Thursday, February 21, 2008

Standing an egg on end... try it any time!

` Last night, as superhero Lou Ryan and I were walking into the gym, we watched the moon disappear in the shadow of the mighty earth! (And here it is coming back out again after our workout!)

eclipsemedium At the gym, however, our security guard neighbor and J.R., a guy who works at the gym were having a dispute over a carton of eggs. Or, more accurately, J.R. was insisting that the only time you can balance an egg is during a lunar eclipse.

Lou Ryan and I immediately scoffed. So J.R. said that his friend showed him a picture of an egg she balanced during a lunar eclipse. So, he could just prove it by waiting until the middle of the eclipse and then balancing the egg.

Do you see the problem with this "experiment?" Do you see why this is not scientific?

Allow me to clarify: If you manage to balance the egg during the lunar eclipse, what does that prove? It proves that you can balance an egg. If you try balancing an egg only during the eclipse, then the only chance you have to balance it is... during the eclipse!

So, as per this prediction, the egg indeed does not balance before or after the eclipse - precisely because one avoids trying it! The key concept here is not that you can balance an egg at only one time, but that is that it is impossible to balance an egg at all other times. You can simply prove that wrong by balancing the egg at - gasp! - any other time!

If you can try it now, then do so!

In other words, waiting until the eclipse before seeing whether or not you can't balance an egg when you weren't going to anyway makes no sense. Instead, if you managed to balance the egg before or after that particular time, this would at least prove that it is possible and that the hypothesis ('you can't do this') is falsified.

J.R. was quite adamant that this was a 'scientific fact', though he saw my point. Yes, we need controls for this experiment. So why don't I try to balance the egg the next night? Wait... why me? (After all, my hands shake!)

I suggested instead, in order to eliminate any bias (as in, a person only really trying during the eclipse), why not get various gym-goers to try, and don't even tell them why? As it went, he was unable to balance the egg, though his co-worker manged to balance it for several seconds!

I'll keep you posted.

In any case, I already know the answer and it is because of another myth - the more common assertion that one can only balance an egg on the spring (Vernal) equinox. On this day, many schoolchildren are instructed to balance eggs and are falsely told that this is the only day they can do so. Millions of other people do the same, for the same reason, each year.

In any case, that too is obviously false, as the co-worker balanced an egg last night, and the spring equinox is due about one month from now. So there you have it!

Oh. What? Me? You want me to balance an egg? Right now? I'd love to, only I don't have any eggs, I don't have a level surface, and I don't have steady hands. So, not right now. But later. I promise you.

In the meantime, here is a proper experiment, done by Wayne Osborn at the physics department of Central Michigan University. He wrote:
Starting a few days before the autumnal equinox, I attempted to balance an egg on end. Once I mastered the technique, I experimented with standing the same egg on the kitchen counter (abbreviated K in the data table), on a woven place mat on the kitchen table (M), on the bare wood of the kitchen table (T), on the kitchen floor (FL) and on the desk top in the family room (D).
The experiment eventually evolved to standing the egg on end on the family room desk, where it could be left undisturbed, and leaving it standing as long as possible. If the egg fell or was knocked over, it was rebalanced in the same location. The experiment was continued until past the winter solstice....
His meticulously-gathered data and results show that eggs can be balanced at any time, and the best place to balance them tends to be in "minute bumps or dents" on a surface. Small amounts of support are what determines how easy it is to balance.

That's how you conduct an experiment! He didn't find any real difference in his egg-balancing ability over a period of months, so it's unlikely that astronomic forces prevent you from balancing an egg moreso at one time than others.

However, the public's awareness of scientific thinking is woefully inadequate. By chance, I happened by a site called Fluther, on which I saw the question: "Can you really balance an egg on its tip on Solstice? I have heard this, but I've never tried it. Unfortunately, Solstice was yesterday and I missed my chance."

Say it with me; 'Why is that a missed chance? Just try it anyway!' The questioner continues: "Also, I have heard that you can always balance an egg on its tip if you are at the equator. True or false??"

It kind of bothers me that people are asking each other about these things on the internet... and... well... they're on the internet! (And not conducting their own experiments?) They could be doing other internet things... like internet research? (Of course, you have to know what sources are reliable....)

You may be interested to know that
this Astronomy Picture of the Day - for the Autumnal Equinox - shows astronomer Phil Plait balancing a bunch of eggs! Note, this is also not during an eclipse, or the spring equinox, nor the summer solstice.

Plait wrote all about egg-balancing ability on his website, Bad Astronomy. He says:
Of course, I could be lying about the date, but again, you can prove this for yourself by trying to stand an egg on end on any random day. Go ahead and try it now! Whenever I buy eggs from the store I grab one or two from the carton and stand them up. It's fun.
Of course, he's far from being the only one to do so - people write him all the time about it! Apparently, some kids at the Mancelona Middle school, Michigan, were able to stand up some eggs for an entire month - on their pointy ends! That really surprised Plait. He wrote:
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. I thought an egg could only balance on its fat end (the narrow end usually is much smoother, making it harder to balance), but they proved me wrong. Since I knew it could be done, I kept at it, and now I am happy (and oddly proud) to say that I have indeed managed to get an egg to stand on its narrow end.
The lesson is, don't just assume a statement is true - question it! This is how these things get spread all over the internet! In fact, Plait also wrote another page that begins:
The egg standing myth is like an extremely contagious virus. It is everywhere, all over the world. It's easily transmitted; unlike the organic variety, this virus can spread infectiously through the web and television. And, like most viruses, its history is difficult to trace....
He did, however, manage to trace it back to a 1945 Life magazine article mentioning a Chinese ritual of balancing an egg on the first day of spring. However, the Chinese first day of spring is six weeks before the equinox, while the American first day of spring is on the equinox. (Apparently, most cultures count an equinox or solstice as being in the middle of the season, not marking the beginning of it.)

So, the myth wasn't even "right" to begin with! As for the 'lunar eclipse' version, I have never heard of it before, though I would guess it is simply an offshoot of the equinox/solstice variations.

J.R. wasn't so sure I'd succeed, but then, he said, "I don't dictate the laws of physics!"

Nevertheless, this will probably be much easier to contest than the statements by one gym patron who is absolutely certain that the malfunctioning spy satellite being shot down is actually an alien spaceship. How do people come up with these things?

Update, Feb 27: Try as I might, I still can't seem to get a hold of this egg-balancing thing. Neither could J.R., who was surprisingly still irritated that he apparently couldn't 'prove' you can balance an egg on a lunar eclipse.... Well, perhaps I can't do it, but surely other people do all the time!


Galtron said...

Shining as always, Spoony! And all this without explaining just how nanoscule the effect gravity has on eggs, as compared with, say, the entire world's ocean!

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Interesting, but only theoretical to me 'cause I have no desire to balance an egg at any time. I'd much rather crack one open and make an omelet, which at the moment sounds like a very good idea.

Casdok said...

Ive never heard of the balancing an egg thing, and like Nick i would rather just eat it!!!

Kingcover said...

Do you balance them end on end or side on side? Lol either way sounds a little hard but I shall give it a go and pass on my findings to the Egg Balancing Society, Yokeville Kenclucky ;-)

monado said...

And here I thought it was easiest to balance an egg at the North Pole!

BTW, if you search for balancing rocks you'll find some amazing pictures of BOULDERS balanced on end by some very patient people--presumably one who wear steel-toed boots.

Mona said...

Never heard about balancing the egg...

But it seems an interesting myth!

I don't have any eggs with me now either :(
The recent bird flu in our region had them cast on the high tide to balance themselves with the full moon.
Yes they were all thrown into the sea & the chickens culled in millions!

S E E Quine said...

` Galtron: Thanks! You didn't even mention the fact that I utterly failed to balance an egg myself!

` Nick and Casdok: Mmmmm! That reminds me of the $4.95 breakfast special B-Dizzle came up with yesterday; salmon omelets!

` Kingcover: I don't think you can stack them, if that's what you're saying.
` And please do not use the word 'Kenclucky' on my blog.

` Monado: How the heck do they do that? (P.S. If a huge boulder hit a steel toe on a boot, it would probably cut your toes off!)

` Mona: That sounds monstrous! It's like chicken genocide!

Kingcover said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kingcover said...

Why do you not like that word? All I was trying to do was find the name of a state that I could use in conjunction with something to do with chicken and fowl in general. I thought I had just made up a unique funny word. Did I miss something here. Is it offensive in some way? I'm going to Google it to see why I shouldn't have said it. I'll be back if I find something ......


Kingcover said...

Ok you'll have to fill me in lol. I found something about a town in Costa Rica with the same name and something to do with '(insert word) Flied Pecker'. So I'm still none the wiser about it.

Hoping you are having a good relaxing Sunday buddy :-)

S E E Quine said...

` I'm having it, Gareth! You too, pal! (I started out the day with Teriyaki shrimp and salad, went to the gym, jogged back home in my shorts and tank top, and next up is laundry, cleaning, and setting up Lou Ryan's new Mac Pro and then putting bars around it!)

` And the word thing is nothing to lose your feathers over, Gareth, it's just that it's one of the worst puns I've ever heard of.
` Not to say that it takes a great amount of brainpower to invent many puns, but... I just dislike them extremely.
` Except when I'm really intoxicated - then I purposely try to come up with the worst puns in the world! Many don't even make any sense!

KB said...

Hmmmm, love the pic.

S E E Quine said...

` Thanks! It seems to have disappeared for the moment, though.