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How Far Can You Fall and Still Survive?

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You’re on a plane. You’re bored. You stare out the window at the clouds. You wonder what would happen if you couldn’t resist the urge to open the emergency exit and plummet to the earth below. Is death certain? Or would you pick yourself up, set a broken bone or two, and proceed directly to a mental institution with a great story?

Let’s first toss out some variables that often bog down this fair—albeit morbid—question. Forget Felix Baumgartner, the man who filmed himself jumping from 128,100 feet. He had a cool pressurized suit and a parachute. And let’s set aside what free-fall experts have coined “wreckage riders,” those who have fallen while trapped inside a portion of broken aircraft. (The larger surface area increases air drag, slowing their descent. Still likely fatal, but the odds improve somewhat: Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovic fell 33,000 feet this way in 1972 and lived to tell her tale—once she woke up from her coma.)

Let’s instead restrict the question to a single individual without any equipment, encasement, or premeditation. You’ve ripped the exit door open like a lunatic. You begin to fall. What now?

We know for certain a person can survive a fall of at least 20,000 feet. That’s how far up World War II pilot Alan Magee was when he had to abandon his plane without a parachute. He crashed through a glass roof that likely helped spread out the impact. According to James Kakalios, Ph.D., a professor at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, how and where you land is one of the major factors in whether you get up from the ground or go 6 feet further into it.

“If you can make the time [landing] longer, the force needed to stop you is smaller,” he says. “Think of punching a wall or a mattress. The wall is rigid and the time of interaction is short so the force is large. People who have survived falls, they’ve managed to increase that time, even if it’s in milliseconds. From one millisecond to three, that’s three times longer, three times less force needed for the same change in momentum.” Magee’s glass landing likely reduced the impact; other survivors have plummeted into snow, trees, or something that can better absorb your landing than, say, concrete.

The other major factor? Slowing your descent. Increasing surface area means more energy is required to push air out of your way, slowing you down. The “flying squirrel” position, body splayed out, is preferred over falling feet or head first. “Increasing that drag is the biggest factor in keeping you alive,” Kakalios says. A parachute’s large surface area is best, obviously. Without one, fall belly down or try tumbling. “Drop a pen off the Empire State Building straight down and it might kill someone. But if it drops sideways, spinning end over end, it probably wouldn’t.”

You’re increasing air drag. You’re trying to land in snow or something absorbent. If you’ve passed out from lack of oxygen at high altitudes, you’ve woken up in time to orient yourself. Magee traveled 20,000 feet—nearly four miles—so you know survival is possible from there. What about going higher?

Kakalios stops short of offering a prediction, citing the numerous variables involved. (“Even how much clothing is fluttering behind you can affect surface profile,” he says.) So we pestered someone else: Paul Doherty, Ph.D., a physicist and Co-Director of the Exploratorium, a learning center in San Francisco, California.  

“As you get higher up, the air gets thinner and thinner,” he says. “You can spin so fast the blood can rush into your head and kill you. Or the friction with the elevation will burn you up. That’s why space shuttles have heat insulating tiles.”

Once terminal velocity (maximum acceleration, usually 120 miles per hour for average-sized humans) is reached, Doherty says, it doesn’t really matter whether you throw another 5000 or 10,000 feet on top of Magee’s 20,000: You’re not going to fall any faster. But start too high up and the lower atmospheric pressure means your blood might start to boil. That’s believed to happen around 63,000 feet, though data is obviously limited, and Doherty thinks it might be as high as 100,000. (NASA mandates pressure suits starting at 50,000 feet just to be on the safe side.)

So falling just under 63,000 feet is survivable, in theory? “Let’s say 60,000, Doherty says. Up to 100,000 if you wake up after passing out. And if your blood doesn’t boil. And if you can impact something.”

Stay on the plane.

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Did We Start Wearing Pants?
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It’s a question that has plagued Donald Duck for decades: Who decided pants were necessary? Did the motivation stem purely from modesty, or was there another reason we started climbing into trousers?

Over at Discover, author Sarah Scoles has offered a plausible explanation by describing a 2014 archaeological find in China’s Tarim Basin. Researchers with the German Archaeological Institute excavated what is believed to be the oldest example of pants ever unearthed, made from wool and dating back 3000 years.

The pants themselves held no clue as to why they were made, but their location did. The research team found them buried at the Yanghai cemetery along with a number of other artifacts, including horse-riding gear that was in the same grave: a wooden bit, a bow, and an axe. The pants-wearer was surely someone tasked with galloping around and slaying animals for food—likely necessitating apparel that would allow him to mount a horse without being encumbered by clothing.

A screen shot of Donald Duck near a door
Disney

That idea eventually bled into Greek and Roman culture, where those on horseback sought out a comfortable and practical way of avoiding chafing. (The grave’s proto-pants also appeared to be an early example of being fashion-conscious. While mostly practical, each leg had cross-stitching that appeared to be purely decorative.)

Whether the Yanghai discovery is considered the earliest example of pants depends on how one defines pants. Ötzi, the European iceman first discovered in 1991, lived roughly 5300 years ago and died wearing goatskin leggings. We know a cartoon duck who has a lot of catching up to do.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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