Weekly Challenge 8: How Big is Big? The Earth Edition

 Posted by DrJeff on October 16th, 2009

 Copyright 2009  |  About this blog



This post is a Dr. Jeff’s Weekly Challenge and a Driving with Jordi.

Photo caption: the Hawaiian Islands, with the Big Island of Hawai’i at lower right. The Big Island was formed from five volcanoes including Mauna Kea. True color from the NASA Terra satellite, May 27, 2003.

The solution to this Challenge will be posted Monday, October 26, 2009.

It’s a new school year, and I couldn’t wait to get back into the routine of my morning drive with Jordi. I missed our daily conversations about Earth, space and everything else in his known universe while we navigate the fabled Washington, DC, Beltway to his school. Sure, we spent lots of great family time together over the summer at the pool club, and in New York. But there was something magical about taking 30 minutes of dull driving each morning and turning it into a free-for-all ‘Jordi where do you want to take the conversation today?’

To help you picture it, I’m always driving with my cup of coffee, glancing in the rear view mirror—waiting. He’s usually staring forward, transfixed. You’d almost think that my now 7-year-old is just zoning—except that he’s got that slight squint which tells me wheels are turning furiously inside. Then BOOM! He launches our great morning adventure with a simple, elegant, deep thought.

So last week, like always, just out of the blue—

“Daddy, how many Empire State Buildings tall is the tallest mountain?”

Today he wanted daddy to help him conceptualize the height of a really tall mountain. He wanted to use a familiar ruler.

Whenever we take a family a drive to New York (my Mom and sister are an hour north of the City) we always take time to go into Manhattan. We bike the Park or along the Hudson, eat in Little Italy making sure to get a box of the best pastries in the City at La Bella Ferrara—and then drive up 34th Street where we stop the car and let Jordi look straight up to the top of the Empire State Building. He LOVES that building. To him, it just touches the sky. I know exactly how he feels. For me it was always the World Trade Center.

So for Jordi, if one wanted to measure the size of the tallest mountain, using the Empire State Building as a ruler was surely the way to go. Cool kid. (Proud daddy.)

Not too long ago, I actually wrote a Post that used the height of the Empire State Building, so I remembered it was about 1,500 feet tall. I also know something about the height of mountains. My planetary atmospheres research took me to the telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea so many times that I could be a tour guide for the Big Island of Hawai’i. On the summit I liked walking over to the U.S. Geological Survey marker identifying the highest point on Earth in the Pacific. But the short walk at 13,803 feet (4,207 meters) above sea level always left me out of breath. On one trip to the marker I had a friend take a picture of me next to it, with the clouds in the background a mile below us. I love to show that photo when I talk to kids and families and tell them that’s Jeff on top of the World (it is!)

But before going ‘UP’ with Jordi (something I suspect that’s much like what Carl Fredricksen felt flying off with Russell the wilderness explorer), I decided to go ‘down’ (because good stories have to build to a crescendo.) So we first talked about the Grand Canyon in Arizona, a hole in the ground that left me awestruck when I visited many years ago. At its deepest, the Grand Canyon is 6,000 ft (1,830 m) measured vertically from the rim of the Canyon to the Colorado River below. “Jordi, imagine you’re walking toward the rim and see this really large spike sticking up 100 feet above you. That’s about the height of a 10-story building. As you get closer to the rim and start to look down, you see the spike extends another 100 feet below you, and it’s attached to the top of a BIG building sitting in the Canyon. It’s the antenna mast …. of the Empire State Building.” He thought that was just so cool! Then shock set in when I told him this was just the top of a stack of FOUR Empire State Buildings with the base of the first sitting in the Colorado River! BIG canyon.

Then we went ‘up’, going back to his mountain question. Everybody thinks the tallest mountain on Earth is Mt. Everest and so did Jordi. So I went with the flow. “Jordi, Mt. Everest is about 29,000 feet above sea level. The Empire State Building is about 1,500 feet tall so, you’d need (daddy calculating in his head while driving) nearly …. TWENTY of them, one on top of the other, to get to the top of Everest.”  Then … Jordi says, “20?!!  20?!!!  … (5 second delay)…. 20?!!!!!” He was jaw—dropping stunned. In his mind that Building was huge! But How Big is Big? is all relative.

Now that I’ve got the internet and a calculator right here, I can do it more precisely. The summit of Everest is 29,029 feet (8,848 m) above sea level, and the Empire State Building is 1,472 feet (449 m) to the top of the antenna mast. So Everest is 19.7 Empire State Buildings Tall.

Ok, just getting you primed for your challenge. You didn’t think I’d give everything away did you?

Here now the challenge—

1. How many Empire State Buildings tall is the tallest mountain on Earth (Jordi’s original question)?

Hint: when is a mountain not just a mountain.

And by the way, my 210 mile high (340 km) mountain pictured in THIS Post, a photo presumably taken from the space shuttle, WASN’T REAL (the power of Photoshop). The fact that it was located “south of the Land of Make-Believe” was supposed to be the clue.

2. You’re on a cruise ship in the Pacific, 1,700 miles south of Tokyo and 200 miles south west of Guam (get out your maps.) You’ve slipped the captain a big wad of bills to stop the ship so you can go swimming. The crew lowers the inflatable zodiac, you jump into the water, but realize you left your spiffy waterproof, gold-encrusted watch in the dingy. The captain’s only given you 30 minutes of frolic time. “Hey crew member guy, can you toss me my watch?” Oops … he did and you missed. You do a quick dive and …. almost catch up to it as it gently descends. But you needed to stop ’cause you felt you were going too deep. There goes your watch on its way to the bottom. But come on, how deep could it really go? You figure if you slip the captain another wad of bills he’ll send in a diver to fetch it. Does he? How far is the bottom?

Hint: I want the answer using a (now) familiar ruler.

3. How many Empire State Buildings do you need to stack on top of one another to go from sea level to ‘outer space’?

Hint: read my Post The Business Trip for a clue.

Use a familiar ruler:

There’s a good chance you’re not familiar with the Empire State Building, so you might choose to use a different ruler for the heights and depths we’re considering above. Here are some tall structures in other parts of the USA and around the world you might want to use instead—

Statue of Liberty, New York City, USA: 305 ft (93 m) above ground level
Washington Monument, Washington, DC, USA:  555 ft (169 m)
Space Needle, Seattle, USA:  605 ft (184 m)
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France:  1,063 ft (324 m)

Tokyo Tower, Tokyo, Japan: 1,092 feet, (333 m)
Kiev TV Tower, Kiev, Ukraine: 1,263 feet (385 m)

Empire State Building, New York City, USA: 1,472 feet (449 m)

Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:  1,482 feet (452 m)

Shanghai World Financial Center, Shanghai, China: 1,614 feet (492 m)

Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan: 1,671 feet (509 m)

Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), tallest building in US, Chicago, USA: 1,730 feet (527 m)

CN Tower, Toronto, Canada:  1,815 ft (553 m)

Guangzhou TV and Sightseeing Tower, Guangzhou, China:  2,001 ft (610 m)

KVLY-TV mast, Blanchard, USA:  2,063 feet (818 m)
World’s tallest building—Burj Dubai (Dubai Tower) , Dubai, UAR:  2,684 feet (818 m)

Photo credit: NASA


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One Response to “Weekly Challenge 8: How Big is Big? The Earth Edition”

  1. Bill Chapman Says:
    October 18th, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    If you haven’t seen it, you’ll definitely be interested in Edward Packard’s IMAGINING THE UNIVERSE: A Visual Journey (A Perigee Book, 1994)