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Students estimated the fruit’s dimensions using the novel and a 1996 Disney movie adaptation. (Walt Disney Pictures / Photofest)

Science and the Giant Peach

A group of student physicists research the science behind James and the Giant Peach

By Sara Goudarzi | January 11 , 2013

In real life, 2,425,907 seagulls would be required to lift the giant peach. (Walt Disney Pictures / Photofest)

In Roald Dahl’s famous book James and the Giant Peach, 7-year-old James embarks on a long and magical adventure. To escape his evil aunts, James travels across the Atlantic Ocean in an enormous peach. For this part of the trip, 501 seagulls carry the fantastic fruit over the ocean.

Or at least that’s how the story goes.

A group of students at Leicester University in the United Kingdom have now put the fictional story to the test. They’ve discovered that in real life, 2,425,907 seagulls would be needed to lift the giant peach.

SCIENCE FICTION

The students first had to find the mass of the peach. Mass is the amount of matter in an object. To estimate the fruit’s dimensions, they compared information from the book and the 1996 Disney movie based on the tale.

The team determined that the peach would be approximately the size of a small house. Using this information, they calculated that the force (push or pull) required to lift the peach is approximately 4,890,579 newtons. (A newton is the unit used to measure the amount of force in a moving object.)

According to the students’ estimations, a single seagull can carry around 2 newtons, on average. So the team divided the total force required to lift the peach by how much each seagull can carry.

Their calculations showed that Dahl underestimated the number of seagulls needed to hoist the massive peach out of the ocean—by more than 2 million.

“It showed us that 501 seagulls would be nowhere near enough to lift the peach,” said Emily Jane Watkinson, a fourth-year physics student who worked on the project.

Students at Leicester University are known for using funny topics for serious physics research. Could a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building kill a person walking along the street? Not according to their research.

“We’ve all had a brilliant time working on [the Giant Peach] project,” said Watkinson. “It’s also helped show us how to write a proper scientific paper.”

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