Could Khan Really Crush a Human Skull With His Bare Hands?

Slate's Culture Blog
May 29 2013 12:21 PM

Star Trek Into Skull Trauma

cumberbatch_trek
Benedict Cumberbatch

Paramount Pictures

Phasers, photon torpedoes, and bat’leths: The weapons of Star Trek are as iconic as they are unused. The original series was meant to show the value of diplomacy, exploration, and peaceful progress. Weapons were a last resort. But when you’re staring down a vexed Vulcan or crazed Klingon, you have to defend yourself. May I suggest using genetically enhanced strength to crush your opponent’s skull?

Spoilers ahead.

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Near the end of the latest Star Trek installment, the cunning villain Khan Noonien Singh—played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch—betrays his temporary allies to exact revenge on an old foe. Grabbing the Admiral Marcus’ skull with his bare hands, Khan compresses it with his genetically engineered might until the skull fails catastrophically (which is a nice way of saying the head exploded like a pumpkin with a firecracker in it, thankfully off-screen).  

Trekkie criticism of Star Trek Into Darkness story and its interaction with canon has been voluminous. But I found that the movie decently followed physics. There are some tidbits here and there that I might have changed, but overall I don’t think too much disbelief needed suspension.

What about Khan’s skull-crushing capabilities, though? He later attempts the same technique on Spock, so clearly Khan has some practice. What would it take to crush a human skull with your bare hands like Khan?

As you can probably guess, an ethical skull-crushing experiment would be difficult to devise; the subject is not terribly well studied. But there is an analog we can use to estimate the forces required: helmet research. To neutralize incoming dangers to your noggin, scientists first have to know what it takes to damage it. When testing bicycle helmets, for example, one way to figure out the cranium-crushing limit is to take the skulls of the dead and smash them against stuff. And that’s exactly what scientists have done.

Late last year, a study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics used cadaver skulls outfitted with children’s bicycle helmets to test how the helmets resisted smashing and crushing injuries. How the helmets performed is interesting in its own right, but what we want to know is how the controls—the human skulls with no helmets—handled the testing.

The researchers soaked cadaver skulls in water for a day to approximate the squishy environment of the human body, and filled them with four pounds of BBs to get the weight right. Then, like Khan, they subjected the analog skulls to a compression test—using a diabolic pneumatic air cylinder and a steel plate, instead of their bare hands.

The result? “Catastrophic failure [of the unhelmeted skull] during testing…experiencing a maximum load of 520 pounds of force.”

So without actually popping any head balloons, we have an upper limit on skull strength. If Khan could press past this limit, he would be quite the foe indeed. 

Looking to NASA, the Air Force, and even to the MythBusters, all the data that I could find points to an average static push strength of a medium-sized white male of a little over 200 pounds of force (or nearly 1000 Newtons).* This is less than half of the required force to crush a human skull analog according to the bicycle helmet study. Unless you are a genetically engineered warrior, it looks like the only head manipulation you should try is a Vulcan mind-meld.

But Khan Noonien Singh is better… at everything. He is faster, smarter, and stronger. He can easily survive a flurry of punches from Kirk after dispatching an entire Klingon patrol single-handedly. Given these superhuman qualities, it’s safe to assume that Khan could double the compressive force of the average man. He could probably crush your skull—but I wouldn’t suggest trying to turn the tables.

Unless you are the world’s strongest man, or a dangerous product of a eugenics war, you won’t be pulling off a Khan skull crush. At least you will know what to scream if Khan ever comes for you.

* Both NASA and the Air Force collected data on how hard subjects could push with two hands against a force plate. (The MythBusters tested how hard you can press your hands together.) I figure that if you could turn this pressing force inward, as you would while attempting to crush a skull, these numbers would be fair approximations.

Kyle Hill writes for Scientific American’s Overthinking It blog and has contributed to Wired, Popular Science, and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.