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Falling Into The Sky And Other Tales Of Gravity

Friday, November 01, 2013 - 08:01 AM

For most of us, gravity is the tug that pulls us home.

Every time we slip off a ladder or somersault into a swimming pool, we feel the planet pulling us back. Austrian stuntman Felix Baumgartner took this notion to a crazy extreme last year when he stepped off a platform attached to a helium balloon 127,850 feet over New Mexico and fell more than 24 miles straight down. A new version of that fall, captured by various cameras, one pointed at his head, a waist-cam and what seems to be a foot-cam, has just been released. As you'll see, (don't bother to watch the whole thing) in the first few seconds of his fall, the Earth's pull is immediate and ferocious ...

Baumgartner's camera shows the Earth through a fisheye lens, so his height seems exaggerated. You think you're looking at the curve of the planet, but the lens is really exaggerating the bending of the horizon, which bounces and twirls in dizzying turns, even as he keeps accelerating, breaking the sound barrier at 46 seconds in. I thought when anything hits that speed there's a boom — or at least a bang — but no, there's just the rush of wind as he drops even faster, this unattached human body, hurtling, all alone, at crazy speeds, reaching more than 830 miles per hour, as he heads straight to the ground.

Uh Oh ...

Then, at 59 seconds in, he loses control and starts to spin. The spin gets worse and worse and you see this point of light (the sun?) swinging wildly back and forth across his visor. If he can't stop it he's going to black out, but somehow, after a few beats, at 1:25, he seems to center himself, finds his balance, and after that things kind of settle down, and then, well, the rest of the video is kinda quiet. Even dull.

Falling, I've decided, is not nearly as interesting as soaring, gliding and flying.

uh.eduI'd Rather Fly Than Fall ...

Over the centuries, leapers have preferred flying to falling, but flying is tricky. More than 1,300 years before Felix took his leap, people were trying to glide, even to flap like birds. The original "Bird Man" was an engineer/poet/musician named Abbas Ibn Firnas, who lived near Cordoba, during the time of the Muslim caliphate in Spain.

In 875 A.D., Ibn Firnas allegedly climbed to the top of a tower, and, dressed in a suit of bird feathers with some wing-like extensions, he jumped into the air and stayed aloft, sweeping about for just long enough to be the first person in recorded history to stay in the air for a protracted period. The only account we have (written centuries later) says the Ibn Firnas landed badly, having forgotten to construct a tail to break his fall, but to this day he is a Muslim hero. The airport in Baghdad, site of several battles in 2003, is named for him.

Gary The Flying Squirrel

After Ibn Firnas, there's Leonardo, of course, but I now have a modern favorite. He's a movie stuntman named Gary Connery, who modeled his air suit on what I'm guessing is not a bird, but a flying squirrel. Last year, he hired a helicopter, got himself well above some farmland in Britain, stepped out onto the runner, and, when he was ready — with no parachute, with nothing but his squirrelly costume — he just ... jumped out ...

Down below, (it's pencil thin, on a plowed field in the distance) he'd constructed a landing strip of large corrugated cardboard boxes — unattached packing cases laid out in a long column. And weaving his way across the sky, he manages to land perfectly, smack onto his heap. How he did it, I don't know, but you can watch the landing close up right here.

Sandra As Descending Astronaut

Gary's not the only one. Lots of people have jumped or dropped from high places. [Spoiler Alert!] If you've seen the new movie Gravity, it ends with an astronaut (played by Sandra Bullock) plummeting 200 miles down to earth, splashing into a shallow sea, then dragging herself onto a beach, her fingers digging into the soft mud that says "home again."

Why Is It Always Falling 'Down'?

In all these examples, gravity is always pulling humans earthward — which makes sense, since the mass of the Earth is so much greater than our own, but there is, of course, a more complicated and more beautiful way to think about gravity — one that appreciates that this is a force that permeates everything, that pulls everything to everything else.

My favorite gravity moment, therefore, isn't a video or a movie scene. It comes from a book, from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars. You may know Saint-Exupéry from his famous children's story, The Little Prince.

In real life, Saint-Exupéry was a pilot and in this book he tells about the time he was forced to land in the Sahara desert, on a high, sandy plateau, an empty, desolate place. Alone, he lays down, facing up and falls asleep. Night falls. He awakens.

"When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of night sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars.

Man looking at stars

Robert Krulwich/NPR

"Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no roof between those depths and me, no branches to screen them, no root to cling to, I was seized with vertigo ..."

For just a moment, he felt he was looking down, not up. And below him he saw a vast sea of stars, space and stardust. And all those lights were pulling at him, urging him to let go, to fall off the Earth and tumble in — and oh, did he want to ...

"... and felt myself as if flung forth and plunging downward like a diver."

But he didn't fall. Gravity, "as sovereign as love" held him in place. The moment passed. The Earth returned, hugging him into place. "I leaned with joy against this admirable breastwork, this solidity, this security, feeling against my body this curving bridge of my ship," he says. And yet, for a magical second — he'd been free. Gravity had been cancelled. He was neither up nor down. He was everywhere.

Gravity is never more precious than the instant it vanishes.


Drawing of Firnas flying from uh.edu

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Comments [4]

becky from usa

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Nov. 07 2013 07:09 PM
Mike from Portland, OR

Loved this! The last portion concerning Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's gravity realization happened to me back in the 90's as I drove across Wyoming and Montana. If you "flip the view" in your mind on an open swath of empty highway, it feels as if you're wending your way across the bottom of a giant marble. I do this often now when the moment and view are right. For me, there's no up or down...more like inward and outward as far as gravity and our sphere is concerned. Glad I'm not the only one with these random/weird/ thoughts and enlightened moments of clarity. *Sigh, back to work now*

Nov. 07 2013 11:29 AM
Raphael

I just got a weird feeling in the stomach just reading the passages from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's book and you're annotations!

This is a wonderfully written post!

Nov. 06 2013 05:14 PM
rhschmitt

Nietzsche suggests that when you feel the stars are above you, you are missing something. Instead remember that they are always under foot (as well as over head).

Nov. 06 2013 11:29 AM

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