Annals of science/commerce (double issue)

Now that the division series and the second debate are past, we can think about the guy who jumped out of the balloon thingy. The scientific payoff from this show was amazing.  First, it was observed that Baumgartner indisputably fell toward the earth, generalizing Galileo’s Tower of Pisa results (not to mention all the other stuff like airplane and rocketship parts that have done that from really really high up).  He went faster and faster up where there was almost no air, then slower as the air got thicker, then even slower when his parachute opened, and he stopped exactly when he hit the ground, not a moment before or after!  Who could have possibly predicted that sequence?!!? This is why scientific theory has to be confirmed with experiments, folks.

Big lessons here: there is gravity even with almost no air, air is very different from New Mexico soil (not being solid, and like that), and the air is thicker down here than up there!  OK, not amazing.

There’s more: because he was wearing a space suit with an oxygen supply, he survived when he depressurized his capsule and stepped out whereas he wouldn’t have if he were in gym shorts.  So we learn that if you wear a space suit (or a pressurized capsule, or an airplane with a pressurized cabin) you can not only live in no air (like the guys in space program doing their space walks, moonwalks, etc.) but in hardly any air!  Also, he seems to have exceeded the speed of sound.  Exactly like the folks whizzing around in the space capsule, duh.  Why is this interesting?  Because if you did it down here dressed as he was, the shock wave would tear your space suit off, and probably some body parts.  Why is this not interesting?  Because the air he was falling through was so thin it didn’t matter. And if my grandmother had wheels…

The science (and the entertainment value, come to think of it) here is right up there with the physiological effects of the sponsor’s product: like drinking one cup of coffee, but way more expensive.  It’s the perfect match of a useless product with a pointless trick.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

25 thoughts on “Annals of science/commerce (double issue)”

  1. I suppose that next you’ll be telling us that there’s no reason to climb Mt Everest again, sail around the world, or even go to Chicago. You’re undoubtedly right, and I think you’ve missed your calling as an accountant.

    1. I’d venture a guess that climbing Mt. Everest takes quite a bit more planning and endurance than dropping like a rock from on high. The outcome was virtually guaranteed by the laws of physics.

      1. Endurance, yes. Planning . . . no. Not at this point, when summiting Everest is pretty rote (although still dangerous and difficult). But anyway, I’ve got to second what John Beaty says, with extra sauce. The argument O’Hare seems to be making appears a lot like “unless you’re going to be advancing the species through procreation, why in the world would you have sex”? Only with more scorn.

        1. Following that analogy, the point I got was enjoy all the sex you want just don’t try to suggest that you’re broadening the horizon of human experience by it.

      2. Well, unless you count screaming into the ground at terminal velocity a guarantee, you would venture wrong. There were about 45 seconds at the beginning where it was touch and go if he could get straightened out, and the whole thing took several years of planning to bring it to a point where we could watch it and yawn. Most people who climb Everest or K2 or even go to Chicago expect to come back: the odds are pretty well known, even if they’re bad. This wasn’t the case here: no-one knew what would happen when a person without a vehicle passed the speed of sound.

  2. I heard Felix Baumgartner’s interest in aerodynamics dates back to when he was an undergrad at Cal and played wide receiver on the football team. He liked being able to apply the concepts of turbulent flow and inertia coupling to thrown footballs rather than just supersonic aircraft. This gave him a leg up when writing applications for grants from Darpa and the NSF to do his high-altitude jump.

  3. An article on this did provide a number of pieces of information that were learned through this sky-dive. I don’t recall them except for one: would it be possible for astronauts to bail-out of a spacecraft and survive? The suit worn by Felix is the same as the current astronauts orange suits so he showed that this type of suit is protective in the atmosphere at the altitudes reached.

    1. I have a hard time believing that this problem had never been considered, much less addressed, in the design of these outfits. But perhaps it had never been put to such a direct test.

    2. It may have been the same suit, but the rest is bunk. The space shuttle orbited about 10 times as far above the earth as Baumgartner started; the altitude he jumped from isn’t high enough to produce a stable orbit. In addition, anyone jumping from a shuttle would have much greater initial velocity relative to the atmosphere than he did. Surviving re-entry from an orbital velocity is very different.

      1. I don’t doubt the caffeine drink got a ton of pub, but AIUI there is some value in knowing if astronauts can survive. We’re doing it privately now, so the technology can be pimped.

      2. but astronauts ‘falling’ from a space station would have the same problems as the shuttle, namely the friction and thus heat of re-entry. If that heat burns up a space shuttle, then it burns up the astronaut in a space suit. Mr Baumgartner did not have that issue.

        If astronauts could get down to his level protected by their vheicle’s heat shields, why would they bail out then, and with what?

        So: brave (or foolhardy, but with the planning, probably brave) to do it, but not hugely practical in its implications.

        1. In fact, the Space shuttle actually DID have a bail out system, though on the occasions when something went wrong, use of it wasn’t a option. Just because your heat shield survived long enough to get you down to 120,000 feet intact doesn’t mean you’re riding a craft capable of landing. One can easily imagine scenarios where the craft makes it that far, but is already starting to break up.

          I suppose the next step in escalating stunts is reentry with an ablative surf board. Might just barely be feasible.

  4. A waste of helium.
    A waste of time.
    A waste of gee-whiz….

    A real daredevil exploit?

    How about the reporter, debate moderator, or citizen that asks the presidential candidates a question about global warming?
    I suspect asking about global warming in the year 2012 in the USA, is just too damn dangerous a thing to do…

  5. I’m not really with you, Michael, on this one. Red Bull (a pointless product to be sure) sponsor a lot of weird macho stunt stuff; so weird that it is not very likely to trigger reckless imitations by teenagers. The tone is as lighthearted as is compatible with the physical risks. I enjoyed the parodic “Mission Control”: four screens and headsets in a hut.

    A more worthy target would be the International Space Station: also useless macho posturing, but sold to the taxpayers as serious Science and costing billions.

  6. “then even slower when his parachute opened, and he stopped exactly when he hit the ground, not a moment before or after! Who could have possibly predicted that sequence?!!?”

    Yes, but if his parachute hadn’t opened, he would have only come to a full stop some fractions of a second (or several yards) after hitting the ground.

      1. Depends on your attitude. The highest I’ve jumped from was only 14,000 ft, which allows for 60s of free fall. In normal “spread-eagle” position, terminal velocity is ~120mph. If you fall headfirst, then you could approach 200mph. As always, YMMV. EIEIO.

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