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It's Life Sciences, Mr. Bond

The 007 films are jam-packed with action, suspense and some truly unbelievable biological science, according to the authors of a new book on Bond

By | September 8, 2006

Moviegoers' expectations are rising in anticipation of the mid-November release of the latest James Bond epic, Casino Royale, and life scientists can only hope that maybe this time, the producers will finally get things right. Unfortunately, history doesn't bode well: in all of the previous 20 Bond adventures, the laws of biology and chemistry were routinely ignored. The flawed science in the Bond films is responsible for some pervasive myths in modern society. Take Goldfinger, for example, perhaps the most popular Bond film ever made and one of the most influential movies of its time. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, our hero wakes up to find his companion, the beautiful Jill Masterson, dead, her barely clothed body completely covered with gold paint. She died, we are informed by Bond, because the paint clogged her pores and her skin couldn't breathe. The story soon spread from the screen to the real world. Newspapers all over the country carried articles about the dangers of body paint. Stories about doctors supervising the painting scene to ensure the health of Shirley Eaton, the actress who played Masterson, ran in numerous gossip columns. All of which left biologists shaking their heads in bewilderment. As John Jaenike, chairman of the Biology Department at the University of Rochester, says, "If Jill Masterson were a salamander, then preventing her skin breathing could have been fatal. However, humans obtain oxygen through their lungs. Anyone who has snorkeled knows that being totally covered by water isn't fatal." Hugo Drax, the bad guy in 1979's Moonraker was a multibillionaire with global ambitions and the money to turn his dreams into reality. Drax saw the world as used-up, corrupt and badly in need of a make-over. He had just the solution. Headquartered on a huge space station circling the Earth, Drax and his disciples planned to kill all humanity. Afterwards, he and his minions would father a new, more perfect race. The only thing Drax needed was a virulent poison that would kill people but leave the plant and lower animal life untouched. When Bond finally tracks Drax down, he finds the billionaire in the Amazon jungle. It's here that Drax has located a poisonous orchid whose dust kills humans but leaves plants and animals unharmed. Drax has already loaded his space station with bombs filled with the stuff. He intends to spread the dust all over the world and watch mankind perish. Needless to say, Bond stops him. But why bother? Life scientists know there aren't any orchids with poisonous pollen. Drax should have used castor-oil plants, the source of ricin, one of the deadliest poisons known to man. It's fatal, but also stable in aerosol form, so it can be spread easily through the air, and there's no known antidote or vaccine. Now, that would have made a truly frightening menace. Another example of the flouting of science appears in the most recent 007 film, 2002's Die Another Day. Here, Bond finds himself pitted against Colonel Moon, who travels to Dr. Alvarez's mysterious clinic in Cuba, where he undergoes DNA replacement therapy to change the appearance of his face. If Die Another Day had been made in the 1960's or 1970's, instead of specializing in DNA replacement therapy, Dr. Alvarez would have been a plastic surgeon. Villains' faces were surgically altered without great difficulty in both Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever. The so-called DNA replacement therapy in the 2002 film sounded snazzier, but it involved using the subject's bone marrow and was so painful that Colonel Moon never slept. In reality, of course, DNA replacement therapy is an experimental treatment for cancer and other diseases, not a way to change the shape of your nose. While the technology could have some cosmetic applications in hair growth and other areas, it's a big leap from there to using it as plastic surgery. The early rumors are that the latest Bond film omits the junk science and is more realistic. Maybe, but life scientists have reason to be skeptical. Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg are the authors of The Science of James Bond: From Bullets to Bowler Hats to Boat Jumps, the Real Technology Behind 007's Fabulous Films (John Wiley & Sons, Sept. 2006). Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg mail@the-scientist.com Links within this article Casino Royale http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/casinoroyale/site/ John Jaenike http://www.rochester.edu/College/BIO/faculty/Jaenike.html Ricin http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/ricin/facts.asp Gene therapy for cancer http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/gene N. Saito et al, "High efficiency genetic modification of hair follicles and growing hair shafts," PNAS, 99:13120-124, October 1, 2002. http://www.pnas.org/ The Science of James Bond: From Bullets to Bowler Hats to Boat Jumps, the Real Technology Behind 007's Fabulous Films http://www.amazon.com/
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Comments

Avatar of: Sheila

Sheila

Posts: 1

September 8, 2006

Let the science remain fictionalize. The world has changed. People just need a little information to take matters into their own hands. Of course where there is a will there is way, but why help in the process.
Avatar of: Keith

Keith

Posts: 1

September 8, 2006

I had fun reading this article and remember the Goldfinger paint/skin story well. My suspension of disbelief was never quite up to accepting a lot of the Bond science.\n\nWhile reading the article, however, I clicked on the link to read about ricin. Hmmm. I wonder if I'm now on the "No Fly" list.
Avatar of: Peter

Peter

Posts: 6

September 9, 2006

It's been at least 25 years since I read the book, but I am reasonably sure that the "paint suffocation" storyline in Goldfinger can be traced to Sir Ian Fleming's original novel, and thus Hollywood creativity is not the guilty party in this case. \n
Avatar of: David Bump

David Bump

Posts: 15

September 9, 2006

"The only thing Drax needed was a virulent poison that would kill people but leave the plant and lower animal life untouched."\n\nSuggesting that "Drax should have used castor-oil plants, the source of ricin" implies that ricin is not harmful to "lower animal life" -- showing that even science writers can slip up on a point or two?\n\nNot to mention, the Moonraker movie was rather tongue-in-cheek, if not downright high camp, in places. All of these fantastic scientific errors are part of the fun, and all the moreso for those who know how silly they are.
Avatar of: Paul

Paul

Posts: 1

September 11, 2006

Thank you for again pointing out the inaccuracies the media passes off on the public regularly. Although I have been involved in Science education for many years, I find myself confused after hearing some information as news reports or parts of story lines.

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