A famous urban legend states that a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building will punch a hole in the sidewalk below. Given the height of the building and the hardness of the penny, that seems like a reasonable possibility. Whether it's true or not is a matter that can be determined scientifically. Before we do that, though, let's get some background.
Falling rocks can be dangerous and, the farther they fall, the more dangerous they become. Falling raindrops, snowflakes, and leaves, however, are harmless no matter how far they fall. The distinction between those two possibilities has nothing to do with gravity, which causes all falling objects to accelerate downward at the same rate. The difference is entirely due to air resistance.
Air resistance—technically known as drag—is the downwind force an object experiences as air moves passed it. Whenever an object moves through the air, the two invariably push on one another and they exchange momentum. The object acts to drag the air along with it and the air acts to drag the object along with it, action and reaction. Those two aerodynamic forces affect the motions of the object and air, and are what distinguish falling snowflakes from falling rocks.
Two types of drag force affect falling objects: viscous drag and pressure drag. Viscous drag is the friction-like effect of having the air rub across the surface of the object. Though important to smoke and dust particles in the air, viscous drag is too weak to affect larger objects significantly.
In contrast, pressure drag is strongly affects most large objects moving through the air. It occurs when airflow traveling around the object breaks away from the object's surface before reaching the back of the object. That separated airflow leaves a turbulent wake behind the object—a pocket of air that the object is effectively dragging along with it. The wider this turbulent wake, the more air the object is dragging and the more severe the pressure drag force.
The airflow separation occurs as the airflow is attempting to travel from the sides of the object to the back of the object. At the sides, the pressure in the airflow is especially low due as it bends to arc around the sides. Bernoulli's equation is frequently invoked to help explain the low air pressure near the sides of the object. As this low-pressure air continues toward the back of the object, where the pressure is much greater, the airflow is moving into rising pressure and is pushed backward. It is decelerating.
Because of inertia, the airflow could be expected to reach the back of the object anyway. However, the air nearest the object's surface—boundary layer air—rubs on that surface and slows down. This boundary layer doesn't quite make it to the back of the object. Instead, it stops moving and consequently forms a wedge that shaves much of the airflow off of the back of the object. A turbulent wake forms and the object begins to drag that wake along with it. The airflow and object are then pushing on one another with the forces of pressure drag.
Those pressure drag forces depend on the amount of air in the wake and the speed at which the object is dragging the wake through the passing air. In general, the drag force on the object is proportional to the cross sectional area of its wake and the square of its speed through the air. The broader its wake and the faster it moves, the bigger the drag force it experiences.
We're ready to drop the penny. When we first release it at the top of the Empire State Building, it begins to accelerate downward at 9.8 meters-per-second2—the acceleration due to gravity—and starts to move downward. If no other force appeared, the penny would move according to the equations of motion for constant downward acceleration, taught in most introductory physics classes. It would continue to accelerate downward at 9.8 meters-per-second2, meaning that its downward velocity would increase steadily until the moment it hit sidewalk. At that point, it would be traveling downward at approximately 209 mph (336 km/h) and it would do some damage to the sidewalk.
That analysis, however, ignores pressure drag. Once the penny is moving downward through the air, it experiences an upward pressure drag force that affects its motion. Instead of accelerating downward in response to its weight alone, the penny now accelerates in response to the sum of two force: its downward weight and the upward drag force. The faster the penny descends through the air, the stronger the drag force becomes and the more that upward force cancels the penny's downward weight. At a certain downward velocity, the upward drag force on the penny exactly cancels the penny's weight and the penny no longer accelerates. Instead, it descends steadily at a constant velocity, its terminal velocity, no matter how much farther drops.
The penny's terminal velocity depends primarily on two things: its weight and the cross sectional area of its wake. A heavy object
that leaves a narrow wake will have a large terminal velocity, while a light object that leaves a broad wake will have a small terminal velocity. Big rocks are in the first category; raindrops, snowflakes, and leaves are in the second. Where does a penny belong?
It turns out that a penny is more like a leaf than a rock. The penny tumbles as it falls and produces a broad turbulent wake. For its weight, it drags an awful lot of air behind it. As a result, it reaches terminal velocity at only about 25 mph (40 km/h). To prove that, I studied pennies fluttering about in a small vertical wind tunnel.
Whether the penny descends through stationary air or the penny hovers in rising air, the physics is the same. Of course, it's much more convenient in the laboratory to observe the hovering penny interacting with rising air. Using a fan and plastic pipe, I created a rising stream of air and inserted a penny into that airflow.
At low air speeds, the penny experiences too little upward drag force to cancel its weight. The penny therefore accelerated downward and dropped to the bottom of the wind tunnel. At high air speeds, the penny experienced such a strong upward drag force that it blew out of the wind tunnel. When the air speed was just right, the penny hovered in the wind tunnel. The air speed was then approximately 25 mph (40 km/h). That is the terminal velocity of a penny.
The penny tumbles in the rising air. It is aerodynamically unstable, meaning that it cannot maintain a fixed orientation in the passing airstream. Because the aerodynamic forces act mostly on the upstream side of the penny, they tend to twist that side of the penny downstream. Whichever side of the penny is upstream at one moment soon becomes the downstream side, and the penny tumbles. As a result of this tumbling, the penny disturbs a wide swath of air and leaves a broad turbulent wake. It experiences severe pressure drag and has a low terminal velocity.
The penny is an example of an aerodynamically blunt object—one in which the low-pressure air arcing around its sides runs into the rapidly increasing pressure behind it and separates catastrophically to form a vast wake. The opposite possibility is an aerodynamically streamlined object—one in which the increasing pressure beyond the object's sides is so gradual that the airflow never separates and no turbulent wake forms. A penny isn't streamlined, but a ballpoint pen could be.
Almost any ballpoint pen is less blunt than a penny and some pens are approximately streamlined. Moreover, pens weigh more than pennies and that fact alone favors a higher terminal velocity. With a larger downward force (weight) and a smaller upward force (drag), the pen accelerates to a much greater terminal velocity than the penny. If it is so streamlined that it leaves virtually no wake, like the aerofoil shapes typical of airplane components, it will have an extraordinarily large terminal velocity—perhaps several hundred miles per hour.
Some pens tumble, however, and that spoils their ability to slice through the air. To avoid tumbling, a pen must "weathervane"—it must experience most of its aerodynamic forces on its downstream side, behind its center of mass. Arrows and small rockets have fletching or fins to ensure that they travel point first through the air. A ballpoint pen can achieve that same point-first flight if its shape and center of mass are properly arranged.
Almost any ballpoint pen dropped into my wind tunnel plummeted to the bottom. I was unable to make the air rise fast enough to observe hovering behavior in those pens. Whether they would tend to tumble in the open air was difficult to determine because of the tunnel's narrowness. Nonetheless, it's clear that a heavy, streamlined, and properly weighted pen dropped from the Empire State Building would still be accelerating downward when it reached the sidewalk. Its speed would be close to 209 mph at that point and it would indeed damage the sidewalk.
As a final test of the penny's low terminal velocity, I built a radio-controlled penny dropper and floated it several hundred feet in the air with a helium-filled weather balloon. On command, the dropper released penny after penny and I tried to catch them as they fluttered to the ground. Alas, I never managed to catch one properly in my hands. It was a somewhat windy day and the ground at the local park was uneven, but that's hardly an excuse—I'm simply not good at catching things in my hands. Several of the pennies did bounce off my hands and one even bounced off my head. It was fun and I was more in danger of twisting my ankle than of getting pierced by a penny. The pennies descended so slowly that they didn't hurt at all. Tourist below the Empire State Building have nothing fear from falling pennies. Watch out, however, for some of the more streamlined objects that might make that descent.