What If? Rejects #11.2: Fire Tornadoes!

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Q: Are fire tornadoes possible?

Randall’s response: “YES. Fire tornadoes are a real thing that actually happens. Nothing I say could possibly add to this.”

My response: ‘Nuff said.

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Television Review: The New Mythbusters

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The Discovery Channel’s wildly popular MythBusters series ended in 2016, but it turned out that the show just couldn’t stay away. The Science Channel picked it up again, airing a game show to choose the new hosts of the series. Last month, the new MythBusters, Jonathan Lung and Brian Louden, started their own run of the show with plenty of all-new myths to explore.

I have to say, I don’t think the new MythBusters lives up to the standard set by Adam and Jamie. The show feels unpolished, and while Jon and Brian are fun, they don’t have the chemistry Adam and Jamie did. Now, part of this is probably inexperience. Jon and Brian are new and don’t have the ten years of mythbusting under their belts that their predecessors did. If you went back to the early seasons of the show, you would probably see some lower-quality work there, too.

What worries me a bit more is what I feel like is a drop in the scientific rigor and thinking of the new show. Adam and Jamie sometimes had this problem, too (don’t get me started on some of the driving myths), and to be honest, I felt that their final season was also lacking in fact-checking and well-thought-out conclusions, and it’s not all the new hosts’ faults.

It’s hard to say precisely why I feel the show has lost something in the transition. It’s little things like not doing the (fairly easy) math to find the correct fuel-air mixture for the chimney cannon (it makes sense in context) and failing to properly account for the order effect in the road rage myth, not to mention using a much smaller sample size than they used to. I’m just seeing some red flags here.

Still, it’s early, and I’m hopeful that Jon and Brian will learn over time as Adam and Jamie did. They’re off to a shaky start, but the show it still entertaining and worth watching, and with its strong history, I’m optimistic for its future.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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What If? Rejects #11.1: Moving an Island

Satellite image of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in April 2002.jpg

Previous post in this series: Turkey Day

Next post in this series: Fire Tornadoes!

Q: What if everyone in Great Britain went to one of the coasts and started paddling? Could they move the island at all?

Randall’s response: “NO.” Also, a picture of people paddling on the shore, in which one of them says, “Wait, maybe we need to disconnect the Chunnel first.”

My response: Um…no. Great Britain is a mass of rock that is fused to Earth’s surface over an area of over 200,000 square kilometers (80,000 square miles). You’re not going to be shifting that. You’ll have infinitely better luck waiting for continental drift to do the job for you.

So let’s try to answer a bonus question instead. In Randall’s drawing, the people of Britain appear to be standing 20-30 feet apart on the shore while they’re paddling. Is this accurate to the size of Great Britain?

Well, the island of Great Britain has a population of about 61 million, and the length of its coastline is…uh-oh.

The length of a coastline is a notoriously difficult thing to define, and you have to construct a pretty arbitrary definition for the number to be meaningful at all. Click below to see why.

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Movie Review: Coco


Pixar’s latest film, Coco, is an epic story set in Mexico and centered around the traditional holiday, Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). In it, Miguel, a budding musician in a family that hates music, becomes trapped in the land of the dead whilst trying to emulate his famous musician ancestor, and he must find his way home before sunrise to keep from becoming one of the dead himself. It’s hard to do the story justice in a summary like this without giving it away because this is a fantastic movie. It has a gripping story with really genuine stakes (especially considering half the cast is already dead), and touching family moments that go much deeper than you expect at the start. All I can really say is, “go see it.” You’ll be glad you did.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Coco is a really breaking new ground for Pixar. With a story set in Mexico, they went above and beyond to accurately portray Mexican culture, starting with a Mexican-American co-director and songwriters, and evenmore notably, it is the biggest-budget film ever with an all-Latino cast.* And if you’re worried that they compromised on quality by switching out their veterans, don’t be. It’s honestly hard to rank Pixar movies since literally two thirds of them are scored over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, but Coco is absolutely a hit, showing Pixar on its top game like we haven’t seen since Inside Out.

Okay, so it’s not perfect. The plot is a bit slow in the middle, and it could afford to be tightened up by ten minutes or so, but I honestly didn’t have much of a problem with that. A lot of the plot hangs on Poor Communication Kills, but in this case, there’s at least a plausible reason for it to happen. In the end, none of the movie’s flaws are enough to detract from the quality of the story in my opinion.

Let me put it this way: it takes a lot for a movie to make me tear up. Even in very emotional movies, it rarely happens. Coco did it, and that’s probably the best endorsement I can give it.

*With one exception for Pixar’s “lucky charm,” John Ratzenberger, who stars in every Pixar movie sort of like an animated Stan Lee. He voices a small cameo role.

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What If? Rejects #10.3: Turkey Day

Previous post in this series: Stunt Bike

Next post in this series: Moving an Island

Q: What if every day, every human had a 1 percent chance of being turned into a turkey, and every turkey had a 1 percent chance of being turned into a human?

Randall’s response: No response.

My response: Allow me to put on my fiction writer’s hat. The obvious answer is that we wouldn’t be eating turkeys anymore, but it’s actually much more complicated and interesting than that. This is an exercise in worldbuilding: designing a fictional world and establishing self-consistent rules for how that world operates. And so, in the spirit of the season, let’s create…Turkey World.

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Predicting More Earthquakes Next Year? It’s Not Crazy.

No, this isn’t an End Times conspiracy theory. It’s an actual prediction from two practicing geologists: Rebecca Bendick of the University of Montana and Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado. They have published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters that (by a reasonable interpretation) predicts that we will have significantly more major earthquakes than usual in 2018, according to a recent article in Science. Is this a reasonable prediction? After digging a bit deeper, I have to say yes, but don’t panic; it’s not as bad as it sounds.

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What If? Rejects #10.2: Stunt Bike

So it turns out some people are actually crazy enough to try this.Previous post in this series: Knife Wounds

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Q: If I were on a motorbike and do a jump off a quarter pipe ramp, how fast would I need to be moving to safely deploy and land using the parachute?

Randall’s response: No response.

My response: If you mean just yourself and not the bike, possibly as low as 55 miles per hour, but only if you have the right parachute.

WARNING: Do not try this at home!

The real question here is, how high do you need to get to successfully deploy a parachute? An ordinary skydiver’s parachute is rated to deploy at 2000 feet. The reserve chute is rated for 700 feet. However getting to both of these altitudes would require going faster than terminal velocity—with a rocket-powered motorbike, perhaps. Terminal velocity is about 120 miles per hour, and that’s before air resistance, so you’re probably well outside the operating capacity of most motorbikes.

However, military parachutes for paratroopers can be rated for as low as 250 feet. To reach this altitude, you don’t need to get up to terminal velocity. In fact, you can calculate your takeoff speed using the simple equation:

V = SQRT(2gh)

Here, V is your takeoff speed, h is your maximum height, and g is the acceleration due to gravity of 32 feet per second squared. (I’m using feet because most of my readers will probably understand motorbike speeds best in miles per hour. As an astrophysicist, the correct figure is obviously 980 cm/s2.) Plug 250 feet into this equation, and you get a takeoff speed of 86 miles per hour. Granted, that’s without air resistance, but you’re also not going to be leaving the quarter pipe ramp from zero altitude, especially if it’s big enough to drive a motorbike on, so let’s assume it balances out.

But even this is not the limit. BASE jumpers routinely make jumps from less than 250 feet. In fact, some have jumped from as low as 100 feet. From that height, you don’t even need a parachute. You only need a swimming pool, since the official high-diving record is 172 feet (although dives from that height invariably result in broken bones).

To reach an altitude of 100 feet, you only need a takeoff speed of 55 miles per hour. You’ll probably want to make it 60 for safety (or more…a lot more), but in theory, if you take off with a speed of 55 miles per hour, and if you dismount from the bike, and if you have perfect timing, you could deploy a BASE jumping parachute at the top of your arc and land safely.

But note the video above: no one has actually jumped high enough to do this. Also, try not to land on the crashed-and-burned motorbike.

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