Planes, Trains and Automobiles


Try this brain teaser: If a plane, a train and an automobile all leave Denver for New York City, which one will get there first. A plane, of course. Well… maybe not. Check this out.

According to science, the Earth rotates counterclockwise to the east. The speed with which the earth rotates is calculated as follows: circumference of the Earth is 40,070 kilometers, and the day is 24 hours long so the speed is 1,670 kilometers/hour or 1,037 miles/hr. That’s basic science, supposedly.

If a flight leaves Denver and flies due east, towards New York City, and is traveling at an average speed of 500 miles an hour, how long will it take to arrive in New York City about 1,500 miles away? Well, the math would seem to indicate that it would take 3 hours to go 1,500 miles at 500 miles/hr.  If I wanted to, I could even confirm the flight time in any airline’s flight schedule. Yep. Just over 3 hours.

However, the Earth is rotating at a speed of 1,000 miles/hr. which is far faster than the plane can fly.  As a result when the plane takes off from Denver, New York City becomes gradually further and further away. So, explain to me just how the plane ever reaches its destination?

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  The only way to explain this seeming anomaly is to posit that the Earth doesn’t rotate! Why? Well, because if a plane is traveling 1,500 miles at 500 miles an hour and arriving in 3 hours, then the object that it is traveling over must, by definition, be motionless!  “By definition”, I mean that it is a mathematical certainty. At least, that’s what they taught me in school.


“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to to reality, they are not certain; and as far as     they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”  – Albert Einstein



21 Responses to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”

  1. Everything in this closed system is already traveling at 1000mph. So really the plane is traveling 1500 mph

    • Nan said

      Logic at work. 🙂

    • chicagoja said

      What would happen,though, if the plane was flying in the opposite direction?

    • chicagoja said

      Of course, earth isn’t a true closed system as things get in and out (comets and radiation come in; hydrogen and helium get out).

      • Yes but you are under its influence even if you leave it. Kinda like leaving a religion

      • chicagoja said

        By influence do you mean gravity?

      • Gravity, inertia, and movement. Remember you left a planet at 17000mph, plus at 66000 mph you are moving through space. The galaxy is a closed system with moving parts that are predictable.

      • chicagoja said

        Not being a scientist myself, I find your comments very informative. However, the one thing that I do know about science is that very little is certain. So, as much as I like your answers, you are way too certain. Care to try again?

      • I am having trouble with brevity here. This is a very awesome topic and I think my answers are suitable for a science minded person. The macro must be understood that we do not operate independently of the galaxy and our earth which are all in motion. I’ll try and prepare a concise response to your post when I have a little time. Just coming to a basic understanding of how the earth and moon and sun needs 3D thinking and models. Thanks

  2. It is similar to a balloon in a car.

    • chicagoja said

      So, regardless of which direction the plane is going, its speed is 1,000?

      • No. It’s 500. As long as your in the system it’s the speed you are going. If you use mind bending problems where there are none it can get confusing. Even in the solar system it is the same. With your problem, if a rocket leaves the atmosphere, the earth would leave it behind. The earth travels 66,000 mph in its orbit around the sun, but satellites and spacecraft don’t get left behind. A trip to the moon and back would be impossible. You’d have to wait a year for the earth to come back around, then crash into it at Mach 80 or so. Traveling away or not, your speed is all relative inside the system you’re in

      • chicagoja said

        So, the spacecraft is also in a closed system?

      • The solar system is all part of the suns gravity. Space missions are not zero gravity but micro gravity under the influence of the sun

  3. Also. If you want to get to mars in an 8 month mission, you have to aim the spacecraft to where mars will be at that time. Once in the gravitational field of mars then your in its system and not racing into a planet traveling 53000 mph. Also you still have the speed of the earth in your vector

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