I’m spending the day trying to get some work done on the book-in-progress, so I’m avoiding both work- and blog-related stuff. I don’t want to leave the site completely quiet, though, so here’s a question to ponder, relating to SteelyKid’s continuing fascination with Goodnight Moon:

How does a cow jump over the moon?

The father of one of SteelyKid’s classmates, who is not originally from the US, asked why there’s a cow jumping over the moon in that (or, as SteelyKid puts it: “Cow jumping MOON!!”), and I don’t have a good answer. I’m aware of the nursery rhyme and the Tolkien joke, but why anybody would posit a cow jumping over the moon in the first place, I don’t know.

If you run the numbers (and yes, I’m dorky enough to do this), it’s awfully improbable.

The Moon orbits at a distance of around 400,000 km from Earth, meaning that an 800-kg cow would require something like 800,000,000 J of energy to just barely clear the Moon’s orbit. So, where would a cow get that kind of energy?

Well, I grew up in a dairy farming area in New York, so I know that one of the things cows regularly eat is corn. The Internet helpfully tells me that there are 262 kJ in an ear of corn, so a cow would need to eat a bit more than 3,000 ears of corn to get enough energy to be able to jump over the moon. That works out to about a tenth of a cow’s annual corn consumption. Of course, you’d probably need to include at least some of the mass of the corn in the calculation, which would inflate the total a bit. That, or include the propulsive effect of ejecting that much waste corn in the effect of the “jump,” but that’s not really an image I want to pursue.

So, clearly, the cow must be making use of some higher-efficiency method of generating energy. If we were to assume a nuclear-powered cow, running off uranium fission reactions that release 200 MeV per fission, the energy required works out to about 2.5×1019 uranium atoms fissioning. Which sounds like a lot, but the mass of an atom is pretty tiny, so that’s only about 9.8 micrograms of total material. Even if you account for a relatively low conversion efficiency, you’re not looking at a huge amount of fissionable material.

Clearly, then, the cow jumping MOON!! must come from some Western state with lots of uranium in the ground and water, and has evolved sophisticated energy-extraction abilities through the many years of ranching out west. If we can track this sucker down, and harness this power for more productive activities than the frivolous leaping of orbiting satellites, the whole climate change problem will be licked in no time.

(What? It’s not any less plausible than anything else that will come out of Congress in the next few years…)

Comments

  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    November 4, 2010

    Oh, please.

    Clearly, cows are aliens, with access to zero-point energy technology far beyond your puny little quantum physicist’s mental abilities to grasp. Of course, the gummint does not want us to acknowledge this fact, so this is a case of “hiding in plain sight”–reports of cows jumping over the moon (or “Cow jumping MOON!”) will be dismissed as fairy-tale conflations.

    The motive is clear, if you just know where to look. Cows have threatened us with the use of that same zero-point energy technology; intimidated, we have taken to protecting them, housing and feeding them, giving them medical care (yes, milking and eating them, but apparently that is an acceptable deal to the aliens, who simply look to the relative populations of cows and of other megafauna on our planet, note their numbers large and rising, and do whatever the alien equivalent of smiling is. Perhaps a contented “moo”.).

    If we fail to adequately care for our alien cow overlords, they have promised vast destruction. Even their “warning shot” is unimaginably terrifying–they would tear our beloved satellite from its familiar orbit, blinking it from existence in a nanosecond.

    That’s right… it would be…

    Goodnight Moon.

  2. #2 cisko
    November 4, 2010

    …and has evolved sophisticated energy-extraction abilities through the many years of ranching out west.

    Not that sophisticated. We called it Project Moorion.

  3. #3 cisko
    November 4, 2010

    …and has evolved sophisticated energy-extraction abilities through the many years of ranching out west.

    Not that sophisticated. We called it Project Moorion.

  4. #4 Fred Smith
    November 4, 2010

    Let’s see… you need 800,000,000 J for the cow to go into orbit, and each ear of corn has 262 J. Then I get that you will need 3,000,000 ears of corn, not 3,000. You seem to be off by a factor of 1000.

  5. #5 Fred Smith
    November 4, 2010

    Let’s see… you need 800,000,000 J for the cow to go into orbit, and each ear of corn has 262 J. Then I get that you will need 3,000,000 ears of corn, not 3,000. You seem to be off by a factor of 1000.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    November 4, 2010

    Let’s see… you need 800,000,000 J for the cow to go into orbit, and each ear of corn has 262 J. Then I get that you will need 3,000,000 ears of corn, not 3,000. You seem to be off by a factor of 1000.

    It’s 262 kilo-joules, not joules. That’s a typo, and I’ll fix it directly.

  7. #7 RickD
    November 4, 2010

    Stephen Colbert has alerted us to the possibility that these cows, if they are from Oklahoma, might be Moo-slims.

  8. #8 Richard Morton
    November 4, 2010

    For some reason I’d always pictured it with the moon lying very low on the horizon, so that if the cow is very close to the observer (and it would help if said observer was lying at ground level), the cow may well be able to “jump over” the moon, without ever leaving our cozy atmosphere.

  9. #9 ScienceAndHonor
    November 4, 2010

    I have another theory. See “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe, South Park Season 1, Episode 1.”
    “I love to sing-a
    About the moon-a and the June-a and the spring-a,
    I love to sing-a,
    About a sky of blue-a, or a tea for two-a,
    Anything-a with a swing-a to an “I love you-a,”
    I love to, I love to sing!”

  10. #10 becca
    November 4, 2010

    How much TNT would it take to propel the cow over the moon?

  11. #11 eddie
    November 5, 2010

    In keeping with ruminants’ four-stomach system for digestion, the cows have a four stage nuclear reaction that extracts energy from diffierent stages in the decay of uranium to lead.

    Other than that, I’d go with the MOON! low on the horizon theory.

    Re: becca, with a catapult, you can get one over a castle wall.

  12. #12 Birger Johansson
    November 5, 2010

    Naah, it is just a matter of probablility and quantum physics. An individual atom might indeed jump over the moon, it is just improbable. Now, calculate the probability of all the atoms in a cow jumping over the moon simultaneously, and feed the result into the Inifinite Improbability Drive (first tested by a certain Zaphod Breeblebox).

    Re: becca, eddie -it is much easier with a wooden badger.
    Re. 1, 2 11:
    -Have you checked the thread about what makes Godzilla work? A 40.000 ton reptile obviously needs a lot of GM engineering, including integrating nuclear power into the metabolism

  13. #13 Bill K
    November 5, 2010

    “…the energy required works out to about 2.5×10^19 uranium atoms fissioning. Which sounds like a lot, but the mass of an atom is pretty tiny, so that’s only about 9.8 micrograms of total material.”

    Wrong! 2×10^23 atoms of U-235 is about one mole, which by definition weighs 235 grams. And 2×10^19 atoms is 1/10,000th of that, which would be about 24 milligrams.

  14. #14 Pseudonym
    November 9, 2010

    Oh, you wacky fundamentalists. Clearly the cow didn’t literally jump over the moon, but merely jumped high enough that it was higher in the sky than the moon on that night. If the moon were low in the sky, this would be relatively easy.

    Moreover, recent research suggests that the dish and the spoon may have been in a same-sex relationship.

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