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<   No. 1797   2007-12-28   >

Comic #1797

1 Stewardess: Look at our heading! We're off course!
2 Terry: The snakes have disabled the navigation system.
2 Stewardess: How can they do that?! They're animals!
3 Steve: Crikey! We're headed straight towards that mountain! {pointing to huge mountain looming ominously outside the cockpit window}
4 Terry: Hmmm. Well on the bright side, the snakes are no longer our biggest problem...

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I calculate that your average Himalayan mountain is approximately 1013 times as big as a snake. So yeah, that's definitely a bigger problem.

And since I know some people are going to try to calculate this number, and will almost certainly end up with a different result: I assumed a mountain 8,000 metres high, cubed the number to get a very rough volume down to sea level (this makes some assumptions about the slopes of the mountain) then divided by 3 to convert a cube volume into a pyramid. Then I calculated the volume of a rectangular prism-shaped snake 2 metres long and 5 centimetres thick. Doing the division and rounding to the nearest order of magnitude got me my answer. Depending on your assumptions about the shape of the mountain and the size of the snakes, you might get an estimate up to 2 orders of magniude different.

2018-08-14 Rerun commentary: This is a Fermi problem, which is a concept I've explained before.

Let's try another one and estimate roughly how many snakes there are on planes at any given time. Being a Fermi problem, I am not looking anything up even though I potentially could do so trivially using Google.

Firstly, how many planes are airborne at any time? (As stated above, I'm not going to look this up, even though Google can probably tell me the answer.) Well, let's see. From any given major airport (let's take Sydney as my example, since I'm familiar with it) a plane takes off roughly every few minutes, and stays airborne for maybe an average of about 4 hours (averaging short flights like an hour from Sydney to Melbourne, with long flights like 13 hours from Sydney to San Francisco, biased towards the more common shorter flights). So, 4 hours divided by, say 4 minutes, gives us 60 planes in the air at any given time, for one major airport.

How many major airports are there in the world? Australia has like 5 to 10, depending how you count. Australia is a developed country, so let's say that on average a country has 5 major airports. Multiplying by approximately 150 countries in the world, gives us 750 major airports in the world. Multiplying by 60 gives us 45,000 planes in the air at any given time. I'm honestly not sure if intuitively that sounds high or low, so maybe it's about right.

Now, presumably snakes need to be transported by plane every now and then, by zoos and wildlife people and stuff. And sometimes snakes might be shipped as pets. And sometimes snakes might just accidentally get on planes! Let's make a really wild guess here and say that one in a thousand flights has a snake on board. I imagine the frequency of flights with dogs or cats is quite high, maybe one in ten flights roughly. So I'm putting snakes at a hundredth of that frequency.

Multiplying it out, a thousandth of 45,000 gives us approximately 45 planes in the air at any given time with snakes on board!

Now that I'm done: looking it up reveals that there are approximately 10,000 planes in the air at any given time. So my estimate was a little high, but close enough to the same order of magnitude.

Finding out how many snakes are in the air at any given time is more difficult, but there are certainly multiple news stories each year about snakes being found on planes when they weren't supposed to be there. And presumably the incidence of snakes who are supposed to be on planes because they are being transported is higher than that.

If anyone knows more concrete numbers, let me know.

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