Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/6/2014 (837 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A recent episode from my favourite TV show, Game of Thrones, ended with one of the most horrific scenes of violence you'd ever want to see (or turn away from): A gigantic warrior, nicknamed "The Mountain," literally crushing another man's skull with his bare hands. Gregor Clegane, a.k.a. The Mountain, jumped on top of his foe, Oberyn Martell, in a death match, placed his thumbs in Martell's eye-sockets and squeezed until, well, Martell's brains blew out the top of his head.
When I recovered, I began to wonder whether this could actually happen, and I emailed two researchers who have studied the strength of the human head.
The consensus: No way. Not a chance. Not even for The Mountain, whom George R.R. Martin, author of the novels that have been transformed into the hit series, describes as nearly eight-feet tall and weighing about 420 pounds of solid muscle.
Tobias Mattei, who has looked at how well children's bike helmets protect their heads, was definitive in an email to me.
"It would be impossible for even the strongest human to break the skull through compressive forces exerted by any means (either with their hands bilaterally or by stepping [on] it) in any portion of the skull," he wrote.
Cynthia Bir, a biomedical engineer at the University of Southern California, said in an email that her "knee jerk response is that there is no way to get the head to explode by applying pressure from the eyes. You would need to create pressure inside the cranium. Even if you could generate pressure by squeezing the outside of the head, once the cranium is breached at the orifice where the eye nerves enter, this pressure would be greatly diminished."
OK then. Now let's look at the particulars.
Mattei, who noted helpfully "fresh cadaver skulls are much more resistant to crushing/fracture than formaldehyde-preserved or desiccated skulls," said the thinnest region of the skull bone is about two centimeters above and in front of the top of your ears. Sort of where your temples are.
To fracture the skull there would require 500 kgf, or the force that 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) would exert in standard gravity. A man would have to weigh 500 kg (1,100 pounds) to do that by stepping on the head, and, Mattei said, it would be "impossible to break it with his hands even if 90 per cent of [his weight] were biceps muscles."
I asked Mattei, a neurosurgeon at the Brain & Spine Center of Invision Health in Buffalo, N.Y., about the eye-socket strategy. "Extreme pressure on the eyes would lead to rupture of the globes with leaking of its content," he responded. "However, it would probably not be exciting for TV fans because it would only lead to a leakage of a clear fluid between the warrior's fingers. Probably a small fracture of the inferior orbital wall -- the thinnest portion of the orbital wall -- would occur (this is a common fracture called "blowout fracture"). No explosion would be seen. The eyes of the victim would be pushed backward some few inches. That's it."
-- The Washington Post