. Therefore, one of the possible interpretations of this masterpiece from one of the most cryptic directors of this time is to take it as a clinical documentary, the screenplay of which is written by the patient himself. A walk on the wild side, as Lou Reed would call it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Fatal attraction: the murderer in the mirror

The most thrilling scene in the infamous movie Fatal attraction (1987) came when Anne Archer wiped the steamy bathroom’s window with her hand and the previously opaque surface suddenly reflected Glenn Close’s appalling face. She wasn’t there exactly to say happy Christmas. The murderer hidden in the bathroom taking advantage of the steam coming from a hot shower is a very popular horror cliché, and so are the words written on the steamy window.

But, do we actually know the reason for such an ordinary fact as the bathroom mirror or the car’s windows getting steamy? It is a matter of air humidity: air always has a certain amount of water vapour. If it gets wetter and wetter, there will come a moment when it can’t contain any more vapour (it is said then that relative humidity has reached 100 %) and so the “spare” vapour condenses, which means that it becomes liquid. If this happens over a wall then the phenomenon of “sweating” walls and ceilings takes place, if it happens over a plant that is dew, and if it happens over glass, it gets steamy.

Therefore, it is easy to understand that evaporation of water from the shower raises air humidity and then air condenses over the mirror. But why does the same thing happen to our glasses when we come from a cold street and get into a warm place? That is due to the fact that warm air can absorb more water than cold air. Unless we are inside a very dry atmosphere, when we enter in a much warmer space wearing glasses, the air inside the place has more water vapour then the air outside, where it’s cooler. Our glasses’ temperature is lower than that of the air around for some time, until a thermal balance is reached. During that time the air around the glasses can’t keep that amount of water, so vapour condenses over the glasses, making them steamy. Absolute humidity hasn’t changed, but relative humidity has: it has suddenly reached 100 % due to the temperature gap between the glass and the air around. This lasts as long as glasses reach thermal balance with the place: afterwards, when they are no longer cold, there isn’t a relative humidity gap anymore, so there is no more condensation.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Proof: Gwyneth Paltrow and Fermat's last theorem

A few months ago the movie Proof, in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a mathematics genius’ daughter, was released. The film is an adaptation of a very successful play, written by David Auburn, that caught the eye of both audiences and critics. It dealt with the demonstration of a famous theorem that had driven mathematicians crazy for a long time. The theorem’s name wasn’t actually mentioned but somewhere during the play the main character explained in a brief way its statement, which resembled very much that of the well known Fermat’s last theorem.

Fermat was a French mathematician from the XVIIth century. He observed several cases of two numbers being perfect squares and its sum being another perfect square. However, he couldn’t find anything similar happening with cubes, fourth powers or any other exponent. For example, the addition of 9, which is the square of 3, and 16, which is the square of 4, is 25, which is the square of 5. Another case is 64 (square of 8) + 36 (square of 6) = 100 (square of 10). Nevertheless, no matter how hard we try, we won’t find any sum of perfect cubes the result of which is a perfect cube as well.

Maths is a perfect science instead of an empirical one, though. Seeing that a theorem works ma
ny times isn’t enough: it must be proved that it has to be always true, with no exceptions. Fermat claimed to have found a very simple solution to this conjecture. It was never found and that left the mathematicians clueless for over three centuries, a time in which they were trying to find that easy solution. The theorem was finally proved a short time ago, in 1993, with a very complex proof over 200 sheets long. It makes us believe that the brief explanation Fermat stated to have reached had to be mistaken. Anyway, both the play Proof and the movie based on it avoid any kind of mathematical complexity and focus on the effort of a wise man (Anthony Hopkins) who gives all his time to science and the consequences it brings to his family. But … what if there is a great woman behind the great man, his daughter in this case? The title this movie has been given in Spain (La verdad oculta, which means the hidden truth) shows what this might be about ….

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Mission Impossible: Tom Cruise against photoresistors

Those who have seen the successful film Mission: Impossible by Brian de Palma (1996) will undoubtedly remember the scene in which Tom Cruise has to perpetrate a burglary inside a room provided with a sophisticated alarm system. Cruise sees himself forced to hang upside down from the ceiling, go down easily and avoid by all means getting below a certain level in which the alarm will buzz.

This sequence, apart from being homage or maybe plagiarism to Topkapi, a Jules Dassin film from the 60s, is one of the best examples of a movie making the most of everyday technology. We are so used to photovoltaic cells opening the bank’s or the mall’s doors for us that we find it usual to link light and electricity. Nevertheless, the discovery of the photoelectric effect (electric current produced by light, which means a wave that spreads through a vacuum acting over matter) was one of the highlights in later 19th / early 20th century science. It got to solve a several centuries long controversy among physicians about the nature of light (wave or matter) and meant a Nobel Prize for Albert Einstein (he actually got it for this reason, not for his Theory of Relativity).

Once the link between light and electricity was found, photoresistors (known by the acronym LDR, light-dependent resistor) didn’t take long to be launched. They are electric resistors whose resistance changes with light: in the absence of light they have a big resistance to electricity and therefore they block an electric circuit; in presence of light, though, they don’t offer any resistance and allow electricity to flow. We can see an image of a LDR here.

Thus, when the ray of light received by the LDR gets interrupted by the body of someone passing by, the LDR doesn’t allow c
urrent to flow anymore. The electronic circuit avoiding the opening of an automatic door, or the buzz of an alarm, or whatever, gets blocked. This is the simple mystery hidden by a lot of automatic systems like water taps opening and closing and lamps switching on and off without a manual switch. LDRs aren’t expensive and could be used for light and water automatic regulation at home, but the experiences which took place up to the present produced a backlash from users. Like Tom Cruise in the movie, we feel restless about the sensation of being controlled by invisible forces.