The Schiensh of Bond: Goldfinger

22 months, 22 Bond movies – hang on as we continue with The Incredible Suit’s BlogalongaBond ride!

Goldfinger, arguably, is where James Bond hits his stride, complete with gadgets, girls and over-the-top – occasionally stupid – death scenes. Goldfinger: Murder By Overly-Elaborate Death.

Shocking. Positively Shocking

Bond takes out his would-be assassin by shoving him into a full bathtub and throwing in an electrical heater. Everyone knows that water and electricity don’t mix – why, you ask?

Interestingly – water, the in its purest H2O form is a very poor electrical conductor. The water molecules don’t carry any charge; electricity is defined as “the movement of charged ions” (according to my A-level physics notes). Therefore, in its purest form, water doesn’t conduct electricity. Having said that, water almost always has stuff dissolved in it – usually minerals. Water is a very good solvent for dissolving things, things that dissociate to charged particles – known as ions. These dissolved ions can carry electrical charge, and because of this, most of the time water is a good conductor.

When someone gets electrocuted, the electricity has to get past the skin. Skin’s not a bad insulator and provides a small amount of protection. What is a good conductor is salty water, and a pretty big percentage of the human body is water (about 65%), and various salts: sodium, calcium and potassium ions, are dissolved in this. This ability of bodily fluids to conduct electrical current is pretty important – this is what keeps your heart beating, keeps your lungs breathing and is the very lifestuff of your brain.  If a plugged in piece of electrical equipment comes into contact with water, which carries electrical current and makes good skin contact with someone in the bath, it will cause an electrical shock. In the US, domestic power supply from the mains is 120V (in the UK it’s 240V). So we’re talking about probably 120V, a large area of skin, so the electrical current will reach the heart: the poor dude thrown into the bath tub probably died of cardiac arrest – this means the coordinated pattern of electrical excitation that keeps the heart beating has been disrupted. So, he’ll go into muscle spasms for a bit until his brain stops working due to lack of oxygen.

Skin Suffocation

Bond comes round after being knocked out to find Jill Masterson covered in gold. It’s a rather iconic death, but the gaffaws you get in response to the term “skin suffocation” amongst biologists are almost deafening.

” She died of skin suffocation.  It’s been known to happen to cabaret dancers. It’s all right provided you leave a small bare patch at the base of the spine to allow the skin to breathe.”

That is utterly absurd. Humans do not breathe through our skin, nor is their a need for the skin to breathe for survival. This is a massive pile of cackwaffle. Mammals including humans breathe through our lungs – they are specially adapted for gas exchange. Air goes into the lungs, diffuses into the blood and is then transported around the body. Rather clever really. If skin suffocation is really a problem, way more people would die scuba diving. Think about that.

The gold paint myth was actually tested in an episode of Mythbusters. They tried it twice. The first time they took baseline readings of temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen saturation and tested Jamie Hyneman skin for sensitivity to the gold latex paint and then entirely covered him in the paint. Once covered in the paint he claimed to feel a bit weird. Shirley Eaton, who played Jill Masterson also confessed to feeling odd – like she was about to be ill. Jamie said much the same thing, his blood pressure increased and he said parts of him felt hot and other parts cold. The doctor on the show suggested that this might be a flight-or-fight response (blood pressure becomes raised in preparation to run or fight). It was also pointed out that sweating via the skin is the main method by which the body loses heat: if the body is unable to cool itself down this can lead to heat stroke, if body temperature remains high, the process that keep you alive become disrupted and can lead to coma and death. But this didn’t seem to correlate with what happened to Jamie. The doctor reckoned that leaving just one small bare patch on the lower back would probably not affect this heatstroke problem.

Mythbusters second attempt at the skin suffocation myth involved coating Adam Savage in gold latex paint – this time they left the patch of bare skin at the base of the back, but Savage didn’t suffer changes in blood pressure in the same way that Jamie did.

Skin suffocation aside, toxic substances used on the skin can cause problems; the Elizabethans suffered from slow painful deaths as their make-up contained lead. Interestingly, Buddy Ebsen, who was cast to play the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz was hopitalised as a result of breathing in the aluminium powder in the make-up he was covered in.

Killer Bowler Hat

This killer bowler hat belongs to Auric Goldfinger’s most iconic henchman, Oddjob. Though I suspect this isn’t his real name. The bowler hat is steel rimmed, and if we are to believe the evidence at the golf club, can cut through solid marble. I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried hacking apart rocks with a bread knife. It doesn’t work, I just end up with a blunt knife and a tired arm. Oddjob’s pretty strong though, he can crush a golf ball with his hands. Luckily for us, Mythbusters have tested this one too. Although they were able to knock the head off a plaster statue with a steel-rimmed bowler hat, and with the help of a hat throwing robot, decapitate a hollow marble statue, the most solid statue made of concrete could only be chipped. But it seems to me that death by steel-rimmed hat, as suffered by Tilly Masterson would be possible; Oddjob’s hat breaking her neck.

Is this possible? Consider that the amount of force required to break a human neck: according to the amusingly-named KGB answers page this is 168 Newtons (I can’t verify this though). From studiously taking notes during Mythbusters, I was able to glean the following. The hat brim, as a rough estimate based on a brim width of 5 cm, thickness of 0.5 cm, and the hat itself being about a foot wide would weigh perhaps 1.5 kilos (based on the density of steel being 7800 kilos per cubic metre). The hat-fliging machine used in Mythbusters was recorded as throwing a hat at 54 feet per second. I work in metric, so that’s 16 metres per second, over 2 metres. According to Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. I’m assumning 16 metres per second is the average velocity over 2 metres, given the hat is accelerated from an initial speed of zero; so let’s double it to get the speed at which the hat hits the statue: 32 metres per second. That still gives us an acceleration of *math scribbling noises* 205 metres per second per second (acceleration = change in velocity divided by twice the distance covered). As force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration, the force with which the hat hits the statues in the Mythbusters’ experiment is 307 Newtons. Approximately. Which would probably be enough to break Tilly Masterson’s neck. The hat didn’t decapitate her because it would have had to slice through the muscles and soft tissues of her neck, whereas the statues were stiff material and more brittle.

Incidentally, Delta Nine Nerve Gas is Fatal

Auric Goldfinger’s fiendish plan is to poison everyone in the area of Fort Knox with Delta Nine nerve gas so that he can break in and make all the gold in Fort Knox radioactive; thus increasing the value of the the gold in the rest of the world. The fictitious Delta Nine is effective when dispersed from the air, much like other nerve agents. And also in a boardroom when attempting to weasel out of paying your business partners.

Nerve gases come up reasonably often on film (my personal favourite is The Rock; just think of it as a James Bond sequel :D). They contain organophosphates, idea behind them is that they disrupt the normal way that nerves control muscles. They prevent uptake of the neurotransmitter acetylecholine. Generally death is caused by blocking messages from the phrenic nerve (which controls breathing) getting to the diaphragm, the victim can’t breath and suffocates. The effects of nerve gases can be reversed by using drugs that block the action of acetylcholine (like atropine – which is the poison in deadly nightshade). Of course, in Goldfinger, Pussy Galore switches the canisters, so everyone in or around Fort Knox survives.

It’s very dangerous to fire guns in planes

In the final showdown, Goldfinger, along with his “does Scaramanga know you’ve got that” golden gun, takes one last shot at killing Bond. He’s probably still sore over that golf game. On the subject of guns and planes, Bond had previously explained to Pussy Galore:

“That’s a Smith and Wesson forty-five.  If you fire it at this close range, the bullet will pass through me and the fuselage like a blowtorch through butter.  The cabin will depressurise and we’ll both be sucked into outer space together.”

In the struggle that ensues between Bond and Goldfinger, the gun gets fired and the bullet goes through a window, Goldfinger gets sucked through the window. Bond doesn’t. His grip on a rail prevents him from being sucked out of the plane. This being sucked out of an airplane during airplane decompression is a much used device in TV and film; examples include CSI: Miami and Con Air. This has also happened in real life. Why does this happen? Air pressure.

Air pressure is lower the higher you go. I estimate that the plane is cruising around 17,000 metres. At 17,000 metres air pressure is 10 kilopascals. Which is one tenth the air pressure at sea-level, and, as cabin pressure in an airplane would, presumably, be kept at the sea-level air pressure of 101 kilopascals, the air pressure inside the plane is about ten times the air pressure outside the plane. When the window is broken, air rushes out of the plane, as pressure attempts to equalise with that outside the plane.  Anything not firmly held in place would be sucked towards the open window, including Auric Goldfinger. Assuming he wasn’t too fat to go through the window. The low air pressure outside the plane also results in one tenth the amount of oxygen available at sea-level; anyone exposed to such low oxygen levels for long enough would asphyxiate – pass out and die. But I doubt that one minute of low oxygen – the time from the window being shot and the time the plane crashes into the sea – would be long enough to kill Goldfinger. The impact however, probably would.

So, despite close calls with lasers, golden guns and atomic devices, Bond survives to reappear in Thunderball, when Schiensh will return, next month…


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  1. #1 by Ivan on March 27, 2011 - 16:24

    I’m still waiting for the rom-com spin-off in which Capungo (the electrocuted man in the bathtub) wakes up and starts hearing women’s thoughts.

  2. #2 by daniel on June 5, 2015 - 01:05

    Meh. Not a bad rundown but you make some incorrect assumptions. Once odd job releases the hat it will not accelerate. It will decelerate due to friction, gravity and potentially wind resistence.

    Your discussion regarding nerve gas is also partially innacurate. The agent acts by blocking the signals to allow all muscles to unclench. Death is not kind or pretty. Picture every muscle in your body contracting extermely until bones break, circulation stops, and you can’t breathe because your diaphragm stops working.

    The plane is not pressurized at 0 elevation pressure. Tnat is why your ears pop and why dehydration is a concern during normal flight. Also, goldfinger was completely sucked out of the plane.

    it is a nice thread idea but don’t make it worse by posting junk science authoritatively.

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