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.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”