Outside Temperature? Cool your jets, who cares?

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I’m writing this at 33,000 feet. Our ground speed is 650 mph and we are being chased by a tail wind of 80 mph. The moving map tells me that I have just crossed the wide Missouri and am heading for Lake Superior. The time at my airport of departure, (Los Angeles) is 8.40 pm. The time at my destination (London) is 4.40 am. The estimated  time till we get there is just over 7 hours, and our plotted course will just skim the southern tip of Greenland.


All these are interesting pieces of information, many of them changing  in interesting ways, telling me something about my journey,  something that somebody on board might wish to know. But now, what have we here? “Outside temperature -58°F (-50°C)”  – and we are told the same thing in Spanish, for good measure. Why on Earth should I, or anyone on board, want to know that? Obviously, at this altitude, it is bound to be very cold out there, but what difference does it make to anything that matters? If the window out of which I am looking should chance to shatter and I be sucked out, it perhaps advises me whether I would die of cold before I die of oxygen starvation or of hitting the ground, but in reality? Is this number posted on the little screen in front of me purely because it is easy to measure, so it might as well be there?

It reminds me of a schoolmaster of my acquaintance (and, I have heard, an exceptionally good science teacher) who loves measuring everything. He used to take parties of boys on cycling trips and he would print out on his computer minute details of the trip before setting off. Meticulously tabulated, and distributed to all his friends and relations, would be the mean ages, heights and weights of all the boys in the party, complete with standard deviations, the estimated time of arrival at each youth hostel on the way and many other such minutiae. If something can be measured, you might as well measure it. And, in his case, since the computer is capable of computing the standard deviations of all the measures, why not let it have the fun of computing them?

Unless you happen to be a brass monkey clinging for dear life to one of the wings, why should you want to know the temperature outside the plane in which we are trying to while away the long hours? Yet every plane I can remember, which has a moving map at all, scrupulously tells us the outside temperature. I can’t help thinking of all the other things that could be measured, which might be more interesting. If we must have temperature, how about temperature at our destination? Or the pollen count? Or the temperature on the ground over which we are flying, so we can picture the people down there: in their bikinis or their fur-lined parkas. How about our present latitude and longitude? The compass direction in which we are heading? The pitch, roll and yaw of our craft? I’d quite like to know the altitude of the ground below us above sea level. Or our height above the ground we are flying over (which was interestingly a lot smaller when we were crossing the Rockies than it is now). Why not tell us which tectonic plate we are flying over? How many cosmic ray particles are raining down on our heads? How about – to really stretch things – the Captain’s pulse rate, which might tell us something about how anxious he is? Even if his pulse rate is as rock steady as we might hope, it is surely more likely to be relevant to something important than the outside temperature.

The Moving Map of the future, as I see it in my imagination, will show key points from the Wikipedia (or whatever Wikipedia has evolved into by then) entry for whatever we  are flying over. If it’s a town, the population and principle industries of the town. If it’s a geological feature such as a mountain range or a series of glacial valleys, something about the upheavals or other geological phenomena that engendered it. Perhaps something about the wildlife that we might see if only we had telescopic eyes – well, you get the idea: use the fact that we are moving over the face of the globe to educate the curious passenger in exactly what is unique about this particular spot the she is visiting now for the first, and  very probably last time.

But the outside temperature? Cool your jets, who cares?

Written By: Richard Dawkins
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84 COMMENTS

  1. I can think of reasons why it would be convenient for knowing the temperature while on the ground. Should I, for instance, dig out my thin jacket or is it warm enough to leave packed in my carry on? I’m speculating it’s just a consequence of having the technology that the temperature remains available at altitude where it doesn’t have the same practical value to passengers.

    But I would favor better types of information than just temperature as suggested in the article.

    Mike

  2. Well, Richard, that was a somewhat pedantic rage about a very pedantic curio.

    But I like the idea of including more information including Wikipedia articles about the area we fly over.

    I always spend my time in planes studying the information screen and looking out of the window. I don’t quite get all the people who prefer to watch old Hollywood movies instead. You are flying over the world at enormous speed, how much more interesting can your life get? The only time I ever saw Icebergs and the white Cliffs of Dover was on a flight from Paris to Mexico. On a night flight from Yerevan to Prague I saw Crimea at night and was able to identify the town of Yevpatoria, where I once spent a wonderful two week’s vacation. It’s really high time someone devices a makeover of the information screen instead of adding more boring old Disney movies to the menu.

    • In reply to #2 by foundationist:

      Well, Richard, that was a somewhat pedantic rage about a very pedantic curio.

      As my daughter would say: “I know Right?” (which I think means I really agree with you)

      After reading this I ran to the mirror to make sure I didn’t suddenly have a beard. I feared that I might have fallen through a worm hole or had a transporter mishap and ended up in an alternate reality where Richard Dawkins was now Andy Rooney. I warned Dawkins something like this might happen when he started Tweeting, there is so much inanity on that site I think some of it rubs off on even the most brilliant users ;-)

      • In reply to #19 by Red Dog:

        As my daughter would say: “I know Right?” (which I think means I really agree with you)

        After reading this I ran to the mirror to make sure I didn’t suddenly have a beard. I feared that…

        Twitter can be fun for soundbyte discussions. It can be used as a semantic practice tool.

        • In reply to #21 by DHudson:

          In reply to #19 by Red Dog:

          As my daughter would say: “I know Right?” (which I think means I really agree with you)

          After reading this I ran to the mirror to make sure I didn’t suddenly have a beard. I feared that…

          Twitter can be fun for soundbyte discussions. It can be used as a semantic practice board

          A “soundbyyte discussion” is an oxymoron IMO. Or I should qualify an intelligent soundbyte discussion is an oxymoron. A soundbyte as I understand the term is a short phrase or at most a few sentences. Its designed not to be thoughtful or nuanced but to be something people say to convert other people who also aren’t critical thinkers. If we want more critical thinking IMO the answer is not better soundbytes its no soundbytes.

          • In reply to #22 by Red Dog:

            A “soundbyyte discussion” is an oxymoron IMO. Or I should qualify an intelligent soundbyte discussion is an oxymoron. A >soundbyte as I understand the term is a short phrase or at most a few sentences. Its designed not to be thoughtful or nuanced but to be something people say to convert other people who also aren’t critical thinkers. If we want more critical thinking IMO the answer is not better soundbytes its no soundbytes.

            I agree to a certain extent. But I still think it can be a useful tool for thought provoking questions. I look at soundbytes as if they were quotes. Shallow but sometimes interesting.
            The discussions that follows a tweet can be very confusing and messy, but every once in a while there is actually some insightful comments made. I look at it as a way of sharpening my arguments and as an exercise in cutting it to the core.

          • In reply to #23 by DHudson:

            I look at it as a way of sharpening my arguments and an exercise in cutting it to the core.

            I’ve never seen a Twitter feed that I thought was worth reading. I’ve seen a few quotes and jokes that were funny but that’s it. Its ironic because I was using email and things like Telnet (pre browser technology) when the Internet was still the Arpanet and here I am turning into Grandpa Simpson railing about this new fangled technology. But sometimes a luddite can still be right and I’m just not convinced. If you have a Twitter feed that you think represents a worthwhile discussion, an actual sharing of ideas rather than trading of insults, I would like to take a look although don’t put a lot of work finding one, I doubt its going to change my mind. Oh and get off my lawn ;-)

          • In reply to #24 by Red Dog:

            Personally I like Stephen Fry’s tweets ( for entertainment value ) and of course Dawkins’ ( for some serious discussion ).

            I’m relatively new to the whole twitter scene so maybe I’ll one day grow tired of the soundbyting too.

            I’ll just gather my pamphlets and get off your lawn now. :)

          • I the same way

            In reply to #23 by DHudson:

            In reply to #22 by Red Dog:

            A “soundbyyte discussion” is an oxymoron IMO. Or I should qualify an intelligent soundbyte discussion is an oxymoron. A >soundbyte as I understand the term is a short phrase or at most a few sentences. Its designed not to be thoughtful or nuanced but to be something peop…

  3. Why on Earth should I, or anyone on board, want to know that? Obviously, at this altitude, it is bound to be very cold out there, but what difference does it make to anything that matters?”

    The pilots definitely want (and need) to know it, because the outside air temperature matters a great deal to the performance of the plane, since it affects the density of the air.

    How about our present latitude and longitude? The compass direction in which we are heading?”

    You are getting these — they are used to show the position and heading of the plane on the map.

    • In reply to #3 by virtualgeoff:

      Why on Earth should I, or anyone on board, want to know that? Obviously, at this altitude, it is bound to be very cold out there, but what difference does it make to anything that matters?”

      The pilots definitely want (and need) to know it, because the outside air temperature matters a great deal to…

      Well of course the pilots need to know it, along with hundreds of other things that are not displayed to the passengers. That goes without saying.

      And of course the latitude and longitude are used to show our position on the map. That again goes without saying. Whereas only obsessives like my schoolmaster might want to see the actual numbers of degrees from the Equator and from the Greenwich meridian. I was only trying, in a humorous way, to point up the comparative irrelevance, to most passengers, of the outside temperature. Why the outside temperature?

      • In reply to #4 by Richard Dawkins:

        In reply to #3 by virtualgeoff:

        Why on Earth should I, or anyone on board, want to know that? Obviously, at this altitude, it is bound to be very cold out there, but what difference does it make to anything that matters?”

        The pilots definitely want (and need) to know it, because the outside air te…

        Why the outside temperature?

        I suspect they like to keep us occupied with information and tech specs so we don’t think too much about the wings falling off ;)

  4. I think it just feeding the curiosity of people who are insterested. I dont see any harm coming from some extra “true” infromation even it does not help you at the exact time that you get it, but may be later in your life.

  5. I’d like to know the temperature and relative humidity inside the plane. Also a measurement of turbulence might be interesting, e.g. g-force; something that could be objectively compared with other flights.

  6. I presume that the jumble of statistics displayed to passengers is just there to pass the time. Bored passengers get tetchy.

    Studies have shown that if people are waiting for a lift in a building, then simply putting a mirror outside the lift causes people to be far more patient when waiting – they check their hair instead of tutting at the lift’s closed doors. Put a TV outside the lift and some will wait all day…

  7. How about: “Current position, heading and speed of nearest aircraft”.

    As an infrequent flyer I’m freqeuently startled by seeing planes zipping about near my aircraft at what seems like ridiculously unlikely speeds.

    As to the outside temperature — well, it’s about the only thing of no use to a terrorist waiting for the right moment to blow up the plane, innit?

  8. Finally – something I can disagree with RD on! Telling passengers the temperature reminds them of something. That there is a real world outside the confines of their aluminium cylinder. It is a shame but many need to be reminded of this. There is a thin cold atmosphere out there and many plane passengers would not have ever given it a second thought.

    • In reply to #10 by couchy:

      Finally – something I can disagree with RD on! Telling passengers the temperature reminds them of something. That there is a real world outside the confines of their aluminium cylinder. It is a shame but many need to be reminded of this. There is a thin cold atmosphere out there and many plane passe…

      Actually yes, that is a very good point, thank you.

      • In reply to #11 by Richard Dawkins:

        In reply to #10 by couchy:

        Finally – something I can disagree with RD on! Telling passengers the temperature reminds them of something. That there is a real world outside the confines of their aluminium cylinder. It is a shame but many need to be reminded of this. There is a thin cold atmosphere out there and many plane passe…

        Actually yes, that is a very good point, thank you.

        Ah! . . .. . but when landing on the outward trip to LA, or on a sub-tropical island – and the outside temperature changes to +30°c, you know the UK coats, gloves and scarves, are no longer needed until your late night return to the UK!

  9. In reply to #4 by Richard Dawkins:

    Well of course the pilots need to know it, along with hundreds of other things that are not displayed to the passengers. That goes without saying.

    You did ask:

    “Why on Earth should I, or anyone on board, want to know that?”

    In the case of the passengers, I agree that knowing the outside temperature is not terribly useful, but neither is knowing the altitude, position, heading and speed. Knowing any of them is not going to help you much either. If you have a window seat then they can help you identify what’s in view, but that’s about it.

    But they are interesting, and more importantly, are readily available and therefore easily shared. Unlike cosmic radiation levels or the captain’s pulse rate, which would require extra intrumentation.

    Regarding your Moving map of the Future — you can do most of that now using the in-flight internet connection and Google Earth with the Wikipedia layer turned on.

    • In reply to #12 by virtualgeoff:

      If you have a window seat then they can help you identify what’s in view, but that’s about it.

      That made me think of something else- even with a window seat, you often do not have that great of a view. Why not mount a simple camera on the bottom of the plane and let the people see that view on the info screen from time to time? It might give an amazing view. Of course, that would have to be built into the planes of the future, and it probably will not be, but I would love to see this.

      • In reply to #14 by chipf0rk:

        In reply to #12 by virtualgeoff:

        If you have a window seat then they can help you identify what’s in view, but that’s about it.

        That made me think of something else- even with a window seat, you often do not have that great of a view. Why not mount a simple camera on the bottom of the plane and le…

        The A380 does have a camera in the tail pointing forwards over the front of the plane. One of the few advantages of not being in business in an A380. In business you have to fold up your video screen and drop it back into the arm rest. In economy the screen is on the back of the seat in front and you can keep watching. Coming into Heathrow many years ago I had a spectacular view of the plane landing.

        On long hauls from Australia the timer is useful. Always good to know that you only have 13 hours left sitting still with the seat in front of you 15 cm from your face. :-(

        I agree that one underneath would be better.

        Michael

  10. Thank you for an interesting and thought-provoking read. I have to agree partly with other people in the comments- per se that piece of information might seem worthless, but if a child read it, it might be amazed and ask their parents to explain, and it would learn that higher up, the world gets colder, and the plane “protects” the people from freezing to death while so high up. I think that would have stunned me… Even the seemingly most irrelevant and insignificant pieces of information can spawn interest in the world in a child.
    Then, for me there is a question- is the outside temperature shown all the time? If that’s the case, it’s certainly unnecessary. If it only popped up somewhen and vanished again: I would put it amongst the other information that you suggested be shown on the info screen. The “interesting info screen” filled with information about places you fly over is a great idea and might make looking at this a far more enlightening experience.

  11. Of course it matters very little but being curious in nature, i do quite enjoy making a mental note of what the temperature is at different altitudes, at what point in the descent could i reasonably leap out without freezing my tail off? for example (then the mental calculations of likelyhood of survivng the fall)

    most importantly, any bit of useless information displayed on a screen attains relevance purely by virtue of it being displayed. I’m not a football fan so feel free to tell me I’m wrong but I often listen to pundits on sports shows trotting out more and more useless statistics these days since so many stats can be obtained with modern technology, and the football loving (or any other sport for that matter) public lap it up and start using it in their own analysis, no doubt wondering how on earth they ever managed to predect a footbal result in the days when all you know was who was playing and how good they were.

    so now airliners display this bit of info, of course the outside temp is important when landing as you might need to make important decisions such as wether to fluff up your fur or not but for most of the journey it’s unimportant.

    accept it’s displayed, so it is important! I’ve heard passengers commenting on how cold it is, and how high they are (also unimportant to passengers. high enough not to hit things is all you need to know isn’t it?). and the windspeed etc etc, but of course the important info, when you get to land has already been told over the tannoy.

    apes love bits of data. you can use it to dress up as something meaningful, so you have meaning. it gives your brains something to do other than think about the fact you are inches away from certain death at any moment and you’re expected to sit quietly like this is all perfectly natural.

    You are of course correct. it’s pointless but then so is most of the info and please keep it to yourself or you’ll set of an existential crisis throughout the cabin

  12. I don’t think the airline should tell the passengers what the outside temperature is at 33,000 feet.

    I think the passengers should be obliged to tell the AIRLINE what the temperature is at 33,000 feet, BEFORE they’re allowed on the plane.

    It should be just one of a number of questions the passengers should be obliged to answer before they’re allowed the privilege of boarding a jet plane to some far-flung destination.

    Most people haven’t got the faintest idea where they’re going, or the implications of what’s involved in arranging a long distance flight.

    Just last week I heard another sob story from a passenger from the UK who was “stranded” in Venice when her flight was delayed til the following day. If you’re travelling abroad you should be aware of the possibility of a flight being delayed for various reasons – maybe for quite a few days in extreme cases – and you should have the means to look after yourself and arrange alternative transport if necessary. So many people fly around the world with no perspective at all of how far they’re going or how easily their plans could be disrupted.

    I remember a few years ago a travel journalist boarded a flight from Barbados to the UK. Before take off, the pilot informed the passengers that they’d be flying into a headwind and so their arrival time would be approximately 20 minutes later than scheduled. (That’s on a 9 hour trans-Atlantic flight.) The passenger next to the journalist gave a huge “whatever next” tut, clearly totally failing to grasp the reality of the journey she was embarking upon.

      • In reply to #20 by virtualgeoff:

        In reply to #18 by Jumped Up Chimpanzee:

        Most people haven’t got the faintest idea where they’re going, or the implications of what’s involved in arranging a long distance flight.

        So true! Have you seen Louis CK’s “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” rant? Very funny.

        Ha ha. That’s great! Thanks for the link.

        “YOU’RE SITTING IN A CHAIR IN THE SKY!”

  13. Dr. Dawkins, you are too bored flying around in US. I suggest you travel to countries like India where you and your work are much more needed.

    (Instead of being annoyed by over information, you would then be very thankful even if the pubic transport just tells which train station/bus stop you have arrived at.)

  14. Stowaways!

    There might be no reason at all except to keep certain passengers amused, but there might be an important meme that the air industry is trying to spread. Once or twice a year an aircraft arrives at Heathrow with a frozen corpse in the wheel arches. It is the sad end to some desperate illegal immigrant. I’m not sure if the corpses have ever been legitimate air passengers, but I sure they knew someone (who knew someone) who was. They could display the partial pressure of oxygen as well, but that is more difficult to grasp unless you are a mountaineer.

  15. Hi Richard,
    As an international airline pilot, I think it is appropriate for the passengers to be reminded at times that they are not in a luxury hotel, but in fact in a very complex machine with a huge amount of kinetic energy in an environment that is extremely hostile to the evolved nature of the earth bound human being. -56 degrees at 40 000 feet- Yeah that is harsh. Clear Air Turbulence associated with jet streams, convective clouds and associated turbulence with Cumulonimbus clouds etc etc.

  16. As an aviator, i am so excited to read about RD’s fascination about flights.
    By the way this article should be shown to Mitt Romney who once said that he did nt know why airplane windows were closed.

  17. Surely this is a little short-sighted? Or possibly Professor Dawkins is really asking out of a sense of genuine scientific enquiry?

    Even if it serves only to make small boys say “wow” at the extreme conditions that attend modern sub-sonic flight, it serves a purpose – I’m sure that no-one thinks that there is no value in instilling a sense of wonder in young minds.

  18. Knowing the outside temperature is important because it allows average people to realize that at 30,OOO feet, it is utterly freezing and there is nothing to breathe. We are dumping billions of tons of filth into our breathable atmosphere that is only a few miles high.

  19. Dear RDFr’s. How about an instant ‘bug’ detection system? Don’t want to catch a nasty cough. I’d be much happier reading-off a display of, “This is your Captain calling. . . . as you can see, only “X virus particles per cubic metre”. “So, take a deep breath and just relax, Richard, we’ll soon be there.” Hawaii here we come. Aloha ;) m. (Ok, yes I know, but right now I’m in bed ill recovering from a nasty chest infection) :(

  20. The way smartphones, slabs, slates, netbooks etc are proliferating how about airlines providing a mass ao data and passengers using an app or similar to select whatever data is of interest to themselves.

    Just a thought.

  21. Some information is nice for the pilot to know, and I can’t care less about them, but what is very important to me, is the safety checks. I would love for them to have a screen that shows the safety checks and what had to be fixed. I was once on a plane from San Diego to Norway with a stop in Minnesota. We all boarded the plane, and sat there for the longest time when finally I could hear the pilot’s voice over the speaker: “We are having some difficulty closing the door, we have men working on it right now, thank you for your patience.” or something to that effect. A little while later the pilot is back on the speaker saying something like: “thank you for your patience. We were able to duct tape the door shut and should be taking off momentarily.” If I have ever panicked on a plane, that would be the moment. All I remember thinking is that there is no way I am getting any higher than ground level with a duct taped door! Luckily he came back on the speaker saying that we needed to switch airplanes. I’m pretty sure I elbowed some and treaded others down to make sure I got the hell off the plane.
    After that experience, I have been paranoid about the safety checks performed prior to take off.

    • In reply to #40 by lisarut:

      Some information is nice for the pilot to know, and I can’t care less about them, but what is very important to me, is the safety checks. I would love for them to have a screen that shows the safety checks and what had to be fixed. I was once on a plane from San Diego to Norway with a stop in Minnes…

      In reality this was probably just door seals which can make a nasty whining noise if they are loose. Apparently sometimes they stuff towes in they during flight. If that was what it was it’s not a safety issue.

      I recommend this site for anyone interested in flying http://www.pprune.org.

      Michael

  22. I assume this piece is being deliberately provocative. Who is interested in the outside temperature? Well, I am! As in every other human state, I’m probably not alone. There must be plenty of us out there, who look at the outside temperature and think to ourselves, “wow, who would have thought?” The sky is blue and it looks sunny enough, but it’s below freezing. Shows how deceptive the information garnered by our senses can be.

  23. Personally – however infuriated I might become about being told unnecessary info – unless the aircraft suddenly did something such as adopting a vertical posture and seats sliding about in the cheaper areas of the cabin, followed by an announcement to locate our parachutes, I shall always have a tendency just to be grateful when I land, in the right place, and accompanied by my luggage.

  24. Temperature is supplied because it is readily available from aircraft instruments; it is used to calculate and adjust airspeed, altitude, engine performance, fuel flow, anti-ice system needs, etc. Temperature is also supplied to passengers as a kind of “gee whiz” fun fact. I would like to think that, on another level, it is a subtle reminder that what you’re doing at that moment is something just short of miraculous–idly sitting with a glass of Scotch, perusing your email, in pressurized comfort, while outside an incredibly extreme environment whips by at a thousand feet per second. It is a dose of reality to counter the commonplace of modern air travel.

  25. Reminds me of a paragraph from Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact:

    “As the plane reached cruising altitude…Ellie idly glanced at the small white cardboard rectangle imprinted with blue letters that had been stapled to her airline ticket envelope. It read, in language unchanged since her first commercial flight, ‘This is not the luggage ticket (baggage check) described by Article 4 of the Warsaw Convention.’ Why were airlines so worried, she wondered…what was a Warsaw ticket? Why had she never seen one? Where were they storing them? … Imagine, she thought, all those cumulative lines of type devoted instead to something useful – the history of world exploration, say, or incidental facts of science, or even the average number of passenger miles until your airplane crashed.”

  26. I think the temperature is given because it’s easily to provide, everyone understands what it is, and it quietly empowers the pilots or airline (look at what WE know that you don’t know right now). The implication is that it’s scary out there but you can trust us, you’re safe. You can fly with us again.

    What is more interesting is that this post makes you, Mr. Dawkins, available for us to comment directly back to you. Most of us see you in videos or have read your books so you are real, but not in the here and now, if you will. Like it or not, fame is fame. Your interest in trivial curiosity make you more ‘real’ as bad as that sounds. It’s keeping it real that works. You appear to resist (so far) the high road of fame and your simple post shows you are one of us, yay. It’s almost like fame has two faces, the one that brings the message and the other that ruins it. I am thrilled about the former and hope that’s the way it will stay with you.

    At sea level right now on the Canadian west coast, 18C at midnight.

    • I can’t remember the flight, but I know I’ve been on a plane with a downward-pointing camera, and one mounted in the nose of the aeroplane, and you could switch between them. However, I remember being thrilled at the discovery and then disappointed, as the front-facing camera frosted up, and as it was cloudy the downwards camera just showed white. If they had been good resolutions and on a clear day, I think I’d have just sat and watched it for the whole flight.

      On the subject of useful/not-so-useful information, I flew from Heathrow to Cairo via Milan, and remember glancing out of the window as the plane approached the French Alps. The altitude then became of extreme interest as the mountains swooped upwards towards the underside of the plane, the trees on their slops touching distance from the fuselage (or that’s what it felt like). And then above all that, the great white dome of Mont Blanc, dominating the view. I remember clearly noticing all the people around me watching films or dozing, and wanting to wake them all to point it out.

  27. I remember the first time I was on a plane with the outside temperature measurement. I was rather in awe of how low it was, and was glad they displayed it just for its educational value. Yes I knew it would be colder at 39,000 feet, but I hadn’t appreciated quite how much colder.

  28. I’m writing this at 33,000 feet. Our ground speed is 650 mph and we are being chased by a tail wind of 80 mph. The moving map tells me that I have just crossed the wide Missouri and am heading for Lake Superior. The time at my airport of departure, (Los Angeles) is 8.40 pm. The time at my destination (London) is 4.40 am. The estimated time till we get there is just over 7 hours, and our plotted course will just skim the southern tip of Greenland.<

    How about another fun fact, such as:

    ‘Our speed is of course in addition to that of our planet’s speed in orbit around the sun, taking us with it at a steady rate of about 67,000 miles per hour.

  29. To be fair, I think first time flyers might find it interesting. I certainly did. I marvelled at the fact that I was sitting in a thoroughly comfortable temperature wearing nothing thicker than a shirt while just a few inches away it was -50. Quite amazing when you think about it. Mind you, I’m not that frequent a flyer so I’m not jaded by flight and am amazed every time that I’m flying thousands of feet up in the air at hundreds of miles per hour.

    So, in a small way, that outside temperature indicator actually makes me appreciate all the more the science and engineering that enables me to be up there.

  30. So these are the thoughts that occupy the “world’s greatest thinker” when he jets around the world. As a frequent economy class traveler, I fantasize about how much more legroom they must have in first class, how much better their food must be, how much friendlier their flight attendants are, how much more interesting the person sitting next to them might be… maybe I am a closet communist?

  31. I usually look forward to hearing comments from the Captain while flying. Some pilots point out distinctive landmarks, tell brief anecdotal stories etc. and add some sort of commentary. “If you look to the left of the plane you will see that we will soon be approaching the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. ” He even elaborated a bit on the history. One pilot identified the peaks of Mount St. Helen and Mount Hood which I greatly appreciated – They looked magnificent – sunlit peering through the clouds. It’s just luck to get a pilot that likes to talk and point out what’s below. I guess if you don’t have something to say, just tell everyone the temperature outside.??

    On many flights, I’ve admired the colors and patterns created by crop circles when headed west toward Colorado, but never fully understood the process of irrigation until I finally saw one up close just this last year. People like me who request the window seat must be naturally curious compared to those who want the aisle. We tend to like the experience of guessing what’s below. There must be an app for this! (providing they let you use electronics during the flight.) It could give you longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates to let you know exactly where you are. You could then link in with any information as to what is exactly below. Then, you can view up close photos and link in with wikipedia or some sort of science site. If someone is traveling over Dinosaur National Park, a parent can make a game about learning something new. I bet the app’s out there.

    I will be headed to London, flying out on the last days of June (woo hoo! I’m finally going to Europe after 40 or so years of dreaming. It will be my 50th B-Day!) An online travel site had a promotion several months ago to find Rufus, a Corgi, hidden on an illustrated map of London. I never won any of the free gifts, but each week I grew to love this map by Jenni Sparks. It wasn’t a boring plain map with lines for roads labelled in Helvetica or Times. It was fun and funky with nice drawings of buildings, parks, museums, departments stores, and every other well-known place that I will soon visit. I find that these types of maps, generally intended for children, help me orient myself better than the standard map. Yes, illustrated maps generally lack a few of the shorter roads, but I can usually identify the image quickly and visualize how to navigate myself on the streets because I understand where I am spatially compared to another place of interest. It seems as if some sort of referencing info would be fun on airplanes too for overgrown kids like me. :D

  32. It’s officially the OAT (outside air temperature). A more useful stat would perhaps be the cabin altitude, usually in the order of 8000 ft ie. The “pressurized” cabin is so only with respect to the pressure outside the aircraft.

    It drops your blood oxygen saturation to a ballpark 90% from the usual 98%; add some alcohol and the inner ape isn’t too far away.

  33. Richard- an unbecoming rant. You sound like the original Sherlock in A Study in Scarlet when he explained to Watson that the human brain can only hold a finite number of facts and each unnecessary thing he learns drives out a fact more important.

  34. Richard

    Speak for yourself not me…….that was pretty idiotic to say that I am not interested in knowing whats outside. I am curious person and do liek to know !!

    So keep your infantile stuff to yourself

    Thank you but no thank you

  35. I am the most irritatingly pedantic person when it comes to the use of the English language, so I would be extremely nervous if the pilot announced we were going to take off, “momentarily”! In reply to #40 by lisarut:

    Some information is nice for the pilot to know, and I can’t care less about them, but what is very important to me, is the safety checks. I would love for them to have a screen that shows the safety checks and what had to be fixed. I was once on a plane from San Diego to Norway with a stop in Minnes…

  36. Professor Dawkins, you are flying too much and becoming blase about it.
    Time for scientists like yourself, who should know better, given the overwhelming evidence for climate change, to stay put, use our amazing communications media, lead by example, quit jet setting, stop contributing to degradation of our commons with chemicals, CO2, noise, monstrous air travel infrastructures and tiresomely trivial travel stories. Think of the energy needed just to keep you warm at 30 000 feet every arse turnaround.
    Your message is already out there and we, your admiring supporters, are in place, helping spread the message of reason and science at the local level. You’ve been to the heart of the world’s holy book belts numerous times, proven your point time and time again. Enough. Solvitur ambulando.

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  38. I’d be more interested in seeing real-time data obtained from pilot being attached to a breathalyzer, displaying his BAC to passengers to make sure he’s not sneaking sips of booze. Or better yet, a catheter could be inserted in his ureter (perhaps being built into a flight suit to test for the presence of drugs in his urine). Hence passengers could be assured the pilot wasn’t drinking, or hadn’t been partying hard the night before.

    What? Didn’t anyone else see Denzel Washington in ‘Flight’?

    (Truth be told, I didn’t actually SEE the movie, but I saw the trailer, and I’m guessing it was a pretty accurate synopsis of the film.) :)

  39. I rather like to be informed, while I sit back in comfort, enjoying my Champagne or cattle-class SLF-grade red wine, (depending on who paid for my ticket,) that just the other side of that little plastic window is an environment capable of killing me instantly, and be reminded of how wonderful science is.

    I suspect the obsession with outside air temperature may be an echo from the early days of aviation.

    I used to fly piston-engined helicopters and was very interested, equally to the point of obsession, in the OAT. Pilots need to manually apply carburettor heat if the OAT approaches a temperature at which ice can form in the inlet venturi, as having an iced-up carb in an aircraft can suddenly stop the engine, which without some pretty rapid attention from the pilot can soon become very unhealthy indeed.

    Adding hot air to the fuel/air mix reduces available engine power, including that available in an emergency, so it is not sensible to add carb heat when not absolutely necessary.

    So there it is – maybe it’s a meme which has been unthinkingly carried forward from the days before flying in pressurised, well-insulated tin cans powered by jet engines appeared normal.

  40. Oh, and to push the envelope even further, Richard’s proposed Captain’s pulse rate monitor, when showing an increase to the point of clinical tachycardia might not indicate that he is wrestling with multiple equipment failures, but is perhaps instead wrestling with multiple female cabin staff, while his First Officer watches. (The instruments, of course.) Or at least chatting-up some lone female traveller in First Class.

    Can any airline Captains on here say that they have NEVER heard such rumours?

    I know several, and they can’t :)

    ps: I loved the image of the brass monkey clinging to the wing. As a chap I used to work with was fond of saying on any particularly cold day, “I’ve just seen a brass monkey outside, and he’s looking for a welder.”

  41. For a traveler on any craft, the most relevant information is positional/temporal – where am I in relation to my destination, how fast am I going, and when can I expect to get there? Any interruptions, delays, problems that come about relating to my forward progress are obviously also of critical importance.

    Everything else is just trivia. How does this knowledge of outside air temperature affect my understanding of the progress of my journey? The outside air temperature is X, the length of the aileron on the right wing is approximately 1.5 meters, and we also thought that you’d also like to know that the actual color of your seat padding is “Cornflower blue”, which is commonly mistaken for “Carolina blue”.

    I’m with Richard here – if we are going to throw trivia at the passengers, why not also tell them the ambient pressure as well? Or maybe tell us something useful, such as how many compression/decompression cycles the aircraft’s fuselage has undergone, and whether this is under or exceeds the number of cycles the plane is designed for.

  42. I enjoy these facts because they are interesting! Imagine the delight and subsequent conversation that might follow if sharing such a fact with a five-year-old on the flight. Imagine someone such as Feynman starting with this fact and running with it, not knowing where the conversation might lead – air pressure, wind chill factor, ice on the wings, sheepskin flight suits for WWII bomber crews, etc, Have we as adults grown weary of information, or so blindly faithful of science that we accept facts as trivial stand-alone entities without implication?

    I was lucky enough to have flown on Concorde, and sat on the flight deck during landing. As I talked to the Navigator I was astounded at the extra things that ordinary planes don’t have. Two sets of fuel tanks so that fuel can be transfered between them to adjust trim for supersonic/subsonic flight modes. A gauge for aircraft skin temperature, which was about 100 degrees Celsius at Mach 2. This raises a question – why was the skin so hot? (I’ll tell you right now that it is NOT from friction – don’t you want to know why?) Maybe it’s just me, but my flight was enriched by playing with the science and seeing how we overcame the engineering challenges.

  43. At first I thought you were marvelling about how the accomplishments of science have progressed so far that we now take for granted the ability to travel in safety and comfort through hostile environments. But then came the “Who cares?” attitude. Has your account been hacked?

    Stats like that aren’t irritating. I watched the lottery results on TV and they give stats on the genuinely random process of how often the numbers come up, implying that the process is not random and has some deeper significance with supernatural overtones. That’s irritating.

  44. surely , the outside temperature is a little bit of knowledge that you would not otherwise know , like the number of light years to the nearest star , or the number of sub-atomic particles in a specific atom . I marvel at this little bit of knowledge because it reminds me of the wonder of the human minds that created all the science that allows me to fly in comfort and safety in an environment that I could otherwise not survive. “cool your jets” ? No ! RELAX and enjoy the ride and splendid view .

  45. I would love to see a close up “google earth” view of what is below speeding by in real time which would really show how fast 650 mph is. That can’t be difficult to achieve as all the data is already there free of charge. You could also zoom in and out as on google earth therefore appearing to alter the speed it whizzes by. You could also then click on interesting looking things going by and have the wiki info on it.

    As the route is plotted you could even fast forward to what is coming up and rewind to see what you missed. Hours of endless fun.

  46. They probably show the outside temperature because that’s the only convenient variable the software writers had access to. The plane already measures it.

    That in flight map software was not really designed to be the most informative experience for the passenger…it looks like it was just cobbled together (its user interface literally could not be simpler) and uses the state of the art graphics of 20 years ago.

    I’ve had the same idea about showing info about local history on the map…although perhaps the flight crew would prefer if everyone stuck to the vetted sampling of Tv and hollywood trash rather than risk putting wikipedia and real history on the menu. Do you want to get into a political debate with the guy next to you at 33,000 feet, 50 degrees below zero outside?

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