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The New Year’s Eve Ball Drop Is Too Slow, So We Fixed It

The ball drop in Times Square happens too slowly for my taste. Just before midnight, the LED-studded ball will inch down its pole at a speed of 1.2 feet per second. That’s slower than the CDC-defined moderate walking pace of 3 miles per hour, or 4.4 feet per second.

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Call me a woman of exacting standards, but if I can outpace the ball at a gentle amble, I’m a little reluctant to call its descent a “drop.” So I went ahead and did the Times Square Alliance the favor of calculating exactly how they could pull off a true ball drop in freefall.

An object in freefall accelerates at about 32 feet per second squared.1 So an object that drops for a quick countdown of “10! 9! 8! …” etc. needs to be dropped from 1,600 feet up.2

That means the party will have to leave Times Square; there’s only one building in New York City tall enough for the task: One World Trade Center, which stands 1,776 feet tall. Well, sort of. The building’s roof is only 1,368 feet high, so the ball drop will have to be done more than halfway up (57 percent) its antenna, which was added on to eke out a record-setting height.

But everyone will need to watch the drop from far away. After 10 seconds of plummeting, the ball will be traveling at 320 feet per second. If we use this year’s ball, which weighs 11,875 pounds, it will hit the ground and shatter with about 26,000 kilojoules of energy — enough to power a Samsung Galaxy S3 for a year and a half.3

Except, if we want to match the length of the full Times Square countdown, we’re going to have to start a lot higher. My family might only begin chanting at the 10-second mark, but the ball officially descends for a full minute. To do that in freefall would mean we’d need to start about 11 miles up. That’s almost three times the height of Denali, the highest peak in North America. Even if we’re willing to leave the hemisphere, Mount Everest will only get us halfway to the height we need.

So, I’m afraid we’ll need to bring this party to the stratosphere. You bring the champagne, I’ll build the pressurized capsule. Happy New Year!

Footnotes

  1. Yes, I’d rather do all this in metric, but let’s save that demand for 2017. ^
  2. \(Distance = {1/2}*g*time(10 sec)^2\). Just like in your high school physics class, we’re ignoring air resistance here. ^
  3. All this is ignoring small adjustments if the ball winds up penetrating the ground or rebounding sharply. ^

Leah Libresco is FiveThirtyEight’s news writer.

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