Posted in Science & Nature

The Titanic Door Debacle

One of the most famous arguments in popular culture history is why at the end of the movie Titanic, Jack had to die when it clearly looked like there was enough space for both him and Rose to lie on the floating door.

Since the movie’s release in 1997, countless fans have lamented how the birds-eye view shows that both people could have laid side by side to fit on the door.

But alas, science is an unforgiving mistress and it has since been shown that it would have been physically impossible for the two lovers to survive together on that makeshift raft (which was a wooden panel, not a door).

The film actually shows Jack trying to get on to the panel, when it tilts and starts to submerge, nearly flicking Rose off. Jack realises that the panel would not support both of them and chooses to only keep his upper body on it, while fending off other survivors trying to latch on. Unfortunately, this is not enough to keep him alive as he quickly succumbs to hypothermia and sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

The important question is not whether the two would fit on the panel, but whether the panel is buoyant enough to support both of them.

Buoyancy is the force that makes things float in liquids. It depends on the volume of the floating object and the density of the liquid it floats in. If buoyancy is greater than the pull of gravity, the object floats.

Now, let us calculate how much buoyancy we would need to keep the panel, Rose and Jack afloat.

For the two to survive, no more than the door itself can be submerged, keeping the bodies above water level. Therefore, the volume of the submerged object is the volume of the raft. Estimating from stills from the film and Kate Winslet’s height, we can calculate the raft as being roughly 1.85m x 0.95m x 0.15m, or 0.264m³.

Ergo, the buoyancy of the panel would be Volume x Density of ice cold salt water x force of gravity = 0.264m³ x 1000kg/m³ x 9.8m/s² = 2587N (Newtons). If more than 2587N of weight is placed on top (including the panel itself), it would sink.

At the time of the production of Titanic, the estimated weight of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio were around 549N and 686N respectively (note that in physics, weight is mass times the acceleration of gravity, measured in Newtons).

Subtracting these values from 2587 leaves us with 1352N free for the panel. Since we know the volume of the panel, as long as we know what wood it was made out of, we can find the density and calculate the final weight.

Three types of wood were commonly used on the Titanic: teak, oak and pine. The densities of these woods are 980kg/m³, 770kg/m³ and 420kg/m³ respectively, meaning that the door would be 2535N if it was made of teak, 1992N for oak and 1087N for pine.

Therefore, the maths show that for the two to have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving together on the panel, it had to be made of pine. Teak and oak would have been too heavy.

This is where the final key becomes relevant: the wooden panel was likely made of oak.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, holds the largest piece of debris from the actual wreckage of RMS Titanic. If you look at this wooden panel (from above a doorframe), it looks remarkably similar to the wooden panel that Rose survives on. In fact, a replica of this debris was used for the filming of the film. The material of the actual wooden panel? Oak.

If the panel was made out of oak, it could only hold Rose, as 1992 + 549 = 2541N, which is just enough for Rose to stay afloat above the water level.

And there you have it. Not even the power of love can overcome the cold-hearted, brutal law of the universe that is science.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Shared Bodily Warmth

Body heat is a vital condition that animals need to survive. It is so vital that when you are hypothermic, your body will override almost everything else to conserve heat as much as possible. Without enough heat, the chemical reactions that fuel your cells will grind to a halt and you will die. To solve the issue of getting heat, nature came up with two answers: endotherms and ectotherms.
Endotherms are organisms that produce their own heat (e.g. mammals) by trapping the heat produced by metabolism and through extra mechanisms such as shivering. Ectotherms rely on absorbing environmental heat (e.g. reptiles), usually through the sun. Because of this, ectotherms suffer a much greater range in body temperature. This means that animals such as lizards will be slower and more sluggish when it is cold.

Being in a cold environment quickens the process of heat loss, robbing you of the precious heat you generate. A solution to this is shared bodily warmth. Also known as kleptothermy, this is a common thermoregulation strategy where a group of animals huddle together to share the heat generated by each other. This increases the efficiency of heat generation (thermogenesis) and the group as a whole can stay warmer for longer. This behaviour is commonly seen in communal animals such as mice, who huddle together even when they are newborns (newborns lose heat much quicker than adults due to the difference in weight to surface area ratio). Some ectotherms such as snakes and lizards also engage in kleptothermy, where by huddling together they increase their effective mass and reduce heat loss.

An interesting case of kleptothermy is seen in Canadian red-sided garter snakes, where the heat is not shared, but stolen. A male snake will sometimes emerge from hibernation and begin to produce fake pheromones to attract other males as if it were a female. Other males are fooled into thinking that the snake is female and approach it to mate. Through this strange process, the snake is able to steal the heat from its rival males and use the extra energy to mate with an actual female (or lose it to an even more cunning male snake).

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Posted in Science & Nature

Goldilocks

In the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the protagonist is found trying out various porridges, chairs and beds until she finds the one that is just right for her. Because of this, the name “Goldilocks” has become a symbol for something that is “just right”. A Goldilocks economy is one where there is high growth but no inflation; a Goldilocks planet is one which is not too hot or too cold, making it an ideal planet for life; the Goldilocks effect is when success is achieved because something was not too great or too little.

The Goldilocks effect is a law of nature that is far more important than you would think. Nature always seeks consistency, as shown in the human body. For something as complex as life to exist, a cell must maintain its internal environment in a perfect, ideal state. French physiologist Claude Bernard observed that a cell’s internal environment does not change even with changes in the external environment, and commented that “The stability of the internal environment is the condition for the free and independent life”. This is the basis for homeostasis. Without homeostasis, life cannot exist and all living things put in all their effort in keeping homeostasis. Our body constantly strives to keep various factors such as pulse, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, temperature, blood glucose, electrolytes and numerous hormones etcetera in a stable range. One could possibly argue that the meaning of life is “to maintain homeostasis” – a rather cyclical argument.

To understand the importance of homeostasis, let us look at how changes in the external environment affect us. Our core temperature is maintained in a tight range around 36.5 degrees. If it is altered even a couple of degrees, we exhibit symptoms of hypothermia or hyperthermia. If the weather is too hot, we sweat to cool ourselves; if the weather is too cold, we shiver to raise our temperature. After a meal, we secrete insulin to lower our blood glucose, while we secrete glucagon when starving to raise our blood glucose. Failure of either system leads to either diabetes or hypoglycaemic shock respectively. Homeostasis is an extremely complicated and intricate self-repair system that cannot be imitated.

The Goldilocks effect can be applied beyond physiology to our lives. Everything in moderation; to go beyond is as wrong as to fall short. If we have too little money, it is a problem. If we have too much money, it causes other problems. Whether we work or play, doing too much or too little of either can be bad for us. Medicines become poison in excess and even love in excess becomes obsession. In the marathon that is life, if you run too fast you end up collapsing from exhaustion, while running too slow will mean you never get anywhere.

The secret to happiness lies in understanding what is “just right”.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Hypothermia

A person’s body temperature is always maintained between 36.5~37.5°C. This is because enzymes, which are crucial in all physiological reactions in the body, work most efficiently at this temperature. As physiology is essentially a series of chemical reactions, it is heavily dependent on temperature. If the temperature falls, chemical reactions occur slower and vice versa. When body temperature falls below 35°C, metabolism becomes too slow and it poses a risk to the person’s health. This is known as hypothermia.

How does hypothermia affect the body? Hypothermia is categorised into three classes depending on the severity.

  • Mild hypothermia (32~35°C) leads to the slowing of bodily functions, tremors and difficulty in walking. The patient’s speech is impeded and other neurological symptoms such as decreased judgement skills and confusion start to appear. Also, blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate rise.
  • Moderate hypothermia (28~32°C) causes paralysis of muscles and extreme fatigue (they may complain of being sleepy). As blood (carrying heat) is rerouted to major organs, the skin (especially lips and extremities) become white or purple and very cold. Neurological symptoms worsen with amnesia, memory loss, severe confusion and delusion beginning to show. As sustained hypothermia leads to the tremors stopping, one should not take the lack of tremors as a good sign. Heart rate becomes irregular and arrhythmia may occur.
  • Severe hypothermia (20~28°C) leads to chemical reactions becoming so slowed that physiological functions that support life decline dramatically. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all lower to dangerous levels and the heart and lungs may stop functioning. As the patient’s major organs begin to shut down, they enter a state of unconsciousness and eventually, clinical death.

As you can see, hypothermia is a highly dangerous situation that can kill. There are some other fascinating facts about hypothermia.

20~50% of hypothermia death cases are associated with paradoxical undressing. This is a strange phenomenon where the person begins to take off their clothes due to confusion and a lack of judgement from the hypothermia. One theory suggests it is related to the cold damaging the hypothalamus (which controls body temperature), causing the brain to think that the body temperature is rising. Whatever the reason, it is extremely dangerous as it worsens the hypothermia.

As explained above, severe hypothermia leads to death. But interestingly, hypothermia also protects organs. This is why organs for transplanting are transported in ice. Similarly, there are examples of people who “died” from hypothermia recovering with no brain damage. Because of this, medical professionals traditionally say: “they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead”. In fact, if there is something wrong with the patient’s circulation and there is risk of damage to their organs (such as in surgery), sometimes the patient’s body temperature is forced down with ice water injections and cooling blankets, known as protective hypothermia.

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