Character died of web stop

Published: Thursday, June 1 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Question: If ever a physicist were needed to quiet a comic book controversy, it's over what killed Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy on her fall off the George Washington Bridge after her abduction by the villainous Green Goblin. Was it the fall that killed her, or Spider-Man's webbing that caught her before she hit the water?

Answer: When Spider-Man reeled Gwen back to the top of the bridge, he was shocked to discover she was dead, says James Kakalios in "The Physics of Superheroes." "She was dead before your webbing reached her!" the Goblin taunted. "A fall from that height would kill anyone — before they struck the ground!"

But if this were true, how do paratroopers and sky divers survive? To determine the web forces acting on Gwen, assume she had fallen about 300 feet, speeding up due to gravity to nearly 95 mph. Once snagged by Spidey's webbing, she quickly goes from 95 to 0 mph. Though the webbing is elastic, the time available to slow her descent is short. If she weighs 110 and her stopping time is 0.5 second, then the webbing applies 970 pounds to break her fall, or nearly 9 times her weight, or 9 g's.

Traveling at that speed and stopping that fast, there is little difference between hitting the webbing and the water, says Kakalios. There have been cases of people surviving 9 g's, but typically suicide victims who jump from bridges die not of drowning but from broken necks, Gwen's likely not-too-comic fate.

May the controversy rest in peace.

Question: You know about synonyms, or two different words with the same meaning. So what are trinonyms? Three different words with the same meaning, wouldn't you guess?

Answer: You'd be on the right track, though "trinonym" has a more specific meaning than that and is more fun. Clue: kittycat is an example, as is taxicab. More clues: taperecord, bathtub, choochootrain, sumtotal, tincan, forefront, bunnyrabbit, ratfink, puppydog, sodapop, moocow, oleomargarine. No doubt you're clued in by now—trinonyms are pairs of compounded words each of which individually means the same as the full compound word.

Question: Turn on a huge oven, put in a slab of beefsteak and a human being, and which cooks faster?

Answer: In one of the bizarrer experiments ever, the above was actually tried, says Arizona State University climatologist Randy Cerveny in "Freaks of the Storm: The World's Strangest True Weather Stories." It was 1775, and Scottish physician George Fordyce set out to determine how hot a temperature a man could survive. So he created a series of rooms, the hottest of them heated by flues in the floor and by pouring upon it boiling water. The heat eventually became so great that all the scientists' thermometers broke except one. As one of the researchers later recorded, "Men remained in Fordyce's heated rooms at 260 degrees F for 15 minutes, without any noteworthy rise in body temperature, while a beefsteak was nicely cooked in 13 minutes."

The secret was the men were touched only by the likely very dry hot air, which conducts heat poorly, whereas the meat was on hot metal, which transfers its heat readily. That explains why you can briefly reach your hand into an oven where you're baking a cake, but you better not touch the metal shelf.

But heatstroke is a real risk so don't try any of this!

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at, co-authors of "Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So- Everyday) Questions," from Pi Press.

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