A wry view of life for the world-weary

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Eleven


The English language is full of metaphors and similes denoting speed. At the drop of a hat I bet before you know it you can come up with a dozen or so. Most of us are not choosy which one we use at any particular moment – it is generally either the first that comes to us or that which seems the most apposite. But is there a hierarchy amongst the sayings and is the one we use really that apposite for the situation we are describing?

Well, fortunately there are some researchers who are prepared to do the legwork for us. In this particular instance, take a bow some researchers from the University Campus of Suffolk who have tabulated in order of speed some twenty of the most commonly used descriptions of speed.

Not unsurprisingly, top of the list is at the speed of light which travels at 300 million metres per second.  Lightning fast comes in at a laggardly 6 million metres a second. Halley’s comet was measured as travelling at 84,909 metres per second when it was observed in May 1910 and this might reasonably be taken as the standard for like a comet.

The fastest recorded space shuttle was recorded as travelling at a rate of 8,947 metres a second and this is good enough to put the description supersonic into fourth place. A speeding bullet leaves the barrel of a rifle at a speed of 1,524 metres per second, a velocity sufficient to secure it fifth place.

To test the actual of velocity of some phrases the researchers had to carry out some experimentation. To test the speed and, therefore, the relative ranking of a drop of a hat they dropped the headwear from head height in a vacuum where it wouldn’t encounter any air resistance. The recorded speed of 5.7 metres a second put the phrase in a lowly 16th place but this was considerably faster than a blink of an eye, the speed of which is 0.003 metres a second, the slowest of the 20 phrases tested.

A peregrine falcon in full stoop, the origin of the phrase in one fell swoop, travels at 108.05 metres a second, the fastest speed of any self-propelled animal but only sufficient to earn it seventh place.  If you feel you need to compare speed with a member of the animal kingdom bear this in mind because a bat out of hell weighs in at a lowly 35.8 metres per second, the speed of a Mexican free-tailed bats and assorted animals that figuratively shoot up things – like a ferret up a trouser leg (6.94 metres per second) and a rat up a drainpipe (0.893 metres per second) are considerably tardier.

Make it snappy, the favourite phrase of the impatient, comes in at number 13, as the rate at which a finger can be snapped or clicked is around 13 metres per second, but still faster than like wildfire which, mercifully, only spreads at a rate of 7 metres per second. Flick of a switch which sounds as though it ought to be quick because it is something mechanical is down at 18th place – a switch fitted with a reed relay which is operated automatically by magnet- is the fastest way a switch can be flicked and  its speed is just 2 metres per second.

So there, before you know it – eighth place as electrical impulses travel along the nerves in our body at a rate of 100 metres a second – you have an interesting table showing the relativity of many of our familiar sayings to describe speed.

Isn’t science wonderful?!

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

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