A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Can rock music cook eggs?

April 30, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Just for laughs we decided to make our on-hold music at work a compilation of staff picks including a 17-minute version of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." Coworker Carol claims the song puts her in an angry, aggressive mood and says maybe it's not the best choice for on-hold music. I looked up rock music's effect on the brain and found this: "Bob Larson, a Christian minister and former rock musician, remembers that in the 70s teens would bring raw eggs to a rock concert and put them on the front of the stage. The eggs would be hard boiled by the music before the end of the concert and could be eaten. Dr. Earl W. Flosdorf and Dr. Leslie A. Chambers showed that proteins in a liquid medium were coagulated when subjected to piercing high-pitched sounds." Can this be true? Are we really frying people's brains while they wait on hold?

Cecil replies:

Alison, I'm not sure I'd ever want to do business with you guys, but you sound like you'd be a blast to party with. As for the notion of rock music boiling eggs: time for the Straight Dope Home Science Department to saddle up and ride again.

Background first. Rock's pernicious effects on the human body, particularly the ears, are well known. Hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) are widely reported among rock musicians. Pete Townshend may be the most famous victim, but aging rockers from Neil Young to Sting have all had their problems. These guys subjected their cochleae to decades of abuse and got rich doing it. Now youthful music lovers can achieve the same results fast and without compensation via round-the-clock headphone use.

Noise causing deafness isn't too conceptually tough to swallow. But could one really blast enough acoustic energy at an egg to cook it during a three-hour concert? In theory, yes. The proteins in egg white are long chains of amino acids rolled up into tight balls, which allows them to move around and thus causes the egg white to be more or less fluid. Exposure to heat denatures the proteins — they unwind from their tight balls and stick to each other, forming a coagulated mass. In short, the eggs cook.

But heat isn't the only way to accomplish this. You can do the same thing with a change in salt content or even air bubbles. And in 1936 Chambers and Flosdorf found you could also do it with sound. They pumped 175 watts of acoustic energy into egg white — roughly 140 dB, about 14 dB more than the Who generated in 1976 to earn the distinction of loudest band in the world according to Guinness. The egg white was denatured in just four minutes, probably due to pressure waves from cavitation, the formation of tiny vacuum bubbles that collapse violently and unwind the proteins.

But enough talk. I had my assistant Una round up a 300-watt home stereo, the hardest rock recordings she owned, and three bowls of room-temperature eggs — one control group, one bowl mounted on hard plastic, and the third bowl set on a cushion (Una wasn't sure if vibrations from the floor would have any effect). Having placed the control eggs in an acoustically isolated spot, she arranged the speakers around the other two bowls and cranked the music up to an average measured intensity of 120 decibels, with peaks going off the scale at more than 126 decibels.

All afternoon Una blasted everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Mötley Crüe to the Crystal Method. The sustained vibrations caused an avalanche of shoeboxes in a closet. Periodically, wearing target-shooting earmuffs for protection, she checked the eggs' temperature; the target eggs wound up eight degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the control group. (A possibly confounding factor is that at one point the experiment was illuminated by a lone cigarette lighter.) During the Crystal Method set the decibel meter was pegged almost continuously to the 126-dB mark, but Una reduced the volume to 120 dB after a burning smell began emanating from one speaker. My point is, she directed some serious sonic force at these pups.

After five hours of this, all the eggs were cracked open and examined. There was no perceptible difference between any of the batches.

Remarks:

1. We'll assume, based on the Chambers/Flosdorf experiment, that it's possible to "cook" an egg with sound. However, this was accomplished with purified albumen in lab vessels directly coupled to the sound source, not a couple uncracked eggs perched on the edge of a stage.

2. Don't give me any crap about 50,000 watts from concert acoustic towers. I say if Una's keeping the meter at 126 dB, minimally shy of the threshold of pain, she's closely approximating the real-world concert experience.

3. In my book, stories of hard-rock-boiled eggs are a neurologically challenged teenage crock. Likewise I'm guessing you're not going to fry anyone's brain no matter what on-hold music you use.

4. Be that as it may, if you're making me listen to 17 minutes of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," I'm buying my widgets somewhere else.

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References

Chambers, Leslie A, and Flosdorf, Earl W. “The Denaturation of Proteins by Sound Waves of Audible Frequencies” The Journal of Biological Chemistry 114 (1936): 75-83.

Demeester, K. et al. “Prevalence of tinnitus and audiometric shape” B-ENT 7 (2007): 37-49.

Groopman, Jerome “That Buzzing Sound: The Mystery of Tinnitus” The New Yorker February 9, 2009.

Michaels, Sean “The Who's future in doubt as Pete Townshend's tinnitus returns” The Guardian 22 February 2010.

Ringen, Jonathan. “Music Making Fans Deaf?” Rolling Stone November 18, 2005.

Wolke, Robert L. What Einstein Told His Cook Kitchen Science Explained New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002.

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