Gollum hasn't been taking enough vitamins. Photo: YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

From Aragorn's blood pressure to Gollum's vitamin D levels: the science of The Lord of the Rings

Fact versus fantasy.

Science and fantasy. One is based on facts learned through investigative method, and the other is, well, not real. But there’s something about JRR Tolkien’s legendarium, The Lord of the Rings, which has infatuated and besotted numerous scientists. These scientists, ladies and gentleman, could be classified, scientifically, as supernerds.

So in good Maiar, a myriad of scientists have pledged their allegiance to the Fellowship of the Ring through in-depth scientific study. Most of these studies are tongue-in-cheek, but they also have real scientific gravitas. For example, a recent paper, published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics, investigates whether Tolkien’s Middle Earth has higher oxygen content in order for the Men of Rohan and Gondor to perform “seemingly unachievable feats of heroism and athleticism”.

Using the gas exchange equation, test specimen Aragorn, and his “tireless defence on Helm’s Deep” against an onslaught of orcs, Richard Walker and Alice Cooper-Dunn, of the University of Leicester, estimated a 10 per cent increase in atmospheric O2 concentration in Middle Earth, compared to Earth.

“Although Aragorn gives his age to be 87, he displays the physical prowess of a man assumed to be in their mid-30s due to him being from a magical race of men, the Dúnedain, gifted with long life,” they write. “Therefore his age will be approximated to be 35 for the purposes of calculating his arterial partial pressure of oxygen.”

Walker and Cooper-Dunn write that Aragorn’s arterial partial pressure of oxygen (the amount of oxygen in the blood) is 54 per cent higher than the highest of the normal human range (100 mmHg), indicating his superior endurance. “Therefore a higher atmospheric oxygen content is shown to confer considerable physical advantage due to the higher oxygen levels in the blood, which are available to the tissues,” they conclude.

Such a study is just a drop in the ocean; other Lord of the Rings questions answered by scientists include:

  • Is Tolkien’s themes of death, longevity and aging in Lord of the Rings a fuel for his own catharsis? Yes.
     
  • Is Sméagol (Gollum), a single, (circa) 580-year-old, hobbit-like male of no fixed abode severely mentally ill? Most likely. He exhibits anti-social behaviour, increasing aggression and an over 500-year-old obsession with his “precious”, which is most likely the cause of a schizoid personality disorder, bipolar disorder or multiple-personality disorder.
     
  • Bilbo Baggins steals the One Ring from Gollum in his dark cave; Baggins defends himself with his Elven dagger and Gollum forbears. Does Gollum need vitamin D and is therefore weak without it? Possibly.
     
  • Could Frodo Baggins have really survived a cave-troll spear (film)/goblin-chieftain (book) attack in the mines of Moria without fracturing his sternum? Even if he was wearing the impenetrable Mithril shirt of chain mail and therefore still able to flee further from a Balrog shortly after? Yes.
     
  • Can mental maps of cities in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit be formed from the amount of times cities located together are mentioned together? Yes.

Professor Dan Lunt of the University of Bristol, who by day is a climate scientist, but by night “Radagast the Brown”, created a grandiose climate model simulation of Middle Earth by scanning its map into a supercomputer at the university’s Advanced Computing Research Centre. The model simulation was put into context "by also presenting simulations of the climate of the ‘Modern Earth’ of humans, and of the ‘Dinosaur Earth’, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth 65m years ago,” Lunt writes in his paper.

The supercomputer crunched the weather patterns of Rohan, Mirkwood, and the rest of Tolkien’s universe for about six days, or roughly 70 years in Lord of the Rings years. According to the model, the climate of the Shire, the pastoral dwelling place of the hobbits, is most similar to Lincolnshire or Leicestershire, and Mordor, a barren wasteland, is apparently similar to Los Angeles or west Texas – but without “the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron”. Sounds close enough.

The Shire is also comparable to Dunedin in New Zealand, he found. Lunt told the Guardian that he believes the director of the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson made a massive mistake in choosing to film in Matamata (located in New Zealand's north island). "They should've filmed in the south island," says Lunt. 

In the paper, Lunt also suggests:

  • Ships sailing for Undying Lands in the west set off from the Grey Havens due to the prevailing winds in that region.
     
  • A lot of Middle Earth would have been covered in dense forest if the landscape had not been altered by dragons, orcs, wizards, etc.
     
  • Mordor had an inhospitable climate, even without Sauron – hot and dry with little vegetation.
     

"The serious point to the study was that it showed that climate models are not just statistical models tuned to observations, but are based on fundamental physics and thus can be applied to any planet, real or imagined," Lunt tells me.

Tolkienmania continues in the scientific community: In Science's Love Affair with the Lord of the RingsJulie Beck, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, writes about a plethora of scientists who have named their scientific discoveries or tools after Lord of the Rings characters, regions, artefacts and even Tolkien himself

I ask Lunt why scientists love and study Lord of the Rings:

Underlying The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is a whole mythology, created by Tolkien, which is only hinted at in the books, but which gives depth and power to the narrative. Plus the stories themselves are captivating, and climax with action and excitement on a grand scale which is beautifully described. I expect that many others feel similar [to Lord of the Rings], not just scientists,” he adds.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump