Scientists Debunk Legend

So no action movie is ever going to take science seriously in its plotting. But I Am Legend, this weekend’s top Manhattan movie, sparks some interesting ethical and scientific research issues.

Popular Mechanics decided to take on Will Smith head on: "Between a highly regimented schedule hunting deer in Times Square with his dog, Sam, and swinging a five-iron from atop a naval cruiser, Neville tries to find a way to reverse the virus using his own immune blood even as the Infected are closing in, setting traps and hunting him. But how much of this sure-to-be blockbuster Hollywood film (based on a famous sci-fi novel) is fact, and how much is fiction? We consult experts in the fields of structural engineering, virology and wildlife to determine what could happen—and what certainly won’t."

Some highlights:

According to Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us, which analyzes how long man-made structures would survive if humans were to one day vanish from the face of the Earth, the answer is both yes and no. “You’d certainly have a lot of plants growing up through cracks in the sidewalk,” Weisman says. “After three years, you might see some weeds that have made it waist-high in abandoned lots up in the Bronx, but if they’re showing a waist-high field of grass in Times Square, that’s a bit of a stretch.”

So what would we see after three years of no activity in New York? Gutters clogged by leaf litter, formerly cleared by the city’s maintenance staff, would be a breeding ground for weeds and trees, Weisman says, and streets would flood because, after each rain, the sewers would be clogged with natural matter and plastic bags. Subway tunnels would flood in just two days and, in the absence of firemen, lightning strikes and gas line explosions would cause fires, leaving some buildings charred.
Though the film’s press release claims “the possibility of a retrovirus spreading out of control is no longer just the fodder for science fiction stories,” Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, one of the world’s top virologists and director of the Laboratory for Immunopathogenesis and Infectious Diseases at Columbia University Medical Center, says the scenario presented in the movie doesn’t seem plausible at all. “It sounds pretty far-fetched,” he says. “Viruses don’t mutate and become airborne. They typically fall into a couple of different categories—respiratory, STDs and vector-borne like insects, ticks and mosquitoes. They don’t change from tick-borne to pneumonic. They just don’t do that.”

Equally bizarre, Lipkin says, is Neville’s immunity. “There are people who are resistant to retroviruses because they have mutations in receptors, but that’s a mutation that people have from the get-go,” he explains. “If someone had been exposed to a related virus and was immune to it, then they would carry that immunity, and that would be something that would occur over the course of their lifespan. But how this guy would have come into contact with such a virus is unclear, and certainly wouldn’t be explained in that way.”

Scientists Debunk Legend