Who hurt you George R. R. Martin? Why do you subject us to such pain, such violence?
Alright, deep breaths. We will get through this. Maybe we can use science to save a character emotionally, if only to make us feel a little better? Don’t get your hopes up.
SPOILERS AHEAD! Do not read if you haven’t seen the most recent Game of Thrones episode.
The latest episode of Game of Thrones ends with a duel to the death between “The Mountain” Gregor Clegane and “The Red Viper” Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell. Oberyn quickly gets the upper hand, jumping and twirling around the much slower Gregor, eventually slicing and piercing The Mountain enough to bring victory into view. However, The Red Viper misjudges Gregor’s dire injuries and, while demanding a final confession, literally gets his skull exploded by The Mountain’s giant hands.
The incredibly graphic scene was as hard for us to watch as it was for the now-doomed Tyrion Lannister. What kind of man does it take to inflict such injury? What would it take to crush a human skull with your bare hands like The Mountain?
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.
In 2012, 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 their 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 The Mountain, 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 heads, we have an upper limit on skull strength. If The Mountain 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. A bare-handed crush without pushing doesn’t really work either, with recorded grip strengths barely exceeding 150 pounds of force.
However, The Mountain is not a medium-sized male. He is the human equivalent of, well, a mountain. He cut a darn horse in half! Could Gregor Clegane really be more than twice as strong as the average white male? It’s plausible. In The World’s Strongest Man competitions, where Clegane would feel right at home, athletes regularly manipulate forces easily in excess of 500 pounds. (Oh, by the way, the actor who played The Mountain–Hafþór Júlíus–is the world’s second strongest man.) If Clegane put all his strength into his dying skull-crush, the Viper’s cranium would surely crack if not splatter.
We should have known better than to get too attached to the charismatic and noble Prince Oberyn. But his death was not in vain—it served to highlight the greater theme of the episode. Oberyn was just another beetle to be crushed by a man who was simply a crusher of beetles (the “beetle” Tyrion expounds on was a pill bug, by the way, a terrestrial crustacean). Vanity, a desire for revenge, and The Mountain’s incredible strength got the better of Oberyn and he paid for it dearly. Did you really think The Red Viper would get his own Inigo Montoya moment?
*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 is the Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
Parts of this post were adapted from one of the author’s previous posts published at Slate.com.