The Science of High-Wire Stunts with Philippe Petit

Philippe Petit. Image courtesy of alchetron.com. CC BY-SA.

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About This Episode

On August 7, 1974 French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked out between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, suspended 1,368 feet above the ground on a wire only 3/4” in diameter. In this week’s StarTalk Radio podcast, Neil deGrasse Tyson explores the engineering required for Petit to safely traverse the gap 8 times without falling to his death. You’ll learn how Petit, part scientist, part engineer, part performance artist, was able to string a cable weighing over 400 lbs. between the towers across a 140-foot-gap that could increase or decrease by as much as 3-6 feet depending on environmental conditions – and then cross it without falling in spite of loss of tension. In studio, Neil, science guest and StarTalk All-Stars host Charles Liu, and co-host Eugene Mirman discuss the physics of catenary cables, suspension bridges and even tennis nets. Explore the interaction of levers, “the mystery of balance,” and the purpose of the 26-foot-long, 55 lb. pole – the “extension of his arms” – that Petit used to accommodate the “destroying equilibrium parameters” that were assailing him from all around and even from within his own body. You’ll hear a little about the psychology of tightrope walkers from instructor Sonja Harpstead, as well as what Petit calls being “devoured by the void.” Neil, Charles and Eugene discuss squirrels and mountain goats, fear of heights, butterflies in your stomach, and Eugene’s “great” zipline experience. Plus, Bill Nye stops by to discuss how architecture helps our very imaginations soar.

NOTE: All-Access subscribers can listen to this entire episode commercial-free here: The Science of High-Wire Stunts with Philippe Petit, as well as Neil’s extended interview with Philippe Petit here.

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