How Many in a Phone Booth?

"In the Middle Ages, college campuses hummed with controversy and competition. One of the main subjects of argument among such men as St. Thomas Aquinas, his colleagues, and his students was this: how many angels can dance on the point of a needle?

"Now many years have passed since then. But--to coin a phrase--the more things change the more they remain the same. In the 1930's the chief campus concern was: how many goldfish can a college student swallow at one sitting? Today, the great question seems to be this: how many students can inhabit a telephone booth at once? (A connection between the booth and the fish also arises from the fact that buthia is ancient Greek for "water animals.")

"This spring, Cambridge University students announced that 15 of their number had squeezed into one phone booth. Students in South Africa then pushed the number up to 25. Not to be outdone by foreigners, 32 students at Modesto Junior College, California, claimed to have crammed themselves into one booth. And, the following week, the Oklahoma City University chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha managed to jam 33 of its fraternity brothers into one booth before 1500 cheering witnesses.

"As scholarly investigators, we must posit a few questions. In California, the phone booth had been tipped over to a horizontal position. Was it still, then, really a phone booth? In Oklahoma, the phone itself had been removed. Thus we must ask: is a phone booth without a phone a true phone booth? (This recalls the famous query: does the sound of a waterfall exist if no one is there to hear it?) Then there is the matter of the booth's dimensions, variously reported as 3 feet by 3 feet by 7 feet and as 32 inches by 32 inches by 7 feet. Most booths have the latter dimensions (see Alec Beil, Specifications and Measurements for the Construction of Telephone Booths in the Continental United States, vol.1, pp. 136-7).

"Let us for the present, however, give the claimants the advantages of the larger size, the absence of a phone, and the choice of the booth's position. The total volume of the booth is then 63 cubic feet. Assuming the average weight of the 33 students to be 140 pounds (a very conservative estimate), we see that the students weigh 4620 pounds, or 73.3 pounds per cubic foot of booth. Since a cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 pounds, we arrive at the figure 1.16 as the specific gravity of the students (not to be confused with the density of the students or their specific levity). Recalling, however, that the human body floats in water and therefore has a specific gravity of less than 1.0, we must conclude that it is impossible for 33 students to inhabit one phone booth. Q.E.D.

"Still, the fact remains that 1500 people and a large number of cameras did witness the accomplishment of the feat. But this should not upset us too much. Remember that Gerald Heard, in his brilliant book Is Another World Watching?, proved conclusively that flying saucers are manned by insects. Remember too that scientists have again and again proven that the bumblebee cannot fly; "eppur' si muove" ("and still it moves"), as Galileo reputedly said in another connection."

(The above constitutes what remains of the notes for a paper to be delivered to a regional convention of the American Society of Social Scientists. The handwritten notes, brought in to us by a Summer School student, were dropped in the Emerson Hall corridor between classes on Monday and were badly mutilated under foot. We are therefore unable to identify the author; but we do know he is an assistant professor, for in the torn, smudged corner of the title page one can still make out the three letters "ASS."--C.T.)