The Physics of Roald Dahl

I was interested to read that Physics students at the University of Leicester have turned their attention on the fantastic world of Roald Dahl, and his magnificent book James and the Giant Peach. According to their report, published in October of last year, it would take approximately two and a half million Common Gulls to lift the peach, rather than the 501 that are described in the book.

Obviously, a number of assumptions were made in the report, not least that bird wings are similar to the aerofoils of planes. The report also crucially fails to address a number of key issues. In the conclusion the report’s authors accept that further research should be done to assess the effect of the ‘horizontal motion of the flight’ and also the ‘loading of the silk threads used to suspend the peach’.

From my own reading of the report, I have to wonder how 2.5m Common Gulls are supposed to actually fit around the giant peach; I also wonder about the effects of the interaction of the Gulls as they carry the peach along. That’s an awful lot of Gulls in a relatively small area, and the report fails to make mention of the fact the Gulls need to eat, and they are widely known for their long-range intercontinental flights! Fatigue and stress are two particularly important factors when assessing the ability of the said 2.5m Gulls to cross the Atlantic as one group, and there is no margin of error allowed to take into account Gull-loss either through threads snapping or worse still, death.

Further points of considerations include:

  • If 2.5m Common Gulls are required to lift the peach, then where would all these Gulls come from?
  • Would the Spider and the Silkworm be able to produce that much silk?
  • What motivation do the Gulls have for flying West? Why are they all pulling in the same direction?
  • What about the effect of weather and wind currents?
  • What about air traffic?
  • Finally… did James bring his passport with him? What would U.S. immigration control say?!

Clearly if the findings of this report are to be taken seriously, further work is needed to fully investigate not only the Physics behind the Atlantic flight, but also the Biological and Bio-mechanical elements tied in with the many assumptions made. I also recommend the researchers consider adopting a wider interdisciplinary approach, as I think the world would benefit from a social sciences perspective on the impact of James’ flight, both economically, and politically. Looking to the long-term, the ecological impact of 2.5m Gulls landing in the States alone would certainly be an issue, even if they only stayed for a short period of time, and this is but one of many further issues arising from the flight of the peach..

Though there are clearly a great many assumptions in the report, if for a moment dismiss our concerns, and assume the findings are correct this begs the question: is Dahl’s report of the Giant Peach’s flight accurate? 2.5m Common Gulls flying in unison is a sight I’m sure few of us can fully comprehend. The number is just too large to envisage. Would 2.5m Gulls really fly in unison? Everyday experience would suggest to us that this may not be the case.

Given all the factors that must be taken into account, combined with my own careful consideration, I must conclude then, both as a scientist, and a literary scholar, that the Common Gulls referred to in Dahl’s work, must be magical in origin. There can be no other explanation for it.

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