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.

Will the Sun Ever Stop Shining?

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iStock.com/VR_Studio

Viktor T. Toth:

The Sun will not stop shining for a very, very long time.

The Sun, along with the solar system, is approximately 4.5 billion years old. That is about one-third the age of the entire universe. For the next several billion years, the Sun is going to get brighter. Perhaps paradoxically, this will eventually result in a loss of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is not good news; It will eventually lead to the death of plant life.

Within 2.5 to 3 billion years from now, the surface temperature of the Earth will exceed the boiling point of water everywhere. Within about about 4 to 5 billion years, the Earth will be in worse shape than Venus today, with most of the water gone, and the planet’s surface partially molten.

Eventually, the Sun will evolve into a red giant star, large enough to engulf the Earth. Its luminosity will be several thousand times its luminosity at present. Finally, with all its usable nuclear fuel exhausted and its outer layers ejected into space, the Sun’s core will settle down into the final stage of its evolution as a white dwarf. Such a star no longer produces energy through nuclear fusion, but it contains tremendous amounts of stored heat, in a very small volume (most of the mass of the Sun will be confined to a volume not much larger than the Earth). As such, it will cool very, very slowly.

It will take many more billions of years for the Sun to cool from an initial temperature of hundreds of thousands of degrees to its present-day temperature and below. But in the end, the remnant of the Sun will slowly fade from sight, becoming a brown dwarf: a cooling, dead remnant of a star.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Do So Many Airports Have Chapels?

Inside Our Lady of the Airways Chapel at Boston Logan International Airport
Inside Our Lady of the Airways Chapel at Boston Logan International Airport

There are only so many ways to kill time during a long layover. You might browse the magazines at a Hudson News or take the time to test out a travel pillow or two. If it's a particularly trying travel day, you may want to while away a few hours at an airport bar. But if you’ve killed enough time in enough U.S. airports, you've probably noticed that most of them have chapels tucked into a corner of the terminal. Some of them are simple, some of them are ornate. Some cater specifically to members of one religion while others are interfaith. So where did they come from, and why are they there?

The biggest surprise in answering the latter part of that question might be that airport chapels weren't originally built for airport passengers at all. According to Smithsonian.com, the first U.S. airport chapel opened in 1951 at Boston's Logan International Airport and was specifically created for the airport’s Catholic staff, largely to offer mass services for workers on longer shifts.

Dubbed “Our Lady of the Airways,” Boston's airport chapel concept was quickly embraced by Catholic leaders around the country. In 1955, Our Lady of the Skies Chapel opened at New York City's Idlewild Airport (which was renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1963). Other Catholic chapels followed.

In the 1960s, JFK added both a Protestant chapel and a Jewish synagogue to its terminals. By the 1980s, Protestant chapels had opened in the Atlanta and Dallas airports as well.

Single-faith chapels dissipated for the most part during the 1990s and into the new millennium. In 2008, The Christian Index ran a story about the changing face of on-the-go religious spaces and declared "Single-faith chapels a dying breed at U.S. airports." As interfaith chapels became the new normal, this inclusiveness extended to the chapels' patrons as well. Instead of remaining gathering places for airport employees, the chapels opened their doors to the millions of passengers traveling in and out of their cities each year.

Today, more than half of America's busiest airports feature chapels, the majority of which are interfaith. Most existing chapels are welcoming to people of all faiths and often include multiple religious symbols in the same room. They have become important spaces for meditation and reflection. Many of them still offer worship services for each of their represented practices, including places like the interfaith chapel at Washington Dulles International Airport, which hosts a Catholic mass on Saturday evenings as well as daily Jewish prayer services. Though each airport chapel is unique in design and services, they all endeavor to offer a much-needed spiritual refuge from the hassle of air travel.

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