Is a 'drop of a hat' quicker than a 'blink of an eye'?


With superfast broadband giving us access to information ‘in the blink of an eye’ and news being able to spread “like wildfire”, do we actually know how quick these speed clichés are? To solve this conundrum, BT researched 20 clichés to see which is actually the fastest.

 BT scientifically measures 20 speed clichés

With superfast broadband giving us access to information ‘in the blink of an eye’ and news being able to spread “like wildfire”, do we actually know how quick these speed clichés are? To solve this conundrum, BT researched 20 clichés to see which is actually the fastest.

The top three were all forces of nature - with “at the speed of light”, “lightning fast” and “like a comet” taking the podium places – followed by the man-made creations of “supersonic” (the fastest recorded space shuttle) and “a speeding bullet”.

When looking to the animal kingdom to generate a sense of speed however, “one fell swoop” came out on top - as the peregrine falcon’s stoop (or swoop) reaches speeds of 108.05 metres per second (m/s). Next was “a bat out of hell” coming in at 35.8m/s, the velocity of a diving Mexican free-tailed bat; followed by “off like a hare” and “off like a greyhound” just 2.4m/s apart at the lower end of the table.

The study also revealed that although you might want something “before you know it”, someone working at “full throttle” would be quicker by 136 m/s - as a piston plane travels faster than our body’s signals.

BT commissioned University Campus Suffolk to create the following definitive ranking of popular speed clichés:

Cliché Speed in metres per second Origin and interpretation of cliché
1. At the speed of light 300,000,000 The established measurement of the speed of light
2. Lightning fast 6,000,000 The speed of a lightning bolt
3. Like a comet 84,909 Hailey’s comet sweeping past in May 1910
4. Supersonic 8,047 The fastest recorded space shuttle
5. A speeding bullet 1,524 The speed of a bullet when it leaves the barrel of a rifle
6. Full throttle 236 The quickest vehicle using petrol or diesel – being a piston prop plane
7. In one fell swoop 108.05 A peregrine falcon in a stoop (swoop), the fastest self-propelled animal
8. Before you know it 100 How quickly electrical impulses travel along nerves in our bodies
9. A bat out of hell 35.8 The speed of a diving Mexican free-tailed bat
10. Flash in the pan 20 The rate at which flames spread through black powder (used in flintlock muskets)
11. Off like a hare 19.4 How quickly a brown hare can travel
12. Off like a greyhound 17 The track record at the oldest greyhound track in the UK, Belle Vue
13. Make it snappy 13 The speed at which fingers can be snapped (or clicked)
14. Like wildfire 7 The rate at which bushfires can spread
15. Like a ferret up a trouser-leg 6.94 The top speed of a ferret
16. Drop of a hat 5.7 The speed of a hat being dropped in a vacuum from the average head height (1.7m)
17. Flick of a switch 2 A switch fitted with a reed relay (operated automatically by a magnet) is the fastest way it can be “flicked”
18. Rat up a drainpipe 0.893 The pace of a “properly exercised” rat
19. Racing pulse 0.4 The speed that blood travels around the body
20. Blink of an eye 0.033 The movement speed of the eyelids during a blink

Professor Mohamed Abdel-Maguid, working with Professor David Heatley and Dr Robert Wootton, University Campus Suffolk, said: “From ‘a flick of a switch’ to a ‘ferret up a trouser leg’, we searched high and wide to find out, once and for all, what really is the fastest speed cliché. Whether it was looking through the records of Belle Vue for the quickest greyhound, studying the speed we can snap our fingers for ‘make it snappy’, or investigating how fast flames can spread through black powder for ‘a flash in the pan’, this list provides comprehensive proof of the quickest speed clichés we commonly use.”

David McDonald, director of Broadband, TV & Sport Bundles, BT Consumer, said: “Most of us have used a cliché to get our point across, but the chances are that we have no idea what it actually means. As speed is so important in this internet age, we have gathered the nation’s top speed clichés, researched and ranked them to solve this enigma. So not only can you surf the net at superfast speeds with BT Broadband, next time you find yourself in a hurry away from your screen, you’ll know exactly what to say.”

BT’s superfast fibre optic broadband is currently available for £7.50 a month, (plus £16.99 monthly line rental) with BT TV and including the BT Home Hub 5. To find out more, just visit: www.bt.com/sale or call: 0800 055 6988.

Notes to editors

Speed cliché Interpretation and source Max value of the range m/s
At the speed of light The speed of light is 3 x 10^8 m/s. When we look at an object, we’re seeing the light reflected or radiated from the surface of the object, which has travelled to our eyes at the speed of light. Strictly speaking the human eye is not seeing (i.e. functioning) at the speed of light, but the information it receives (i.e. light) in order to function as an eye is travelling at the speed of light. 300,000,000
Lightning fast A typical lightning bolt moves at 3,700 miles/sec, i.e. 6 x 10^6 m/s, only about 50x slower than the speed of lightv. The speed of the sonic boom from a lightning discharge is the speed of sound at ground level, see below. 6,000,000
Like a comet Halley’s comet swept past at 84909 m/s in May 1910vi. 84909
Supersonic Supersonic speed is defined as the point at which speed matches or exceeds the speed of sound. In dry air at 20 °C (68 °F) the speed of sound at sea level is 343m/s. That figure is termed Mach 1. The speed associated with Mach 1 decreases with altitude and air temperature. For example, Mach 1 at an altitude of 11,000m and air temperature of -50 °C equates to a speed of 295m/s, a reduction of 86% compared with the speed at sea levelvii. Various types of aircraft can fly/move faster than Mach 1. Here are examples of some of the fastest supersonic speeds on record: Space shuttleix: 8047 m/s

Missilex: 7018 m/s

Military jet fighterviii: 1578 m/s

A speeding bullet The speed of a bullet depends on several factors, including the calibre of the round, the amount of explosive power in the cartridge, the shape of the tip of the round, the material used, how close to the gun when the speed is measured, and more. To remove distance from the variables the example figures below are the muzzle velocity of a bullet xxvi: Small Arms 1066 - 1524 m/s Artillery cannons 914 - 1066 m/s

Tank cannons 472 - 1021 m/s

Full throttle For simplicity we shall assume the use of the term ‘throttle’ alludes only to petrol/diesel fuelled land vehicles or piston driven propeller planes. For jet and rocket powered vehicles, see Supersonic below. The fastest recorded speeds are: Piston prop planexii: 236 m/sRoad carxi: 121 m/s 236
In one fell swoop A peregrine falcon in a stoop (swoop) has been measured at 108.05 m/sxiii making it the fastest self-propelled animal. 108.05
“Before you know it” Electrical impulses travel along nerves (or nerve fibres) at 0.1-100 m/sxiv and xv However, the brain is a massively parallel machine in which thoughts use multiple parallel paths, millions or possibly billions of parallel paths. The aggregated speed of thought along all the nerve paths in use is therefore an extremely large number, easily exceeding the number that defines the speed of light, but the speed of thought itself is constrained by the speed given above for each individual path. Hence the speed of thought should be taken to be 0.1-100 m/s. 100
A bat out of hell In level flight the Mexican free-tailed bat flies at 40 mph, i.e. 17.9m/s. When diving it can reach 80 mph, i.e. 35.8m/s xvi. 35.8
Flash in the pan This refers to the misfiring of flintlock muskets. A flash in the pan was when the main charge didn’t fire and so the deflagration rate of black powder is probably the best measure. This was measured between 0.5 and 20 m/s xvii. 20
Haring off Brown hares can run at a comfortable 19.4 m/s. They need to because foxes can run at about the same speed, though not for the same distancexxix. 19.4
Off like a greyhound Track records for the oldest greyhound track in the UK, Belle Vue, suggest greyhounds are typically capable of running between 14 and 17 m/s xix. 17
Make it snappy For simplicity we shall assume this title relates to fingers being snapped and the max speed at which the fingers move. The video referenced herein shows a finger snap slowed by 40 times at 1200 frames/sec. In that video the time between the tip of the middle finger being released from the tip of the thumb and striking the base of the thumb is approx. 0.25-0.5 seconds. In real time that equates to 6 – 12 millisecondsxx. During that period the tip of the middle finger travels approx. 6-8 cm for an average size of hand. The tip of the middle finger therefore travels at 5 – 13 m/s during a snap. 13
Like wildfire At their worst, bushfires can speed across land at up to 25 km/h, i.e. 7m/s xxviii. 7
Like a ferret up a trouser leg Assuming the ferret is running at top speed, it will be charging up your hosiery at 6.94 m/s xxi. 6.94
Drop of a hat In a vacuum, a hat (or any other object) falls at 9.8m/s/s under 1G of gravity (i.e. at the surface of the Earth) regardless of the mass and geometry of the hat. The terminal velocity of the hat at ground level depends on the height above the ground when it is released. Assuming the hat is dropped from head height, an average for which is 1.7m, the terminal velocity at ground level is 5.7m/sxxii. In air, a hat will fall more slowly due to friction and turbulence; hence the terminal velocity at ground level will be lower. 5.7
Flick of a switch The fastest way of physically flicking a switch is to use a reed relay, a magnetically operated switch. Typical switching times for this are on the order of 250 microseconds. As the distances involved are around 500 microns the speed is thus 2 m/s xxiii. 2
Rat up a drainpipe As the intriguing paper we found shows, properly exercised rats are capable of impressive running speeds of 0.893 m/sxxiv. 0.893
Racing pulse Because human hearts vary, and so does fitness it is probably best to look at the speed the blood moves at. In the aorta, where it moves fastest, blood moves at around 0.4 m/s xxv. 0.4
Blink of an eye The duration of a human blink is 300-400 milliseconds. For simplicity let’s assume the shortest period, i.e. maximum speed of the eyelids. During a blink each eyelid moves twice: when the eye is closing then when the eye is opening. The shortest duration for each movement is therefore 150 milliseconds. Consequently, if we assume that each eye lid moves through 5mm during a blink (i.e. an open eye is 1cm between eyelids), the maximum speed of each eyelid is 0.033m/sxxvii. 0.033


i http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae255.cfm

ii http://phys.org/news/2013-04-sunlight-earth.html

iii http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-resources/far-closest-star/

iv http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andromeda_Galaxy

v http://www.komonews.com/news/archive/4082461.html

vi http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi?sstr=1P;orb=1;old=0;cov=0;log=0;cad=1#cad

vii http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_of_sound

viii http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_airspeed_record

ix http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/basics/launch.html

x http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missile_defense

xi http://www.topcarrating.com/topspeed.php

xii http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fastest_propeller-driven_aircraft

xiii http://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/falling-with-the-falcon-7491768/?no-ist=

xiv http://www.scienceforums.net/topic/35588-brain-signals-travel-at-lightspeed/

xv http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2002/DavidParizh.shtml

xvi http://batslive.pwnet.org/pdf/Q&A.pdf

xvii http://rspa.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/213/1114/285.abstract

xviii Naughton, D. (2012). The Natural History of Canadian Mammals. University of Toronto Press. pp. 235–38. ISBN 1442644834.

xix http://www.greyhound-data.com/stadia.htm?land=uk

xx https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isuMXCYhto4

xxi http://a-z-animals.com/animals/ferret/

xxii http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/1DKin/Lesson-5/How-Fast-and-How-Far

xxiii http://www.pickeringrelay.com/help-performance.html

xxiv Montmayeur et al. Science & Sports (1990) 5, 47-52

xxv Gerard J. Tortora, Bryan Derrickson (2012). "The Cardiovascular System: Blood Vessels and Hemodynamics". Principles of Anatomy & Physiology, 13th. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 816. ISBN 978-0470-56510-0.

xxvi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muzzle_velocity

xxvii http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blink

xxviii http://wonderofscience.com.au/index.php/how-to-survive-a-bushfire/

xxix Naughton, D. (2012) The Natural History of Canadian Mammals, University of Toronto Press pp235-238 ISBN 1442644834.