Superspy Science: Scientist debunks some of the weirdest and wackiest plot lines in James


From lethal laser beams to ladies covered in gold paint, the James Bond films surely include some of the most spectacular set pieces in modern cinema. 

But often, even die-hard Bond fans are left wondering if the various stunts and plot lines in the beloved blockbusters are based in reality. 

Thankfully, a new book finally separates the scientifically accurate from the utterly fantastical.

Dr Kathryn Harkup, a British chemist and author, has studied all 25 James Bond films made by Eon Productions, starting from 1962’s ‘Dr No’ up to 2021’s ‘No Time to Die‘. 

In the book, she debunks some of the weirdest and wackiest set pieces involving the fictional spy, while others, she says, are surprisingly scientifically sound. 

From being cut by lasers and electrocuted by headphones, a chemist reveals whether plot lines in James Bond films are actually scientifically sound

From being cut by lasers and electrocuted by headphones, a chemist reveals whether plot lines in James Bond films are actually scientifically sound 

SUFFOCATION BY GOLD PAINT

Surely one of the most memorable scenes in the whole James Bond franchise comes in ‘Goldfinger’ (1964). 

In a Florida hotel, Bond (played by Sean Connery) finds the dead body of Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) who has been coated from head to toe in gold paint. 

In the following scene, Bond explains to his superior M at MI6 that humans suffocate if the body is painted unless ‘you leave a small bare patch at the base of the spine to allow the skin to breathe’. 

But as Dr Harkup reveals, despite the common assumption by Bond fans, this is not scientifically accurate at all. 

In actual fact, only about 2 per cent of the body’s oxygen supply is absorbed through the skin – so blocking it with paint wouldn’t stop us from breathing. 

The only way we’d suffocate from paint is if it obstructed our major breathing pathways – the mouth and the nose. 

Dr Harkup says: ‘The image of Masterson’s gold body lying on the hotel bed has become ingrained in popular culture and the idea of being killed by skin suffocation has become accepted as fact, even though it is nonsense.’ 

More than 40 years later, the scene was recreated in the 2008 Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace’ starring Daniel Craig. 

In 'Goldfinger' (1964), Bond (played by Sean Connery) finds the dead body of Jill Masterson (played by Shirley Eaton) - who has been suffocated by having her skin painted gold

In ‘Goldfinger’ (1964), Bond (played by Sean Connery) finds the dead body of Jill Masterson (played by Shirley Eaton) – who has been suffocated by having her skin painted gold 

Dr Kathryn Harkup tackles all 25 Bond films in her new book, Superspy Science: Science, Death and Tech in the World of James Bond

Dr Kathryn Harkup tackles all 25 Bond films in her new book, Superspy Science: Science, Death and Tech in the World of James Bond

In a nod to the original scene, Bond finds MI6 agent and love interest Strawberry Fields dead and covered in crude oil.

However, considering the character was drowned in the oil rather than just being covered in it, this scene is more credible.

DEATHLY LASERS 

Later in Goldfinger, Bond wakes up to find himself strapped to a table by the film’s eponymous villain, played by Gert Fröbe. 

Goldfinger flicks a switch and a bright red laser beam starts advancing towards Bond’s crotch. 

As Goldfinger explains, his ‘industrial laser’ that emits ‘an extraordinary light not to be found in nature’ is able to ‘project a spot on the moon or at closer range cut through solid metal’. 

As Dr Harkup points out, the laser should make short work of slicing through a secret agent and would have ‘started its bisection at one of the most sensitive parts of Bond’s anatomy’ before eventually reaching his vital organs. 

While it’s true that lasers can cut through flesh and metal, it wouldn’t have looked like the red one coming from the villain’s contraption. 

James Bond (Sean Connery) has been captured by Auric Goldfinger, who has set up a gold laser beam inching towards 007’s crotch

James Bond (Sean Connery) has been captured by Auric Goldfinger, who has set up a gold laser beam inching towards 007’s crotch

In fact, it should have been infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, but then it wouldn’t have been visible to cinema-goers. 

‘The red light from Goldfinger’s laser would be almost completely reflected by the metal and it doesn’t have the power to cut through Bond’s body either,’ the expert says. 

BULLET IN THE HEAD

When we’re introduced to villain Renard (Robert Carlyle) in ‘The World is Not Enough’ (1999), he has a bullet lodged in his brain.  

However, he’s still alive, and apart from a nasty scar the only side effect seems to be the loss of his major senses – touch, smell and pain. 

As the MI6 doctor explains, the bullet is still moving – albeit very slowly – through the part of the brain called the medulla oblongata, killing off the senses. 

She says: ‘He can push himself harder, longer than any normal man. The bullet will kill him, but he’ll grow stronger every day until the day he dies.’ 

So is this even at all possible? 

In 'The World is Not Enough' (1999), the villain Renard (Robert Carlyle) has a bullet lodged in his brain

In ‘The World is Not Enough’ (1999), the villain Renard (Robert Carlyle) has a bullet lodged in his brain

In a nutshell, no.

Dr Harkup calls this ‘a huge exaggeration for the benefit of the fantasy world of 007’.

Aside from the fact that bullets have no reason to become lodged in soft tissue, they ‘do not bore neat little tunnels’ in the brain as shown in the film. 

What’s more, the bullet’s path of destruction would result in more than just diminished senses, such as ‘dramatic changes in personality’. 

‘Damage will be extensive and likely to knock out several other important functions along with any regions involved in pain perception,’ Dr Harkup says.  

HEADPHONE ELECTROCUTION 

Near the start of ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (1981), MI6 sends a helicopter to pick up 007 (Roger Moore) for an emergency mission. 

Unfortunately, the headphones of the pilot have been rigged by the evil Blofeld to deliver a lethal electric shock so he can sabotage the aircraft. 

Although the shock is delivered with cartoon-blue electric flashes, this is something of a ‘credible electrocution’, according to Dr Harkup. 

Blofeld could easily have tampered with the pilot’s headphones, exposing a few wires and connecting them to a high-voltage supply, she explains. 

Electrocution through headphones? It could happen, albeit without the cartoon-blue electric flashes as seen in 'For Your Eyes Only'

Electrocution through headphones? It could happen, albeit without the cartoon-blue electric flashes as seen in ‘For Your Eyes Only’ 

‘The route between the two earpieces would take the current through the brain, where it could disrupt nerve signals controlling breathing and cause unconsciousness, even if it didn’t kill the unfortunate pilot immediately.’  

What’s more, in the real world there have been several tragic reports of people being electrocuted by their headphones while they’ve been plugged into a charging phone, thought to be due to faulty equipment. 

CROCODILE RUN 

‘Live and Let Die’ (1973) contains a campy but memorable sequence that’s fairly characteristic of the Roger Moore era. 

In the Deep South, Bond is left to be eaten by crocodiles, but our hero escapes by running along the animals’ backs to safety. 

This really is possible – although Dr Harkup doesn’t recommend trying it. 

Astonishingly, the stunt was performed with real crocodiles – not by Moore, but by crocodile farm owner and stuntman Ross Kananga, a self-confessed croc wrestler. 

The scene required five takes, including one where a croc snapped at Kananga’s heel, tearing his trousers and causing several injuries (one of which required 193 stitches). 

‘One of them turned around whipped his head around and actually bit the heel of his shoe,’ Moore later recalled. 

‘If it had been me it would have been my whole leg.’ 

As Dr Harkup points out, ‘seemingly impossible scenarios’ like this can be brought to life by the expertise and collaborative efforts of filmmakers – not to mention brave stuntmen. 

In 'Live and Let Die', Bond is left to be eaten by crocodiles, but our hero escapes by running along the animals' backs to safety

In ‘Live and Let Die’, Bond is left to be eaten by crocodiles, but our hero escapes by running along the animals’ backs to safety

NANOBOTS 

The latest Bond film, ‘No Time to Die’, was completed just before the Covid pandemic, yet a key element of the plot is eerily similar to the deadly coronavirus. 

MI6 is secretly working on the ultimate biological weapon – tiny programmable devices called ‘nanobots’ the size of a red blood cell, invisible to the naked eye.

The nanobots can be programmed to recognise DNA profiles of select individuals, or groups of individuals with the same genetic profiles, and kill them. 

As a result, people infected with the nanobots are unable to hug or even touch their family members without killing them. 

Pictured, the nanobots in 'No Time to Die', which leave infected people unable to hug their family members without killing them

Pictured, the nanobots in ‘No Time to Die’, which leave infected people unable to hug their family members without killing them

Fortunately, these nasty little bots do not exist in real life and are unlikely to exist anytime soon, according to the chemist. 

Aside from the nanobots being unable to pass through skin to infect someone, they are likely to be physically degraded upon entering the body. 

What’s more, assembling devices that are quite so small, either by human workers or an automated process, would be beyond today’s technological capabilities.  

Dr Kathryn Harkup tackles scenes from all 25 Bond films in her new book, ‘Superspy Science: Science, Death and Tech in the World of James Bond’, which has been published in paperback by Bloomsbury

SO FAST, MR BOND! 007 TAKES ABOUT 2.3 MEETINGS WITH A WOMAN TO SEDUCE HER

A study of the first 24 James Bond films by Dr Richard Zegers at Utrecht University shows the agent seduces women in 2.3 meetings.

More than 27.8 per cent of Bond’s targets succumb on first acquaintance and, among these, the number of sentences uttered between initial chat-up and bedroom is typically between seven and eight.

Across all 24 films, however, Bond takes a little longer – needing about 37 sentences per seduction. 

However, there is not a single hint in any film that MI6’s finest agent has ever practiced safe sex.  

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