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Mon. Sep 23rd, 2019

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We solved the mystery of what will happen when an ant falls from the Empire State Building

4 min read

Do you know what happens if you drop an ant from the top of the Empire State Building, will it die? And the other, more pressing question: was this Korean TV show from the ’90s lying to me when it said that ants would explode because of changing air pressure as they were moved to the top of a skyscraper?

I was unprepared for the influx of helpful messages in my inbox, and the level of cooperation the internet was capable of when it came down to killing ants in the name of science. Reading up on the various science journals and papers recommended to me, I had to flex parts of my brain that I hadn’t used since college, and I have you all to blame for that.

Okay, so here’s the conclusion I’ve reached: no, the ants won’t die. And they won’t explode when they get to the top, either.

WHY #1 – Terminal velocity

Many readers pointed out that ants were too small and weighed way too little for them to suffer any damage when it hit the ground. All objects, when falling through the air, have a terminal velocity that depends on their size, shape, and mass. The terminal velocity of an ant (6.4 km/h, according to the physics department at the University of Illinois) is going to differ a lot from the terminal velocity of a human dude (about 200 km/h, which I hope this person only experiences from hobbies like skydiving and not free-falling from the Empire State Building). This poetic 1928 essay by J.B.S. Haldane, “On Being the Right Size,” explains:

To the mouse and any smaller animal it presents practically no dangers. You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes. For the resistance presented to movement by the air is proportional to the surface of the moving object. Divide an animal’s length, breadth, and height each by ten; its weight is reduced to a thousandth, but its surface only to a hundredth. So the resistance to falling in the case of the small animal is relatively ten times greater than the driving force.

An insect, therefore, is not afraid of gravity; it can fall without danger, and can cling to the ceiling with remarkably little trouble. It can go in for elegant and fantastic forms of support like that of the daddy-longlegs.

WHY #2 – This German TV show for kids said so

A bunch of German readers directed me to an episode of this German kids’ TV show, Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Show with the Mouse) that explored this very topic. “The title is ‘Ameisensturz vom Hochhaus’ which means ‘ant plunge from the highrise,’ a German reader named Richard K. wrote me. “They conclude that the ant won’t die because of the air drag. But they do not say anything about pressure. So I agree with you: we truly are one! :)”

You don’t need to understand German to know that watching a man carefully drop an ant from higher and higher heights as he gradually ascends a ladder is extremely funny, but Richard K. also took the time to transcribe and translate the entire clip for us, because he is an actual hero.

WHY #3 – I asked an actual ant scientist and he said it was a bunch of hooey

Michael Kaspari is an ecologist at the University of Oklahoma who has studied the aerial maneuverability of wingless ants. The study found that when ants are faced with a predator, they will jump into thin air from high branches and use their legs to maneuver through the air and glide back toward the tree trunk. When I asked him about the possibility of ants exploding in high altitudes, he gave the most satisfying, amusing answer I could hope for:

Every biological bone in my body says the notion of an ant popping somewhere along the express elevator’s trip to the observation deck is hooey. Just because our ear’s pop doesn’t mean the ants do. In fact our ear’s popping is an *adaptation* to adjust to varying air pressure. Ants were crawling between the toes of the dinosaurs. They can handle a little change in air pressure. Moreover, a mountaintop in the Great Smokey Mountains (elevation 3500 feet)  and almost twice as high as the Empire State Building’s observation deck (1250 feet) has around 62 species and subspecies of ants. I’ve never seen one of those species pop.

Now, you fire a Fire Ant into the vacuum of deep space and it may go all “Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall.” But ants, like The Arnold, are made of pretty tough stuff.

So there you have it!

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Research Source:

  • https://www.theverge.com/tldr/2016/6/15/11936802/ant-dropped-from-empire-state-building-science-experiment-mystery-solved
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