It’s sometimes said that if you sit an immortal monkey in front of an equally durable typewriter and leave it to tap randomly away at the keys, then eventually it will produce the entire text of Richard III (or any other Shakespeare play of your choice), completely by chance. All you have to do is wait long enough.

I was thinking about this one day, and also thinking about air molecules. In the room I’m sitting in at the moment, there are at least 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 air molecules, all frantically dashing around bumping into each other. How often, I wondered, do little clusters of these molecules fleetingly arrange themselves, by chance, in arrangements that we would regard as being somehow regular or remarkable?

It’s not possible for me to directly observe air molecules, so instead I used my computer to make a 2-dimensional simulation of some atoms of gas doing what atoms of gas do. I set it going, and waited…and waited…and waited…

I promise you that my simulation didn’t involve any secret forces drawing atoms towards certain positions. The movements and collisions of the atoms all occurred in accordance with the laws of mechanics. But I did cheat a little. Can you figure out how?

Molecules and atoms

In case you’re fidgeting on your chair wondering why I started talking about air molecules but finished talking about gas atoms, let me explain.

Nearly all of the air is nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrogen and oxygen atoms are essentially spherical. But in the air, nitrogen atoms are bonded together in pairs to form nitrogen molecules that are, roughly speaking, a stubby rod shape. The same goes for oxygen. Now a collision between two moving rods is much more complicated than a collision between two spheres, because the rods can spin end-over-end in a way that spheres can’t. In fact, I’m not sure that I know how to do the calculations. As the point of the video could be made just as well using atoms rather than molecules, I did the simulation using atoms. If you like, you can think of them as atoms of helium or argon, which do go around on their own.

This post is all about answering the question: “How deep is the atmosphere?”. The question doesn’t actually have a simple answer, because there is no altitude where the atmosphere suddenly stops and space starts. Instead, the air gets progressively thinner and thinner as you get higher, gradually giving way to the vacuum of space. What can be startling is how quickly the air gets thinner as you travel upwards. On this page I’ll be finding some ways of getting to grips with the scale of the atmosphere.

At the end, I hope that you might agree with me that the atmosphere is really awfully shallow, and that we definitely ought to be looking after it much more carefully than we do at the moment.

What do we mean by “the air gets thinner”?
A cubic metre of air at sea level contains about 1.2 kilograms of air. Higher in the atmosphere, a cubic metre would contain less air. For example, at 9,000 metres (just above the summit of Mount Everest) a cubic metre of air would contain only about 0.47 kilograms of air, less than half as much as at sea level. It is this decrease of mass per unit volume (density) that I mean when I write of the air getting “thinner”.

How high is the top of the atmosphere?
To get a feel for the thickness of the atmosphere, we will look at a number of different definitions of the top of the atmosphere. As well as these, we’ll also look at some altitudes with life-and-death significance. I’ve put any calculations at the bottom of the post.

100 km – the Kármán line
The Kármán line is a common definition of the boundary of space. This beautiful and clever idea rests on two points.

The first point: to be in orbit around the Earth (assuming there’s no atmosphere) there’s a certain speed at which you need to travel. If you travel more slowly than this, you’ll fall out of orbit. At the altitudes we’re talking about, the critical speed is nearly 8 kilometres per second.

The second point: an aeroplane stays up in the air because its wings generate lift as they pass through the air. The thinner the air, the faster the aeroplane must fly in order to generate enough lift to stay airborne. So the higher an aeroplane goes, the faster it must fly to stay up there.

Here’s the clever bit: there comes an altitude where the air is so thin that the aeroplane must travel at about 8 kilometres per second for its wings to generate enough lift to stay up. But at this speed, it’s going fast enough to stay in orbit anyway, even if there were no air and it had no wings.

This altitude, which is about 100 km, is the Kármán line. You could say that it’s where an aeronaut becomes an astronaut.

The picture on the right is a scale diagram showing the Earth (grey) and the atmosphere (blue, thickness defined by the Kármán line). 99.99997% of the atmosphere lies in the blue region.

31 km – the 99% line 99% of the atmosphere is below 31 km above the surface of the Earth. The picture on the right shows roughly what part of central London would look like seen from 31 km. It doesn’t look too far away, but from this altitude, you are looking through nearly the entire atmosphere. (Please note that this picture represents roughly how big things would look from 31 km. It doesn’t reflect the optical degradation that viewing through 31 km of air would produce. I scaled the picture from one taken at an unknown altitude.)

19 km – the Armstrong line At this altitude the air pressure is lower than the vapour pressure of the water in your body. Uncontained body fluids (such as saliva) would start boiling at this altitude.

8 km – top of the constant-density atmosphere
Another way to think about the depth of the atmosphere is to ask “How much air are we looking through when we look upwards through the atmosphere?”. To answer this question, imagine that the air in the Earth’s atmosphere is all at sea-level density, instead of getting thinner and thinner with altitude. With the same total amount of air as in the traditional atmosphere, this imaginary atmosphere will come to an abrupt end at a certain altitude. How deep would this constant-density atmosphere be?

The answer is: a little more than 8 kilometres. Mount Everest would just poke out of the top of it. There are details of the calculation later on.

Looked at in this way, the atmosphere is startlingly shallow. You can commonly look horizontally from one place to another place 9 or more kilometres away. When you are doing this, there is more air between you and the not-very-distant object than there is between you and a star overhead.

5.5 km – the habitation line
It appears that no amount of acclimatisation will enable you to survive indefinitely above an altitude of around 6 km. Lambert (1971) reports that in 1961 a team that spent six months at 5,800 m was less fit at the end of this time than newly-arrived people. He also cites an Andean mine at 5,800 m, where the miners chose to walk up daily from 5,300m rather than live at the higher altitude. The current highest permanent human settlement is La Rinconada, at 5,100 m in the Peruvian Andes.

The photograph on the right shows roughly what Buckingham Palace would look like from 6,000 m altitude. It doesn’t look very far away, but at this altitude you wouldn’t last very long. About 50% of the atmosphere is below the habitation limit.

The habitation line on the map The photograph on the right shows an ordinary 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map, familiar to UK hillwalkers. The grid squares visible in the sea are 1 km across. It shows the town of Aberdeen on the Scottish coast. On this scale, the tip of my thumb is at about 6,500 m, comfortably in the region where the air is too thin to support human life for very long. If you were on the north side of Aberdeen, you’d be closer to the uninhabitable zone than you would be to the south side of Aberdeen. Seen this way, the atmosphere seems very shallow. 55% of the atmosphere is below the level of the tip of my thumb.

About 4 km – the oxygen-mask line
Above this altitude, in an unpressurised cabin, an aeroplane pilot is required to use an oxygen supply. Having said that, thousands of people (myself included) climb 4,000-metre peaks in the Alps and nobody uses oxygen.

12 metres – top of the liquid atmosphere
Finally, suppose we condensed the entire atmosphere to its liquid form. How deep would the resulting “ocean” be? The answer: just under 12 metres.

So what?
The alarming thing about the altitudes I’ve listed above is how small they are. Compared to the distances that we regularly travel horizontally across the Earth, these distances are tiny. If you could walk vertically upwards, you’d need an oxygen supply after only an hour. Three hours walking and you’d need a pressure suit. Space itself is only a good day’s bike ride away. If you’re in Birmingham, you’re comfortably closer to space than you are to London.

The tall picture
The tall thin picture on the left at the top of the post is a representation of the way the atmosphere gets thinner with altitude. The density of blue dots is proportional to air density at each altitude, starting with solid blue at sea level. The tick marks on the right-hand side are at 10 km intervals. Note that there is air above 60 km, even though there are no dots. It’s just that the air there is extremely thin, and the dots are so widely spaced that you’d need a much wider picture to have a chance of spotting one.

The picture lets you see at a glance roughly how much of the atmosphere is below any given altitude. The aeroplane silhouette is at a typical cruising altitude for airliners – see how much of the atmosphere is below you when you fly.

You could walk across the bottom of the picture in less than two hours.

The wide picture
The picture below is drawn on the same principle, but to a different scale. It shows Edinburgh (E), London (L), and the atmosphere. The broken line is the boundary of space as defined by the Kármán line.

Afterthought
You are in the vastness of space. In all directions in front of you, almost empty star-studded space stretches out for unimaginable distances, giving an near- overwhelming feeling of exposure. Behind you is an apparently limitless hard surface. A strange force presses your back firmly against this surface, almost as if it were magnetic. A transparent layer of air, only a few miles thick, between you and the void gives you something to breathe and protects you from the cold of space.

But as on most clear nights, it’s a bit chilly for lying on your back on the ground, so after a while you stand up and walk home to warm your toes in front of the fire.

The 99% line
The pressure at any level in the atmosphere must be exactly that required to support the overlying layers of the atmosphere. The pressure at sea level is enough to support the entire weight of the atmosphere. If the pressure at a given altitude is, say, half sea-level pressure, then we know that half of the mass of the atmosphere must be above this level. Therefore with a table of atmospheric pressures we can quickly work out what fraction of the atmosphere is above any given altitude.

The Armstrong line…
is not named after Neil.

The constant-density atmosphere
Imagine a column of air, of cross-sectional area 1 square metre, that extends through the full height of the atmosphere. The air pressure at the bottom of this column, at sea level, is very close to 10^{5} newtons per metre squared. This means that all of the air in the column of the atmosphere has a weight W close to 10^{5} newtons. The acceleration due to gravity is, for our purposes, constant throughout the height of the column – let’s use g = 9.8 ms^{-2}. The mass of air in the column is given by W divided by g, which comes to 10200 kg. The density of air at sea level is about 1.22 kg m^{-3}, and therefore the volume of air in the column is 10200/1.22 = 8360 cubic metres. As the column has a cross-sectional area of 1 square metre, this means its height is 8360 metres.

The liquid atmosphere
When working out the depth of the constant-density atmosphere, we established that the mass of a column of air of cross-sectional area 1 m^{2}, extending the entire height of the atmosphere, is about 10200 kg. The density of liquid air is about 870 kg m^{-3}, and so if we liquefied this amount of air it would have a volume of 11.7 m^{3}. Hence if we liquefied the atmosphere, the resulting ocean would be 11.7 m deep.

Acknowledgement
This is a minor reworking of a page from my old website. I’m republishing it after receiving an email from Sarah Bush from the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, who used the old page as teaching material.

References
Lambert, D. (1971) Medical appendix in Bonington, C. (1971) Annapurna South Face. Cassell.

West, J.B. (2002) Highest Permanent Human Habitation. High Altitude Medicine & Biology,3, 401-407.

It depends what you mean by see. Single air molecules scatter light (that’s why the sky glows) so with a dark background and an absurdly intense light source you would presumably be able to visually detect a single atom suspended in a vacuum.

But that doesn’t really feel like seeing to me. The question I’m going to answer is: what is the smallest number of atoms that I can quickly assemble using the stuff in my flat, that I can see with my unaided eye by ordinary reflection in typical room lighting?

I’m sure I could look this up somewhere but there’s no fun in that.

My assemblage of atoms was a tiny pencil dot made on white printer paper. There it is, on the right. The dot was definitely visible but so small that I needed to draw marks nearby so that I didn’t lose it.

I estimate that the number of atoms in that minute mark was about 10^{13}, with an uncertainty of at least a factor of 10 in both directions.

In other words, 10 million million, very roughly.

That’s a lot. We talk about atoms very casually, drawing diagrams of chemical structures and so on, and it’s easy to forget how exceedingly tiny they are. It’s useful to do experiments like this one now and again to remind ourselves that atoms really are small beyond our comprehension.

The experiment

I made the dot by rubbing the end of a propelling pencil to a point and then touching the point lightly against a sheet of white paper.

To estimate the thickness of the layer of pencil lead, I held the pencil perpendicular to some paper and scribbled until the lead had a flat end to it. I then adjusted it so that, as far as I could tell, 1 mm of lead protruded from the pencil. Then, using normal pencil pressure, I drew lines 10cm long until the exposed millimetre of lead had all worn away. I took care to hold the pencil perpendicular to the paper so that the lines I drew were the full width of the lead. I could draw 520 such lines with the millimetre of lead, a total of 52 metres of line.

Calculation 1: volume and mass of the dot

I used the thickness (don’t confuse this with the width) of the lines described in the previous paragraph as a proxy for the thickness of the dot (and in doing so introduced probably the biggest uncertainty in the whole procedure). Propelling pencils leads appear to come in sizes of 0.5 mm, 0.7 mm and 0.9 mm and larger. Holding mine against a ruler showed that it was clearly a 0.7 mm lead. The volume of the initial protruding cylinder of lead was therefore

π × (0.35 mm)² = 0.385 mm³ or 3.85 × 10^{-10} m³

If the line lines I drew were uniformly 0.7 mm wide (and that’s quite a big if – tilting the pencil will make them narrower) then I can equate the volume of the lines and the volume of the lead cylinder thus:

3.85 × 10^{-10} m³ = (52 m) × (0.7 × 10^{-3} m) × t

where t is the average thickness of the layer of lead on the paper in metres. This gives us

t = 1.06 × 10^{-8} m

It certainly doesn’t deserve 3 significant figures but I’m going to leave more reasonable rounding to the end.

To measure the area of my dot, I took a photograph of it next to the finest scale on my ruler, which is 100ths of an inch (see earlier). Things aren’t made any easier by the non-roundness of the dot, but if I were to say that the dot was 1/300 of an inch in each direction, I don’t think I’d be too far wide of the mark. That makes its area

(the 25.4 × 10^{-3} being the conversion from inches into metres). Using our estimate for the thickness of the pencil layer above, this makes the volume of the dot 7.60 × 10^{-17} m^{3}.

Next, we need to know the density of the pencil lead. If it was a clay brick, its density would be 2400 kg m^{-3}, and if it was pure graphite its density would be in the range 2090-2230 kg m^{-3}, so it’s a reasonable guess that the density of the graphite/clay mix is about 2300 kg m^{-3}.

So using the volume calculated earlier, the mass of my pencil dot is about

(2300 kg m^{-3}) × (7.60 × 10^{-17} m^{3})= 1.75 × 10^{-13} kg

Calculation 2: how many atoms in a kilogram of pencil lead?

From the Cumberland Pencil Company, cited here, I infer that an HB pencil lead is roughly 50% clay and 50% graphite. They don’t say whether that’s before or after firing (the clay will lose water on firing). I’m going to assume that it’s after firing, but given all the other uncertainties in this calculation, I don’t think it’ll matter much if I’m wrong.

Clay is variable in composition, but a typical constituent of fired clay appears to be various minerals or combinations of minerals of overall composition Al_{2}Si_{2}O_{7}. The relative “molecular” mass of such a compound/mixture will be 220. The relative atomic mass of carbon (in the graphite) is 12, so a 50:50 (by mass) mix of clay and graphite will need about 18 atoms of carbon for every unit of Al_{2}Si_{2}O_{7}, giving a total of 29 atoms per unit of this mixture/compound, and a relative “molecular” mass of 440.

440 g of pencil lead is therefore one mole of pencil lead, and with 29 atoms per elementary entity of this mole, it will contain about 29 × 6.02 × 10^{23} = 1.75 × 10^{25 }atoms; this is about 3.97 × 10^{25} atoms per kilogram. (6.02 × 10^{23} is Avogadro’s number: the number of elementary entities in a mole of a substance)

Calculation 3: number of atoms in the dot

From calculation 1, we know that the dot weighs 1.75 × 10^{-13} kg, and therefore with 3.97 × 10^{25} atoms per kilogram, the number of atoms in the dot is

Rounded more reasonably, this is 10^{13} atoms in the pencil dot.

With the uncertainties in the size of the dot and the composition of the lead, I wouldn’t want to quote the answer any more precisely than this.

Checking

We’ve done quite a few steps here. Can we check that this answer looks about right?

Suppose the dot were pure graphite. Its mass would be (2150 kg m^{-3}) × (7.17 × 10^{-17} m³) kg, which is 1.54 × 10^{-11} moles and hence about 9.2 × 10^{12} atoms in the dot. As carbon atoms are smaller than aluminium or silicon atoms, it’s not surprising that this number is a little bit bigger than the unrounded number of atoms calculated in the dot.

Now suppose that it was pure aluminium, with density 2700 kg m^{-3}. Its mass would be (2700 kg m^{-3})× (7.2 × 10^{-17 }m^{-3}) = 1.94 × 10^{-13} kg which is 7.46 × 10^{-12} moles and hence 4.5 × 10^{12} atoms in the dot. As aluminium atoms are larger than carbon atoms, it’s not surprising that this number is a little bit smaller than the unrounded number of atoms calculated in the dot.

So our clay mineral calculations look at least plausible. The bit I’m really worried about is the thickness of the dot. Making a mark with a pointed lead and drawing a line with a flat end of the lead are likely to involve different pressures and hence different mark thicknesses. My feeling is that I’m most likely to have underestimated the thickness of the dot, and hence the number of atoms in it.

Suppose that you were standing perfectly still, and gravity suddenly stopped operating on your body. What would happen? Nothing much, you might think, apart from a queasy feeling of weightlessness. After all, an object won’t start to move unless a force acts on it, and no force is acting on your body.

However, when you stand “still”, in fact you’re travelling in a very large circle at rather high speed, as the Earth turns on its axis and carries you with it. Newton’s 1st Law tells us that things travel in straight lines unless a sideways force acts upon them. The force that keeps tugging you to make you travel in a circle rather than in a straight line is gravity. This means that the moment gravity stops acting on you, you’ll start moving along a straight line (the red line in the diagram) while the ground continues to move in a circular path underneath you (the blue line).

The consequence is that you’ll lose contact with the Earth and float upwards, serenely or otherwise. At least, that’s what it will look like to earthbound observers. But what’s really happening is that the ground is accelerating downwards away from you as it moves on its curved path. Try to remember that as you watch your footprints receding beneath you.

I wondered how fast this would all happen. The answer is: remarkably quickly. I give the geometry later, for those who are interested, but here are some example results for a person standing in Edinburgh, on a latitude of 56° N. Just for now, we’ll pretend that there isn’t any air.

After 1 second your feet will be 5 millimetres off the ground.

After 10 seconds you’ll be 53 centimetres off the ground.

After a minute, you’ll be 19 metres up

After an hour you’ll be at an altitude of over 68 km (though, being half frozen to death by now, you may be losing interest).

The lower your latitude, the quicker your ascent. At the equator, you’ll rise about three times as fast as in Edinburgh, and at the poles, you won’t lose contact with the ground at all.

Why on earth should I be interested in a situation that is contrived and physically impossible? It’s because it brings home the fact that each of us is constantly moving along a curved path as the Earth rotates. On the equator, it takes only 10 seconds for our trajectory to deviate from a straight line by 1.7 metres (during which time we’ve travelled 465 metres).

Why did I pretend that there isn’t any air? Because the presence of air muddies the waters by adding another force: the upward force of our buoyancy in the air. At low altitudes this force isn’t negligible: it slightly more than doubles the first three figures above. As you rise further and the air gets thinner, it matters less and less. I left it out because I wanted to make the effect of the Earth’s rotation clear.

The question that I’ve just answered is a trimmed-down version of a question that my friend Malcolm and I occupied ourselves with once when we were on a rather long and boring tramp along a glen at the end of a camping trip in the Cairngorms in Scotland. The question we asked then was: what would we observe if gravity suddenly stopped operating altogether? I may return to that subject in a future post.

The geometry

Let the centre of the Earth be at , the origin, and let the Earth’s radius be and its angular velocity about its own axis be . You are standing at latitude and are therefore a distance from the Earth’s axis. Your linear velocity as you stand still on the rotating Earth will be , tangential to the Earth’s surface.

Suppose that gravity stops acting on you at time zero, when you are at point . With no gravity acting on you, will now travel in a straight line tangential to the Earth’s surface. The diagram shows the situation from a suitable vantage point, looking sideways on to your direction of travel. We are not looking down on the north pole.

After a time , you will have travelled a distance , to point .

Your altitude is the distance , where is the point on the Earth’s surface for which is directly overhead. lies on , the line from to the centre of the Earth. The length of is given directly by Pythagoras’ Theorem in triangle : it’s . As , the altitude of point is . So

All we need now is , because the Earth does one full rotation in 86400 seconds, and , because that’s how big the Earth is. We can now choose and calculate for any value of .

We can check this answer in two ways. Firstly, we can use the very useful intersecting chords theorem to calculate the distance marked in the diagram on the right. For small values of , where , then should be approximately equal to the your altitude . For values of t of 1, 10, or 60 seconds, and agree to 4 significant figures. As we expect, as increases, the agreement gets less good: and differ by about 2% after 1 hour.

The second check is to differentiate the expression for twice with respect to time. The first differentation gives us an expression for the rate of change of with respect to time, that is, your rate of gain of altitude:

(Note: to keep things clear, I’ve omitted , which merely accompanies everywhere and doesn’t change the conclusions.) Where , and your motion is purely tangential, this expression for your speed away from the ground should be zero, and where is very large , and your motion is purely radial, your speed away from the ground should be . Both are true.

The second differentiation gives us an expression for your upward radial acceleration:

As it’s not you accelerating, but the ground that is accelerating away from you as it continues on its circular path, this expression for your upwards acceleration should, where and your path is tangential to the surface, become the same as that for the centripetal acceleration of the ground, , which it does. In addition, when , and your path is almost radial, the expression for your acceleration should approach zero, which it does.