All the Ways Scientists Have Theorized That Jack Could Fit on That Damn Door
If you weren’t forming permanent memories in 1997, and it’s somehow entirely possible that you weren’t, it’s hard to explain just what a big cultural deal Titanic was. It was the first movie to cost more than $200 million to make, which might as well have been kagillions in 1990s money, and we were all still treating CGI like witchcraft, so it was as impressive to our little caveman brains as fire was to actual cavemen. People were climbing up on all kinds of stuff just to declare they were king of the world, the nation banded together in getting sick of Celine Dion and preteen girls at every point on the Kinsey scale experienced sexual awakenings. But today, it’s most well known for that stupid door.
If you somehow don’t know what we’re talking about (which, again, is possible, we don’t know what people who weren’t people in 1997 know), after the ship goes down (sorry, spoilers), Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet find a door that’s broken off from somewhere inside the ship and floated to the surface. After a single haphazard attempt to both climb atop it, Leo manfully cedes the door to his lady love and promptly dies.
Of course, this would never happen because one of the burly third-class passengers they’re surrounded by would have no problem overpowering these wimps and stealing the rare floatation device bobbing around out there. About a decade later, though, when memes became a thing, viewers focused instead on the apparent fact that Leo could have absolutely fit on that door, unleashing years of debate among people who probably have a lot better to do.
It all started, as many terrible things do, with MythBusters. In a 2012 episode, they took on what was reportedly “the most requested myth in the show’s history,” building a door from the same material as the one used in the movie (with some adjustments for the weight of the hosts, who are considerably heavier than those willowy teens), and trying to balance on top of it in the San Francisco Bay. They found that they could, though it took a lot of tries and sank the door enough that their fictional counterparts would have succumbed to the freezing waters of the tank— er, Atlantic Ocean. The only way they could have survived, they asserted, was to tie their life jackets underneath the door to give it the buoyancy required to keep them mostly out of the water, but that was enough to declare the myth busted. Which is when the real trouble began.
James Cameron, who took time out of his coasting-on-Avatar schedule to appear in the episode, contested the results to anyone who asked, arguing pretty reasonably that most people can’t complete a complicated underwater mission like that on their best days, let alone when they’re actively dying of hypothermia. This inspired film journalists to start reaching out to real scientists, some of whom didn’t immediately hang up on them, to weigh in on the merits of the experiment.
Obviously, Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t need to be asked, and obviously, he focused largely on topics he’s not an expert on. “Whether or not he could’ve been successful, I would’ve tried more than once,” deGrasse Tyson said. “The survival instinct is way stronger than that in everybody, especially in that character. He’s a survivor, right?” In response, Newsweek sought comment from a guy who actually studies the survival instinct, a cognitive neuroscientist from Caltech, who got even more poetic, confirming that hypothermia and the extreme stress of a sinking ship kind of cloud your judgment, but also that “love overrides those basic instincts.” So that was helpful.
Physical experiments and theoretical musings be damned, it was looking like the only way out of this was going to be pure math. In 2017, some Australian high school students won a prestigious award for calculating the properties of the door, the weights of its potential occupants, the salt content of the ocean and probably a lot of other headache-inducing variables, carrying the one, and concluding that yes, the door could have kept them afloat. They were only working with “what materials were realistic for that time,” however, so three years later, actual physicists tracked down the real goddamn door that the prop was modeled after and did their own math to determine that, even with life-jacket jiu jitsu, they would still be 419 newtons over the limit to stay afloat, because yeah, we’re in newton territory.
Finally, in 2022, Cameron got fed up and put together his own team of scientists to hopefully silence these pedants once and for all. “We took two stunt people who were the same body mass of Kate and Leo and we put sensors all over them and inside them and we put them in ice water and we tested to see whether they could have survived through a variety of methods, and the answer was, there was no way they both could have survived,” he said, probably sweatily.
It might seem suspicious that he happened to get the answer he wanted, but as Cameron has said over and over, the real answer is that “it says on page 147 (of the script) that Jack dies … whether it was that or whether a smoke stack fell on him, he was going down.”
Cameron is probably wishing he’d gone with the latter at this point, and no one could blame him — that movie could have used some slapstick.