The Science of Godzilla
I have a confession to make. I really like “Godzilla” movies. Sure, they’re ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun! The Japanese understand this, but the people who made the recent American “Godzilla” – you know, the one with Ferris Bueller pretending to be a scientist – apparently didn’t get the memo. The “Godzilla” movies were never meant to be taken seriously! Pretending that there’s anything remotely “realistic” about them ruins the fun.
What is Godzilla, Anyway?
In the Japanese Godzilla movies, the Big G is consistently referred to as a dinosaur that has somehow been in suspended animation for at least 65 million years, then was reawakened (and mutated) by exposure to nuclear radiation. In the American abomina … movie, it’s hinted that nuclear weapons tests mutated a marine iguana into a gigantic dinosaur. (One character says, “Theropoda, Allosauria” when describing Godzilla – meaning that she thinks he’s a theropod dinosaur in the same family as Allosaurus.) The “explanation” for the American version of Godzilla is – if that’s possible – even more ridiculous than is the “explanation” for the Japanese version.
Theropod dinosaurs were about as closely-related to marine iguanas as a platypus is to a human. Dinosaurs most-definitely were not big lizards! The notion that nuclear radiation could somehow rearrange a lizard’s DNA in order to produce a living dinosaur – much less a gigantic one – is beyond ludicrous. (By the way, one supposed hint of Godzilla’s marine iguana origin in the movie is that (s)he eats fish. Would it have killed the movie-makers to have done even a little research? If they had, they’d have learned that marine iguanas eat algae, not fish.)
Anyway, Godzilla is supposed to be a great big theropod dinosaur. Oddly, his posture is utterly unlike that of any theropod that ever lived. In this instance, the American Godzilla is actually better. The Japanese Godzilla walks exactly like what he is – a guy in a rubber costume. Real theropods walked with their backs almost parallel to the ground, with the weight of the forward half of the body counterbalanced by a long, heavy tail. The Japanese Godzilla has conspicuously 4- or 5-fingered hands (depending on the movie) – with opposable thumbs, no less! Real theropods had “hands” with either 3 fingers (allosaurs, raptors) or only 2 fingers (tyrannosaurs).
So, if Godzilla was supposed to be a “dinosaur,” even leaving aside his size, he was like no other dinosaur that lived.
Could an Animal That Size Exist?
No. It's not even remotely possible.
Take one standard die. We’ll assume that it’s a cube 1 inch by 1 inch by 1 inch in dimensions. It therefore has a surface area of 6 square inches, and a volume of 1 cubic inch. (The surface area of each side is calculated as length x width. Each side therefore has a surface area of 1 inch x 1 inch or 1 inch^2. There are 6 sides, so the total surface area is 6 x 1 inch^2. The volume is length x width x height, so the volume is 1 inch x 1 inch x 1 inch or 1 inch^3.)
To double the dimensions of a single die, we’d need 8 dice. We’d need 2 dice to double the length of a single die; 2 dice to double the width; and 2 dice to double the height. So, to make a cube twice the size of a single die, we’d need 2 x 2 x 2 = 8 dice. The surface area of this new die would be 2^2 x 6 square inches = 24 square inches, and its volume (of course), would be 2 x 2 x 2 = 8 cubic inches. You’ve probably noticed that the surface area/volume ratio of the original die is 6:1, while the surface area/volume ratio of the new die is only 3:1. If we keep making bigger dice, the amount of surface area relative to volume drops dramatically as the dice get bigger.
So, as things get bigger, their weight (which is a function of their volume) increases dramatically faster than does their surface area. This has a number of important consequences. Not least of these is that if you double something’s size and keep its proportions the same, its weight doesn’t double or even quadruple – it increases by a factor of eight!
So, an animal the size of Godzilla would weigh something like 60,000 tons! That’s actually a rather conservative estimate. In any event, you’re talking about an animal that literally weighs as much as a battleship. What would happen to a battleship if you could take it out of the water that supports it and stand it on its stern? Within a few seconds’ time, you’d have a very large pile of scrap metal – that’s what would happen!
I don’t care if Godzilla’s skeleton is made of solid titanium – the instant he steps out of the water, it’s going to collapse under his enormous weight. So, downtown Tokyo is quite safe, though they might have a rather large mess to clean up in the harbour.
It’s Not Easy Being Gargantuan
Let’s be generous and assume that Godzilla has a skeleton made of some kind of magical substance that can actually support his weight. Is he out of the woods then? Far from it!
Let’s talk about blood pressure. To pump blood from one end of a 200-meter-long body to the other, it goes without saying that you need a powerful heart. The pressure that it would have to exert to pump blood that far would be enormous! To resist that kind of pressure, the arteries near his heart would have to be made out of steel or something even stronger – otherwise they’d burst instantly and again, Tokyo would be saved. Maybe this problem is dealt with by Godzilla actually having multiple hearts scattered throughout his body, though there’s certainly no hint of this in the movies.
Try lying down, so that your head is at the level of your heart. After a few minutes, jump up quickly. First, make sure there are no hard or sharp objects nearby. Feel a bit faint? That’s because when you raise your head above the level of your heart quickly, the heart can’t compensate quickly enough, and so blood flow to your brain is reduced for a few seconds. This is a real problem for giraffes, who have all sorts of circulatory adaptations to help them avoid fainting every time they raise their heads. For a creature of Godzilla’s size, especially one that stands nearly erect, this would be a serious problem. If he raises his head, he’s going to have to do it slowly in order to avoid fainting. One thing he most-certainly would not be capable of doing is jumping up quickly from a sitting or lying position! Heck, he wouldn’t even be able to turn his head quickly without the acceleration this caused largely shutting off blood flow to his brain.
What happens to a 60,000-ton animal if it falls down – even if we stipulate a magically-strong skeleton that can actually support that kind of weight? Well, 60,000 tons or so falling a distance of roughly 100 meters is going to hit with a lot of force! I don’t care if Godzilla’s skeleton can withstand that kind of force, his internal organs most-certainly will not! Every major blood vessel will shatter into pulp, as will his liver, brain, spleen, kidneys, urinary bladder (ew!), and so forth. He won’t get up again.
There’s an old saying amongst biologists that illustrates this point quite well. Originally, it was J.B.S. Haldane who pointed out that, “You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.”
Godzilla would splash the moment he tried to take his first step.
Is it Me, or is it Hot in Here?
Because muscle contractions generate heat, and because an animal the size of Godzilla would have very little surface area relative to his volume, he would have a serious problem with overheating. Heat is generated inside the body, so the bigger your volume, the more heat you generate through muscle contraction (also, digestion produces a significant amount of heat in large animals). Heat is lost across your skin surface, so the bigger you are, the harder it is to shed excess heat, since you have so little surface area relative to your enormous volume. Even if Godzilla has a ridiculously slow metabolic rate (like that of a tree), he’s going to generate an enormous amount of heat just by walking. There’s just no way for an animal that size to shed that much heat quickly enough to avoid overheating. After a quick sprint, Godzilla would be glowing red-hot!
Okay, just for fun, we’ll assume that Godzilla has a magical skeleton that can somehow support his gargantuan weight; that his major arteries are magically able to resist his enormously high blood pressure; that he has a magically-efficient circulatory system that allows him to move rapidly without instantly stopping blood flow to his brain; and that his skeleton and internal organs (somehow) aren’t instantly destroyed every time he takes a step, much less falls down.
Give Me a Minute Here …
It occurs to me that Godzilla has terrific reflexes for an animal of his size! Neural impulses travel in myelenated nerve fibers at about 100 meters/second. They travel much slower in the unmyelenated nerve fibers of the Central Nervous System. Even for an animal the size of a human, there’s a perceptible delay in the time it takes for a neural impulse to travel from an outer region of the body (say from the foot) all the way to the brain. For a creature the size of Godzilla, minimum reaction time would be several seconds at least. Even assuming an extraordinarily efficient nervous system, it would take a minimum of several seconds for him to recognize a stimulus, decide what to do about it, and transmit the necessary neural impulses to the appropriate muscles.
The Walking Fortress
The Japanese Godzilla has ridiculously fast reflexes, but at least he isn’t quick-enough to avoid incoming ordnance. The American Godzilla has ludicrously fast reflexes, and actually dodges incoming missiles. First of all, there’s no way an animal that size could perceive and react to a threat that quickly, and secondly, there’s no way an animal that size could move so quickly, because the enormous acceleration would destroy blood vessels and internal organs.
Still, we’ll pretend that Godzilla can react and move so quickly, just for fun. Now the Japanese Godzilla is famous for his near-invulnerability. He’s regularly punched and kicked by monsters of his own size – such blows would have dang-near the force of tactical nuclear weapons. Also, he shrugs off missiles and artillery shells as if they were mere annoyances. Obviously, he has a rather thick skin.
But wait a minute. If Godzilla’s skin is so thick and strong that it can resist missiles, artillery shells, and drop-kicks from King Ghidora, how is it flexible enough that he can move? You’d think that it would crack and fall off in large chunks every time he takes a step. Maybe it’s some sort of magical organic material that’s both stronger than an equivalent thickness of steel and yet highly flexible. (By the way, people love to say that birds’ feathers and spiders’ silks are “stronger than steel.” That’s not really true, you know – otherwise, we’d armour tanks with feathers or spider silk, instead of steel. Feathers and spider silk are stronger than a layer of steel of the same weight. But steel weighs a lot more than silk or feathers of the same volume, and is a lot stronger. Which would you rather have between you and an oncoming bullet – an inch of feathers or an inch of steel? I’ll take the steel, thank you!)
Assuming that Godzilla’s skin is somehow strong-enough to resist artillery shells, yet flexible enough to allow him to move, he still has a real problem. When an artillery shell hits, it transfers a lot of kinetic energy to its target, even if it doesn’t explode. Even if Godzilla’s hide isn’t pierced, that energy would be transferred to his interior, where it’ll turn his internal organs to jelly.
Oh well, we’ve already stipulated that his internal organs can (somehow) survive him walking, standing up quickly, or even falling down, so that’s not such a big stretch.
Baby, You Can Light My Fire!
The Japanese Godzilla is famous for his flaming, radioactive breath. (Flaming or radioactive, which is it? Those are hardly the same thing!) His breath ignites fires, as if he’s a walking flame-thrower, yet it’s repeatedly claimed that he’s actually expelling radioactivity when he does his breath thing. Hmm.
Regardless, you’ve gotta wonder what his power source is. Does he have a working nuclear reactor inside of him? How does he control it? Does he have a few hundred pounds of fissile uranium in his belly that he (somehow) brings into a state of controlled fission when he wants to blast an adversary? How does he prevent an uncontrolled reaction and a subsequent nuclear explosion? How does he expel that energy in a directed manner? And why doesn’t it turn his throat and tongue to charcoal in the process? For that matter, why doesn’t he die of radiation poisoning?
The world may never know.
Monster That Morphed into a Metaphor (NY Times Article)
The Science of Star Wars - Michael Dexter takes on the plausible science of the Star Wars movies in his educated ruminations on the original trilogy with tie-ins to the prequels. Apparently, C-3PO was so full of it and Obi-Wan was no nice guy after all.
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