Spoiler alert: You probably die.
Signe Dean

15 Sep 2016 - 2:31 PM  UPDATED 15 Sep 2016 - 2:34 PM

Curiosity is one of the characteristics humans can thank for intellectually advancing across millennia - it's helped us gain a deeper understanding of the world and to improve it. It also makes us ask strange questions.

On Quora, the question-and-answer site dedicated “to share and grow the world’s knowledge”, you can often bump into fun hypotheticals, such as this one:

You're flying a small plane when the Earth stops spinning for 10 seconds, then starts spinning again. What do you do?

If you think that 10 seconds of planetary spin outage isn’t that big a deal, anyone with physics knowledge will step up to the plate to prove you wrong immediately. Here’s a vivid response by Mike Richmond, an Oxford physics graduate:

Let’s imagine that everything solid or liquid that is within 50 metres of anything connected to the Earth stops spinning instantaneously, with no energy change , and then restarts at its previous speed after ten seconds.

You, in your airplane 3000m up at the equator, are not immediately affected, as you continue to fly in the air that continues to spin.

However, all the air, relative to ground, is now travelling at 465m/s. That is very fast, four times faster than the fastest measured tornado, and well over the speed of sound.

So, starting at the ground, there will be a huge release of energy as that air interacts turbulently with the solid and liquid objects that have stopped. Buildings are flattened, every tree ripped from the earth, rocks and cars, are lifted from the ground.

As that turbulence spreads, you get caught in the shock wave about 9 seconds after the first event, with an impact as if you had flown over a huge sequence of explosions.

Your plane gets hurled around like a matchstick in a whirlpool, and the turbulence continues, with a new shockwave hitting you at about 19 seconds as the restart of the Earth imparts a new heap of energy into the air.

You end up dead.

(Unless, of course, you were flying over the North Pole, in which case you barely notice until strange weather patterns hit you after a few hours.)


Even if it didn’t suddenly grind to a halt, sweeping everything away, Earth’s rotation is one of the key features that makes it habitable - from change of seasons to climatic regulation and tidal currents, life on Earth has evolved in tune with its spin. We certainly don’t want our planet to stop spinning, even for a second (or ten).

Thankfully the probability of such an event “is practically zero in the next few billion years,” according to Dr Sten Odenwald from NASA Image Science Centre’s educational program.

However, if you're still curious and would like a visual representation of this hypothetical apocalypse, you can watch this YouTube video by American science communicator Michael Stevens, complete with animations of tiny people flying in a panic.

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