by Hans ten Cate
Sunday, 23 November 2003

Terry Gilliam as the Bridgekeeper in Monty Python & The Holy Grail, asking the question of the ages... and now it has been answered

God bless the Internet. Although it has largely become a showcase for the pornographic and the sublimely silly, it does remain, at its heart, a research medium. Case in point, history was made on the Internet this past week with the publication of a seminal piece of research, Estimating the Airspeed Velocity of an Unladen Swallow.

Finally, Monty Python fans get to hear the answer to the question that threw so many brave Sir-Knights into the Gorge of Eternal Peril: "What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"

The world owes a bit of gratitude to Jonathan Corum, a principal of design firm 13pt, who published the Unladen Swallow piece after reading an article in Nature by British scientist Graham K. Taylor. Jonathan (his favorite color is blue) was fascinated by the research and emailed Taylor to ask for the data. The correspondence eventually led to Corum publishing an initial and handsomely illustrated article entitled The Strouhal Number in Cruising Flight.

“In the weeks that followed almost nobody showed up to read it,” said Corum. “So I kept thinking that it was probably just too dry, and it might have been better to use some sort of practical example. And like any good Python fan, sooner or later Holy Grail quotes started popping up in my head, and once the swallow question popped up I knew I had to write a follow-up article.”

While writing and illustrating the original bird flight article took about 30 hours, the unladen swallow article was done in about half the time, says Corum.

The Unladen Swallow article wasn't up for more than 4 days, and Corum had gotten nearly 150,000 people visiting the page to take a look, many leaving words of thanks. “It seems like half the emails I've received so far have just been people wanting to type out their favorite quote from the movie,” a practice well known to Python fans. “The other half seem to come from people thanking me that they can now sleep soundly at night, because 'the last great question of science has been answered.' A minority of emails then question my methods, saying that the correct answer must certainly involve the number 42.

“It's been quite an experience,” confesses Corum. “The real surprise has been that nobody seems to have tried to answer the question before.” Corum spent a fair amount of time looking around online for an answer, but only found wild guesses. “Hopefully my estimate will prompt a real scientist to answer the question once and for all.”

Read Jonathan Corum's nicely illustrated unladen swalow article on his experimental data graphics website, style.org. Be sure and also read the follow-up commentary, which will keep you giggling.