Dear Cecil: Recently during the occurrence of the vernal equinox I saw a televised report that people had gathered in Central Park in New York City to witness a remarkable sight: eggs that had been balanced on end and then left to stand that way without apparent support. Supposedly this is possible only during the equinox. Is this true? Why? Philip Simon, Washington, D.C.
This is a perfect example of the difference between the tough, two-fisted Straight Dope approach to scientific research and the limp-wristed methods practiced by the daily press — e.g., the New York Times. The Times is not a bad little newspaper in some ways. But when it comes to things like egg balancing, it is out of its depth. When asked about this matter some years ago, the paper’s “Q&A” column copped out by quoting some expert to the effect that hey, maybe it was possible, but only under certain conditions (i.e., at the equator, which the sun crosses during the equinox), although (hedge, hedge) if it was possible during the equinox, it was probably possible at other times too. A classic case of frantic BS in action.
Now for the Straight Dope method. We started out with a brutal cross-country manhunt for equinoctial egg balancers and found someone who had actually performed the experiment. His name is Ken Gray, and he is chairman of the art department at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.During the 1985 vernal equinox, Gray and his friends managed to balance 17 dozen eggs on end. No lie.
Admittedly, the experiment was not conducted under ideal scientific conditions. Ken is more into the aesthetics of the egg experience than the technical side. Evidently something of a free spirit (his colleagues occasionally have less charitable descriptions), he regularly sponsors art happenings to coincide with the equinoxes, solstices, and other cosmic events. The spring ’85 number was called “Egg Zen Trick.” (Get it?) The equinox occurred at about 7 AM. At around 5, Ken managed to get the first egg to stand on end. At 6:45 he got two more, and then another and another until he and his cohorts (about 20 art department groupies) got all 17 dozen upright. The eggs were all the ordinary fresh hen variety. Several types of surface were used, ranging from a glass platform to a short-napped rug. Ken reports that balancing the eggs took no special dexterity. You just carefully placed the egg in a vertical position, took your hand away, and it remained standing — in some cases for as long as four days. Some even balanced on the short end. Leaving nothing to chance, I talked to a couple of Gray’s fellow faculty members, both of whom are scientists. They confirmed the story and said as far as they could tell the whole thing was legit. They did not, however, examine the eggs closely.
So that settles it, right? Hardly. Cecil has been warning the Teeming Millions for years about their gullible ways, and Cecil means it. After another international manhunt (I had a minion casually mention on a radio talk show that I was interested in eggs), I turned up one Jeff Hartness of Carol Stream, Illinois. This daring pioneer of science called up the radio station and volunteered to drive in and demonstrate that he could stand eggs on end at will. He was as good as his word. It was a great moment in radio — five minutes of deathly science — as we all watched breathlessly while Jeff went to work. To our amazement, he succeeded. This was the middle of May, you understand. Seeing the evidence before their eyes, the rest of the people in the studio promptly began standing eggs on end too. Later, in the seclusion of his private laboratory, using the strictest scientific procedures, Cecil was able to duplicate Professor Hartness’s achievement with his own hands. Moral: you can stand an egg on end any old time. All it takes is very steady hands. Also, it seems to work better if you shake up the egg first. This breaks the yolk loose from the bands (chalazae) that keep it suspended in the center of the egg, lowering the egg’s center of gravity. But that’s cheating.
You guys at the Times get stumped again, you just give me a call.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.