A lion tries to catch a box at the Santa Fe zoo in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on January 10, 2015. Photo: Getty Images
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Who would win in a fight, a trillion lions or the Sun?

A trillion lions fired into space could make Mars into an oasis, plus other things you can do with a giant ball of cats.

Sometimes, it's possible to take a joke too far. This tweet has inspired just such an occasion:

The answer to this question is: the Sun. But! There are other things we can do with a trillion lions.

First, we need to work out exactly how much lion we'll have if we have a trillion lions. This paper found that the average adult male Panthera leo living in Kruger National Park in South Africa weighs 187.5kg, and so a trillion lions means we're talking about a sphere of lions with a total mass of 1.875 x 1014kg. To put it into context, that's about 20 times more massive than comet 67-P (which the Rosetta probe and Philae lander have been studying since late last year) - but it's nothing on the mass of the Sun: 1.98892 x 1030kg.

You might think that lions have advantages over the Sun (claws, for example) that level the playing field. It's not enough. A comet-sized object consisting of lions held together by gravity and floating in towards the Sun to attack it will not destroy it - the Sun will destroy them. The Sun is a trillion times more massive than the spacelionball. It's sad, but true.

But if we're going to go to the trouble of launching that number of lions into space, we should, I would argue, use them for something more productive. 

Working out the size of the spherical spacelionball isn't that difficult if we assume each lion ends up as its own little sphere of meat (and considering the effects of the vacuum of space on otherwise-unprotected lions, yeah, they'll be meat soon enough). We know the mass of each individual lion sphere, but we also need to know its likely volume if we're to explore the consequences of a spacelionball - and, funnily enough, a search through the scientific literature comes up empty-handed for studies where scientists have gone to the effort of dunking lions in water and measuring how much water was displaced.

However, there's one group of people who do need to know how dense meat is: farmers. This company makes buckets for agricultural elevators, and provides a handy engineering sheet with the average densities of the kinds of things farmers tend to stick in buckets. Their value for the density of "meat, scrap with bone" is 40 pounds per cubic foot, or 640.7kg per cubic metre - and again, bearing in mind what the radiation and cold of space does to exposed flesh, "meat, scrap with bone" is probably close to the final product.

And, assuming meat's similar enough from species to species that this density value doesn't change much, that means our meaty lion spheres are going to take up 0.29m3 each. Think of it this way: you'd need to put two lions through a wood chipper to fill up a typical bathtub. (Note: don't do that.)

That's all very grim, but it does mean that our spacelionball will be a sphere with a rather neat volume of 290km3 and a diameter of just over 8km. Its circumference is roughly 26km, which isn't too far off the length of the main loop of the Large Hadron Collider, and an astronaut standing on the surface would experience gravity that felt about a twentieth as strong as Earth's. Like other objects of a similar size, our spacelionball will be very loosely held together, and the escape velocity is extremely low - anything moving faster than the speed at which grass grows will be ejected into space. As meat in the interior decompose, the release of trapped gasses will mean some lions get gently pushed out into space.

The spacelionball's closest relative in the Solar System in size and mass is probably Jupiter's small, strange moon Themisto, about which we know very little, beyond the fact that it orbits apart from the other groups that Jupiter's moons tend to clump into. Astronomers found it in 1975, then lost it, then rediscovered it in 2000; we still don't have any photos of it, so it's fair to say that we can't definitively rule out the possibility that it is, in fact, composed of a trillion lions bound together by gravity. It probably isn't, but we can't be sure it isn't.

Leaving our spacelionball to coalesce and cool and congeal, to hang in the heavens without purpose, would be a waste. Like humans, lions are mostly water, and our ghastly cosmic creation would be be roughly two-thirds H2O, an amount the corresponds to about 254 times the daily discharge of the Nile - and if we crash our spacelionballcometthing into something we might, after the dust settles, be able to make use of it.

One of the more ambitious suggestions for making Mars habitable to Earth life is to commandeer and crash comets into it, thereby: a) thickening its thin atmosphere with necessary gases like oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and b) warming up the polar regions, where more than enough water ice is currently stored that, once melted, would create oceans and river just like ours. Our spacelionball is far too small for this - we'd need several hundred of them at least, if not more - but we could try something else.

Without getting into too much detail (though it's here if you want it), Mars is short about 1019kg of atmosphere, and in the Kuiper belt contains a bunch of huge asteroids which weigh in at about that mass - and, crucially, they're rich in compounds like methane and ammonia, which we'll need to make Mars fertile. The force required to move one of these objects out of its orbit and in towards the Sun, and into a collision course with Mars, is huge, on the scale of dozens of nuclear warheads. But an easy way to halve your energy costs is to simply find a smaller asteroid travelling retrograde (ie, backwards relative to most other objects) around the Sun, and maneouvre that into colliding with the larger thing you're really hunting.

The resulting impact, as the combined lion-and-Kuiper object reached its target, would very rapidly reshape the Red Planet into something more similar to Earth, once the hydrological cycle settles in and the atmosphere is rebuilt to a surface pressure comparable to Earth's. There would be side effects, true, including the violent ejection of rocks and debris from the impact site back into space, and likely towards Earth - we have many meteors that we know used to be part of Mars, delivered to us by similar ancient collision events. Only for this one, some lions might make it home on the return journey.

In this way, the sacrifice of so many kings of the jungle may not be in vain.

With apologies to Randall Munroe.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Sam Pepper via YouTube
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The story of Sam Pepper: how a British YouTuber incurred the wrath of the internet

The Dapper Laughs of online pranks  has finally gone too far.

Last night, a Twitter user claiming to be "a voice" for hacker collective Anonymous sent out a series of angry tweets slamming a video featuring "violent abuse". The user wasn't referring to Isis, which is the subject of an ongoing campaign by the hacker group, but a young, turquoise-haired British man named Sam Pepper. 

Pepper is a YouTube star who came to fame after appearing in the 11th series of reality show Big Brother. He's known for his prank YouTube videos posted under the username "Sam", which have in the past involved such hilarious japes as wearing a prosthetic old man's face and climbing into bed with his own girlfriend. He now lives in LA, but is friends with other prominent British YouTubers, including, of course, Zoella. 

So on the face of it, it's a little surprising that @TheAnonMessage blasted out this tirade against the star last night as a series of tweets to his 170,000-odd followers:

We've been notified of a sick, disturbing video uploaded by @sampepper. Yet again, he uses violent abuse to garner subscribers.

This is something that we cannot stand for. This so-called prank should bring shame to the YouTube community for supporting this imbecile.

This video must be taken down. @SamPepper you have been warned. You have 24 hours or we will unleash fucking hell on you.

The video in question, "KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK | Ft. Sam & Colby", was published on 29 November but already has over two million views. In it, Pepper teams up with another Sam, half of the YouTube duo Sam & Colby, to pretend to, er, kill him, and terrify Colby in the process.

Sam and Colby drive into shot, then both get out of the car to check the oil. A figure wearing a black balaclava grabs Colby, put a bag over his head, tapes up his hands and dumps him in the boot of the car, all with Sam's help. The pair take him to a rooftop, where the bag is removed, and Pepper - the masked attacker - shoots Colby in the head with a fake gun. The visual references to Isis are hard to ignore:  

Photo: Sam Pepper via YouTube

What follows is a genuinely disturbing thirty seconds in which Colby screams and cries, eventually drowned out and replaced in the video's edit by tinkly piano music. Finally, Sam stands up and reveals he isn't dead. 

YouTubers responded angrily to the prank. Commenters called it "cruel" and seemed genuinely distressed by Colby's experience. The video's approval ratings, represented by thumbs up and thumbs down, are a good indication of audience reaction: 

So what happens if Pepper doesn't remove the video within 24 hours? Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous told me that "[@TheAnonMessage] has earned the wrath of Anonymous for acting irresponsibly" in the past (most notably, the user launched an attack on the wrong Ferguson police officer), and isn't part of the main Anonymous group. However, this doesn't mean the user couldn't attack Sam's channel or website. Either way, @TheAnonMessage has leapt on the coattails of a controversy that seems to have caught the imagination of large swathes of social media.

From Pepper's own point of view, though, it's easy to see why the whole furore is a little mystifying. His entire empire is founded on pushing boundaries of acceptability, and no one involved in this particular prank is angry - the video includes an epilogue where he chats to Sam and Colby, and Sam grins and exclaims "that was crazy!".

There's a parallel with the comedian Daniel O'Reilly (also known by his persona Dapper Laughs) here: both are young male entertainers who built an online audience through pushing the envelope with humour and pranks, and are then a bit shocked when they cross an invisible line and are lambasted for behaviour not dissimilar to the actions that earned them followers in the first place. 

Pepper, like Dapper, has been accused of misogyny, and even sexual harassment in his videos - he removed one, "Fake Hand Pinch Prank", which involved grabbing women in public using a fake hand, following online outcry. Yet one of his most watched videos is "How to Make Out with Strangers”, in which he approaches random women in Miami, says things like “I’m seeing which beautiful girls would like to make out…with me,” and kisses them. The video received none of the same criticism, and earned him over 17 million views. You can see why he might not be getting the message. 

The difference between the two videos lies, of course, in consent, as Pepper at least pretends to ask the women's permission in the Miami video. Yet as YouTuber Laci Green gently points out in an open letter to Pepper written at the time: "You pressure women on camera to make out with you - again, many of whom are visibly uncool with it. Confused and caught off guard, they painfully follow through with your requests, clearly uncomfortable."

What's clear is that the internet is still trying to figure out what is acceptable in the realm of humour. Internet-friendly humour tends to be slapstick, brash, irrelevant, and involve making fun of gormless members of the public. But pushed to extremes - the extremes which can seem necessary to make a name for yourself in the saturated vlogger market - these gags can easily turn nasty. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.