Monster of the Week: Godzilla

Godzilla in a scene from 'Godzilla 2000.' TriStar/Getty Images

There's much we don't understand about Godzilla.

His titanic size has always been problematic. As Danielle Venton sumarizes over at Popular Science, the monster's most recent incarnation would weigh in at 164,000 tons and boast bones twice as strong as some titanium alloys.

(Movie Poster Image Art/Getty)

Consider the example of the spherical cow -- not an adversary of mighty Gojira but rather a fitting scientific metaphor: As this cow grows, its volume increases more rapidly than its surface area. Double the radius and you see a 4x surface area increase and an 8x volume increase. You can't take a small form, make it bigger and expect it to function the same -- that goes for giant gorillas as well as God lizards that grow in size from 50 meters to 150 meters without significant morphological changes.

But as R. McNeill Alexander points out in "Engineering limits to the body size of land animals," it's less about what's morphologically or biologically possible, but more about what's competitive in the struggle for existence.

Of course, Godzilla and his fellow Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTO) are not denizens of our word. As pointed out in the latest franchise installment, these titans are radiation-feeding leftovers from a primal terrestrial era.

Eater of Rads

Interestingly enough, a radiation-eating (radiovore?) Godzilla would not be alone in our natural world. In 2007, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University discovered that some fungi use radioactivity as an energy source as well.

In "Ionizing Radiation Changes the Electronic Properties of Melanin and Enhances the Growth of Melanized Fungi," the researchers found that fungi containing the pigment melanin can utilize the ionizing radiation portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to transform radioactive energy into biological energy. This would be in keeping with the way the chlorophyll in plants converts sunlight into bio-energy.

Reports of melanin-rich fungi thriving on Chernobyl's reactor walls inspired the research, but the possible applications extend far beyond. The researchers suggest that radiation-grown fungi might one day feed human space travelers, or even unlock the possibility that melanin in human flesh provides energy to skin cells.

But of course Godzilla is an unnatural creature, ultimately alien to our world of natural biology. What's more, he might truly be a god. Film producer Sh?go Tomiyama stated the following in a 2004 interview with the now-defunct (archived here):

"Godzilla is closer to being a God. He's not just a living animal or a monster ... The fact is that humans cannot control or judge the Gods. They have their own will. They have their own way. In Japan there are many Gods. There is a God of Destruction. He totally destroys everything and then there is a rebirth. Something new and fresh can begin. Godzilla is closer to being that kind of God."

How can science seek to explain such a being?

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.