The Science of Middle-earth

Posted by ap507 at Jun 03, 2015 11:50 AM |
Scientific investigations by Natural Sciences students into Tolkien’s legendarium

The written works of J. R .R. Tolkien set in his fictional Middle-earth have been entertaining fans since the publication of the popular children’s book The Hobbit in 1937.

Decades later, the release of the critically-acclaimed The Lord of the Rings film trilogy – based on Tolkien’s later eponymous novels and directed by Sir Peter Jackson - starting with the Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and concluding with The Return of the King in 2003 helped a new generation experience the richness of Tolkien’s lore.

The hobbit Frodo Baggins’s journey to destroy the One Ring and save the world from Sauron, the embodiment of evil in Tolkien’s mythos - while resisting the ruthless pursuit of the tortured creature Gollum - is one many are familiar with.

Middle-earth holds many similarities to the real world, and now Natural Sciences students at Leicester have investigated the science of Tolkien’s captivating realm in a series of papers published in the peer-reviewed student journal, the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics, as part of the Science Topics module.

Concerning hobbits…

Modelling the BMR of species in Middle-earth was the first mission students Krisho Manoharan and Skye Rosetti set themselves by investigating the metabolic rate of hobbits, humans and elves.

Hobbit holes as they were filmed in Matamata, New Zealand.
Their metabolic rates were modelled by considering animal analogues for the basal metabolic rate (BMR). Woodland-dwelling herbivores were considered when modelling elves - who are traditionally tall in Tolkien’s world – and efforts were made to ensure that the animal chosen was larger than the animals used to model humans and hobbits. Capreolus capreolus (Roe Deer) were used as a comparison for elves due to their similar forest habitat, primarily vegetarian diet and fast reaction speeds.

For hobbits, the herbivorous marsupial Cercartetus concinnus (Southwestern pygmy possum) was chosen due to its temperament, habitat within natural crevices (e.g. tree hollows) and varied diet (e.g. nectar and insects).

The students established that the kilocalorie requirements for each race are:

  • Hobbits: 1818.61 kcal/day
  • Men: 1702.2 kcal/day
  • Elves: 1416.95 kcal/day

The kilocalories consumed per day in an inactive state show that elves have the smallest resting energy requirements. This is supported by their longevity, with many elves being thousands of years old, as animals with slower cellular metabolic rates have longer lifespans. Similarly, the metabolism of hobbits is greater than for elves and humans. This is due to their small stature and surface area to volume ratio which leads to a greater rate of heat loss.

What about second breakfast?

Having established how much food denizens of Middle-earth would need to consume a day in order to survive in a healthy state, Krisho and Skye applied this concept to the fellowship of the ring’s quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom in The Lord of the Rings – and in particular how much of the magical lembas bread would need to be eaten in order to brave the journey.

The fellowship consists of four hobbits (Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Peregrin Took, Meriadoc Brandybuck), the Dúnedain ranger Aragorn, Boromir of the race of men, the Istari Gandalf, the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas Greenleaf.

In Lothlórien, the home of Galadriel, the Lady of Light, the fellowship is provided with lembas, an elvish waybread preserved in a leaf wrap. In the books lembas is said to ‘keep a traveller on his feet for a day of long labour’ – and in the films Legolas remarks that ‘one small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man’ – making it an ideal source of nutrition when travelling the long and perilous route from Imraldis to Mt. Doom.

Lembas bread, which can 'fill the stomach of a grown man' with one small bite
By questioning when simply walking into Mordor: how much lembas would the fellowship need?, the students concluded that for an ideal journey with all 9 members of the fellowship, using the metabolic rates for each species from their previous paper, the total calorific consumption during the 92-day journey would be 1,780,214.59 kilocalories.

If the elves of Imraldis had provided the fellowship with lembas bread, this would equate to them having to carry a total of 675 pieces - or 75 pieces each. For the different species, this equates to 304 for the hobbits; 214 for Gandalf, Aragorn and Boromir; 99 for Gimli; and 60 for Legolas.

I can't recall the taste of food...nor the sound of water…

The considerable amount of high-calorie lembas bread needed to travel to Mordor would realistically have required several elvish bakeries to have joined the fellowship during their quest. But, supposing that the fellowship did have access to enough of the bread to keep themselves going, this wouldn’t account for the enormous water requirements on the journey through Mordor.

Mt. Doom in Mordor, where Frodo and Sam must destroy the One Ring

Student Catherine Berridge considered the amount of water Frodo and Sam would have needed to consume on their grim journey through Mordor to Mt. Doom. The journey from Cirith Ungol – where the fearsome giant spider Shelob dwells - to Mount Doom is 151 miles.

In theory, if they travelled on average 15.1 miles per day at a rate of 2.4 mph they would have spent 6.3 hours per day walking – while making time to sleep 8 hours per day and spending the rest of the time (9.7 hours) resting and gathering their strength in the harsh climate of Mordor. This would mean that their kilocalorie expenditure would be a total of 2402.36 kcal per day. This would require a lot of water to make up the loss of energy – especially in a hot volcanic region such as Mordor.

In the book the hobbits have two opportunities to stop for water when they encounter two streams along the way, suggesting they would have had to set out carrying most of the water needed for the journey. As the weight of 1 litre of water is 1 kilogram this means that each hobbit would have needed to have started off the trip carrying 24 kilograms of water.

This seems difficult to fathom, especially considering that Frodo is in no condition to carry anything, for his ring pains him and the environmental conditions in Mordor leave much to be desired.

You are full of surprises, Master Baggins

Supposing that food and water were in plentiful supply, Frodo’s journey may still have been brought to an abrupt end shortly after it began. In The Fellowship of the Ring film Frodo is stabbed by a cave troll’s spear in the Mines of Moria, while a goblin chieftain administers a similar treatment to him in the book. Frodo emerges from this fight unscathed, as he wears an impenetrable Mithril shirt given to him by his uncle Bilbo Baggins, and then proceeds to run a great distance while fleeing from an ancient demon, a Balrog of Morgoth.

Frodo hides from the fearsome cave troll in the Mines of Moria
But the question remains – even with the special armour, could Frodo have survived Moria?

While Mithril is described as being as light as a feather but as hard as dragon scales, students Alice Cooper-Dunn and Richard Walker have examined the impact force from both creatures on Frodo’s small form to see if the attack would leave any lasting damage. Even when wearing the arcane vest, they suggest that the impact force required to break Frodo’s sternum would be about 23,500 newtons.

The force behind the cave troll’s thrust would be about 64,300 newtons, and so irrespective of the dissipation of the force across his chest, Frodo’s sternum would have been fractured - a debilitating injury which would have made a hasty escape afterwards impossible.

Had Sir Peter Jackson chosen to use the goblin chieftain from the books rather than the cave troll during this battle, Frodo may have actually been able to survive the strike of the spear, as the impact force would have only been around 1,727 newtons – far below what is required to harm Frodo while wearing Mithril attire.

Keep breathing…that’s the key…

Despite the cave troll knocking the wind out of Frodo’s sails, the oxygen content in Middle-earth may partially explain Frodo’s uncanny survival tendencies.

The fortress of Helm's Deep under attack by Saruman's Uruk-Hai army

Richard Walker and Alice Cooper-Dunn observed the unachievable feats of heroism and athleticism performed by the characters in The Lord of the Rings and posed the question: Does the oxygen content of Tolkien's Middle-earth allow for greater endurance?

One example of men performing superhuman feats can be seen through Aragorn’s tireless defence of the fortress of Helm’s Deep for an entire night in The Two Towers.  Assuming that the humans in Middle-earth are biologically similar to humans on Earth then the increased endurance they exhibit could be due to external factors, such as increased oxygen content.

Mûmakil, large creatures resembling elephants in Middle-earth
This could also explain why creatures in Middle-earth can grow to a much larger size than they do on Earth, such as the elephant-like Mûmakil, and how Middle-earth is home to large creatures such as dragons.

Gas exchange takes place in the alveoli of the lungs and is critical to survival as it is how oxygen from the air breathed in is exchanged for carbon dioxide in the blood. A higher atmospheric oxygen content would result in considerable physical advantage due to the higher oxygen levels in the blood, which are made available to body tissues.

Through using the gas exchange equation, estimating a 10% increase in atmospheric oxygen concentration in Middle-earth when compared to Earth and using Aragorn as a test subject, the students suggest that the hypothesis of a greater oxygen content in Tolkien’s universe could be true and would explain a few of the more impressive elements seen within the world.

There and Back Again
Frodo sails 'Into the West' on his journey to the Grey Havens

Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a fantastical place that the author himself spent many decades expanding upon and refining. The world as it exists today is far different from that which was envisioned by Tolkien when he first wrote about Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the wizard, a large company of dwarves and their quest to retrieve treasure from a hoarding dragon called Smaug.

As can be seen in the above studies, many rocks within this faraway land still remain unturned, just waiting for the right inquisitive mind to reveal the many secrets that lie beneath.

- Written by Alex Phillimore

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