Thursday, June 26, 2008

WALL-E: Future Humans Aren't Fat, They've Just Been in Space Too Long

The new Pixar flick WALL-E - opening tomorrow - has been getting great reviews. The Charlie Chaplin-esque robot is an endearing movie star. Not so much the depiction of future human, who are apparently a fat, lazy, junk food-eating indictment of modern American culture. But that wasn't the original idea of writer and director Andrew Stanton. He told ComingSoon.net that the inspiration for the blobby humans was the real physiological changes that occur in microgravity:
The thing that made me pick humans the way they were. It's funny, I actually tried to avoid obesity. I wanted blobs, I wanted babies. Because in doing research with our, one of the consultants to NASA and his expertise was long term residency in space and the reason we don't send a man out to Mars right now is because if we do, they'll come back with almost no bones because disuse atrophy will kick in with very little gravity and osteoporosis will occur and you will lose a large percentage of your bones, and you'll just be this jello blob. And, so I thought oh my gosh, that's a perfect sort of thing dealing with people, later on in life, who have everything solved for them. [. . .] And the whole realization that if you were out in space for that long you would sort of have a lot of bone loss made me feel like wow, you could almost buy that people would be stuck in their beach chairs and we be almost babies. And I thought that was a great metaphor for having to grow up again and stand on your own two feet. And that's what drove it.
Bone loss is indeed a serious side effect of weightlessness:
Weakening of the bones due to the progressive loss of bone mass is a potentially serious side-effect of extended spaceflight. Studies of cosmonauts and astronauts who spent many months on space station Mir revealed that space travelers can lose (on average) 1 to 2 percent of bone mass each month.

"The magnitude of this [effect] has led NASA to consider bone loss an inherent risk of extended space flights," says Dr. Jay Shapiro, team leader for bone studies at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.
And that's not the only problem. In weightless conditions astronauts can lose significant muscle mass, and blood volume can drop 20% causing the muscles in the heart to atrophy. Internal fluids shift to the upper body and head, causing swelling (see image).

Without a regular exercise program that combats those physiological changes, living in space could indeed be permanently crippling. I guess that wouldn't make for a funny movie.


Image: WALL-E screenshot via Doobybrain.com
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