Can A Penny Falling From The Empire State Building Kill You?

The United States is the proud home of some of humanity's most stunning architectural and engineering achievements. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Statue of Liberty, the nation boasts some absolutely remarkable buildings.

The Empire State Building is just one further example. As Britannica reports, on its completion in 1931, it was the world's tallest building, topping fellow New York landmark the Chrysler Building (which held the title for just two years).

The Empire State Building, History states, reached a formidable 1,250 feet (around 381 meters) when it was finished, a feat that took less than two years to complete (20 months to be precise). In the decades since, it has naturally been superseded in turn by even taller buildings, but remains an iconic sight and staple of the Big Apple's skyline. Its sheer size seems to have given rise to the popular belief that a coin dropped from its highest point would hit anyone on the ground with enough force to kill them. As it is, though, it seems the threat of an unfortunate death by penny is very, very low indeed.

Falling pennies don't accelerate forever

"The Simpsons"' classic bloodthirsty cartoon-in-cartoon "The Itchy & Scratchy Show," of course, isn't the number-one source of accurate scientific information. Nevertheless, it tackles the curious phenomenon of coin-dropping deadliness in the episode "Bart Sells His Soul." In the short "Skinless In Seattle," per hans anders on YouTube, Itchy lures his feline foe to the bottom of the Space Needle.

Awaiting him at the top, Itchy drops a coin towards Scratchy far below (defying a warning written atop that demands "Do Not Throw Pennies From The Tower"). The coin, as it falls, develops a flaming aura, and President Abraham Lincoln's face upon it contorts as though subjected to g-force.

The coin misses Scratchy, but burns a hole in the ground next to him. How much of this madcap action is remotely realistic? Well, not very much at all, it seems. According to Scientific American, coins do not increase in speed exponentially as they fall. Being buffeted by the air slows them down, and ultimately dramatically reduces their terminal velocity (a speed that is reached when the pace of falling no longer increases, per NASA). Depending on how they land, of course, they may well plink off someone's head at the bottom. It's possible to get a good ding, certainly, but you probably won't be killed.

It's not the coins you have to worry about

Per "And Then You're Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling over Niagara," from Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty (via the New York Post), a pen that fell directly downwards could indeed rip through a person's head on impact and kill them. Gravity's effect on a coin, as well as its shape, would make it rather harmless in comparison.

As USA Today reports, a scientist of the University of Virginia, one Louis Bloomfield, took a practical and hands-on approach to his research, as any scientist should, and had pennies fall on him from a great height. According to the outlet, Bloomfield reported, "[The coins] bounced off me and it felt like getting hit by bugs, big raindrops, or little hail pellets. No bruises, no injuries. I was laughing the whole time." How did he know? Because he'd set up a coin-dropping helium balloon, of course.

According to Bloomfield, on finally reaching the ground, a coin would be moving at about 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), while something more aerodynamic and ultimately more dangerous (like that horrifying pen) could reach around eight times that speed. It's surely so comfort, then, to know that this common fear is largely unfounded. In its place, perhaps, should be a new fear of the scourge of pens.