Much like Tom Cruise or that other dude in "Top Gun," we occasionally find ourselves feeling the need for speed. Sometimes that means piloting an F-14A Tomcat aircraft with abandon in the skies, and sometimes, as we'll see later, that means playing a video game as fast as you can. Whatever gets you revved up.
Since you already know that light is the fastest thing around, we'll look at what other speedy items our universe, and maybe even a fictional universe or two, has to offer -- from animals to superheroes and planets to toilets. Because, yes, it stands to reason that if toilets can move, then there must be one that moves fastest. And don't tell me you're not curious to know which one holds that honor.
So leash your cheetah, tell Usain Bolt to take a knee and buckle your seat belt as we power through our list of fastest things.
Hit the Ground (or Water or Air) Running
Let's not slowly build suspense. Every fast list should start with the cheetah. These guys can reach speeds of 59 mph (95 kph) in seconds [source: Yong]. A somewhat surprising second-place contender for fastest? The pronghorn antelope, which can rival cheetahs with a speed of 53 mph (85 kph) [source: National Geographic]. So there you go: the speediest animals on the planet.
Not so fast.
If we're counting water-based animals, the sailfish is our clear winner, reaching 68 mph (110 kph) -- and that's just what they've been clocked at when bursting out of the water [sources: National Geographic, Sagong et al.].
Now look up. The peregrine falcon cackles at the cheetah and sailfish eating its dust. When it's hunting for smaller birds, the falcon can dive -- at 200 mph (320 kph) -- to strike its target [sources: National Geographic, Ponitz et al.]. The peregrine wins the title of fastest animal by a long shot.
It's Usain to Run That Fast
We can't possibly have a list of fast things and not include Usain Bolt, the world's record holder for human speed. And how fast is the world's fastest person? His record is a 9.58 second 100-meter dash attained at the 2009 track world championships. That's a max speed of 27.4 mph (44 kph) and an average speed of 23.4 mph (37.7 kph). In other words, if Bolt and I were in a race, then by the time you read this entire sentence you'd find that Bolt was starting a victory lap before I even had time to finish the candy bar I was probably eating.
Interestingly, scientists have discovered that Bolt isn't simply the peak of aerodynamic perfection. They found that less than 8 percent of the energy produced by his muscles are used for motion, and that the rest is absorbed by drag. Factoring in the weather conditions and altitude at the time, they figured out that Bolt was actually less aerodynamic than the average person [source: Sandle].
Which, as the researchers point out, make his feats that much more insane. His body is powerful enough to overcome worse-than-average drag to be the fastest person on the planet.
Spin Me Right Round
OK, world's fastest animal, world's fastest person -- these are all fine and good, but with a serious Earth-centric bent. Indeed, there are many things in our universe that make Earth seem like a poky planet. Considering that a year in our world consists of 365 interminable days, it might be nice to have Mercury's speedy 88-day year when you're looking forward to summer vacation. But we're probably better off than any friends we might have on Neptune, who have to wait more than 60,000 days between birthdays [source: Russell].
But what about a year that comes around every 8.5 hours? Astronomers have found what they think is the shortest orbital period (or year) on Kepler-78b, a small Earth-size planet that's so close to its star that scientists call it a "lava planet" [source: Howell]. But Kepler-78b might have a run for its money: KOI-1843.03 -- a planet candidate -- has an unconfirmed orbit of 4.25 hours, which could make it the fastest orbiting planet in the universe, if Kepler's laws of planetary motion hold true.
Let's set one thing straight: We're not talking about the fastest one can flush, clean or perform a function at the toilet. Although we'd love to doff our hats to record holders in each of those categories, there doesn't seem to be a lot of opposition to inspire any kind of heated, timed competition.
Unlike the rivalry for the fastest toilet-turned-motorized vehicle, which is shockingly fierce.
The "Bog Standard" was the 2011 winner of the Guinness World Record for Fastest Toilet. It was actually a motorcycle with a sidecar tub, sink and laundry bin. (No actual toilet, which makes one fantasize about how fast and loose you can really play with Guinness titles.) Regardless, the toilet "set" traveled at 42 mph (68 kph) [source: Guinness World Records].
But one plumber from Lincolnshire, Great Britain wasn't about to let a measly 42 mph motorcycle sans toilet sit atop the throne of the record books. Attaching an entire working toilet (complete with flush function) on top of a motorized bike, Colin Furze managed to make his loo whiz by at 55 mph (89 kph) [source: Brady].
A Speeding Bullet? Please.
For most of our fastest things, we can confidently point to recorded times, broken records or even extraordinarily educated guesses. But in the case of the fastest superhero, we're left to throw the debate to the passionately opinionated masses. And the answer is tricky.
If you're like me -- not so much a fluent comic obsessive, but conversational in the difference between Marvel and DC -- you might assume that The Flash is the obvious winner. He's able to run at almost light speed, and some iterations say he can run at light speed or faster. Besides running, he can do pretty much everything else at hyperspeed, too [source: DC Comics]. The guy is known as the fastest man in the universe. Easy choice.
But don't forget about Silver Surfer, a character who is so fast that he travels through hyperspace and exceeds light speed [source: Marvel]. Look on any conversation thread debating the relative speed of comic book characters, and you'll find the Silver Surfer has staunch defenders. Even if The Flash were to keep up with Silver Surfer, they point out, he doesn't have the stamina to keep up forever.
Everyone Knows It's Windy
For a long time, a rather small mountain in New Hampshire (elevation roughly 6,288 feet or 1,917 meters) held the title of fastest recorded wind on Earth. Measured on Mount Washington in 1934, the wind reached a miserable 231 mph (372 kph), and the peak has cheerily proclaimed itself the "Home of the World's Worst Weather" for quite some time [source: Mount Washington Observatory].
In 2010, Australia's Barrow Island broke the wind record, with measured speeds of 253 mph (407 kph) [source: Ferrell]. However, don't pity Mount Washington: The peak can probably keep the World's Worst Weather title since the subtropical climate of Barrow Island might cancel out the terrible wind.
But those are just the records for our own little slice of heaven. The real achievements in wind speed are made out in the universe, where black hole IGR J17091 is creating winds whipping around at 20 million mph (32 million kph) [source: Fitzpatrick]. Sure, it's only 3 percent of the speed of light, but it probably still makes for a rather blustery day in the universe.
Don't Throw Out the Baby With the Amniotic Fluid
Naturally, we can't be sure what the fastest birth is, because we busy humans haven't been keeping records of these things since the beginning of time. But there are a few modern examples of births that were so speedy (not to say easy or fun) that would be difficult to beat.
The first case was from 2007, when a woman from Great Britain had her baby less than two minutes after her water broke [source: Daily Mail]. While that family was looking for Guinness World Records authentication for the feat, another woman from Great Britain might've beat her by having her little one in a matter of seconds.
In 2009, Katherine Allen was having regular contractions at seven-and-a-half minutes apart, prompting her and her husband to make their way to the hospital. But as she was coming down the stairs to leave her home, her water broke -- and the baby came with it. Her 8-pound 5-ounce (3.8-kilogram) daughter slid down the leg of her sweatpants as she stood on the stairs, where dad heroically (and quite impressively) managed to catch the newborn [source: Daily Mail].
Having a record for being fastest in our universe is all fine and good, but some folks have bigger fish to fry. Why not break records in an alternate universe? Anything is possible in a land where little Italian men grow with magical mushrooms, fighting off evil Bowser.
So let us acknowledge Andrew Gardikis, a young Massachusetts man who -- in 2011 -- managed to play a complete Super Mario Bros. game in 4:58 [source: Baker]. Which might make some of us, who spent an entire summer trying to win the princess on our Game Boy, feel pretty bad.
Not to be outdone, Gardikis has figured out he's only one second away from completing the mathematically fastest game possible. He's not the only speed runner (or someone who plays a video game with the goal of having the fastest time) competing for the record. Three others have recorded games of less than five minutes.
Faster Than a Speeding Sedan
Time to get back to the real world -- the one where even the slowest among us can compensate for our plodding lives with the right machine. And while a lot of us have to settle for a used, mid-sized sedan, there are those who need something a little more powerful whenever they get the urge to tool along the highway and feel the wind in their hair.
Enter the Hennessey Venom GT, which hit 270.49 mph (435.31 kph) on Feb. 14, 2014. That's 400 feet (122 meters) per second [source: George]. Which is, objectively, really really fast. In fact, it's actually the fastest production car in the universe. For now.
But hold your horsepower for a second. A production car, according to Guinness World Records, means an automaker has to make 30 of the same car to qualify (meaning no one-off design), and it has to have many of the same things your boring sedan has: headlights, an emissions pass, blinkers. On that point, Guinness wouldn't take the Hennessey record as official for a production car, because it didn't complete two runs, each going opposite directions, and only 29 cars were produced [source: George].
As you can imagine, this has caused a lot of controversy in the auto-making community and led to numerous take-backs on the title of world's fastest car over the last few years. Whatever your stance, we don't recommend you attempting the title on the freeway with your parents' hatchback.
A Nova Approach
One of the newest fastest things in our universe was accidentally discovered in 2014, when astronomers were studying the M87 galaxy in the Virgo Cluster nearly 54 million light-years from our Milky Way home.
A little background: You'll remember, thanks to Edwin Hubble, that light from distant objects moving away from our galaxy appears red to us. That's because the universe's expansion, also a pretty speedy phenomenon, causes the wavelengths to elongate toward the red end of the spectrum (a redshift).
As an object zips toward us, however, it has a blueshift. Now, to get to the fast part: Astronomers found a serious blueshift coming from M87, with the object moving toward us at a speed of 638 miles (1,026 kilometers) per second [source: Crosswell].
Scientists believe it's a star cluster shot out from M87's enormous black hole, which is 1,000 times more massive than the Milky Way's. But never fear: It's very unlikely that its trajectory will bring it close to us, and it'll probably end up just hanging out in a group of galaxies outside the Virgo Cluster.
When do the Perseid meteors appear? How can you see them? Learn more about the Perseids in this HowStuffWorks article.
Author's Note: 10 Fastest Things in the Universe
I've never gotten a speeding ticket, nor had any desire to push my body to extreme speeds. (Extreme for me being a sub-nine minute mile.) While it would be fun to hold on to a cheetah's back (or Usain Bolt's, for that matter) in a sprint, I think Andrew Gardikis has the right idea: attempt a speed record that can be accomplished in pajamas.
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