Calculating the odds, one poop at a time
I can’t believe it has been five years since “the incident.” Since all the worlds aligned and I had an interesting surprise while driving a new/used car with a sunroof on a warm late-winter/early spring day.
It led to one of my favorite early columns as I tried to sort through the probability and meaning of it all. I’m still not able to wrap my head around it all …
A sunroof, a starling and a science experiment?
On an unseasonably warm winter day in the not-too-distant past, this writer was compelled to try out the electronic sunroof on a newly purchased used Volkswagen Jetta. While riding alone on a stretch of Route 204 outside of Kratzerville, I hit the silver button and heard the mechanical whirring of the sunroof.
Within minutes, it happened. In a Stephen King/Edgar Allan Poe-like moment, there was a tap on my right shoulder. Swiveling my head and expecting to see a raven or a tommyknocker or something (anything) in my back seat, I saw what looked like gray/white window caulk on my right shoulder. A bird had hit its mark.
Looking through the back window, I noticed a European Starling flying in the opposite direction. It was a hit-and-fly. It was a simple case of a bird relieving itself while flying unaware over my car.
But I couldn’t just let it go. What were the odds of a bird hitting a two-foot by one-foot sunroof with a paintball-sized projectile at a fairly high rate of speed? The whole situation fascinated me.
Feeling pretty confident with my math skills, I decided to plunge myself into the statistics. After some internet research, it was learned that an average starling flies at the rate of 9.5 meters per second. That converts to 3.5 miles per hour. The Jetta was traveling at 45 miles per hour in the opposite direction. An object falls at the rate of 10 meters per second, per second — and the bird was appoximately 30 meters above the car. The wind was blowing at a rate of five miles per hour.
I started plugging away at the numbers, talking with various people about the situation to make sure all the variables were included. I took on each suggestion as if it was an attempt to keep me away from from the goal — my obession with knowing what the odds were of that bird hitting me.
Until, I realized I was in over my head. One person reminded me of the suction effect — that items will be sucked into the open window of a moving car. The suction effect was how I was able to spit out the front window of a car, and still hit my brother in the back seat during family vacations growing up. How do you factor that in?
I ultimately came to grips with the situation. I realized that no matter what the actual numeric value, the odds were astronomic. I have accepted that while some people beat the odds by winning the lottery, I had beaten the odds by being pooped on. I also was reminded once again, that no matter where you may be in the great outdoors of Pennsylvania, amazing feats are happening all around us, and that we too often look past just how miraculous it all can be.
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