Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Physics: It's not a Game (Gamer)

I recently saw a movie which reminded me why I'm doing this. The movie was Gamer. This was a pretty bad movie, but the biggest problem it had was a very serious tendency to ignore the laws of physics when it comes to certain objects. Most notably amongst these was Newton's Third Law of motion, and bullets.

Newton's Third Law is a very simply stated law: For each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What this means is that if something is pushed on, that thing will push back on the thing doing the pushing just as hard as it is being pushed on. Overall this is a very positive thing. I imagine it would be problematic if an object pushed on the ground, but it only pushed back with half of the force. The ground would be unable to support the object, and it would sink! There are other consequences of the Third Law however. The problem is, this applies to any object feeling force, including a bullet being fired out of a gun. The bullet feels a large force as it is accelerated down the barrel of the gun, this force is then transferred through the firearm to the person holding the weapon. Which brings us back to Gamer.

In Gamer, there is a scene where the main character is attempting to rescue his lady from her job. There are people chasing him, and one of these people corners him in front of a doorway. The villain fires a gun at him, and he is propelled back with enough force that he is first knocked off his feet, then destroys the door behind him. Despite his rather epic flight through the door, the man who fired the gun barely had to brace it and recovered almost instantly to grab the lady. There are all kinds of things wrong with this scene, but we'll take them one at a time.

All of the problems stem from one thing: bullets aren't very massive objects, and people are. To propel a person back a projectile requires a lot of momentum, and the only way a bullet has that kind of momentum is if it's going very very fast. Normally a bullet going very fast wouldn't be stopped by a person, but the hero was wearing body armor, so it's assumed that the bullet transferred all it's momentum to the hero. So the question is, how fast would a bullet have to be going to pack enough momentum to throw a person back. It turns out that the equation is very simple:
Mass of the bullet multiplied by the speed of the bullet has to be equal to the mass of the person and bullet together multiplied by the speed of the bullet and person together, after the impact. This can be represented by:
Mbullet*Vbullet = Mboth*Vboth
So, by filling in the rest of the variables, the speed of the bullet before it hits the hero is known. First, assume that the hero flew back at 5 meters per second, or about 11 miles per hour. Since he was knocked off his feet and through a door, this might be on the slow side, but it will work well enough for our purposes. Then assume that, being a large man, he massed about 100 kg. Next, we need a mass for the bullet. Since a NATO standard 7.62mm round masses .01kg we can take that to be a fairly close approximation of the bullet used. Solving for the speed of the bullet we get that it would have to have been going 50 kilometers per second, or 112,000 miles per hour. This number is roughly 4.5 times the speed required to shoot and object into space and have it never come back. Now, there are objects which travel at this magnitude of speed which people see all the time, they are meteors, tiny bits of rock which occasionally fall through the atmosphere. The thing is, most meteors are very small, and at these speeds even sand grain sized meteors are visible from the ground, 50-60 miles away! So, imagine something that's emitting as much light as a bright meteor, but is only several feet away. Catching on fire due to the intense heat and being blinded by the light would be larger problems than just getting shot at.

Now that the bullet speed is known, it's time to take a look at the effect this would have on the person. The problem here is that the gun had to push the bullet up to that speed, so one of two things should have happened. Either the man holding the gun should have been thrown back at the same speed that the person hit with the round was, or (and this is much more likely) the gun would be ripped from his hands and hurled back itself. If the gun massed about the same as and M16, it would have been hurled backwards at 320 miles per hour.

The worst part about all of this is that the scene could have been easily achieved without the use of the impossible bullets. An explosive device planted in the elevator would have the same effect of being surprising and knocking the protagonist back, but it wouldn't have required breaking the laws of physics to achieve. So lets leave the really high speed stuff to meteors and keep bullets in the realm of the reasonable. It's odd though, in the scene just after the one discussed, they had a very interesting Newton's Cradle, kinda like this one, only full of scantily clad women:
Odd how you can have such a good example of physics in a movie next to a complete lack of it.


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