Chicken Little was Right

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

Get out of the way!

I once wrote about the dubious thrill of being trapped beneath a 10-pound Canada goose that was falling at 32 feet per second.

The 32-feet/second figure was a recollection from more than 40 years ago when mathematics and I locked in mortal combat. I admitted that my recollection of high school physics was hazy - as hazy as my concept of a balanced checkbook, but wouldn't you know it an engineer wrote to correct me.

"Your statement of objects falling at a speed of 32 feet per second is incorrect!" he thundered. Hey, I was just trying to get out of the way of the thing, not prove a theorem.

Anyway, the goose hit with the solid sound of a sack of concrete about a foot away from the head of the hunter next to me. We were in a goose pit and the pit had been dug by a backhoe apparently for Patrick Ewing, Bill Wennington, Mark Eaton or other NBA centers who top 7 feet. I needed a periscope to see out and help from above to get out.

When a dead goose decided to center the pit, like a missile attacking an Iraqi bunker, I not only couldn't hide, I couldn't even run. Where was I going to go? Given a few hours, I could have dug a shelter cave in the wall of the pit, but I only had 3.06 seconds (as we will shortly find out, thanks to my correspondent).

So, I huddled in the bunker, waiting for the next incoming round. Next time, Gen. Schwarzkopf, forget the smart bombs and shoot dead geese at 'em.

Said the engineer, "Free falling objects accelerate due to gravity (pay attention, class, and take notes - there'll be a quiz at the end) at 32 feet per second squared.

"Thus, the time it takes for a goose (neglecting wind resistance) to fall vertically to earth from 50 yards up would be determined by the following simplified equation: Distance=initial velocity x time + 1/2 x acceleration x time squared."

That may be a simplified equation to an engineer, but writers are math dumb. Anyone who expects a writer to understand mathematics more complicated than five times six equals 24 or whatever, also expects bird dogs not to roll in disgusting substances and non-hunting spouses to understand why you need another shotgun (especially one that costs $1,000 when you have $650 left in checking).

If writers understood math, they'd be something else. Outdoor writers are the worst, except for the few gun types who can calculate trajectory and muzzle velocity and stuff like that and come up with a scientific reason why you can't hit the broad side of a barn.

I struggle with simple things like remembering shot sizes, and this engineer expects me to connect with: "With distance = 50 yards = 150 feet and initial vertical velocity = 0 for a horizontally flying goose, the above equation becomes 150 feet = 1/2 x 32 feet/sec/sec x time squared."

Are you with us so far? Take my hand - it gets scary and there are things in these mathematical jungles that eat human flesh.

"After some algebra," the engineer continues, not specifying what 'some algebra' means, "time = the square root of 150 feet/16 feet/sec/sec. Therefore, the time it takes the goose to hit the ground is 3.06 seconds."

Shoot fire, everyone knows that! Actually, I had guessed it took less than five seconds for the goose to fall 50 yards, even though it seemed like a couple of long years as I scooted around in that narrow pit watching a dead goose rapidly blot out the sky.

I did what it took the engineer a half-page of equations to do by a simple guess. That's the way I handle mathematics - I just guess. "Well, I guess I got enough to buy that shotgun. Let me write you a check and we'll see how it bounces."

Having solved how long it takes a falling goose to fracture a hunter's skull, the engineer goes on to determine how fast the thing would be traveling when it turns the guy's cranium into curds and whey.

I won't get into the mathematics of it, except to say they are more complicated than figuring out how long it took. The upshot is a goose would be traveling at 66.8 miles per hour when it howdied the hunter.

That, the engineer concluded with typical scientific detachment, "would cause serious damage to the unlucky hunter."

Why did he think I was whining and groveling under the thing? I might not know how long or how fast, but I guessed it was long enough and fast enough to turn my brain to noodle lasagna. Chicken Little may have been wrong about the sky falling, but he wasn't wrong about the dangers of falling sky. That stuff can kill you!

Jack Ehresman, longtime outdoor editor for the Peoria, Ill. Star-Journal, once shot a goose approaching the pit from the left, then turned right to follow the flock. The dead goose continued on and down and smacked him right in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. I don't know if Jack can add two and two, but he can testify with deadly accuracy about the power of a falling goose.

I'm sure the engineer could have given Jack an equation to figure kinetic energy and shocking power at the instant of impact, but Jack couldn't have read it anyway because of double vision and a world class headache. He didn't need to know the figures, just how they translated in human terms.

A friend, Roger Sparks, recalls having been whacked by a free-falling mallard that took him to his knees. He has no concept of time to impact or impact speed; he just knows it hurt bad.

I have a vivid memory from my teenage days of a goose shot near Missouri's Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge where my father and I were hunting.

The shot bird died instantly and began to fall straight down, getting larger and larger until it filled the sky. We were rooted, frozen by the sight of that approaching peril, like a deer transfixed in the center of the tracks by an oncoming locomotive.

The bird hit a couple of feet in front of the pit, raising a cloud of dust. I felt the ground shake. It was that childhood memory that surfaced instantly 40 years later when I was confronted with another falling goose, accelerating at 32 feet per second squared (see, I remember).

I also took high school algebra and physics 40 years ago. While I can't remember anything from either textbook, I vividly remember that falling goose.

Maybe if my math teachers had whacked me over the head with the book I would have learned more.

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