Shakes on a Plane: Can you Harlem shake yourself to death?

Dancing like a tit at 30,000 feet.

Harlem shaking. Everyone's doing it, it's terrible, and sometimes you wish they would die. Lately, it seems like they might. Passengers on one plane nearly sparked an aviation emergency after harlem shaking en masse without thinking about the physics of such concerted action:

Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the problem is that a plane is, y'know, a floating tube hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour. Everyone in that floating tube violently throwing their weight around runs quite a high chance of upsetting the delicate balance that keeps the tube floating in the air.

As a result, the FAA is looking into whether the stunt, which was carried out by students from the Colarado College in the US, was safe. The *Catalyst*, the college's newspaper, reports:

The students, who were traveling from Colorado Springs to San Diego on the way to an ultimate frisbee tournament, filmed a version of the “Harlem Shake,” a YouTube meme that has gone viral in the past few months. While no charges or sanctions have been filed against the airline or the students, the FAA is continuing their investigation into the flight and working to uncover if any regulations were violated.

“They are still looking into it, it’s still open,” Tony Molinero, a spokesman for the FAA said this week. “…I don’t know where the [investigators] were told about it, but when they saw the video they just decided to look into it because it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Back-of-the-envelope maths shows that the shakers would have to try quite hard to kill themselves. Take a Boeing 727-100, roughly the same type of plane the shakers will have been on. That plane has a maximum takeoff weight of 77 tonnes, and an empty weight of just under 37 tonnes. That means that, assuming the airline is halfway competent, the total weight of everybody on board can't be more than 40 tonnes. As it’s is, of course, they are likely to be nowhere near that. For one thing, much of that weight will actually be luggage and other essentials; for another, the plane holds a max of 150 passengers, and even assuming some bulky American football players, they don't weigh an average of 375kg.

So assume, at a stretch, a passenger weight of around 20 tonnes — maybe there are some really fat people just off frame. And assume that, at some point in the shake, they all threw their weight in the same direction at the same time. That would also be unlikely, given the whole point of the Harlem shake is everyone shaking crazily, not moving in lockstep as though they were inmates at that Thai prison where everyone is forced to dance to Michael Jackson.

A professional long-jumper hits 10m/s at the end of their run, so again, being generous, lets assume that's the speed our airborne meme-generators throw themselves to the side. If they make up roughly a quarter of the weight of the plane, that means the jet as a whole will lurch 2.5 m/s to the side.

That's about the magnitude of a particularly nasty stretch of turbulence. The far more dangerous aspect would be the fact that if you have 150 people in a confined space throwing themselves against the wall, the resulting crush would leave several of them gasping for breath.

And in the real world, the Harlem shake doesn't involve everyone throwing themselves in one direction in an effort to take down a plane. Instead, it just involves someone dancing like a tit for fifteen seconds, before everyone else dances like a tit for a further fifteen seconds. In those circumstances, they'll likely land safe and sound. Though frankly, they don't deserve to.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.