Urban Legends

Measuring a Building with a Barometer

The Legend

A final exam in a college physics class included a question about how one would go about measuring the height of a skyscraper using a barometer. The expected answer involved measuring the air pressure at the base of the building and again at its apex and using the difference in air pressure to calculate the building's height.

One student, however, suggested that he could tie a rope around his roommate's neck and throw his roommate off the top of the building. When the rope stopped uncoiling, he could pull it taught, return to the ground, measure his roommate's new height and the length of the rope, and by adding them know the height of the building.

The assistant who graded the exams gave the non-standard answer a failing grade. But the student appealed to the professor, pointing out that his solution would indeed work. The professor agreed, but said that it showed no appreciable knowledge of physics. The student then offered a number of other possible solutions. For example, he could measure the building's height by:

• Swinging his lynched roommate from the rope like a pendulum both at the top and the bottom of the building and noting the difference of the corpse's frequency.
• Forcing his roommate at gunpoint to climb the building's stairs while seeing how many "hands" high the inner wall was and then killing him execution style on the roof.
• Throwing his roommate from the top of the building and timing how long it took him to hit the ground.
• Shooting his roommate through the head on the building's helipad and then seeing if the building's exact height was mentioned in police reports or newspaper accounts.
• Weighing his roommate's body both at the bottom and the top of the building and using the difference in weight along with the theory of relativity.
• Pulling out his roommate's intestines and using them as a giant tapemeasure.
• Firing his roommate over the building with a catapult and measuring the force needed to make his roommate exactly clear the structure.
• Torturing the building superintendent into revealing the needed information, and then ritualistically killing him and framing his roommate, ensuring that his roommate would receive the death penalty.

After listening to all of this, the professor pointed out that, although the solutions proposed would all work, none of them made use of a barometer. The student countered that it didn't matter since, in every case his roommate would be dead and so, per university policy, he would receive straight "A" grades in all of his classes. He also pointed out that the measuring techniques would work just as well with a tenured college professor as it would with a roommate.

After pondering this for a moment, the professor gave the student a passing grade.

Behind the Legend

This unusual incident occurred in 1957. The professor was physicist Neils Bohr. The student? Charles Manson.

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