Intuitor Strikes a Blow for Decency in Movie Physics!

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics

Movie buffs: learn why what you thought was nonsense really is.

Physics students: learn how the principles and equations you learn in school can actually be applied.

Technonerds go to movies strictly for entertainment, and of course, the most entertaining part comes after the movie when they can dissect, criticize, and argue the merits of every detail. However, when supposedly serious scenes totally disregard the laws of physics in blatantly obvious ways it's enough to make us retch. The motion picture industry has failed to police itself against the evils of bad physics. This page and its companion book. is provided as a public service in hopes of improving this deplorable matter. The minds of our children and their ability to master vectors are (shudder) at stake.

While many movies do fall short there are example of good one. See Intuitor's Recommendations for Movies With Good Movie Physics



In the name of physics decency, to protect the minds of children everywhere, so that they may grow up in a world where they know the difference between speed and velocity, we have taken the responsibility to rate movies for their portrayal of excessively bad physics. The system is as follows:

  • GP = Good physics in general

  • PGP = Pretty good physics (just enough flaws to be fun)

  • PGP-13 = Children under 13 might be tricked into thinking the physics were pretty good; parental guidance is suggested

  • RP = Retch

  • XP = Obviously physics from an unknown universe

  • NR = Unrated. When a movie is obviously a parody, fantasy, cartoon or is clearly based on a comic book it can't be rated but may still have some interesting physics worth discussing.



Movie Physics and Mojo
by Tom Rogers

"Is America Losing It's [technological] Mojo?" asked a recent Newsweek article and according to its author, Fareed Zakaria, the answer appears to be yes. While the solution to a turn-around is certainly complex, the knee-jerk reaction is to teach more math and science but how? In South Carolina (as I suspect most states) we already require 4 years of math and 3 of science for high school graduation. Fitting more math and science into the high school schedule is not likely to happen. Clearly if K-12 education is to be part of the solution, then teaching more effectively needs to be the goal, and here the starting place needs to be physics.

For every student taking Physics in high school there are roughly three taking Biology. Furthermore, the physics class is often taught by someone with relatively little physics background. The single largest profession using sophisticated science and math on a regular basis is nether the scientists or mathematicians. It's the engineers. They outnumber mathematicians, life and physical scientists  added together by roughly a factor of three. And what is the primary science engineers use? Physics.


Since its start-up in 1997, "Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics" has received hundreds of thousands of visitors including NASA scientists, high school and university physics teachers and at least one published science fiction writer. We have received many helpful suggestions and constantly consider them as we improve our site.

"Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics" has been reviewed or listed in  Physics Today Magazine, The News Letter of the American Physical Society, The New York Times, and The Hollywood Reporter, as well as numerous other publications. It has been listed on Fark and Slashdot and been featured on the Osgood Files and NPR as well as many other radio stations.

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics was recently published as a book--a companion to and extension of the web site.

The vast majority of comments we receive are positive. However, for the others we offer the following: Yes, we do have lives and also do enjoy movies. No, we are definitely not "normal" but then we have never met a "normal" person, although we're sure there is one somewhere in the world.

So what has this to do with Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics (ISMP)? Hollywood, through bad example, has given us part of the answer for how to teach physics better and attract more students. The ISMP site was created, at least in part, to take educational advantage of Hollywood's gift and educators around the country are benefiting.

I recently made a public presentation about movie physics at Vanderbilt University (yes, I do give public presentations). Beforehand, I spent nearly 3 hours discussing movie physics with various Physics Department professors. It turns out that even at a well regarded research university like Vanderbilt, they're highly interested in anything that can help them teach physics and attract students to the classes. They see movie physics as one of the possibilities.

Indeed, I use a classroom set of my own books and give reading assignments out of them in addition to the usual textbook assignments. Movie physics examples are a regular part of my repertoire along with examples of bad physics in various conspiracy theories, including the Twin Tower collapse and the Kennedy assassination. We work problems related to historic events such as the WWII Pearl Harbor attack, as well as problems related to modern issues of global warming and energy supply. Over a period of years my class sizes have increased, probably due to these practices. ( I teach high school calculus based AP Physics mechanics for a first year course followed by electricity and magnetism in the second year.)

However, when it comes to the passing rate on the AP Physics Exams, my real secret weapon isn't movie physics, it's coaching. Instead of working problem after problem on the board while students take notes, I work as little as possible then send the students to the boards to work while I coach. If a problem goes slowly, I discuss it with the group, then have them re-work it again until it's locked in their minds. Students can learn about physics from lectures but in the end, just like an athletic skill, they have to do it to make it their own and being coached while doing so speeds the process.

I hope physics education in the United States will improve and I think it would help in restoring the country's technological mojo, but full restoration is going to take nothing less than cultural change. That's what the ISMP web site and its parent site are really about: valuing and paying attention to the basis of our economic success--the nerd stuff.


Read past perspectives in the Perspective Archives


Some insultingly stupid movie physics are so commonplace as to make it inefficient for us to rail about individual instances. They have become visual clichés and do for movies what verbal clichés do for literature. Really good movies like Casablanca don't need visual clichés to build excitement. They depend on less glitzy techniques like good plot, character development, and sparkling dialog. While a complete list of movie physics clichés would be lengthy, we've listed a few of the common ones:

Flashing Bullets

The special effects representing impacting bullets typically give off bright flashes of light. Normal bullets, especially handgun bullets, do not.

Part of the reason stems from the fact that handgun bullets are usually made of copper-clad lead or lead alloys. In the chemical industry it's commonplace to limit maintenance workers to copper-alloy or lead hammers when they are working in areas where flammable fumes may be present. Hammers made of these materials do not produce sparks when they strike objects, while steel hammers can. If you've never noticed this phenomenon with steel hammers, don't be surprised, the sparks generally are barely visible even under ideal lighting conditions.

The non-sparking tendencies of copper versus steel can be seen if the metals are ground. Grinding a piece of steel will produce a copious quantity of sparks even in bright lighting. If copper tubing is ground it may produce an occasional spark due to a contaminate on the grinding wheel or copper, but will be virtually spark free.

(Note: grinding is potentially hazardous. It generates hot, high velocity metal particles. The grinding wheel can also fly apart at high velocity. Soft metals can clog a grinding wheel. It should only be done with proper safety equipment and precautions.)




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We definitely don't recommend grinding lead because it produces toxic particles in addition to the other hazards of grinding. However, when ground under controlled conditions to prevent lead contamination, lead performs similarly to copper.

Bullets do get hot when they strike solid objects. The worst case would be if all of a bullet's kinetic energy were instantly converted to thermal energy when a bullet struck its target and all the thermal energy remained inside the bullet. This is highly unlikely but easy to calculate.

A .45 cal handgun bullet, for instance, has a mass of 0.015 kg and a muzzle velocity of around 288 m/s (at the upper end of velocity for commercially available ammunition). Kinetic energy is calculated from the mass and the magnitude of the velocity of an object using the following equation:

  KE = ½mv2
    KE = kinetic energy
    m = mass
    v = velocity

We calculate that such a bullet has a kinetic energy of 619 J. If this kinetic energy is all converted to thermal energy, the temperature rise can be calculated as follows:

  D T =
      D T = temperature difference
      Q = heat transfered to the object
      m = mass
      Cp = specific heat

Using a specific heat of lead equal to 0.128 J/g/K we get a temperature increase of 324° Celsius. If the bullet starts at room temperature (24° C) it will end up at 348° C (659° F). The melting point of lead is 328° C.

For the moment let's not worry about whether the bullet melts but what it might look like if it did. Molten lead looks like newly polished silver and is sometimes used in movies to represent molten silver, for example, when someone casts a silver bullet to kill a werewolf. Molten silver, on the other hand, glows red (melting temperature = 962° C). At its melting temperature,  lead does not glow with visible light.

The analysis would be similar for most common handgun or sub-machine gun bullets. (Note, submachine guns use handgun bullets.) On the other hand , High powered rifles contain much more kinetic energy and have the potential to get a lot hotter.

If we make similar calculations for a high-powered rifle bullet such as the .223 Remington 1 (similar to the 5.56 NATO round used in M-16 rifles) but also account for lead's heat of fusion, we find that at point blank range there is enough energy in the bullet to easily melt the bullet's lead core and most likely also its copper jacket. The temperature of the combined metals in this case would exceed 1000° C and glow a bright orange.

Do bullets really get as hot as our calculations suggest? No. Most of the kinetic energy leaves a bullet between the time it hits and comes to rest. Part leaves in a shock wave transmitted into the object the bullet strikes. Part goes into deforming and/or breaking up both the bullet and the object. In addition, bullets make good thermal contact with the object they hit, causing heat to be transferred out of the bullet.

We've shot numerous rifle and pistol bullets and have yet to see a bright flash of light from an ordinary bullet. Yes, a bullet can obtain a static electric charge as it flies through the air. On impact, it can also cause pieces of rock to strike each other and produce sparks. A small, high-powered bullet like a 5.56 NATO round could potentially get hot enough to cause some level of flashing when fired against an unyielding steel barrier. Steel-jacketed or steel core bullets are available in many types of military ammunition and can also cause some sparks. However, sparks caused by ordinary bullets are not as dramatic as the large flashes of light depicted in movies and generally can't be seen in daylight conditions.

Bullets containing incendiary material such as white phosphorous are the exception. We've seen these bullets fired, and they do indeed produce bright flashes of light when they hit as opposed to ordinary bullets which do not. Incendiary rounds were originally designed to start fires when riddling the fuel tanks of enemy vehicles but also make it easy to see where bullets are striking. Even heavy machine gun bullets are not reliable sources of ignition unless they contain incendiary materials. While incendiary ammunition can be found, it's not commonly used outside of the military. (Note: incendiary bullets are different from tracer bullets which produce a streak of light as they travel to the target. These can also light fires but are designed mostly to help gunners see where their bullets are going before they hit.)

At best, flashing bullets aren't needed. At worst, they detract. Serious movies generally don't use them. Subtlety can be far more dramatic. For example, merely hearing bullets thunk against steel beams as the troops waded ashore in the movie Saving Private Ryan was positively chilling.


Flaming Cars

Ever notice how cars in movies always burst into flames the instant they collide with anything? Our favorite is when a car falling from a high place explodes the instant before it hits the ground. It's as though its gas tank gets panicky and detonates at the mere thought of striking Earth.

Fortunately, the physics are not so cooperative. It takes a whole series of conditions all of which must be exactly right for a gas tank to explode.

Even when a wrecked car catches on fire it rarely explodes. A gas tank can explode if it contains an explosive mixture and there's an opening for the flames to enter. More likely, fire would have to impinge on the outside of the gas tank, vaporizing the gasoline in the tank causing it to overpressure and eventually explode. However, if the vapors escaped fast enough the tank would not rupture.

Most fires start in the engine compartment and will not spread backwards to the gas tank area unless the tank is leaking fuel on the ground. Again a whole series of events has to be just right for an explosion to occur.

Although it's actually quite rare, exploding cars are a common excuse for not wearing seat belts. Onlookers at crash sites are often so concerned about explosions that they unnecessarily jeopardize a person with a spinal injury by pulling them out of a wrecked car. The common Hollywood depiction fuels these harmful misconceptions.

For more complete details see our site's companion book .

Can a Handgun Bullet to the Gas
Tank Blow up a Car?

The mixture in a gas tank is typically too rich to explode and this alone precludes the oft repeated shoot-the-gas-tank-blow-up-the-car scene. Furthermore, copper jacketed lead bullets are not good spark producers, hence, not good igniters but what about a steel jacketed or steel core bullet hitting that one in a million gas tank that is so close to empty it does have an explosive mixture in it?

When a piece of steel is ground, it emits a shower of yellow orange sparks--tiny particles of superheated metal. Judging from the yellow orange color the particles are over 1000 °C, certainly above the auto ignition temperature of gasoline air mixtures.

We donned safety gear and poured a small quantity of gasoline in an aluminum pie pan—just enough to wet the bottom. Using a pneumatic grinder on a bolt we showed the pan with sparks. The result: nothing.  We dropped in a lit match and poof—flame.

Okay, no number of experiments can ever prove that grinding sparks will never ignite gasoline. There's no way to test all possible conditions. Grinding near gasoline is dangerous, but it's also clear that grinding sparks aren't a reliable source of ignition.

We didn't test bullets, but it's doubtful that one, particularly a handgun bullet, will reliably set off gasoline fumes.

The above experiments were conducted in a safety conscious manner under the supervision of a qualified professional. Do not attempt them on your own.


Problems with Windows

No, we're not referring to Bill Gates's woes (or lack of them), but to the ways movie windows refuse to obey simple laws of physics. Apparently no one in Hollywood has ever picked up a piece of broken glass and suffered the inevitable bloodied finger.

Saying that shards of broken glass are razor sharp is an understatement. A shattered window contains thousands of incredibly sharp edges and dagger-like points. It takes almost no force for one of these points or edges to cause a laceration. However, people in movies routinely jump through plate glass windows without receiving a single scratch.

Broken glass has at least two mechanisms for slashing a person diving through a window: its weight and its inertia. First, large heavy shards of glass can fall like guillotines, slicing off body parts. Second, when a person jumps or, even worse, drives a motorcycle through a window, the shards of glass tend to stay in place due to their inertia. The only way to move them is to apply a force. If the person's body provides this force by pushing on the edge of a piece of glass, it can slice right through clothing, skin, and flesh. In the real world, jumping or driving through a plate glass window would be suicidal.

There are individuals who have accidentally fallen through windows without sustaining serious injuries. There are also people who have survived the Ebola virus. However, in both cases the odds are not particularly good.

Safety glass helps considerably because it's designed to completely shatter into small pieces with low amounts of weight and inertia, not to mention rounded rather than sharp edges. Laminated safety glass adds a thin layer of plastic sandwiched between glass layers. This helps keep pieces of broken glass from becoming projectiles.

Safety glass  is not a soft surface. All car windows are made of one or the other form of safety glass. Nevertheless, when craniums impact car windows it often results in head injuries, including lacerations and broken bones or teeth.

A person who jumps through a safety glass window would be far more likely to avoid serious injury than if he jumped through a plate glass window, but would still likely sustain at least minor cuts. All it takes is one minor cut on the head or face to make a person look like a bloody mess. The numerous injury-free jumps through windows seen in movies is merely filmmaker's magic.

For more complete details see our site's companion book .


The Attractive Force of Glass

Our hero stands innocently on the sidewalk as a sinister car approaches with a shotgun protruding from the window. Suddenly he sees it, but—blam— it's too late. He's blown violently off his feet and flies several feet backward through the nearest display window. Fortunately, he's wearing his bulletproof vest and survives.

If he were not on the sidewalk by a display window, then invariably he'd be blown into a rack of whisky bottles, a giant mirror, or some other large glass object. This happens so often that if we didn't know better we'd think Hollywood had discovered a new principle of physics: the attractive force of glass for shooting victims.

Unfortunately conservation of momentum says it can't happen. A bullet or even shotgun blast simply does not have enough moment to propel a victim violently backwards.

For more complete details see our site's companion book .


It's Not Newton's 3rd Law

Contrary to the explanations given in some venues, the fact that shooting victims are not thrown violently backwards by bullet impact forces cannot be explained using Newton's 3rd law. These explanations usually claim that the recoil force on the shooter is an action/reaction pair with the bullet impact force on the victim—simply not true.

Action/reaction pairs of forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. They occur simultaneously. While the recoil and bullet impact forces are opposite in direction they do not occur simultaneously. The recoil force begins before the bullet strikes the target. It is generally lower in magnitude than the bullet impact force but lasts for a longer time.



Outerspace Explosions


Sound is a pressure wave which requires matter of some sort to propagate it. It moves along at a rather sedate velocity of 340 m/s (1120 ft/s) in atmospheric-pressure air. Light, on the other hand, is an electromagnetic wave and needs no matter for transmission. It moves in a vacuum at 300,000,000 m/s (186,000 mi/s).

An explosion would create an expanding cloud of gases that would likely move at supersonic speeds and eventually impact spaceships in its path. If it hit at close range people inside would hear a sound as though their ship had been slammed in the side by a giant hammer. At some distance the sound inside the ship would be like a strong gust of wind blowing against the spacecraft's outer hull.

Observing an exploding spacecraft in outerspace would be quite dangerous compared to observing one on Earth. The shrapnel and debris from exploding spacecraft would attain very high initial velocities just like they do on Earth. However, with no gravity to pull them to the ground and no air drag to slow them down, the debris would travel outward in straight lines virtually forever until they hit something.

Distance from the explosion would reduce the number of projectiles striking a spaceship. However, impacting pieces would have the same kinetic energy they had right next to the blast. A spacecraft would have to use the time afforded by distance from the explosion to raise its shields or risk annihilation. Being in a desperate battle surrounded by exploding ships and having no shields would be certain death.

For more complete details on space battles and how they might unfold see our site's companion book .


Visible Laserbeams

From security systems to space adventures, conveniently-visible red laserbeams are a common part of our movie experience. Too bad they often don't reflect reality.

Multi-beamed laser security systems are a frequent Hollywood plot device. Again and again movies feature tension-filled scenes in which characters

Figure 1: A Conveniently Visible Hollywood Laser
Figure 2: A Real Laser
Figure 3: A Real Laser Shining Through a Cloud

 snake their way through mazes of laserbeams artistically arranged in random patterns by professional security fools to entertain us by making would-be thieves do contortions. A simple arrangement of closely-spaced parallel beams would be contortion-proof but certainly not as much fun.

Unfortunately the tension-filled fun requires visible beams. And anyone who's used a typical red laser pointer knows that visible red laserbeams are as commonplace as the quintessential dimly-lit smoke-filled room. Shine a pointer under normal conditions and you get a puny dot of light, not a visible beam extending dramatically across the room. It's only when the laserbeam hits a diffuse surface that its light is scattered in all directions, some towards your eyes, allowing you to see the dot.

The only way to "see" a red laser pointer's beam is to shine it through a cloud of smoke, chalk dust, mist, etc. in a dimly-lit space. The small particles in the cloud act as tiny diffuse surfaces which scatter part of the beam toward your eyes. Dust particles usually create a sparkling effect as they float through the beam. Sunbeams and moonbeams are created in the same way. Technically, what you actually see are the particles in the cloud, not the beam itself.

With the correct wavelength of light, laserbeams can make air in their path glow. If a photon of the correct wavelength hits an electron in the air it can "bounce" it to a higher energy level. Eventually the electron returns to its normal level by emitting a photon. The light emitted by the electrons in the air is not laserlight because it's not all going in the same direction, but it is all the same color as the laserbeam shining through it. However, it's hard to see in a lighted room unless the laser has a very high power level.

We might applaud Hollywood for often making security-system laserbeams invisible, but alas, it's a plot gimmick used only when needed for dramatic tension. Movie characters typically respond in some clever but unrealistic fashion.

Sometimes they spray aerosols. In theory this could make beams visible, but in actual practice it's hard to find a spray that both works and persists in the air. The spray itself could trip a sensor with high sensitivity and would only work in dimly-lit spaces.

More recently, Hollywood actors have started using special glasses. Again, light must shine into the eyes to be seen, and the glasses don't cause the photons in laserbeams to veer off course towards the actor's eyes. Glasses can only alter light already shining into your eyes.

Yes, night vision equipment could amplify laserlight scattered by dust. Infrared (IR) goggles could make it possible to see otherwise invisible IR lasers. However, both still require particles in the air and could often be defeated, simply by providing bright ambient lighting.

Perhaps the biggest problem with multi-beamed laser security systems is that in the real world they're rarely used. Systems with active light sources typically use inexpensive infrared LEDs. They give off invisible infrared light much like an ordinary light bulb gives off visible light. Intruders trip these systems by creating a shadow on a detector. By comparison, a laserbeam is expensive and requires precise alignment.

Passive infrared devices are even cheaper because they require no special IR light sources. Human beings are like walking infrared light bulbs. A single inexpensive passive sensor can be used to detect the presence of human motion for an entire room. While multi-beamed laser security systems are not impossible, there's usually no reason to use one.

When low-power lasers are used for something like crime-scene investigation they are always clearly visible. In fact if the plot calls for it, security beams will not only be visible, but arranged in an impenetrable grid pattern. In the movie Murder at 1600, Wesley Snipes encounters a visible grid of this type in a tunnel under the White House. Just when the situation looks hopeless, Snipes cleverly sets it off and hides in the tunnel. The Secret Service agents are, of course, distracted by Snipes' associate who leads them on a chase in the opposite direction out of the tunnel.

From the standpoint of visibility, laser gunfights are usually depicted realistically. We must also admit there's something ominous about seeing a little red dot on a person and knowing a bullet could soon follow. However, laser sights are used in some ridiculous situations; for example, on sniper rifles.

When a sniper looks through the telescopic sight on his rifle, he knows where the bullet is going to go relative to the crosshairs. Adding a laserbeam would do nothing except tip off the victim that he's about to be shot and give him time to duck before the bullet arrived. It would also help reveal the sniper's location.

Hitting a moving target using a laser sight would be extremely difficult. The sniper would have to lead the subject and so the red dot would be projected in front of the target where it could easily be lost in the background.

High-powered laser blasters or deathrays would be easier to see than the low-powered versions used in security systems and gunfights. The light reflected by particles in the air would be brighter since the laserbeam itself would be brighter. And as mentioned earlier, even a low-powered laser of the right wavelength would cause the air to glow. A high-powered laser would make it glow even brighter because it emits far more photons to collide with electrons in the air .

Outerspace lasers are another matter. There's no air and few particles to make them visible. To make matters worse, some movies show laserbeams shooting through outerspace like glowing spears. All light, including laserlight, travels at 3×108 m/s or 186,000 mi/s (in a vacuum), so fast that the human eye couldn't possibly detect the motion of a laserbeam even if it were in the form of a glowing spear. The afterimage of the moving light source would make it appear as a continuous beam from the source to the target.

Yes, a blaster or deathray could be something other than a laser. It could be a high-energy particle beam. The beam might be visible but would travel at such high velocities, it would look like a continuous beam from the source to the target.

Moviemakers generally throw in enough mumbo jumbo to obscure the mechanisms behind their fictional weapons, leaving some room for imagination. We also have to admit that a cool-sounding, glowing spear-like blast does have dramatic appeal. However, such blasts are speculative if not outright silly from a scientific standpoint.


The Sound of Movies

The secret agent fixes his steely gaze on the crowd across the street in a park seven stories below. He methodically assembles his weapon. First he locks together the stock and barrel, then snaps his telescopic sight into position. Lastly, he screws on an oversized silencer 3 . He carefully selects a shiny 7.62 mm NATO round (chosen, no doubt, for its long range accuracy) and chambers it using the weapon's bolt action.

A dastardly terrorist wanders into view. The secret agent raises his weapon and coolly squeezes the trigger. On the street below onlookers hear an innocuous "fut" sound. The secret agent steps back from the window undetected, his assignment completed.

Unfortunately for the secret agent, he's not so likely to go undetected. A 7.62 NATO round is supersonic and would cause a miniature sonic boom even if the muzzle blast from the rifle was muffled 4. Yes, the miniature sonic boom is not as easy to pinpoint as a muzzle blast but does produce a very noticeable noise which can draw attention to a shooter.

Even silencing the muzzle blast to a mere "fut" is next to impossible. Muzzle blast noise can exceed 150 decibels 5 (measured at the shooter's location) and is one of the loudest sounds humans are likely to hear. Silencers, suppressors, or cans as they are sometimes called 6 have to be precision made using very exacting technology to have any hope of quieting such a loud noise.

Considering that the threshold of pain is only 130 dB, we're actually glad Hollywood sound tracks don't accurately reproduce the noise of muzzle blasts. If they did, the only sound action movie fans would hear as they staggered out of the theater would be the ringing in their ears. In Blackhawk Down, the soldier who had an automatic weapon fired near his ears really would have been left temporarily, if not permanently, deafened.

SWAT teams sometimes use silencers, not for stealth, but to insure that they will be able to hear if one of the SWAT team members fires a shot inside the confined space of a room. Discharging an unsilenced firearm in a room can cause temporary deafness. Silencers are also sometimes used in raids on clandestine methamphetamine labs. Discharging a normal firearm produces a muzzle flash which can set off volatile fumes. Silencers act as flash suppressors.

Sound is a form of energy transfer and we could define loudness in terms of the energy per unit of time or power output, but it wouldn't give the complete picture. Sound waves travel outward like balloons expanding around their source. Some amount of a sound's energy  is distributed on the surface of each wave. Since a wave's sound energy is fixed and its area increases with the square of the distance from its source, the amount of energy per unit of area in the wave declines rapidly as the wave moves away from the source. About the same wave area contacts a person's ear regardless of how far she or he is away from the source. The area, however,  contains significantly less energy when the source is far away rather than up close, which is why a distant sound is not as loud.

Power per unit of area (called sound intensity) would be a better measure of loudness than just power alone. Sound intensity accounts for the fact that the ear receives less power when the source is far away rather than close. Unfortunately, human perception of loudness is not linear with respect to sound intensity. In other words, doubling the sound  intensity does not double the perception of loudness. The perception of loudness is, roughly speaking, logarithmic and is represented somewhat better by the decibel scale as follows:

  b = 10 log(I / Io)
      b = relative sound intensity in decibels
      Io = sound intensity at the threshold of hearing (1 x 10-12 W/m2)
      I = sound intensity of the noise (W/m2)

Even the decibel falls short of being a true indicator of perceived loudness. The loudness of a noise also depends on its frequency or pitch. Sound measuring equipment, at least partially, accounts for this fact by using various frequency weighting filters. The dBA scale is the most common of these applications. However, if we assume that a muzzle blast's frequency content is in the general vicinity of optimum hearing and that the blast's frequency content doesn't change with loudness, then the unweighted decibel scale is a reasonable indicator of relative loudness for purposes of discussion.

The logarithmic nature of  hearing makes muzzle blasts even harder to silence. Let's see what happens to the relative loudness level if we reduce the sound intensity of a muzzle blast by a factor of two. This means we're removing half of the energy from the sound waves. Using the above equation we get the following:

  b = 10 log[I / (2Io)]
    = 10 log(I / Io) - 10 log(2)
    = b0 - 10 log(2)
    = 150 - 3.0
    = 147 dB


Cutting sound intensity in half only reduces the relative loudness by merely 3 dB. This would be barely noticeable. A good set of ear plugs typically reduces noise by about 30 dB and so, would reduce a muzzle blast from 150 to 120 dB, still a very loud noise. We estimate that the innocuous "fut" sound made by a movie silencer is roughly 50 dB 7, a whopping noise reduction of 100 dB from the dB level of a muzzle blast! In other words, a silencer has to reduce sound intensity of a muzzle blast by a factor of 1010 to give such a low relative loudness. This can be done with a very well designed and precision made silencer using subsonic ammunition. However, even commercially available silencers are more likely to give a reduction of 30 to 40 dB similar to ear plugs, than the incredible 100 dB reduction frequently portrayed in movies, especially when used on high-powered rifles.

We love the "highly effective" makeshift silencers which movie characters cobble together on the spur of the moment. These have been created with everything from pillows to potatoes. Our favorite is a scene from On Deadly Ground where Steven Seagal "effectively" silences a semi-automatic handgun by taping an empty 2 liter soft drink bottle to the end of the gun barrel and gets the usual "fut" sound. At best, jury-rigged silencers can reduce noise levels only slightly. At worst, they can become obstructed causing the silencer or gun barrel causing it to overpressure and burst 8. We might add that unregistered silencers are also illegal, even if they are relatively ineffective homemade creations.

Since Hollywood isn't overly concerned about loudness, then certainly it's not going to obsess over small details  like decimal points. The speed of sound is roughly 300 m/s while the speed of light is 300,000,000 m/s (both numbers are accurate to one significant figure). Yet, moviemakers consistently think the two speeds have decimal points in the same location. If an artillery shell explodes on a distant hill the sound invariably arrives simultaneously with the image. Lightning typically coincides with thunder. When a car careens off the edge of a cliff and smashes into the boulders below, we instantly hear the explosion.

Perhaps we should just write this one off to dramatic license, but the truth is virtually everyone knows about the time delay between images and sound. In a movie, if a minor mismatch between an event and its sound causes a distraction, then dramatic license justifies eliminating it. Otherwise, why portray anything falsely, especially when most people know and accept the truth.

We have previously mentioned that noises cannot be transmitted through the near vacuum of outer space because sound has to be transmitted through matter. Why then does Hollywood persist in playing engine noises every time a spacecraft passes by. Seeing a giant craft float silently past would be far more dramatic because it would be unexpected in our earthbound lives.

Arguably, the most dramatic scene in the 1968 movie 2001: A  Space Odyssey  occurs when the computer HAL locks Dave out of the spaceship and Dave is forced to enter the ship in a dangerously unorthodox manner.   Even though Dave sets off explosive bolts, the scene is totally silent because there is no air in outer space. Yet, the scene coveys a sense of utter desperation.

2001 is included in most lists of the top 100 movies of all times (#22 on the AFI list of the top 100 films), has an enduring quality, and cult following because it got the physics of space travel essentially right. It's not a particularly strong movie in terms of plot, action, or pacing. Its best dialog comes from its most notable character, a computer portrayed as a disembodied voice and unexpressive camera lens. Its ending is almost incomprehensible. Still 2001 demonstrates that silence is strongly emotional.

The 1970 movie Tora Tora Tora was nominated for four Academy Awards including the award for sound.  It won the award for Best Visual Effects. The movie was a marvel of special effects for its time and was vastly superior in historical authenticity to the more recent movie Pearl Harbor. Yet to modern viewers it has an annoying audio distraction. The bullets make a fake sounding ricochet noise when they hit. In 1970 this was standard practice but now sounds ridiculous. Movie makers would do well to take note of this fact. Movie history itself shows that the public eventually does reject nonsense.


Cigarettes as Lighters


We have seen a controlled experiment where a lit cigarette was introduced into a mixture of a few drops of gasoline and pure oxygen. The result: a very loud explosion, so...

Before proceeding further we want to emphasize that under the right circumstances a cigarette can ignite gasoline with horrific results.

Lighting puddles of gasoline with cigarettes in movies is a common device. The character takes a few puffs and tosses the glowing cigarette in the puddle. Immediately, the gasoline ignites. However, numerous readers have written us saying it isn't so. Some cited experiences where they saw it attempted. Others said that cigarettes don't get hot enough.

We searched the web and found several sites that say the glowing tip of a lit cigarette is well above the autoignition temperature of gasoline. Normally this information would have convinced us, but as mentioned before, some of the people writing in seemed to have personal experience. Finally, we decided to conduct an experiment.

We poured a very small amount of gasoline in an aluminum pie pan or slightly deeper cake pan and placed it in the middle of a concrete slab. The pie and cake pans were chosen because they allowed the gasoline to spread out into a very shallow puddle the way it would if spilled on the ground. It also pretty much guaranteed that the vapors at some point above the pan would mix enough with air to form an ignitable mixture.

  Figure 4: Cigarettes snuffed by gasoline Figure 5 Smoldering cigarettes on a gasoline soaked paper towel
  Figure 6: Gasoline soaked paper towel at the moment of ignition with a match Figure 7: Vigorously burning gasoline soaked paper towel after lighting with a match


We lit a cigarette and tossed it into the pan. The cigarette paper wicked up gasoline and quenched the glowing tip without igniting anything (see Figure 4). We tossed in more lit cigarettes. We tried lighting gasoline soaked paper towels. We used long tongs for reaching far away objects to hold glowing cigarettes over the pan at various heights. More than once we placed several glowing cigarettes in the pan (see Figure 5). Our record was 40 glowing cigarettes at one time. In most cases, we allowed the glowing cigarettes to smolder until they went out.

Various experiments were conducted at different times of the day with different air temperatures and humidity. A total of 223 cigarettes of 11 different types were eventually used all without ever igniting the gasoline. Yet, at the end of each experimental session the gasoline was successfully lit using a single match attached to a long pole (see figures 6 and 7). The gasoline would typically ignite just before the match touched it. This indicated that there was an ignitable mixture above the surface of the gasoline. Numerous lit cigarettes were in this region for significant periods of time.

We knew that puffing a cigarette would increase the tip's temperature substantially and would help mix vapor and air together. We became convinced that puffing a cigarette over the gasoline would cause it to ignite. To test it, we built a simple smoking apparatus which could draw air through the cigarette or push it backwards out the tip.

We tested the apparatus repeatedly in both modes without getting ignition. During a test a cigarette was consumed rapidly and glowed brightly. Often sparks shot or fell off the cigarette. They were smoked at various levels above the gasoline to insure that at least part of the time they were in a region with an ignitable mixture. Surprisingly, even when a cigarette was puffed it didn't ignite the gasoline.

As mentioned earlier, we stand firm that under the right circumstances cigarettes can ignite gasoline, however, tossing a lit cigarette into a puddle of gasoline, as is done in many movies, is not a reliable way to do it.

If you want additional information about the reason why cigarettes are not a reliable ignition source please check out our book.

Experiments described above were conducted in a safety conscious manner under the supervision of a qualified professional with years of experience in handling dangerous materials. Do not attempt them on your own.



Note: movies marked recommended are those which should be part of your DVD collection because they are worth viewing more than once. The reasons vary: sometimes the best tools of learning are good examples, sometimes bad ones. Also be sure to see Intuitor's Recommendations for Movies With Good Movie Physics.


[PGP-13] The Karate Kid 2010 -  A so-so remake of a classic.

[XP] Avatar -  The spectacle is astonishing. On the other hand, The plot, dialog and characters are typical Hollywood and the physics--ouch. Make no mistake, however, Avatar will have a significant place in movie history. recommended- The spectacle should not be missed.

[XP] Star Trek 2009 - It's filled with junk science, but they did a great job with the characters and dialog. The movie remains true to the spirit of the original TV series--that's a relief. recommended- It's a worthy reboot of the franchise.

Preview: Star Trek 2009 - We're excited but cautious. A reboot of Star Trek is a colossus. Read about what to look for.

[XP] The Day the Earth Stood Still  (2008) - Don't bother with the remake. Rent the original.

[PGP-13] Quantum of Solace  (2008) - Okay, the new Bond style has its flaws but it is a steep in the right direction.

[PGP-13] Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull  (2008) - Better than the Temple of Doom but not up to the standard set by Raiders of the Lost Ark.

[RP] 10,000 BC  (2008) - The wooly mammoth animation is amazing but don't expect much else..

[RP] Jumper  (2008) - No reason to jump for joy over this movie: neither a compelling story or compelling physics.

[PGP-13] No Country for Old Men (2007) - The best bad guy since Darth Vador

[PGP] The Kingdom  (2007) - Some definite steps in the right direction but basically a shoot-em-up with a Saudi Arabian setting

[PGP-13] The Astronaut Farmer  (2007) - A cool nerd fantasy but takes some effort to suspend reality

[PGP-13] Casino Royal (2006) - Could Bond's new gritty sense of realism extend to other venues?

[GP] Who Killed the Electric Car (2006) - A documentary in murder mystery format—sort of—about the introduction and demise of the electric car in California.

[GP] An Inconvenient Truth (2006) - Al Gore's presentation detailing every aspect of global warming . Comprehensive but no new information.

[PGP-13] The Da Vinci Code (2006) - Forget the insults to Christianity, forget the incorrect "facts", and distorted history, the movie is, at best, mediocre as pure fiction..

[XP] What the #$*! Dө wS (k)pow!? (2004) - A New Age propaganda piece which purports to teach about quantum mechanics



  • If you find muddled thinking entertaining, then, please, read no further. It will spoil your fun.
  • Be aware that we have to reveal plot details to discuss ISMP.
  • Yes, we do discuss artistic elements, logic, and plausibility. Nothing highlights bad movie physics like bland artistic elements. Artistic license is often required for the sake of story, but it has to have an artistic purpose.

Intuitor's Pick - #1 Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics Classic

This movie is so bad we finally had to force ourselves to quit writing and post the review.

[XP] The Core (2003)

recommended- It's so bad, it's good.

Free Instructions for the Chess Variant Forchess

A great way to combine self-development and entertainment in a four-handed chess version.





While the reviews are no longer available, many of these movies are discussed in the web site's companion book.

[PGP-13] King Kong (2005) - Don't see this movie just for the special effect, see it for the script, but first rent the original 1933 classic.

recommended- After renting the 1933 version (you only have to see it once) purchase the 2005 version. It's too much fun to only see once.

[XP] Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) - The opening scene wins Intuitor's Pick - #1 Insultingly Stupid Space Battle Classic

[RP] The Day After Tomorrow (2004) - This movie looked like a contender for distinction of Worst Physics Movie Ever. However, it was mostly guilty of gross exaggeration as opposed to total nonsense like The Core.


Matrix Movies

The Matrix has not just become a popular movie but also a somewhat popular insanity defense.. According to Stephen Kiehl of "the 1999 film has been used, with some success, in at least ... three ... murder cases in which young defendants attempted to justify their crimes with allusions to the movie's philosophy that the world people live in is only a dream sequence controlled by a computer. Violence is condoned as a way to get out of the fake, oppressive world of The Matrix." This argument is now being used in yet a fourth case, that of sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo. (,0,6939899.story?coll=bal-home-headlines)

[NR] The Matrix Revolutions (2003) It's simply a well-made cinematic comic book.

[RP] The Matrix Reloaded (2003) Contains a car wreck scene that, while not realistic, is a classic of stunt driving.

[RP] The Matrix (1999) A great movie until it positively trashes the 1st law of thermodynamics.


[NR] The Hulk (2003)

[PGP-13] K-19 The Widowmaker (2002)

[PGP-13] The Sum of All Fears (2002)

[RP] Reign of Fire (2002)

[GP] Road to Perdition (2002)

[PGP-13] The Bourne Identity (2002)

[NR] Spider-Man (2002)

recommended- The physics are definitely comic book, but the movie has heart. This is the way cinematic comic books should be made.

[PGP-13] Collateral Damage (2002)

[XP] A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

[XP] Planet of the Apes (2001)

[PGP] The Score (2001)

[PGP-13] Swordfish (2001)

[PGP-13] Pearl Harbor (2001) - Egregious history as well as bad physics

[RP] The 6th Day (2000)

[XP] Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999)

[XP] Armageddon (1998)

recommended- A feel-good movie with comic book physics that performs a serious public disservice by trivializing one of the worst long-term threats to human existence. This movie is full of bad examples worth discussing in the physics classroom.

[PGP] Gattaca (1997) - A reasonably intelligent science fiction movie that explores genetic engineering and the human spirit.

[PGP] Titanic (1997)

[PGP-13] Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

[RP] Independence Day (1996)

[RP] Eraser (1996)

[RP] The Abyss (1989)

recommended - The quintessential under water film.

[PGP] The Terminator (1984)

recommended - The time travel part is beyond established physics and the terminator's abilities a definite stretch but the movie is clearly a classic with perhaps the single most intense chase scene ever.




The Day James Bond Died or When Reality Collided With Hollywood



Want to Learn Physics?

We get lots of e-mails from people who feel they've missed out and now want to learn some physics. Often they're studying on their own and ask for our input about how to get started. Without hesitation our recommendations are as follows:

  1. Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics: Hollywood's Best Mistakes, Goofs and Flat-Out Destructions of the Basic Laws of the Universe by Tom Rogers: Okay, we admit our bias, but the truth is the companion book to our web site is one of the best ways to start down the path of learning physics. It covers most of the topics included in a typical high school or first year college physics course with clear explanations of principles written in an entertaining and humorous style that people with no physics background can understand. When you're ready for it, the book also includes text boxes with enough mathematics and technical information to take your physics knowledge to the next level. It's an excellent classroom resource.
  2. Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt: This is the simplest physics textbook available, and yet it does an excellent job of covering basic subjects. It's expensive but is usually available as a used book and is well worth owning. We recommend it especially for our readers who are very interested in physics but have not had a lot of formal training. Be sure to read it cover to cover.
  3. Thinking Physics: Understandable Practical Reality, by Lewis C. Epstein: Once you have a little physics background, this book will be delightful. It's filled with all sorts of physics brain teasers that require no mathematics. The book is pricey but well worth the cost. It's a wonderful book to jump around in and read when you only have a few minutes available.
  4. Basic Physics : A Self-Teaching Guide (Wiley Self-Teaching Guides) by Karl F. Kuhn is not as imaginative as the above selections but is a cost effect resource for learning how to work physics problems.

If you are planning to take a physics course for the first time, we recommend that you read both Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics and Conceptual Physics cover to cover, ideally about a year before you take the course. Success in a physics course requires some skill in mathematics but physics is not a math course. It has a lot of conceptual material and specialized vocabulary. By giving yourself a head start you will increase your chances of success.

For advanced high school students here are our AP Physics Recommendations


Movie Physics Books

First the Web Site, Now the Book

Yes, a companion book to the Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics (ISMP) web site is now in print with lots of new content not available on the web site.

Read about:

  • how Star Wars compares to Star Trek
  • ISMP in the movie JFK
  • the physics behind the real Pearl Harbor
  • the single biggest ISMP mistake
and many more topics in the ISMP book. Click here for more information.


Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax"
by Philip C. Plait. While the book deals primarily with bad astronomy it also discusses movies. The book is fun to read as well as an excellent resource. We highly recommend it as well as his Bad Astronomy web site.

The Physics of Star Trek (Star Trek Series) by Lawrence M. Krauss, Stephen Hawking. Virtually all the scientists and engineers we have met are at least to some extent into Star Trek. Many, in fact, are fanatic trekies. Krausse's book is highly readable and gives the Star Trek fan much food for thought.

Beyond Star Trek: Physics from Alien Invasions to the End of Time
by Lawrence M. Krauss. This book expands beyond Krausse's original book on Star Trek. For example, it contains a detailed review of Independence Day.


The Best Physics Related Book Ever Written

One Two Three . . . Infinity : Facts and Speculations of Science (Paperback) by George Gamow . Okay, maybe calling it the best is hyperbola, but you will not be disappointed. This book is a classic.


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