In Roald Dahl's beloved 1961 classic James and the Giant Peach, there is a scene in which our young hero James nabs 501 seagulls, ties them to the stem of the titular peach, and the whole mass flies into the air out of the Atlantic Ocean.
This surreal moment epitomized the whimsy and imagination that Dahl imbued into his writing, but some physics students in England sought to figure out whether this feat could actually be possible in real-life.
The students from the University of Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy first had to determine the weight of the giant peach, which they did after referring to the Dahl novel and the stop-motion animated 1996 film adaptation.
Then the group calculated the amount of force required to move such a monstrous fruit, as well as how much weight each seagull could lift, factoring in things like wingspan, air density, and the speed of travel.
They concluded that 501 seagulls wouldn't have been able to perform such a feat. To lift the peach out of the water would require a grand total of 2,425,907 seagulls.
Their calculations were published in the recent edition of the university's Journal of Physics Special Topics. The academic journal features serious science but encourages students to explore physics and theory in creative and entertaining ways. Some of the past projects have included debunking popular myths like whether a penny dropped from the Empire State Building could kill someone (no) and whether space ships in the future could harvest fuel from the atmospheres of gas giant planets (theoretically yes).
"We've all had a brilliant time working on this project," said student Emily Jane Watkinson of the flying peach challenge to the Leicester Mercury newspaper. "It's been lots of fun, and it's been great using Roald Dahl's story as inspiration. It's also helped show us how to write a proper scientific paper."
Dahl passed away in 1990, so the students couldn't ask the author why he selected 501 birds. Perhaps there were other factors to take into account, like whether the seagulls were super powered or were simply all just overachievers. Sadly, we'll never truly know.