If you drop an ant from the top of the Empire State Building, will it die?

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One of the benefits of being (somewhat) bilingual is you get double the internet content. I feel very blessed to be able to enjoy both American internet full of dat bois and amusing Chrome extensions, and Korean internet, full of Zootopia memes and fan art. Korean Twitter is wild, I tell you.

Anyway, my most recent descent into madness started when I saw this one tweet.

Haha, totally, right? Okay, sorry, let me translate and set the stage.

In the '90s, there was a popular Korean TV show called Curiosity Heaven (It does not translate well) that conducted experiments based on these weird hypothetical questions. There's nothing like a good hypothetical science question to get the ol' brain juices flowing. For English speakers, the premise resembles Mythbusters or Randall Munroe's website and now book, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Questions like: "Since rainbows are caused by the refraction of sunlight by tiny droplets of rainwater, what would a rainbow look like on Earth if we had two suns like Tatooine?" and "How long would it take for a single person to fill up an entire swimming pool with their own saliva?" That sort of stuff.

Anyway, the tweet above recounts the episode of Curiosity Heaven in which the hosts took ants to the top of the 63 Building (Seoul's equivalent of The Tall Skyscraper Tourist Attraction in Every City, named for the number of floors it has) to drop them off. The question of the episode: if you drop an ant off a skyscraper, will it survive?

After coming to a theoretical conclusion through a lot of math and physics that the ants would survive an 820-foot fall, the plan was put into action. But as the hosts summited the top of the skyscraper, they discovered all of the ants had exploded from the atmospheric pressure. That's right: exploded.

If that's not the biggest plot twist I've ever read in my life, then I don't know what is.

I had to track down this story to see if it was true, so I fell down (lol) a hole of various forums and Yahoo Answers-esque sites all asking the same question. I read comment after comment of experts and amateurs giving their best scientific explanations of why an ant would or wouldn't die.

It's been years since Curiosity Heaven ended, and I couldn't find an archive of old episodes anywhere. The only evidence I had were the secondhand episode recaps written on social media from vague memories. (Some commenters even claimed that the hosts actually did drop the ants from the top, but couldn't find proof, further muddying the narrative.)

Curious to see if I'd find some answers on American internet, I thought about the US equivalent of the 63 Building, and the Empire State Building immediately came to mind. My fingers, giddy with excitement, typed in the words "ant empire state building drop die" into Google, and my eyes came across this Reddit thread in r/askscience titled, "If an ant fell from the top of the Empire State Building, would the fall injure or kill it?"

First of all, what even constitutes an injured ant? I'm imagining something like this:

Dami Lee

It's kind of funny realizing that people across all cultures and nationalities share some of the same burning questions along with the same heartless desire to kill innocent insects in the name of "science." Humans, we truly are one!

Everyone seemed to be really into the math of it all, but no one was mentioning the possibility of the ants exploding! Amidst the false dichotomy argument of whether an ant would die or not, nobody was considering the third option of lethal atmospheric pressure.

Now, deeply involved in this mystery and having invested way too much time to back out, I went to my fellow colleagues to pitch a video idea:

To which our video producer Sophie replied:

Unfortunately the legal ramifications of The Verge sneaking ants into the Empire State Building to film a video were much too great. And coming back to reality (always a bummer), there is absolutely no way for us to actually conduct this experiment. Unless you strap on the tiniest of GoPros to an ant, you'd never be able to find the poor ant that was returned to earth by the emotionless power of gravity.

The only question we're capable of finding out the answer to is: will the ants explode if you take them to the top of the Empire State Building? I just may have to conduct the experiment myself this weekend to find out the truth, because this question has been haunting me for days.

Nobody snitch on me! If I can't find ants at Home Depot or something, I do have a bunch of Nerds Rope sitting at home, so maybe I'll just leave that out in my room and wait for the ants to find me. But until my grand experiment happens, sound off in the poll below and please free me from this hell by sharing your best theories (or scientifically backed proof!) in the comments.

Update: We solved the mystery! Read the part two here.

Comments

If they didn’t explode I would say they would survive the fall. Air molecules to an ant would be like falling through plastic play balls for us

You’re overestimating the size of molecules ant is 1 cm or 0.01 m is in size about 10^-2 M whereas a nitrogen molecule is about 10 billion times smaller than the ant so your analogy is badly wrong an Nitrogen molecule is 0.000000000001 m so its very very small

You’re missing the real science from what he said. If a human jumped off the empire state and it was a ball pit all the way down, would they die?

No, they head would explode from expectation before they reached the top. There is such thing as too much fun !

My new nominee for comment of the year

Of course they wouldn’t die! If people die from ball pits there’s no way Chuck E. Cheese would let kids play in their ball pits!

Truth. Chuck E. Cheese ball pits are as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.

Exactly. As a kid I got buried at the bottom of a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese. They didn’t find me until I finally grew tall enough to stick my hand out and wave for help.

You mean to say you’re now as tall as the Empire State Building?

Where I grew up, a kid did die in the ball pit. And now that ball pit hasn’t existed for years.

They wouldn’t die from the fall into the ball pit, they would die from the diseases and infections they contract from all the germs in the pit shortly after they leave.

__Well, what is the terminal velocity of an ant?

Without actually knowing what the terminal velocity of an ant is, I do suspect that even a second or third floor would be enough.

What do you mean? An African or European ant?

This is the correct answer. Thank you.

Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.

I was just thinking where is Monty Python when you need them, lol.

"This ant is dead. It is an ex-ant." "No it’s not, it’s sleeping."

"Antony the half-an-ant"

hmmm, doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Ladened or unladened?

They’ll survive the fall, there terminal velocity is so small there would be no real chance of death so long as they have enough time to orientate themselves to land on their feet. Kinda like how the higher you drop a cat from a building the greater its chance of survival as it has more time to orientate itself to land feet first.

Not to mention that ants are robust as hell.

That’s why I only drop cats off skyscrapers.

Unless you are going high enough that the cats simply can’t breathe from lack of oxygen, 90% of your cats are still surviving. This is known as High-rise Syndrome.

I’m thinking you’d go to the old airforce base where Mythbusters did some of their more nutty stunts. Get a drone and an ant (and I don’t mean a drone ant, that’s different – they have wings).

Let your imagination do the rest.

Actually it was a Naval Air Station. NAS Alameda to be exact.

They had a hard enough time getting Buster to drop straight down onto a target (in front of the high speed cam) when they needed him to without the use of guide wires. God knows where the ant would end up D:

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