Q: If you could drill a tunnel through the whole planet and then jumped down this tunnel, how would you fall?

Physicist: This is a beautiful question, in a small part because it’s an interesting thought experiment with some clever math, but mostly because of all the reasons it couldn’t be done and wouldn’t work.  Right off the bat; clearly a hole can’t be drilled through the Earth.  By the time you’ve gotten no more than 30 miles down (less than 0.4% of the way through) you’ll find your tunnel filling will magma, which tends to gunk up drill bits (also melt everything).

Jumping into a hole drilled through the Earth. What’s the worst that could happen?

But!  Assuming that wasn’t an issue, and you’ve got a tube through the Earth (made of unobtainium or something), you still have to contend with the air in the tube.  In addition to air-resistance, which on its own would drag you to a stop near the core, just having air in the tube would be really really fatal.  The lower you are, the more air is above you, and the higher the pressure.  The highest air pressure we see on the surface of the Earth is a little under 16 psi.  But keep in mind that we only have about 100 km of real atmosphere above us, and most of that is pretty thin.  If the air in the tube were to increase in pressure and temperature the way the atmosphere does, then you’d only have to drop around 50 km before the pressure in the tube was as high as the bottom of the ocean.

Even worse, a big pile of air (like the atmosphere) is hotter at the bottom than at the top (hence all the snow on top of mountains).  Temperature varies by about 10°C per km or 30 °F per mile.  So, by the time you’ve fallen about 20 miles you’re really on fire a lot.  After a few hundred miles (still a long way from the core) you can expect the air to be a ludicrously hot sorta-gas-sorta-fluid, eventually becoming a solid plug.

But!  Assuming that there’s no air in the tube, you’re still in trouble.  If the Earth is rotating, then in short order you’d be ground against the walls of the tunnel, and would either be pulverized or would slow down and slide to rest near the center of the Earth.  This is an effect of “coriolis forces” which show up whenever you try to describe things moving around on spinning things (like planets).  To describe it accurately requires the use of angular momentum, but you can picture it pretty well in terms of “higher things move faster”.  Because the Earth is turning, how fast you’re moving is proportional to your altitude.  Normally this isn’t noticeable.  For example, the top of a ten story building is moving about 0.001 mph faster than the ground (ever notice that?), so an object nudged off of the roof can expect to land about 1 millimeter off-target.  But over large changes in altitude (and falling through the Earth counts) the effect is very noticeable: about halfway to the center of the Earth you’ll find that you’re moving sideways about 1,500 mph faster than the walls of your tube, which is unhealthy.

The farther from the center you are, the faster you’re moving.

But!  Assuming that you’ve got some kind of a super-tube, that the inside of that tube is a vacuum, and that the Earth isn’t turning (and that there’s nothing else to worry about, like building up static electricity or some other unforeseen problem), then you would be free to fall all the way to the far side of the Earth.  Once you got there, you would fall right through the Earth again, oscillating back and forth sinusoidally exactly like a bouncing spring or a clock pendulum.  It would take you about 42 minutes to make the trip from one side of the Earth to the other.

The clever math behind calculating how an object would fall through the Earth:  As you fall all of the layers farther from the center than you cancel out, so you always seem to be falling as though you were on the the surface of a shrinking planet.

What follows is interesting mostly to physics/engineering majors and to almost no one else.

It turns out that spherically symmetric things, which includes things like the Earth, have a cute property: the gravity at any point only depends on the amount of matter below you, and not at all on the amount of matter above you.  There are a couple of ways to show this, but since it was done before (with pictures!), take it as read.  So, as you fall in all of the layers above you can be ignored (as far as gravity is concerned), and it “feels” as though you’re always falling right next to the surface of a progressively smaller and smaller planet.  This, by the way, is just another reason why the exact center of the Earth is in free-fall.

The force of gravity is F = -\frac{GMm}{r^2}, where M is the big mass, and m is the smaller, falling mass.  But, since you only have to consider the mass below you, then if the Earth has a fixed density (it doesn’t, but if it did) then you could say M = \rho \frac{4}{3}\pi r^3, where ρ is the density.  So, as you’re falling F = -\left(\frac{Gm}{r^2}\right)\left(\rho \frac{4}{3}\pi r^3\right) = -\left(\frac{4}{3}G\rho \pi\right) mr.

Holy crap!  This is the (in)famous spring equation, F = – kx!  Physicists get very excited when they see this because it’s one of, like, 3 questions that can be exactly answered (seriously).  In this case that answer is r(t) = R\cos{\left(t\sqrt{\frac{4}{3}G\rho \pi} \right)}, where R is the radius of the Earth, and t is how long you’ve been falling.  Cosine, it’s worth pointing out, is sinusoidal.

Interesting fun-fact: the time it takes to oscillate back-and-forth through a planet is dependent only on the density of that planet and not on the size!

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53 Responses to Q: If you could drill a tunnel through the whole planet and then jumped down this tunnel, how would you fall?

  1. alan morriss says:

    if the hole was drilled exactly from pole to pole rotational forces would be zero. the difficulties posed by this would be insignificant compared to the rest.

  2. In a YouTube video Neil deGrasse Tyson is shown falling through a hypothetical Earth-tunnel:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOHBDiR5urE

    Tyson verbally repeats the predictions of the equations provided by “The Mathematician” (i.e, 84 minute oscillation period, dependent only on density, etc.).

    But we DON’T NEED to drill a hole through the EARTH to find out if the equations are correct. It is important to realize that we CANNOT KNOW whether the equations are correct or not until we actually DO a scaled down version of the experiment. As I’ve posted above, such a test is quite feasible.

    The STORY of falling through the Earth is so common that even physicists fail to acknowledge its MYTHICAL character. We do not yet have any empirical evidence to back it up.

    If we are only interested in ENTERTAINING a mostly rather gullible audience, then we will be satisfied with equations, hand-waving, video simulations and the like. Whereas if we abide by the EMPIRICAL IDEALS of science, then we will set out to actually PERFORM a scaled down version of this experiment that Galileo proposed so long ago.

  3. Kay says:

    @ Richard Benish
    Two problems with a straight hole from pole to pole is the Earth wobbles on its axis and so there still would be rotational forces. The other problem is convincing the Flat Earth lunatics there is a South Pole.

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