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Saturday, 7 June 2014



A (Los Angeles, California): photo bymichaelj1998, 7 April 2014

A university physics student was confronted with the following challenge:
"Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper using a barometer."

The student replied:

"Tie a long piece of string to the barometer, lower it from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."

This answer so infuriated the examiner that the student was failed immediately. 

However, the student appealed on the grounds that the answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but that it did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics.

To resolve the problem, it was decided to call the student and allow six minutes for him to provide an oral answer.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, his brow furrowed in thought. When the arbiter pointed out that time was running out, the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers but could not decide which to use.

"First, you could take a barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge and measure the time it takes to reach the ground, but too bad for the barometer.

"If the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper's shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic.

"If you wanted to be highly scientific, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it as a pendulum, first at ground level, then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height of the building can be calculated from the difference in the pendulum's period.

"If the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easy to walk up it and mark off the height in barometer lengths.

"If you wanted to be boring and orthodox, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference into a height of air.
"But since we are continually being urged to seek new ways of doing things, probably the best way would be to knock on the janitor's door and say: 'If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this building.''

So the examiner permitted the student to descend into the basement of the building, where the janitor had a small office. The student did so, and when he returned, reported what had happened.

"I went downstairs and knocked on the janitor's door. He opened it right away, but before I could get in a word, he began telling me a tall story about having met some top models over dinner in a nightclub.

"'After dinner, the tallest one told me a tall story about her barometer,' he said. 'It was a strange and confusing story; I had some trouble following it.'"

Corners (Los Angeles, California): photo bymichaelj1998, 7 April 2014

NK Mall (Stockholm): photo by Mikael Jeney, 1 September 2012

In Line (Stockholm): photo by Mikael Jeney, 29 August 2012

New Subway Station (Stockholm): photo by Mikael Jeney, 1 September 2012

Lamp (Long Beach, California): photo by michaelj1998, 13 April 2014


TC said...

The student in this tall story may have been yours truly, or then again it may not, after a while the stories all run together and it's not easy to keep the identities sorted without a scorecard (or for that matter to make out the scorecard without a magnifying glass). In any case, vertebral fracture incurred in being run over by that demented Jetta has left your blog host unable to look up or down, so when the janitor said that that tall story had made him dizzy, I told him I understood completely, and enquired whether he might not perhaps know any short ones.

Wooden Boy said...

Vertigo has set in at the wooden house, both boy and girl. I'm glad the janitor didn't go into the details; my stilts would've given way.

ACravan said...

What a great story. Wonderful pictures also. "Back-story" not so great, obviously. Curtis

TC said...

Thanks very much for popping in at the ward, Duncan and Curtis.

TC said...

Our esteemed Los Angeles correspondent Aram Saroyan sends this along:


Re Vertiginous (maybe): A friend heard a woman at Trader Joe’s talking about a friend: “She’s having some problems. Her son has been diagnosed with HDTV.”


(And I wondered anachronistically: can it be his antenna needs adjusting?)

TC said...

I liked Aram's joke. Very funny, Aram!

But uh-oh, I now learn somebody has actually taken this as an authentic autobiographical anecdote, from my student days


The wisest person I know has long held that there are two things that simply do not translate into Internet.

1. Joke; or anything faintly resembling same.

2. Tone.

The story is about a hundred years old, and has had at least a million permutations among physics nuts. It's generally agreed that in the "original" version the "student" was Niels Bohr, in his graduate student days at the University of Copenhagen.

But myths are a form of poetry and as such always founded in lies, as we all know.

And the astonishing part -- I first heard the story from someone who said they knew somebody who first heard it at Trader Joe's.

TC said...

When the cobwebs of legend are finally brushed away, the original author of this tale will still be up there, at the edge of the tall building, working on a solution to the problem...