The Critical Mass

Tall buildings are beautiful and deadly. And so is Amanda Bynes.

Yes, "Manhattanhenge" is pretty, but watch for flying bongs.

Yes, "Manhattanhenge" is pretty, but watch for flying bongs.

Urban architecture is one of civilization’s great accomplishments. And when it merges with nature, it can steal your breath. So it was yesterday evening, when New York City experienced what’s being called “henge.” The setting sun, in perfect alignment with the Manhattan streets. And what impresses me the most is that New Yorkers actually stopped what they were doing, stood in the middle of the streets and took photos. They appreciated the beauty of an unusual sunset aligned with modern-day obelisks. They appreciated this mystical moment. No human sacrifice needed.

But be warned: Manhattan skyscrapers are a danger.

To be quite frank, I don’t know Amanda Bynes from the other personality that’s all over the news web sites that I read most mornings, Grumpy Cat. I had to look up both. On the Internet.

  • Bynes is a Big Star because she has appeared in a bunch of TV shows and movies, none of which I had ever heard of. She was also named one of Teen People‘s “2 5 Hottest Stars Under 25″ in 2006. But she appears best known for being a spoiled woman-child with a history of DUI and leaving the scene of an accident charges, and has demonstrated an inexplicable need to throw vases out of apartment windows.
  • Grumpy Cat, first seen as charming photo posted on the social media site Reddit, has gone viral, and recently signed movie and beverage-endorsement deals. And no, I am not making that up.

Anyway, last week Bynes was arrested after she threw a glass bong out of the window of her 36th-floor apartment. She said she thought it was a vase, and that’s fine. My grandmother made the same mistake when she visited my old college apartment. Anyway, Brian Palmer, a writer for Slate, posed this question: “Could a bong dropped from that height kill a pedestrian?”

With the help of James Kakalios of the University of Minnesota, who wrote The Physics of Superheroes, Palmer concluded that the answer is a resounding yes. He explains:

A 36th-story window is about 460 feet high. By the time a bong dropped from that height reached the ground, it would likely be traveling 115 miles per hour. (It takes a bong more than 350 feet to reach terminal velocity. Air drag would have minimal effect on the speed of the falling bong.) A typical glass bong weighs between 2 and 3 pounds, which means it would have been carrying more than 1,100 foot-pounds of kinetic energy on impact. Therefore, if the bong were unbreakable, the victim’s skull would have to absorb nearly 34,000 pounds of force to bring it to a stop before it crashed into the brain. That’s about 10 times more force than the strongest human skull can tolerate. Studies on cadavers suggest that it takes between 475 and 3,800 pounds of force to break a skull, depending on the location of the impact.

Good job, guys. And they likely wrote all of that with a straight face.