Fun Science Facts

Summer, 2014 / No. 33
Illustration by Linda-Marlena Bucholtz Ross.
Linda-Marlena Bucholtz Ross

Welcome to installment No. 225 of Fun Science Facts, the world’s exclusive authority on fun and/or science and/or either combined in any prescribed ratio. We’d like to extend a special welcome aboard to Taddle Creek, the latest addition to our growing list of global Fun Science Affiliates, which now includes more than four thousand leading newspapers, magazines, journals, blogs, Twitter feeds, and shortwave radio stations.

While Jim remains on indefinite assignment, overseeing the Swedish branch of Fun Science Facts, modern technology (as it is) allows us to collaborate across the Atlantic and answer your questions. And so, without further ado—boys and girls, this is Fun Science Facts.

If you shrunk a cheetah to the size of a silverfish, which one would win in a race? —Max, age 10.

Ah, the classic cheetah-the-size-of-a-silverfish question we never tire of answering, Max. We posed it to Rick Pollack, an entomologist at Harvard University, who took the question by the tail and ran with it.

An adult cheetah is approximately a hundred and twenty centimetres in length (not including the tail) and can run a top speed of around a hundred and ten kilometres per hour, which Pollack calculates as an impressive twenty-five body lengths per second. By comparison, a silverfish is 1.2 centimetres in length, but quantifying its speed is trickier. “Based upon experience,” said Pollack, “I would anticipate that a silverfish would be as fast or even a bit faster than a running American cockroach, but far slower than a running tiger beetle.”

Cockroaches have been clocked at 5.6 kilometres per hour, or thirty body lengths per second, meaning a silverfish would have a slight edge over the miniature cheetah. But there are other factors to consider, said Pollack: “Would the physiology of an imaginary miniature cheetah allow it to run at the same rate as could a genuine full-sized cheetah? I would bet they’d be a bit slower, and wouldn’t likely have the same stamina, but who really knows?”

Now we know the first thing we’ll be testing as soon as we get our hands on a shrink ray. And a cheetah.

Recently, I was traveling on a commercial aircraft while recovering from a head cold. As the plane descended, the pressure in my ears and sinuses became tremendous. Has anyone’s head ever exploded on an airline flight due to changes in air pressure? —David Alan Barry, age 42.

It’s always a pleasure to hear from you, Dave. Your nineteen years of letter writing remains a record that is both flattering and curious. To answer your question, we spoke to David Zingg, of the University of Toronto: “On a rapid descent, I imagine one would get more discomfort than usual in one’s ears, but I’m sure no one’s head has ever exploded.” Prof. Zingg added that your question was “pretty strange.” But as you of all people know, Dave, there are many questions Fun Science Facts finds strange, but none it finds dumb. So to further assure you, we checked in with James Powell, a pilot, who gave us his medical opinion that it’s “not recommended to fly with a head cold. Since the air during a flight is less fresh than when you’re in the outdoors, your cold may be more easily passed on to other passengers.” So Dave, fly the friendly skies with peace of mind, but remember that while Transport Canada has no specific regulations related to exploding heads, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority does require that your bottle of nasal spray have a capacity of no more than one hundred millilitres.

And so ends another exciting episode of Fun Science Facts. F.S.F. will return again at its regularly scheduled time to further enlighten and entertain. And don’t forget, kids: Jim and Conan will be appearing at the 18th International Symposium on Bioluminescence and Chemiluminescence, in Uppsala, June 23rd to 28th. Come up to either of us and say “Fun Science Facts Forever” and receive a free Fun Science Facts Burger: The Best Lab-Created Meat-Like Substance Grown in a Petri Dish That Money Can Buy.TM Until next time, remember: we are not men, we are Fun Science Facts.