|MadSci Network: Biophysics
Vaughn, Your question certainly took me on a merry chase through the library! I was hoping to give you a definitive answer from a noted authority, but apparently no one has published crash-test results for ants (at least, no one I was able to find!). The short answer, from what I could work out, is that the ant probably would survive a fall in vacuum that could cripple or kill the average human. For details of my reasoning, read on! One thing I was able to find was data from the NHTSA (U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) about crash test results for humans. Data from their Biomechanics and Trauma Division research is available at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-51/BiomechanicsTrauma.html. The NHTSA standard for a sudden impact acceleration on a human that would cause severe injury or death is 75 g's for a "50th percentile male", 65 g's for a "50th percentile female", and 50 g's for a "50th percentile child". These figures assume the human is taking the impact on the chest/stomach, the back, sides or the head. The average value is about 65 g's, so I used that for the fatal impact acceleration on a human being. Another figure the NHTSA uses is the duration of an "average" impact event on a human, which is 15 milliseconds (15/1000 of one second). Using those figures, I used the relation v=at to estimate the impact velocity given a known impact duration t and impact deceleration a. I substituted 65g (638 meters/second^2)for a and 15 milliseconds for t to find how fast a person has to be going to be injured. The speed is actually relatively low, only about 10 meters per second (32 feet per second). I was curious about how high this potentially fatal fall would be, so I went on a bit further. Substituting these figures into the relation t=v/a and using 1 g (9.8 meters/second^2) as the acceleration due to gravity on a falling body and 10 meters per second as the velocity v at the end of falling time t, I get a figure of about one second in free fall for our hapless human. One further relation, X=v(0)+1/2at^2 gives the distance fallen, X, if an initial velocity, time, and falling acceleration are known. v(0) - 0, and a and t are known, so substituting gave an answer of about five meters, or slightly less than twenty feet -- not far at all. Given that, I then turned to the ant. Nearly everyone has flicked an ant off a table or an arm at one point or another, and the ant usually is unharmed by it. I used my finger as a test subject, and came up with an average "flick speed" at the end of my finger of about 4.8 meters per second (about 17 feet per second). I assumed that the effect of flicking the ant would be very like an elastic collision between two objects, and that the mass of my finger is significantly greater than the ant's mass. These assumptions led me to a relation for the effect of a large moving object on a much smaller stationary one in an impact: v2=2v1 where v2 is the velocity of the small object after the collision, and v1 is the speed of the larger object before the collision. Substituting 4.8 meters per second for v1 gives a post-flick speed of 9.6 meters per second (about 34 feet per second) to that little ant. Taking that speed, I once again looked at the original relation v=at, and rewrote it as a=v/t to find the acceleration the ant had to undergo during that impact with the finger to reach that velocity v of 9.6 meters per second. I used the same 15 milliseconds the human got for his/her impact for t, and the result was 639 meters/second^2, or just a shade over 65g (which was a surprising convergence that prompted running the problem again!). So, while an impact deceleration of 65g can kill or cripple a human, it would appear that ants can take an acceleration of about the same magnitude and still keep trucking. I hope this has been helpful!
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