Acolytes of former One Direction member and future Dunkirk victim Harry Styles believe he is capable of anything. That’s why it seems perfectly natural when, in his new video for his single “Sign of the Times,” he runs on the surface of the water, like some kind of Gucci-coated Jesus. They aren’t entirely wrong: While humans can’t walk on water naturally, technology has actually made this sort of miracle possible, even for those not inherently miraculous as Styles.
Walking on water isn’t impossible if you’ve got the right tools — and many of those tools already exist. In fact, we’ve patented over 40 water-walking devices in the past 50 years, according to LiveScience. All of those devices are designed to surmount the one biological hurdle that prevents us from water gliding like Styles: our massive weight to surface area ratio.
Everything inventors know about walking on water was gleaned from the 1,200 animal and insect species that can do so naturally. According to a 2006 article in the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics, creatures can be divided into two categories: Water gliders and water slappers. The former group comprises the tiniest of the water walkers, creatures like the spindly-legged water striders. “Jesus Bugs” don’t sink below the surface of the water because their ultra-lightweight bodies let them take advantage of the film-like properties of the water’s surface. The uniquely strong bonds between H2O molecules at the interface of water and air cause them to act, collectively, like a sheet — which can support very light amounts of weight when it’s distributed over a large area. (That same sheet-like behavior caused the faces of Olympic backstrokers to flatten at the water’s surface.)
But even Styles’ long, lean limbs aren’t skinny enough to avoid breaking the water’s surface.
Enter the water slappers, which are bigger — to an unexpectedly large degree. These include animals like the basilisk lizard (also known as the Jesus Christ lizard), a bird called the western grebe, and dolphins. Since they’re too heavy to make use of the water’s surface tension, they instead slap the water to create air pockets just beneath the surface, which buoy their body weight for a few moments at a time. This motion is somewhat closer to what Styles does in the video: His feet not only move rapidly but also send water flying, suggesting that he’s striking the surface of the water with a significant amount of force.
It’s not unlike the spray of water that this dolphin leaves in its wake.
Of course, despite the myth surrounding him Styles is not actually a dolphin, and even if he was, he wouldn’t be able to sustain tail-walking at the slow-burning tempo of “Sign of the Times”: Doing so would require moving fast enough that the air pocket created by the slapping motion doesn’t collapse under the weight it’s carrying. The Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics paper suggested that humans, because of their body composition, would have to sprint at 67 miles per hour — that’s as fast as a cheetah — in order to make this happen.
If Styles really wanted to defy physics IRL, he’d have to turn to tech, which offers him many options, albeit clumsy-looking ones. The water-walking devices that humans have invented over the centuries have all attempted to spread our weight over a larger surface area, much like the water skimmers. The most recent invention, a device called the FloatSki, consists essentially of slim kayaks for each foot. The WaveWalk, a similar invention introduced in 2004, used the same principle but used long pontoons. In a pinch, both would do the trick — but finding a way to make them fit with this sweet creature’s sleek aesthetic, however, would take a miracle even Styles couldn’t conjure.