Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Egg and egg-xactitude

(With apologies to Blackadder the Third for ripping off their title format.)

Tonight, Bravo reran the episode of The West Wing from a couple of years ago in which C. J. spends the entire episode talking about how the vernal equinox means you can balance an egg on its end, and everyone else ridicules her notion. At the end, someone quotes this line from Phil Plait's famous Bad Astronomy site, "This has to be one of the silliest misconceptions around, and it never seems to die."
Standing an egg on end on the Spring Equinox

Bad Astronomy: Only on the day of the Vernal (spring) Equinox, can you stand a raw egg on its end.

Good astronomy: If you can stand a raw egg on end, it has nothing to do with the Equinox.


I mentioned above that I had a working theory about the bumps on the bottom of the egg acting as stool legs. The past tense is important! I recently received an email from Lisa Vincent, who teaches at the Mancelona Middle School in Mancelona, Michigan. She and her class decided to test the egg-myth for themselves, and had her students try it on October 16, 1999 (coincidentally, almost exactly a year after the images above were taken).

Not only did they get eggs to balance, but they got them to balance on their short ends! This is a feat I have never been able to reproduce. For proof, they sent me images of their eggs, which I present here. Note that the eggs are indeed standing on their short ends. Incidentally, Ms. Vincent told me the eggs remained standing for over a month. Usually a random vibration would knock an egg over, but in the image it looks to me like they were standing on a standard high school chemistry class work table and sink, which are designed to be very sturdy. That was a good choice!

The beauty of the Mancelona kids' work is that they showed me what science means: sometimes you have to abandon a theory when a better one comes along.

Bottom line: if an egg stands on end, it would do it at any time, and not just at the equinox. The equinox has nothing to do with it. And here's a good rule: if you see it on your local news, ask yourself, did that make sense? Is there any way I can prove or disprove that myself? Sometimes it pays to question the national news as well.

Congratulations! Once you do this, you will be on the road to rational thinking. As Richard Feynman said, "Science is a way for us to not fool ourselves."
There's nothing earth-shaking here, just one more bit of evidence for and argument on behalf of rationalism and the scientific method. Which, these days, need every bit of argument they can get.
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