Inflight Science - A guide to the world from your airplane window

Monday 4, April 2011


Inflight Science - A guide to the world from your airplane window


Science is rarely as immediate, or as important, than when you are cruising at thirty thousand feet. Your life is in the hands of the scientists and engineers who enable tons of metal and plastic to hurtle through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour.


In INFLIGHT SCIENCE the science you experience as you travel by air to your destination is brought to life in a fun, accessible and informative way.


The whole experience of flying is alive with scientific discoveries – from the body-scanner you pass through in the security checks to the thrust you experience as the plane accelerates, from the spectacular aerial views of mountains and rivers to the atmosphere in and above the clouds. Even the way in which an airplane toilet works is an example of complex scientific activity. 


INFLIGHT SCIENCE explains how flying itself is possible, and how you stay alive while it happens - but that is really only the beginning. Acclaimed science writer Brian Clegg is your personal expert guide. He explains everything from the ever-changing view out of the window, whether that be crop-circles, mountains or the shudder of turbulence from a passing storm cloud, and describes simple experiments that show how a wing provides lift, or what should happen if you try to open the door in mid-air (you can’t, but don’t think you won’t be arrested for trying). With photos, pictures and simple experiments to undertake midair, INFLIGHT SCIENCE is an item of hand luggage you shouldn’t forget to travel without.


This book really offers an innovative and fresh glance at the amazing processes that make air travel possible, and Clegg’s enthusiastic (and easy!) explanations really help this flying companion soar. Clegg’s writing reveals the massive scientific leaps we make without even removing our seatbelts. We experience the impact of relativity, the power of natural radiation, and the affect of altitude on the boiling point of tea. Some of the many intriguing facts you will learn in this jet-propelled tour of aeronautical science include why the sky is blue, the cause of thunderstorms and the impact of volcanic ash (so we are prepared for if there is a next time)! 


Every moment of your journey is an opportunity to experience science in action: INFLIGHT SCIENCE will be your guide, and it’s guaranteed to be more entertaining that the inflight movie!


BRIAN CLEGG is a science writer. He runs and his most recent book, entitles, Armageddon Science (St. Martin’s Press) was published in 2010.





1. Because special relativity means that time goes slower when you are travelling, after forty years of crossing the Atlantic weekly you would be one thousandth of a second younger than an identical twin. Not something for the anti-ageing cream manufacturers to worry about, then.


2. During one hour in flight you will be exposed to 50 times as much damaging radiation as you would in a whole body scanner. Because of the impact of cosmic rays, crossing the Atlantic gives you a similar radiation dose to a chest X-ray. Flying 10 hours a week gives you a similar increase in radiation exposure to moving from London to Cornwall (where natural radiation levels are much higher). And eating shellfish can give you the equivalent dosage of radiation of flying for about 100 hours, because shellfish filter natural radioactive materials out of the water.


3. Planes now make much use of GPS which demonstrates Einstein’s relativity – but if it weren’t for corrections for time being speeded up by the low gravity on the satellite, in just a day the GPS position would be several kilometres out.


4. All air traffic control communication is in English so a plane can understand instructions to another pilot. A Chinese controller will speak to a Chinese plane in English.


5. The tallest mountain is not Everest, it’s Mauna Kea on Hawaii, if you count the bit under the sea. It’s 10,200 metres to Everest’s 8,800. The Mariana trench under the ocean off Japan and the Philippines dwarfs the Grand Canyon at 11,000 metres deep, compared with the canyon’s puny 1,830 metres. The biggest mountain range is underwater. The mid-ocean ridge runs for over 55,000 kilometres.


6. The World Meteorological Organization changed the cloud numbering system. Originally it ran from 1 to 9, but became 1 to 10. Soon after, though, for romantic reasons, it was changed again to go from 0 to 9. The highest topped cloud was originally cloud 9, hence the expression ‘on cloud 9.’ When they added an extra type it spoiled the saying, so they changed the system to keep cloud 9 the tops.


7. Gates 12 and 14 at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 are at opposite ends of the building so superstitious flyers don’t notice gate 13 is missing and think gate 14 is ‘really’ gate 13, and hence unlucky.


8. It’s impossible to make a good cup of tea on a plane. Because of reduced air pressure, water boils at 90 °C, so it’s never hot enough. (It would be even worse outside the plane – at cruising height, water would boil at 53°C.) And apparently airline food’s bad reputation isn’t entirely their fault: with a loud background noise, we seem less able to detect flavour in food. 


9. The 2002 news story about a woman trapped on an aircraft toilet for 2 hours by the vacuum suction is a myth. It was a story used in crew training about checking the toilet – in practice it’s almost impossible to do.


10. The risk of being killed in any one year when flying is three times less than travelling by train, and 12 times less than travelling by car.



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