Egg Balancing Day

(Originally published in Camping Life Magazine)

You might think that astronomy, at least the amateur astronomy I like to practice, where you lie on your back and stare into a clear night sky, would pretty much be a controversy-free zone. I mean, there's not that much to fight about. You might mistake a planet for a star, or Venus for Jupiter, but that's not really the sort of thing that would turn brother against brother, you know?

As it turns out, though, I'm wrong. There's at least one subject which astronomers, both amateur and pro, will get downright grouchy over - egg balancing. Put in on the list of things you just don't want to bring up in mixed company.

Egg balancing, you see, is something that's either directly related to the mysteries of the cosmos or just a bunch of hooey passed on from one sap to another, depending on whom is explaining his position.

On one side, there is a strong faction - the Mystery of the Cosmos Brigade - that holds firmly to the belief that due to the unique alignment of the earth and sun on the equinox, when the day and night are equal, then and only then can one perform the magical feat of balancing or spinning a raw egg on end. On the opposite side is the Science Explains All Front, which says - in no uncertain terms - that aside from the fact that the earth's axis happens to line up just right (at a 90-degree angle away from the sun) on those two days, the equinoxes are nothing special, and that anybody with the motor skills of a tree sloth can balance an egg on end if they try long enough - it's just a matter of finding the right egg.

As with the overheated Millennium Argument (does the new millennium/century start on January 1, 2000, or January 1, 2001?), the Great Egg Balancing Controversy gets people worked up way out of proportion to its real importance. Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy" (one of the indispensable sites on the Web for getting the straight scoop) has this to say on the subject: "This (egg balancing) has to be one of the silliest misconceptions around, and it never seems to die." Then he writes, "If an egg spins (or balances) on end, it would do it at any time, and not just at the equinox."

The Science Alliance agrees, saying, "There is no astronomical reason why you should be able to balance raw eggs on the first day of spring as opposed to any other day. In fact, you can balance a raw egg on end on any day!"

And from Earth and Sky , "There's just no reason why the equinox should be special in any way, with regard to one's ability to balance an egg."

Obviously, the Science Explains All Front is working overtime to quell the "myth" about balancing eggs on the equinox, especially the vernal (spring) equinox, which happens to occur on March 20 this year, at 8:46 pm (EST). Yet the "myth" persists. There's something inside us that wants to believe that there are forces we don't understand, and that magic really does exist. So we're all ears when somebody tells us that the equinox is when the earth and nature are completely in balance, when day and night are equal, and that for just a moment the rules of science don't apply. We want to believe in the possibilities.

As for me, all I can offer is personal anecdotal evidence. I've tried for I don't know how long to pull off this particular trick, to no avail. Until September 23, 1998, that is. I stayed up past midnight to try yet again, and as the exact moment of the autumnal equinox neared (12:37 am CDT), my egg miraculously began to try to balance. And about two minutes before the equinox, success! My egg, raw and cool, was standing tall and proud. It didn't stand long, but I was able to get a photo for evidence.

Of course, my success proves absolutely nothing aside from the fact I was able to balance that particular egg on that particular day. So this spring, I'm going to try and be a little more scientific in my research, and you can join in. This is a little astronomical experiment that the whole family can participate in, and it can be done indoors or out. (Although, if you try it outside you'll need to eliminate as much wind interference as possible. Inside a tent would be a perfect place.)

Equipment for this experiment is minimal. A dozen eggs, a flat table or desktop (or anything else flat and smooth), and a camera with film in it is all that's needed. Here's the plan: Starting a week or so before the equinox, start trying to balance the eggs. (I'm going to try to do all my balancing at about 7:45 pm (CST), just for consistency's sake.) Mark the eggs so you can tell them apart. If one should happen to balance, grab the camera and get a photo. Then try the same egg again the next day. According to the scientists, the important variable in balancing is the egg, not the day or time or person. If an egg balances two days in a row, or any day besides the equinox, you've helped disprove a myth. If you only succeed on the equinox, then maybe there are a few mysteries left in the universe.

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