More on Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics

By Armando Rodriguez

The Newtonian mechanics historically precedes the movie industry in two hundred years; it still keeps ignoring its most basic laws.  Tom Rodgers ( )wrote a whole book on those insultingly stupid movie scenes that could make Newton turn in his grave. Electricity and Magnetism laws were unraveled half a century before Edison and the Lumiere brothers started the movie industry, yet its products also show as much disrespect to Maxwell and Faraday as they did with Sir Isaac. Movie electrocutions insult me ( For instance, when someone is electrocuted without the necessary flow of an electric current, it really gets me going. These movie directors don’t get the simple concept that for someone to get fried by electricity there must be at least two points of contacts; one for current to go in and another to go out. Also, for the current to have any reason for flowing , these two points must be at different electrical potentials; for instance, two hands in the same piece of metal won’t do. The birdies that land and stay on hot wires don’t fry; everybody seems to know that, except movie directors.

The bad guy goes up a metallic structure; in his pursue, the good guy tears a cable out of a conveniently nearby breaker box with a one hand single pull and pushes it onto it… the bad guy is killed while lightning bursts out of him.   Even disregarding that a tearing a half an inch cable from breaker box is no piece of cake, there are still grounds for insult:

·         The metallic structure, the bad guy and whatever wire hits it, everything will be at the same potential.  So, none of the imaginable electrical current paths can possible go through the bad guy.

·         Yard long voltaic arcs require millions of volts, not the kind of juice breaker boxes or half an inch cables are designed handle.

·         Arcs won’t jump from one point to another in the same metal structure, because they would be at practically the same potential. For an arc to happen there must be a very good isolation between the two points.

·         By the way…what prevented such long arcs from jumping to the good guy’s hand?

Another good one, is the little radio that drops into a bath tub creating 4th of July kind of pyrotechnics while the victims is electrocuted or even worst, the killer smashes a light inside a swimming pool and electrocutes the victim when she plunges into it (this director found no one to tell him that pool lights use 12 v bulbs).

My favorite on this stupid electrocution category came in Season 4 episode 11 (titled "Dead") of TNT series “Covert Affairs”.  The hero character here is a CIA operative named Annie Walker, a steaming hot blonde that had just gone rogue and had dyed her hair so no one (except all the TV viewers) can recognize her as a brunette (1).  Well, Annie wants to pull some information out of this bad guy she had captured and tied to a chair.  This guy is so bad that even a civil right activist would justify some electrical torture.  To that purpose, she puts the guy’s right foot into a bucket with water and then she goes for a nearby lamp and yanks the power cord from it (2). She splits the cable a few inches and slowly moves towards him while creating small sparks by rubbing the two wires she’s holding (3).  Annie asks a question that the bad guy refuses to answer and she threatens to stick the two wires onto him (4).  When he is about to talk, he gets shot in perfect movie style, tumbling him down together with his chair knocking the cables from Annie’s hands.  The water spills from the bucket reaching the cable that is now laying on the floor and puff… the lights go out (5). Enumerating the insults:

1.       Not electrical, but still stupid

2.       Maybe Rambo, with the arm size of Annie’s waist  can snap a cable out of a lamp and still would have need some tool  for stripping the insulation from the wire.  

3.       The slightest contact between the two wires would have produced a big blinding puff and,  fortunately for the cable bearer,  the breakers are likely go off before white hot wires can burn her hands to the bone.

4.       If she’s poking the victim with the two wires, what’s the foot in the bucket for? I’m sure this director have heard or read (or maybe even seen in some other movie) about this foot in the bucket thing, but has miserably missed the point…  One of the wires must be attached to the bucket and the other is for poking the victim’s body, always avoiding those current paths that may go through his heart and silence him for good.

5.       Breaker didn’t go off when the wires had a direct contact, but touching water… that did it! Contrary to common beliefs, pure water is as good an insulator as the plastic around the cables, yet there’s always enough minerals dissolved in tab water as to make it a fairly good conductor, yet, far from being as good as the copper in the wires!

“Breaking Bad” was a great TV series, maybe the best ever.  Chemistry may not have been perfect ( ) … neither have physics.  Here are two examples:


·         The battery…

cid:image001.png@01CF1AB9.9A1D30F0In episode nine, series two, due to Jesse’s clumsiness, he and Mr. White find themselves stranded in middle of the desert. Their RV’s battery is dead, the generator had caught fire and Jesse wasted all their drinking water in an attempt to extinguish it.  Mr. White comes up with this brilliant idea of building a battery with some metal foils, nuts, washers and a few beakers of acid. It’s true that such a device behaves as a battery, but each of those beakers would deliver about one volt, so he would have needed so many of those beakers in series to build above 12 volts in order to charge the battery (it seemed no more than like six of them).  But OK, maybe it was the kind of battery that exposes the cells, so he could have charged one cell at a time. Now there comes the issue of the available current for charging… it is proportional to the metal area and with the small foils and nuts shown on the scene, it would have taken a lot more than a few hours to charge a single cell. But there’s more, the thin wires out of the beakers are left connected to the battery in their motor starting attempt, as it somehow the few milliamps out of their primitive battery could have been of any help in the hundred or so Amperes required for starting the RV’s motor… that was insulting.

·         The other example involves magnetism…

Electric forces between point charges will weaken with the square of the distance. The electric field is defined as force per unit of charge and so, it also weakens at the same rate or as said, with the square of the distance.  An electric dipole is formed by two equal charges, one positive and one negative, separated by a small distance. In nature, dipoles are as common as point charges, for instance a water molecule is an electric dipole. The electric fields of a dipole weakens with the third power of the distance, when this distance is large compared to the charge separation.  So, the field of a dipole weakens even faster than that of point charges and here is kick... the force of a dipole field on a another dipole is not even proportional to the electric field, but only to its rate of change in space.  A dipole in a constant field experience no net force; it can make it turn, but can't make it move.  The field rate of change with distance weakens even faster… with the 4th power of the distance, in numbers:  if the distance is doubled, forces go 16 times weaker.

All the above is for explaining why forces between dipoles are very strong when near, but weaken to almost nothing with a little distance and guess what? In nature there's no such thing as a magnetic charge, there are only magnetic dipoles.  So forces between magnets, which are magnetic dipoles are very strong when near, but they practically vanish a few magnet sizes apart.  Ferromagnetic materials such as alloys of iron, cobalt or nickel, turn into magnets under the influence of a magnetic field, so they become magnetic dipoles and behave as such.

All this explains why a powerful magnet, like the ones used in cranes for lifting cars, won't lift even a nail just a couple feet away. There's this scene, in Breaking Bad episode 47th, titled “Live Free or Die”, where Mr. White uses a magnet from one of these cranes for erasing a computer hard drive.  The magnet is set inside a truck they park on the street outside the evidence room where the target computer is being kept.  The scene shows everything in that room, tens of feet away, flying towards the wall and pilling up there.  The director, showing some respect for Newton’s third law, allowed the truck to also be lifted until it leaning onto the wall.

Though the scene above already qualifies as ISMP, it also ignores the ferromagnetic shielding effect.  If a magnet is allowed to stick to a metal sheet, like one from a refrigerator or a car, no further magnetic s effects would be seen.  The magnetic field seems as having been swallowed by the ferromagnetic sheet for it being about thousand times more magnetically permeable than air.  The body of the truck’s back cabin is likely to be made of steel sheets, same as cars.  Leaning to the wall, as shown by the picture above, the magnet would be strongly pulled towards the sheet sticking to it, but still no significant magnetic field would exist outside the truck.

In the this episode, Mr. White succeeds in erasing the laptop’s hard drive with the above described procedure, yet no one ever have accomplish that of erasing a hard drive with a magnet.  A little Google search will render the following:  though fields from magnets do manage to erase magnetic tapes and magnetic strips on credit cards, they completely fail against shielded magnetic materials in hard drives. Those who had reported their attempts to erase a hard drives with a magnets, have ended up recommending some other method for the job, most of them involving hammers or torches. An experiment reported in K&J Magnetic Inc. website is specially enlightening (

Movies have always incorporated current technologies in their stories and so computer related scenes are becoming as frequent and insulting as those involving the violations of the laws of nature.  A recurring insulting scene is that of this nerdy character that operates a computer while his boss looks at the screen over his shoulder, on the sound track you can hear the clicking of his fingers over the keyboard.  First, it lets you wondering why these movie computer guys never use a mouse… OK, that’s only slightly insulting, but then here it comes the juicy one… the boss says-We’re running out of time!-  next, you can hear the keys going faster in the sound track, that’s insulting.

A few more insults:

·         The boss asks the geek- Can you hack into the Pentagon server (or NSA, White House, CIA… etc.)? – The geek answers - Sure, give me a minute!

·         An agent gets near his target, a remote geek pairs both their cellular phones and now the agent can listen to whatever the microphone in the target’s cellular is picking up.

·         The boss asks the geek - Log into the database and find me all the owners of 1995 Mustangs that have bought a pair of pants in New York’s Macy department store in the last two weeks – Here goes the sound track with the fast keyboard clicking and piece of cake… mug pictures of the guys start showing on the computer screen.

A good movie computer geek can do anything… he/she can show a live stream from any security camera in the world, hack into any satellite or write any computer program, a Trojan horse or a virus in minutes.  Anyone that has ever developed a piece of software knows how hard it is to design, write, test, debug and document their work… yes, it is insultingly stupid.

Movies have not only deceived their viewers about the laws of nature, but are also driving them into the paranoia of being heard and watched through all these modern gadgets like computers,  tablets,  smart phones and TV, etc.  On the ABC show “Shark Tank”, this entrepreneur throws his sales pitch with… “You are being watch!”.  His invention consisted in a plastic clip for covering the laptop camera. He got squashed by the sharks for business reasons, but still they shared that camera spying was a real threat.  There’s a difference between something being possible, to that of being likely. Here are a few the things that need to happen for camera or microphone spying:

·         First, some sort of malicious software must be introduced into the target’s computer without being blocked by its firewall or malware protection software.

·         Only specified events (like keyboard hit, mouse move, specific network activity, etc,) can bring a computer out of the “Sleep” state, to change these settings, administrator privileges are needed.

·         If the computer is off, only a finger on the power button can bring it back on.

Bottom line? Though possible, it is not as easy as shown on the movies.

Sometimes a lot of research goes into a movie’s wardrobe and there is even an Oscar for that, yet science and technology does not seem to deserve the same kind of attention.  Unfortunately, the only ones insulted by the gross violations of the laws of nature or by the ignorance of the principles behind technology, are us science and tech geeks, the rest are happy to believe anything they see, as long as it is entertaining. Movies are praised and awarded for their fidelity to historic events or for their political or philosophical messages, but never for their fidelity to scientific knowledge or their teachings of the laws of nature. So… why would movie directors would be inclined show to any respect?