_by Phil Bourjaily


_Since we previously solved the mystery of guns in space, let’s move on to another important theoretical ballistic question: “Will a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building go through a pedestrian’s head?” I am pleased to say that scientists at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, are all over this. Physicist Louis Bloomfield was able to replicate the fall of a penny from atop the Empire State Building using wind tunnels and balloons.

Bloomfield then offered himself up to science by allowing those pennies to hit him. “I think one hit my face,” he says. Apparently they scarcely struck hard enough for him to feel any pain, much less to penetrate his skull.

Pennies are a terrible aerodynamic shape, and they are made of zinc which (to keep this tangentially related to shotguns) is the material used by Winchester in some of its non-toxic slug ammunition. Zinc has even less density that steel (7.14 grams/cubic centimeter vs 7.8 g/cc for steel) which, as we all know, is a poor substitute for much denser lead (11.2 gr/cc) A solid gold coin, on the other hand, has about the same density as depleted uranium (19 gr/cc), so it might hit quite a bit harder, but it is still flat.

Even a fairly light but ballistically more efficient projectile like, say, a ballpoint pen, could pose a danger if you threw it off the Empire State Building. However, a humble ballpoint pen tossed from the top of the Empire State building could attain a velocity of about 300 fps, roughly the speed of an arrow. According to Bloomfield, it would hit hard enough to chip the sidewalk, or even punch into a board.