The Schiensh of Bond: Die Another Day

We’ve put it off for as long as we could, but it’s August on BlogalongaBond and no longer can we put off the travesty that is Die Another Day. It wasn’t a bad idea in the scheme of Bond films – the plot is nowhere near as bad as that of Moonraker or Thunderball – however, the bad starts pretty early; it never really recovers from the sheer awfulness of the Madonna song. In fact, the theme tune is possibly the only thing about the film worse than the science. I welcome you to Die Another Day: STOP GETTING SCIENCE WRONG

Can you really cross a minefield with a hovercraft

Some googling suggests that yes, yes you can cross a minefield using a hovercraft. Mines can be triggered by a number of methods including pressure, movement, sound, magnetism, vibration and occasionally tripwires. Some rooting around on the internet indicates that modern military hovercraft create virtually no pressure, acoustic or magnetic signatures. Obviously, anti-personel mines triggered by tripwires are still going to be a problem for the hovercraft, but yeah – DAD got some science right.

Self-induced heart attack

I’m not even going to discuss the crazy non-invasive bioscan the MI6 medical department seems to have going on. What I am worried about is the way Bond consciously decreases his heart rate until it stops, thereby faking a cardiac arrest, and going from the heart stopping to a full blown escape. The heart contains an intrinsic pacemaker – called the sinoatrial node (SAN). If you remove a heart from the body, it continues to beat. The intrinsic heart rate can be modified by the two divisions of the autonomic nervous system – the parasympathetic system slows the heart while the sympathetic nervous system speeds it up. Some people are able to control their heart rates, and it is apparently an ability that can be learned. Some yogis claim to be able to stop their hearts, and although they can substantially alter their heart rates, their ability to stop the heart has been difficult to document under scientific conditions. They appear to accomplish this by contracting muscles in the abdomen in order to prevent blood being returned to the heart. The sounds that the heart makes become muffled, so this does appear to work.

Top panel is an electrocardiogram trace (ECG) of someone stopping their heart beat. The lower panel is the same person with their heart beating normally.

However, I did stumble across this case report of an airplane mechanic who was able to consciously stop his heart for about 5 seconds (see the figure above). The researchers suggested that the changes in the man’s heart were related to a rheumatic fever, damage to one of his heart valves, and his ability to consciously control his autonomic nervous system. This appears to be unique, down to changes in the body rather than a trainable skill. Given the brain’s absolute requirement for oxygen, if someone were to drop their heart rate until the heart stops beating, they’ll very quickly become unconscious. When unconscious, the autonomic nervous system will kick in and your heart will start beating again. Although I do wonder if Bond could go from borderline unconscious to making a rapid escape that quickly.

Excuse me, where’s this diamond from?

The chemical composition shows this is from Sierra Leone

…claims the diamond expert Bond visits, after merely looking at the diamond. Identifying conflict diamonds is difficult; physically, they are indistinguishable by eye from diamonds from elsewhere in the world. By eye, it is possible to identify some impurities. While some of these impurities can tie a diamond to a geographical origin, looking at the samples by eye isn’t good enough to identify conflict (Blood Diamond is a great film about conflict diamonds, much better than this guff, you should totally watch it). Currently, all non-conflict diamonds go through the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme – the idea is that origin of a diamond is documented. Diamonds in the scheme can only originate from countries in the scheme and can only by imported by other countries in the scheme. The idea is that you get a flow of diamonds through countries that do not deal with conflict diamonds. The Kimberly Scheme came into being around the time DAD was made. Global Witness, who were instrumental in combating the trade in conflict diamonds, are now arguing that the Kimberly Process is flawed and that conflict diamonds are coming to market as Kimberly certified diamonds.

Preliminary work has been done in the last year in which lasers vaporize a tiny piece of the diamond. The light fingerprint that this creates can be compared to those of samples from known locations. In a small scale study, the scientists were able to determine a country of origin of a diamond with 95% certainty. It will be a few years before this can be used commercially however.

Yeah, that’s not how gene therapy works. Morons.

When Jinx goes to the sleazy doctor to ask about the gene therapy he explains how it’s done

first we kill off your bone marrow to wipe the slate clean,

Then they introduce new DNA from healthy donors

First question: why kill off the bone marrow? The bone marrow is where your blood cells (which are a major component of the immune system) develop. This is why, in patients with particular blood cancers and immune system disorders, the bone marrow is killed off by radiation or chemotherapy and is replaced by that of a donor. While this may be a required first step in the crazy gene therapy in DAD to prevent the immune system killing off all the new cells with the new DNA, this isn’t how you’d actually do gene therapy.

DNA is present in most of the cells of your body (mature red blood cells do not have a nucleus so these don’t have DNA). DNA is the instruction manual on how to build everything in your body. Half of it comes from your mother and half from your father. DNA can be changed, or mutated, by exposure to radiation or chemicals (generally bad) or by a process called methylation (generally good). Gene therapy is the insertion of a gene to cure a disease. Success has been limited because it is difficult to get the new DNA into the required cells, the effects of the therapy aren’t necessarily long-lasting, and the immune system rejects the new DNA like it would attack a disease. For the crazy Cuban clinic’s ridiculous whole body DNA transplant, you’d have to change the DNA of all the cells of the body. But would you only need to change the DNA of recognisable external features like skin, hair, eyes? Colonel Moon/Graves body shape changes, indicating that his bones must also be changed. There is a question of whether you’d need to perform the transplant on the brain, would this change a persons memories? So would you transform the body one part at a time? If you are wiping out the bone marrow first, this would mean the immune system wouldn’t attack the cells with the new DNA.

Before and After

The most effective method for delivering DNA is by using a virus. Viruses are very good at taking their DNA, shoving it into the cells of other organisms which then make the bits and pieces for new viruses, assembling and releasing them. By replacing the virus DNA with new DNA, a virus can be used to deliver this new DNA to cells in the body. Human cells have 46 chromosomes. It would be hugely problematic to fit this much genetic material into one teeny tiny virus. An adenovirus (one of te virus types used in gene therapy) is 100th the size of human chromosome  (and there are 46 of them to squish in there).  This still leaves us with the problem of DNA delivery.

The dubious clinician goes on to explain that the new DNA from a healthy donor is introduced – it would seem that DNA donation is a terminal procedure, as the doctor states that DNA is taken from “people who won’t be missed”.

Weirdly, this plot point mirrors You Only Live Twice where they try and pretend Sean Connery is Japanese.

If you were going to drugs cheat in fencing, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t use steroids

It is explained that Miranda Frost won Olympic gold after an opponent was found dead after overdosing on steroids.

The dinner party from hell

Fencing is a sport that relies on speed and reaction times. Steroid usage for enhancing sporting performance is usually restricted to sports where strength is required over a brief period of time – normally sprinters, weightlifters and, for some reason, baseball players ( yeah, I don’t care about steroid use in baseball either). It’s actually pretty difficult finding any record on the internet of fencers failing drug tests; generally, the drugs of choice are  stimulants – in theory they keep you alert and focussed, although in practice they may make you shaky. There is some argument as to whether blood doping – a method to improve the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood – would be of benefit in fencing. Fencing isn’t really an endurance sport, fencing matches are usually over in a few minutes. Incidentally, the only failures I’ve been able to find have been for recreation drug usage. The biggest case I’ve come across concerns the italian fencer Andrea Baldini, who failed a test shortly before Beijing, testing positive a diuretic (something that makes you pee more), however, this was later overturned. Diuretics are on the band substances list as they are often used as masking agents in covering up usage of other drugs.

Death from an acute overdose of steroids is also quite unusual, there are a few documented case, but deaths tend to stem from long term steroid usage. Use of steroids over a long time leads to changes in the muscle of the heart which increases the risks of heart attack. Cases of fatal overdoses of steroids are almost unheard of in the scientific literature.

Wait, I think I forgot about something! In a film where the Bad science JUST KEEPS HAPPENING, I forgot about the INVISIBLE CAR!

Invisible car

Back in 2002, buried in the sheer stupid of John Cleese’s Q, DNA transplants and Madonna’s noise – MI6 might have been on to something.

Adaptive camouflage. Tiny cameras on all sides project the image they see on a light emitting polymer skin on the opposite side. So to the casual eye, it’s as good as invisible

Impossible, you ask? Well feat your eyes on this marketing campaign from Mercedes

Mercedes accomplished this stunt by covering the car in LED mats and having cameras on the opposite side, and projecting the images from the cameras on the LEDs. Exactly as Q described with the Vanquish. However, with the Mercedes setup, the car only appears invisible in one dimension. Also, the LED mats, cameras, computing equipment and additional power supply weigh about half a tonne. Probably unfeasible in 2002, however, it makes for an interesting video.

Right, Pierce, done now.

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