…or, How I Learned to Continue Worrying, and Fear the Bomb.
We must accept here a paradox, which is in fact admitted by everyone with the greatest of ease, and even consumed as proof of modernity. This paradox is that an excess of speed turns into repose.
-Roland Barthes, The Jet-Man
from Mythologies (trans. Lavers, 1972)
Sweet mother of Zod, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Why have we returned to this place, you and I, for yet another round of scrutiny? What remains to be said about Crystal Skull that hasn’t already been belabored and enumerated Ad SupraCogitum so many times before? Years ago, I’d feared that Indy IV would become for we pop culture geeks what the 2000 elections were for we liberals: a trauma so fundamental and so distracting that the ensuing rage threatened to blind us from the greater travesties that ensued. Yet thankfully, as time and–forgive my stereotyping, here–Dr. Pepper began to heal our collective psychic wounds, it seemed that our uproar had burbled down to mere grumblings, and eventually to quiet acceptance.
Really, George? I mean, really? You’re going on record as saying that odds of riding out a nuclear detonation in a lead-lined frigidaire are approximately 50/50? Half? You’re saying–no, I’m sorry–you think that a “lot of scientists” are saying that the answer to atomic holocaust is to run duck-and-cover drills in our fridges? That, were Nipponese architectural tradition to have favored lead crates over bamboo pagodas, the entire city of Nagasaki would have been pretty much groovy? Is it possible that you’re so accustomed to working with stupendous bombs that you’ve lost respect for their destructive power?
Uch, look what you’ve made me do. I’ve resorted to punning, George. Punning.
Well, as OTI’s resident Professional Scientist, this is a tossed gauntlet that I simply cannot overlook. Or let go un-picked-up. Or, whatever it is one does with tossed gauntlets. (BL2+ waste, maybe?). For your own good, and in the good name of the Scientific Community at large, I think it’s time we administer a little bit of tough love. I’m going to subject this blanket statement to the most dehumanizing, soul-hollowing process a normal person can withstand without suffering permanent psychological damage:
Scientific Peer Review
Do I expect some sort of apology? No, Dr. Jones. I expect you to die.
Reviewer Three: Response to LeBeouf et. al. (2008) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Research Summary: In previous works, the authors established and characterized a novel model system, COL. H. WALTON “INDIANA” JONES, PH.D. (hereafter, “Indiana,” “Indy,” “Dr. Jones” &c.), which functions as commentary on a more innocent time in popular culture, Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age.” His adventures remind us of an overly romanticized world still deeply connected to its social roots, ruled by simplistic moral factions of “good” and “evil” and untainted by the scars of American post-war militarism. Dr. Jones is himself a sort of retro pre-superhero: alternately a tweedy professor everyman and a leather-clad rogue adventurer. Yet, each of his personae fight to maintain our connection to the past, in so doing often unearthing primeval magics that bind humankind (if not Christianity in particular) to the spiritual realm.
In the current work, the authors abandon all of this context and characterization, instead presenting a story in which Indy has to rescue some lucite trinkets before they’re devoured by cavernous holes in the plot.
Review: This reviewer finds the present work to be utterly unpublishable, for reasons enumerated below. Strictly speaking, however, most of the film would hold together nicely, were it not for two flawed points:
- The sequence in which a human being survives a close-range atomic detonation by enclosing himself in a lead-lined refrigerator, and
- Every other scene in the movie.
Now, a work of adventure fantasy is expected, perhaps required, to incorporate elements beyond the commonly plausible. In the act of “Fridge Nuking,” however, the authors have overstepped the comfortable realm of suspension of disbelief, a storytelling tenet second perhaps only to the need for a protagonist. True, while many–such as the soldiers in this clip–have witnessed a nearby nuclear blast and survived to tell (or rather, to be debriefed of) the tale, all were either encased below the blast site in reinforced bunkers, or were stationed far enough from the ground zero that the bomb’s shock wave had been reduced to a moderate gust by the time it reached them. Riding a nuke’s shock wave to safety is, simply put, a laughably absurd concept. To prove this to the authors, this reviewer shall illustrate the myriad lethal effects that a nearby atomic blast would have on a person, even when enclosed in the very finest of kitchen appliances.
Preliminary Assumptions and Calculations.
It will be difficult to calculate the magnitude of forces, temperatures, ionizing flux, etc… without knowing (1) the power of the bomb detonated and (2) its distance from the ‘fridge-clad Dr. Jones. Addressing issue (1): given the year and location–1957 and the Nevada desert, respectively–and the surreally macabre pseduo-city from which Dr. Jones makes his unconventional escape, we can assume that the atomic test was a part of the U.S. Military’s Operation Plumbbob. Since this particular test is a “tower drop,” one of eight performed that year, the weapon’s power must lie somewhere between 10 and 44 kilotons (i.e. equivalent to instantaneously detonating between 20,000,000 and 88,000,000 pounds of TNT [thanks for correcting our type-o, Jon.-Ed]).
Addressing point (2) is a bit trickier, but through back-calculations and the available data, we might be able to make some inferences. Dr. Jones and his ice box appear to co-migrate with the expanding edge of the bomb’s shock wave, which delivers its concussive force in a single burst. Let us therefore model the ‘fridge as undergoing rapid, uniform acceleration to a constant final velocity (before returning to the ground, cavorting with gophers and ~2 more hours of inexplicable drivel). Given this assertion, we’ll calculate the force that would be required to accelerate Dr. Jones and his ice box to their final apparent speed, and from that infer the distance he’d have to be relative to a 10–44 kt detonation to receive such a force.
Let us assume that the refrigerator has approximately the dimensions listed here, and hence weighs approximately 71 kg. Indy’s clocking it at (We’re just guessing here) 99 kg, for a combined mass of 170 kg. Of course, initially they’re at rest, but what is the maximal velocity they achieve?
As is standard scientific practice, let us approximate Dr. Jones’ Soviet captors’ vehicle as a 1950 Studebaker Commander, with a length of ~2.3 meters. Traveling in his makeshift TARDIS, Indy overtakes the Studebaker (by our watch) in ~0.9 seconds. Assuming the Soviets are attempting to escape the advancing plume at their vehicle’s maximum speed (~80 mph, or ~35.76 m/s), we estimate Indy’s horizontal velocity to have a total magnitude of approximately (2.3 m/0.9 s + 35.76 m/s) = 38.32 m/s. Note that he’s also been accelerated vertically, but as the magnitude of his displacement is difficult to gauge we’ll not incorporate it into our initial calculations; all forces etc… calculated can therefore be considered as lower estimates.
Ignoring the effects of drag and wind resistance (which are tricky under standard conditions, but nigh-impossible within the mixture of soot, aerosolized concrete and atomically-catalyzed oxidizing nitrogenous smog through which he’s travelling), we calculate that Dr. Frigidaire has undergone a net change in momentum (mass*Δvelocity) with a minimal magnitude of (170 kg)*(38.32 m/s) = 6514.4 kg•m/s. Physicists term this quantity the “Impulse,” roughly thought of as the force imparted to a body multiplied by the time spent imparting it: I = F•Δt. Therefore, if we knew how long it took to accelerate the ‘fridge, we could calculate the force imparted to it.
Now, the bombs deployed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki prouced blast winds approaching 620 mph (= 277 m/s) as far as one mile from their detonation centers. A comparably powered blast would overtake Dr. Jones’ refrigerator (depth = 0.7 m) in 0.7 (m)/277 (m/s) = 2.5 millisconds. This means that the force exerted on him–the impulse divided by the time–would be a whopping 6514.4 (kg•m/s)/0.0025 (s) = 2,605,760 Newtons. To put this in perspective, on Earth’s surface Pete Fenzel weighs ~801 N. SO, having this much force put on you would be like having 3253.13 Pete Fenzels simultaneously sitting on you [Or, as Wrather calls it, "The Perfect Weekend." - Ed.].
Were the bomb’s blast winds to hit the rear of the refrigerator with a force perfectly normal to the ‘fridge’s back plane, they’d be delivering a 2.605 MegaNewton force onto an area of 1.46 x 0.6 meters = 0.876 m². Hence, the pressure exerted on the ‘fridge at the point of impact would be (2,605,760 N/0.876 m²) = 2,974,611.87 Pascals (= 430 psi, almost certainly a drastic understatement). Consulting this table, derived from Dolan’s Capabilities of Nuclear Weapons, Part 1, we can estimate that Indy must have been initially placed far less that 0.6 km (~660 yards) from the detonation of a 10–44 kT atomic weapon.
This is a deeply problematic result, since a nuclear explosion delivers not only a tremendous concussive force but also intense heat and radiation. Which is to say, in order for an archeologist-stuffed Frigidaire to be accelerated by an atomic blast to the speeds observed in this sequence, it would need to be placed so close to the bomb as to be surely obliterated by the blast’s other myriad effects. Of course, for the authors’ benefit the full extent of these effects might require some elaboration…
How would Indy die? Let us count the ways.
I. Ways mechanical.
Crushed under the shockwave. The calculated minimal 2.9 MPa pressure required to accelerate Indy’s ‘fridge to the same speed as the advancing nuclear shockwave is nearly 47 times greater than the pressure (~62 kPa) required to liberate a railway car from its track and crush it. Indeed, after the wave has expanded beyond the limits of the mock city, it still retains enough power to instantaneously crush the Soviets’ [1950 Studebaker Commander]. While the reviewers have not themselves empirically derived a stress-strain curve for a 1957 lead-lined Frigidaire refrigerator, we believe it’s a reasonable assumption that such pressure would be sufficient to obliterate the device, rather than lifting it.
Lethal acceleration. 2,605,760 Newtons acting on a 170 kg mass would correspond to roughly 1560 G‘s worth of force, just shy of that required to ballistically launch a person into space. Now, while the world-record acceleration survived by a human in the laboratory is 42 G’s, we cannot conclusively state that this incredible force would be lethal, since it’s never been directly tested. Moreover, the outcome is dependent on the direction Indy’s facing–relative to the oncoming wave–at the point of impact. If he’s being pushed from his back or side, he’d almost certainly suffer massive bone damage, but might survive long enough to die of internal bleeding. If he’s being pushed from below he would absolutely be killed by his body’s entire reservoir of blood being pulled into one of his extremae. From the clip it appears that he’s standing up at the point of impact, and so this is likely not a worry. That is, if one considers having all of his ribs shattered into his chest cavity, and his circulatory system shedding multiple thromboses to “not be a worry.”
One last crack of Indy’s whip. While the above calculations treat Dr. Jones and his flying coffin as a single rigid object, the human body is, in fact, horrifyingly malleable. The most obvious point of potentially lethal force is the neck, wherein rapid acceleration might rotate the hinge point beyond its acceptable operating range, or apply a torque that rips it apart. Interestingly, the data on such fatal whiplash appear essentially nonexistent. However, since many events that could potentially induce such trauma (car accidents, falls, head-slappings from being forced to edit Indiana Jones IV, etc…) also expose the body to other fatal forces, its possible that lethal whiplash has been misdiagnosed as an alternative cause of death. Still, the probability of Indy’s neck snapping due to acceleration, or of his suffering a fatal head injury due to an impact with the refrigerator’s lining, are difficult to assess.
Crushed on reentry. As stated above, it’s difficult to assess exactly how high the explosion appears to lift Indy’s ‘fridge above the ground, but we do witness it returning to earth in a series of improbably gentle bounces. Exactly how much force would Indy experience as he plummeted back to earth inside a lead-lined steel box? Well, assuming the expansion wave is not actively propelling Indy back to earth, we can assume that the only force bringing him downward is that due to gravity. Ignoring now his horizontal motion, we can calculate his vertical speed at point of impact using the conservation of energy: his potential energy at the height of his arc ( = (mass)•(height)•(g), where g is the rate of acceleration due to gravity near the earth’s surface, ~9.81 m/s²) equals the kinetic energy at the moment just prior to impact ( = (1/2)•(mass)•(velocity)²). Hence, v = √(2g•h), approximately 4.43•√h [thanks for pointing out the original math error, Bunsen and Megatoerist]. Correspondingly, his momentum is (m•v) = ~4.43m•√h. Now, if he were to hit the ground and stop moving, the magnitude change in momentum during impact (his Impulse, I) would be ~4.43m•√h. Since velocity is a vector quantity, if he were to bounce back with the exact same vertical velocity but in the opposite direction, this change in momentum would be ~8.86m•h, thus putting an envelope of the impact force felt, omitting entirely the horizontal component of his trajectory, as 4.43m•√h < I < 8.83m•√h. If the whole impact takes ~0.1 seconds, then the force felt is 44.3m•h < F < 88.3m•h. Recalling his mass is ~170 kg, we obtain 7,531•√h < F < 15,062•√h or between 18.8 and 37.6 Fenzel-mass-equivalents at a height of just one meter. For example, if he drops from 10 meters and loses 30% of his vertical momentum upon bouncing, it’ll be like having 50.5 Pete Fenzels instantaneously sitting on him [note corrected math - Ed], not taking into account his loss of forward momentum. As calculated above, this corresponds to ~46 kPa of pressure, near that required to upend and obliterate a railway car.
Of course, the authors may argue that the refrigerator will act as a protective shield that absorbs the force of impact. This is fundamentally flawed logic, as illustrated by the utility of automotive crumple zones. Still, if the authors protest, this reviewer invites them to fill a Pringles can with eggs and drop it off of their roof.
II. Ways thermal.
During the nuclear fission processs of an atomic explosion matter is directly converted into energy, of which a substantial portion is in the form of x-rays. These generate a massive fireball that heats the surrounding air to almost surreal heights (e.g. a multi-stage Teller-Ulam-type thermonuclear device–of a power exceeding the present case–can attain temperatures exceeding those at the center of the sun). Now, calculating the heat transferred to Dr. Jones is a calculation exceeding this reviewer’s skills. However, we observe that the air surrounding Indy becomes hot enough to cause spontaneous combustion of the mannequin test dolls, and infer that the air temperature must therefore exceed the autoignition temperature of paper, somewhere between 220–450°C (424–842°F). This makes possible multiple potentially fatal factors:
Scorched by molten lead. Implicit in their implementation of this sequence is the authors’ belief that Indy’s survival is dependent on his encasement within the lead-lined refrigerator. However, this device itself may present additional dangers beyond those directly related to the atomic blast. To wit, the melting temperature of lead is a paltry 327.46°C, potentially below the external temperature. Now, liquifying lead requires enough energy to overcome its heat of fusion, and the time required to impart this energy. Observing the clip, we can only conclude that the air temperature exceeds lead’s melting temperature for a fraction of a second (and likely never reaches stainless steel’s melting temperature of >1500°C) though the ensuing nuclear furnace is probably warmer than a balmy Nevada afternoon. Temperatures near ground zero of the Hiroshima blast, for example, incinerated essentially any object that could be burned; the ensuing fireball ignited and consumed a substantially larger area. Hence, while it seems unlikely that Indy would find himself drowning in a pool of molten lead, it’s highly likely that the integrity of the lead lining would become severely compromised.
Scorched by incendiary air. Impressive a thermal container as a 1957 Frigidaire is, exposure to a near-range atomic detonation is likely to scuff it up a bit. Cracks in the metal exterior, incineration of the rubber gasket, etc would expose Indy to the external elements. “The elements,” in this case, being “Super-heated Plutonium” and the like. Hopefully, even the authors can acknowledge that even moderate exposure to temperatures generated by a nuclear fireball are likely to incur severe burns. According to this report, even a 1.6 second exposure to 450°C air can result in second degree burns to the skin; temperatures above 560°C will induce burns in under 0.6 seconds, faster than a human’s reflexive response time. Moreover, the effects of breathing superheated air would be even more disastrous, resulting in immediate and irreversible damage to Indy’s throat and lungs.
Baked Indiana. For the complete duration of the time Dr. Jones’ ‘fridge spends in mechanical contact with the expanding nuclear shockwave (we estimate ~30 seconds, allowing for some slop due to montage editing), it’s also in thermal contact with it. Even if the device’s steel shell is never heated to its melting point, it will be substantially heated, and all objects in contact with it (e.g., Dr. Jones’ body) stand the risk of contact burns. As the refrigerator tumbles through the advancing radioactive plume, the air inside it will also be heated, ultimately producing an internal environment more reminiscent of an oven than an ice box.
III. Ways aerodynamic.
Suffocation–conventional. The previous scientific literature (see Brewster, Punky et al (1986)) has already dealt with the dangers of asphyxiation from encasing oneself within a refrigerator, and the topic will not be discussed further here.
Suffocation–less-than-conventional. As an atomic explosion develops into its aforementioned fireball, it also appears to color the surrounding sky a tarry orange-brown, an event portrayed in the present work with, well, shocking accuracy. Perhaps the authors need be reminded that this tawny hue is the result of the bomb igniting the local atmosphere, burning nitrogen gas and consuming the local oxygen supply. A mushroom cloud’s “stem,” is also the product of this phenomenon, as soot and debris are caught by the influx of air and carried into the rising plume. Now, assuming that Indiana’s refrigerator has suffered sufficient structural damage as to allow some gas exchange with the outside, Indy might find himself under substantial negative atmospheric pressure, his oxygen being sucked from the ‘fridge’s interior and consumed by the nearby atomic furnace. Absurd as this might seem, it’s not without precedent, even for cases of non-atomic blasts. It’s rumored that during the firebombing of Dresden, nearby village barns and cottages were sucked into the fireball by the inrush of air. Of course, this phenomenon also implies an additional fatal threat…
There and back again. As the atomic fireball develops and consumes its massive influx of oxygen, it generates a kind of “reverse blast wind,” several seconds after its initial outward shock wave. The government has studied these effects in great detail, as illustrated by the synthetic forest in the following nuclear test footage. Observe, your tax dollars at work:
The reviewers remain extremely dubious as to Indy’s ability to ride out on the bomb’s initial shock wave. However, even accepting this unlikely scenario, depending on the intensity of the ensuing firestorm and the distance he’s landed away from Ground Zero, Indy may very well be sucked back in to the explosion. And that is a place not even Kali can tolerate.
IV. Ways radioactive.
Death by X-rays, X-cetera. Depending on the construction of the bomb and the manner of its deployment, approximately 5% of its energy output is in the form of ionizing radiation, i.e. radiation that has the ability to strip an electron from its orbit around an atom, and induce chemical changes in matter. Indy’s calculated distance of <<0.6 km from a 10–44 kT atomic device puts him well within the zone wherein he’d receive an acute lethal dose of ionizing radiation from the blast. He is, however, encased in a lead-lined refrigerator, which would provide some shielding from the massive onslaught of radioactivity. However, the efficacy of this shielding is questionable, since (1) lead shielding is all but useless against neutron radiation, potentially a substantial component of the radioactive flux, (2) the shielding’s effectiveness is proportional to its thickness: a full centimeter is required to reduce gamma radiation to half its initial intensity, ~3.3 cm are required to reduce it to 10% the initial flux and ~6.6 cm are required to drop the flux below 1% [Note the corrected math - see the comments section for this calculation. Thanks, Bunsen! -Ed], and (3) much of the lead shielding has probably been converted into a molten pool slogging inside the ‘fridge’s lining anyway (see above). Even if Indy manages to avoid receiving the acute lethal dose, he’ll almost certainly experience a host of perfectly horrific alternative effects. The reviewer has created a diagram that will summarize his appearance after these effects have taken their toll:
Fallout boy. Atomic detonations disperse the products of their own nuclear fissile fuel into the environment, and moreover generate a tremendous flux of neutron, gamma- and x-ray radation, which collectively have the ability to generate de novo radioactive waste from previously stable matter. This explains why, for example, a few kg of Plutonium and Lithium Deuteride can result one of the most massive fallout contamination events in human history. Now, after Indy waltzes away from his afternoon stroll in an atomic firestorm, he does take a shower, which can be a surprisingly effective way to remove superficial radioactive contamination (interested readers may inquire the reviewer as to a time he witnessed several micro-Curies of radioactive sulfur being removed from a coworker’s nether regions). However, we must again note that Dr. Jones’ refrigerator is likely to suffer substantial damage during its atomic shockwave jamboree, and that his air supply may co-mingle with the external environment. This increases the likelihood that Indy inhales particles of nuclear fallout, thereby exposing his throat and lungs to ionizing radiation and almost certainly sealing his fate. Come to think of it, hanging out for a few minutes to bask in the mushroom cloud’s radioactive glow is probably a lousy idea, too.
Shielding, “shmielding”. Sadly, the lead and steel shielding which the authors intend to protect their protagonist from ionizing radiation can itself become a source of it. While beta decay constitutes a relatively small portion of the average nuclear device’s output, what little sprinkle the Frigidaire receives it will transmute, in kind, into an X-ray bath for its inhabitant. It’s sort of like the way a Russian Sauna works, but instead of hot coals there’s a nuclear explosion, and instead of steam there’s a burst of X-rays, and instead of a wood hut it’s a Frigidaire, and also you’re dead.
In conclusion, we estimate the odds of surviving a nuclear blast in the manner depicted here to be roughly 0±0%. We invite the authors to try to address these issues, but cannot conceive of a means to do so without completely rewriting the piece. Perhaps re-releasing Raiders of the Lost Ark in 3D will suffice.
Thus concludes the (quasi)scientific portion of our proceedings. But really, what have we learned from all of this?
The passage that opens this piece may provide some illumination, here. In The Jet-Man, Barthes analyzes the emerging public fascination with jet pilots, concluding that their mythos provides a sort of public catharsis for humankind’s desire to surpass nature. Not merely to overcome it, mind you, but through the application of “our marvelous new technologies,” to surpass it. In so doing, the jet pilot transcends the physical realm and ceases to be merely human: he defies physics in simple repose. Such TechnoPromethean gibberish is, of course, an exercise in grandiose hubris that the Nuked ‘Fridge sequence parallels two-fold. First is the bona fide hubris that motivated the real-life nuclear arms race: man had tapped into a force he was not emotionally ready to wield. Second is the nondiagetic hubris the motivated Indy’s improbable escape: here is written a scene in which, through the proper application of technology (in this case, refrigeration technology) a man releases himself from the confines of the physical world, and transcends to a realm where the most dire of threats can be circumvented in ease.
I argue that the difficulty we have in swallowing the ‘Fridge-Nuking sequence is that each of these elements–humankind’s (specifically, America’s) wielding of the Ultimate Weapon, and Indy’s passive transcendance of physics–is completely disconnected from the rest of the Indiana Jones mythos. In part, the original trilogy resonates with so many because it speaks to a time that we nostalgically perceive as simpler and more innocent. Most moviegoers simply cannot gloss over the Cold War and the threat of global nuclear annihilation with the same degree of wistful longing. Furthermore, these films touch so many because of the uniquely satisfying character of Jones himself. Indy’s an odd mix of everyman and cartoon superhero, a character we’d like to project ourselves upon, and one that we enjoy gently stretching the realm of plausibility. Our credulity of his impossible acts is in part the sort that allows us to believe Frodo and Sam can destroy the One Ring–in that we wish we too could show such pluck and character–and in part the sort that allows to to believe that Wiley Coyote can continue running off of a cliff-face without falling–in that it’s funny to watch a character play around with the laws of physics, when it’s been established that the laws of physics are free to be played with.
But, as many of us understand, the laws of nuclear physics are not free to be played with.
I suspect that Lucas et al intended this sequence to fall within the pantheon of whimsical scrapes akin to the famous boulder chase in Raiders, or the life-raft escape in Temple. And yet, while those sequences employ a cartoonish defiance of natural laws to achieve a comedic effect, the ‘Fridge-Nuking sequence toys with too grave a threat to permit lighthearted comedy. (Though black comedy’s definitely fair game). Rather than avoiding death by luck and pluck, our dear Indy instead seems unwittingly thrust into an inappropriate time, equipped with inadequate tools, like some kind of sad, unintentional Quixote.