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the fundamental constants

Robert A J MaHhews

Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Aston, Birmingham B4 7ET UKt

Abstract. We investigate the dynamics of toast tumbling Resmne. Nous examinons la dynamique du toast dans sa

from a table to the floor. Popular opinion is that the final chute de la table au plancer. L'avis populaire tient a ce que Ie

state is usually butter-side down, and constitutes prima/ack toast tomhe habituellem.ent cote beurre par terre et que ceIa

evidence of Murphy's Law ("If it can go wrong, it will). The constitute Ie commencement de preuve de la loi de Murphy

orthodox view, in contrast, is that the phenomenon is (loi de la guigne maximum). En revanche, I'avis orthodoxe

essentially random, with a 50/50 split of possible outcomes. insiste qui'il s'agit d'un phenomene essentiellement dfr au

We show that toast does indeed have an inherent tendency to hasard, dont les reswtats possibles se divisent 50/50. Nous

land butter-side down for a wide range of conditions. montrons que Ie toast a, en effet, une tendance fondamentale

Furthennore, we show that this outcome is ultimately a arriver core beurre par terre dans des circonstances diverses

ascribable to the values of the fundamental constants. As et variees. De plus, nous montrons que ce resultat s'attribue

such, this manifestation of Murphy's Law appears to be an en derniere analyse aux valeurs des constantes

ineluctable feature of our universe, fondamentales. En tant que tel, eet exemple de la loi de

Murphy semblerait etre une caracteristique ineluctable de

notre uDivers,

of butter cannot contribute a significant dynamical

The term Murphy's Law has its origins in dynamical asymmetry. It is easily shown that for air resistance

experiments conducted by the US Air Force in the late to contribute significantly to the dynamics of the

1940s involving an eponymous USAF captain [I]. At falling toast, the height of fall must be of the order

its heart lies the concept that 'if something can go of 2(rr riPA)d, where rrr is the density of the toast, d

wrong, it will'; this has its analogues in many other is its thickness and PA the density of air. The presence

cultures [2], and is almost certainly of much older of butter will contribute only a small fraction of

provenance. this total; supposing it to be a generous 25 per cent

The phenomenon of toast falling from a table to and taking the typical values of rrr � 350 kg m-3,

land butter-side down on the fioor is popularly held PA 1.3 kgm-3 and d

= 10-2 m, we find that the

�

to be empirical proof of the existence of Murphy's toast would have to fall from a height over an order

Law. Furthermore, there is a widespread belief of magnitude higher than the typical table for the

that it is the result of a genuine physical effect, often butter to have significant aerodynamic effects.

ascribed to a dynamical asymmetry induced by one Such estimates lend credibility to the widespread

side of the toast being buttered. 'orthodox' answer to the tumbling toast question:

Quite apart from whether or not the basic obser that it is essentially a coin-tossing process in which

vation is true, this explanation cannot be correct. only the bad outcomes are remembered. Indeed,

The mass of butter added to toast (�4g) is small there is some experimental evidence to support this.

compared to the mass of the typical slice of toast In tests conducted for a BBC-TV programme on

(�35 g), is spread thinly, and passes into the body Murphy's Law [I], buttered bread was tossed into

of the toast. Its contribution to the total moment of the air 300 times in a variety of situations designed

inertia of the toast-and thus its effect on the toast's to reveal the presence of Murphy's Law. In all

rotational dynamics-is thus negligible. tests, the results were statistically indistinguishable

from the 50/50 outcome expected from random coin

t Address for correspondence: SO Norreys Road, Cumnor, tossing, suggesting that seJective memory is the true

Oxford, 0X2 9PT UK; email IOO265.3005@compuserve.com explanation of Murphy's Law.

0143-C80T/9S11J.40172 + os $19.50 C 1995IO? Publishing Ltd & The European Physical Society

Tumbling toast, Murphy's Law and the fundamental constants 173

There are, however, two problems with this. First, and also assume that it has zero horizontal velocity;

by its very nature Murphy's Law might contrive to the important effect of a non-zero horizontal velocity

ruin any overt attempt to demonstrate its existence is addressed later. Finally we assume a perfectly

by such probabilistic means, This would make experi inelastic impact with the fioor with zero rebound.

mental verification of its existence very problematic. With these assumptions, the dynamics of the

A simple Bayesian probability analysis shows that lamina are determined by the forces shown in figure

there are grave difficulties with attempts to demon 1: the weight, mg, acting vertically downward, the

strate Murphy's Law if it is considered to be a frictional force, F, parallel to the plane of the

skewing of an otherwise symmetric probability distri lamina and directed against the motion, and the reac

bution in the direction of an unfavourable outcome. tion of the table, R. The resulting angular velocity

Second, and more seriously, Murphy's Law may be about the point of contact, W, then satisfies the

far more fundamental than a skewing of probability differential equations of motion

distributions: it may actually forbid certain favour

m6w=R-mg·cosO (I)

able outcomes from taking place. In the case of

falling toast, this implies that Murphy's Law might mbw2 = F- mg.sinB (2)

influence the dynamics of the toast at a fundamental

yet subtle level. If so, failure to reveal its presence m (k ' + 6')w = -mg6 ·cosO (3)

by carelessly hurling toast randomly into the air

would hardly be surprising. where k is the appropriate radius of gyration, such

that k' d' (3 for the rectangular lamina considered

As we now show, the dynamics of falling toast are =

indeed rather subtle, and do depend fairly critically here. Multiplying (3) hy 2w and integrating from the

on initial conditions. Nevertheless, in a broad range initial conditions w= 0 at ()= 0 leads to:

of realistic circumstances, the dynamics do lead to a W' = (6g(a).[1)(1 + 31)')].sinO (4)

bias towards a butter-side down final state. We pro

vide both theoretical and experimental evidence for where we have used 6 '" 1)a, with 'I (0 < 1/ .; I) being

this conclusion and show that the results have surpris the 'overhang parameter'. Equation (4) is the central

ingly deep origins. Specifically, we show that the fall equation of the tumbling toast problem, as it gives

of toast is a manifestation of fundamental aspects of the rate of rotation of the toast once it has detached

the nature of our universe. from the table from a specific state of overhang.

Unless the toast can complete sufficient rotation

on its descent to the floor to bring the buttered

2. Dynamics of falling toast side facing upwards, the toast will land buttered

side down. Thus if the toast begins its descent at

In what follows we model the tumbling toast problem an angle 1> to the horizontal, then for it to land

as an example of a rigid, rough, homogeneous rectan butter-side up again we must have

gular lamina, mass m, side 2a, falling from a rigid Wo'" > (3,,(2) - 1> (5)

platform set a height h above the ground. We con

where Wo is the free-fall 6 rotation rate and .,. the free

sider the dynamics of the toast from an initial state

fall time for the height of the table h, so that

where its centre of gravity overhangs the table by a

distance 80, as shown in figure1. Initially, we ignore .,.= [2(h -2a)(g]I/' (6)

the process by which the toast arrives at this state,

The frictional force acting on the lamina will prevent

Figure 1. The initial orientation of the rotating toast detachment until the lamina has rotated through at

least an angle 1>, at which point slipping occurs.

This minimum value of 1> follows from the usual

condition F p.R, where p. is the coefficient of static

=

From (1), (2) and (4) we find

1> > arctan [p./(I + 91)')] (7)

To calculate the free-falling angular rotation rate wo'

we must deal with the post-slipping regime. At the

instant of slipping, the centre of rotation of the

lamina is a distance aT] from the centre of gravity,

and the rotational rate is given by (4). A point on

the shorter, non-overhanging section of lamina at a

distance a (1/ + E), 0 < e « I from the CG will thus

have a rotationally-induced horizontal component

of velocity aEw- sin 1> away from the table. Slipping

will bring this point vertically over the table edge, so

174 RAJ Matthews

that contact between table and toast is broken, the This was found to be

latter then tumbling about its CG at a rotational

rate Wo essentially unchanged from the original

For bread: ['1oJob, � 0.02

(12)

value. Although irregularity in the surface of the For toast: [TJoJo'" � 0.015

toast can prevent inunediate post-slip detachment,

experiments confirm that the value of Wo can be Both bread and toast are thus relatively unstable

taken as that induced by the initial overhang torque to tumbling from overhanging positions. Crucially,

of mgaTJo. Thus the free-falling toast rotates at a rate neither can sustain overhangs anywhere near as

large as the critical value given in (10). This implies

that laminae with either composition do not have

sufliciont angular rotation to land butter-side up

following free-fall from a table-top. In other words,

where the value of the critical overhang parameter 1'/0 the material properties of slices of toast and bread

and slip angle 1> at which detachment takes place may and their size relative to the height of the typical

be determined experimentally. To place a lower limit table are such that, in the absence of any rebound

on the overhang needed to avoid a butter-side down phenomena, they lead to a distinct bias towards a

final state, we insert (8) in (5), set 1> ,,/2 and solve

=

butter-side down landing. But before this can be

the resulting quadratic equation for "10: taken as confirmation of popular belief, however,

some practical issues must be addressed.

1-)[1 12"'J

�o >

60 (9)

where 0 '" '" /12(R - 2) and R '" h/a 4. The effects 01 non-zero horizontal velocity

For conventional tables and slices of toasts, we have

So far, we have ignored the means by which the toast

h � 75cm, 2a � l Oem leading to R � IS, 0 0.06

comes to be in the overhang condition shown in figure

�

1. This is clearly of practical importance, however, as

parameter of

the toast will typically leave the table as the result of

�o > 0.06 (10) sliding off a tilted plate, or being struck by a hand

or arm. The consequent horizontal velocity may

if the toast is to complete suffic ient rotation to avoid a dominate the dynamics if the gravitational torque

butter-side down final state. has insufficient time to induce significant rotation.

In this case, the toast will behave like a simple

projectile off the edge of the table, keeping its

3. Experimental results and implications butter-side up throughout the flight. This raises the

possibility that, while dynamically valid, the butter

An experimental determination of �o holds the key to side down phenomenon may onJy be witnessed for

establishing whether or not the fall of toast constitutes an infeasibly small range of horizontal velocities. To

a manifestation of Murphy's Law. Tests were carried investigate this range, we first note that the time for

out using a lamina derived from a standard white loaf an initially horizontal lamina of overhang parameter

(supplied by Michael Cain & Co., Oxford Road, � to acquire inclination l/J follows from (8):

Cumnor, Oxford). The lamina was cut into a rectan

gle of 10cm x 7.3cm x 1.5cm (so that 2a IOcm), = /(l/J) = [a(1 + 3��)/6g'1oJI(2 ./(l/J) (1 3)

and placed on a rigid flat and level platform of

kitchen Contiboard, used to model the surface of a where

clean, uncovered table.

Measurements of the value of the coefficient of

static friction /.L between the lamina and the platform

J(l/J) =

J" d8/(sin

0 0)112 �

J�

0 dO/o112

which sliding just began; the tangent of this angle is

for smalil/J (14)

then equal to p.. Test were carried' out on both bread If the lamina has a horizontal velocity VH as it goes

and toast, leading to over the edge of the table, the time during which it

is susceptible to torque-induced rotation is �a/VH'

For bread: [p.Jo', � 0 29

.

During this time its average overhang parameter 1'10

(II)

For toast: [P.Job' � 0.2 5 will be of the order 0.5, and it will acquire a down

ward tilt through the torque of order l/J. If this

Measurements of the value of the critical overhang angle is small, the dynamics of the lamina can be

parameter YJo were then made by placing the lamina considered those of a projectile. By (13) and the

over the edge of the Contiboard and determining small angle approximation in (14), this implies that

the least amount of overhang of the 2a 1 0 em = the effects of torque-induced rotation, and thus

edge at which detachment and free-fall took place. tumbling motion, will be negligible for horizontal

Tumbling toast, Murphy's Law and the fundamental constants 175

VH � (3ga/7l/J) ' /2 N � n(Mc/mp)2/l (17)

� !.6m s-1 (with l/J � 5°) (15) where mp the mass of the proton. Thus the height of

At speeds considerably below this value (below, say, the humanoid will be of the order

VH!5 � 350 mm s-') the torque-induced rotation LH � (nJf) (Mc!mp)2/l ·EB!Mcg (I 8)

should still dominate the dynamics of the falling

toast, and the butter-side down phenomenon should A shnple Bohr-atom model shows that

still be observed. This conclusion is supported by

observation. Furthermore, the relatively high value (19)

of VH ensures that the butter-side down phenomenon

will be observed for a wide range of realistic launch where O! is the electronic fine structure constant, me is

scenarios, such as a swipe of tbe hand or sliding off the mass of the electron, c the speed of light, and q for

an inclined plate (which, by (II), will have to be polymeric materials is ...... 3 x 10-3. The acceleration

tilted downward by at least � arctan(0.25) � 14°). due to gravity, g, for a planet can also be estimated

It therefore appears that the popular view that toast from first principles, using an argument based on

falling off a table has an inherent tendency to land balancing internal gravitational forces with those

butter-side down is based in dynamical fact. As we due to electrostatic and electron degeneracy effects

now show, however, this basic result has surprisingly [4]. This leads to

deep roots.

(20)

where I' (�6) is the radius of the polymeric atoms

5. Tumbling toast and the fundamental in units of the Bohr radius ao. and aG is the

interactions gravitational fine structure constant Gm�!fzc. We

also have

We have seen that the outcome of the fall of toast (21)

from a table is dictated by two parameters: the

surface properties of the toast, which determine 'lo, where Rc is the radius of the critical component

and the relative dimensions of the toast and table, (�LH!20) and Po is the atomic mass density

which determine R. The latter is, of course, ulti

mately dictated by the size of humans. Using an (22)

anthropic argument, Press [3] has revealed an

intriguing connection between the typical height of where A(� 100) is the atomic mass of the polymeric

humans and the fundamental constants of nature. It material. Substituting these relations into our

centres on the fact that bipedal organisms like original criterion for LH gives, after some reduction,

humans are intrinsically less stable than quadrupeds

(e.g. giraffes), and are more at risk of death by LH < K· (",!aG) '/4 • ao

toppling. This leads to a height limitation on (23)

humans set by the requirement that the kinetic where K '" (3nq/J ) '/'1" A-I/6 � 50

energy injected into the head by a fall will be insuffi Inserting the various values, we find that this first

cient to cause major structural failure and death. principles argument leads to a maximum. safe height

This height limitation on humans in tum implies a for human of around 3 metres. Although the estimate

limit on the height of tables. We now deduce this

of LH is pretty rough and ready, its weak dependency

limit using an anthropic argument similar to that of

on the uncertainties in the various factors in (23)

Press.

makes it fairly robust. The resulting limit has a

We begin by considering a humanoid organism to

number of interesting features. The estimate of its

be a cylindrical mass of polymeric material of height

value agrees well with the observation that a fall

LH whose critical component is a spherical mass Me onto the skull from a height of 3 m is very likely to

(the head) positioned at the top of the body. Then, lead to death; interestingly, even the tallest-ever

by Press's criterion, the maximum size of such an human, Robert Wadlow (1918-1940), was-at

object is such that 2.72 m-within this bound. The limit on height is

also universal, in that it applies to all organisms

J. (Mcvf,n/2) < NEB (16) with human-like articulation on any planet. Most

importantly, however, it puts an upper limit on the

where v,'" � V(3gLH) is the fall velocity,J(�O. l ) is height of a table used by such organisms: around

the fraction of kinetic energy that goes into breaking LH!2, or 1.5 m. This is about twice the height of

N polymeric bonds of binding energy EB, and the tables used by humans, but still only half that

fracture is assumed to take place across a polymer needed to avoid a butter-side down final state for

176 RAJ Matthews

tumbling toast: rearranging (9) we find The best approach is somewhat counter�jntuitive;

toast seen heading off the table should be given a

,,'(I + 31)') smart swipe forward with the hand. Similarly, a

R 2+ (24)

�

swiftly downwards and backwards, diseonnecting

and inserting the observed value 1) � O.oJS given the toast from the plate. Both actions have the effect

in (12) leads to R � 60 and h 3 metres. The limit

� of minimising the amount of time the toast is exposed

(23) thus implies that all human-like organisms to the gravitationally-induced torque, either by giving

are doomed to experience tumbling toast landing the toast a large (relative) horizontal velocity or by

butter-side down. sodden disconnection of the point of contact. In

both cases, the toast will descend to the floor keeping

the butter side uppermost.

We end by noting that, according to Einstein, God

6. Conclusions is subtle, but He is not malicious. That may be so, but

His influence on falling toast clearly leaves much to be

Our principal conclusion is a surprising one, given desired.

the apparently quotidian nature of the original

phenomenon: all human�like organisms are destined

to experience the 'tumbling toast' manifestation Acknowledgements

of Murphy's Law because of the values of the

fundamental constants in our universe. As such, we

It is a pleasure to thank Professor Ian Fells and Robin

have probably confirmed the suspicions of many

Bootle for providing background on Murphy's Law.

regarding the innate cussedness of the universe. We

therefore feel we must conclude this investigation on

a more optimistic note. What can human-like-and

References

thus presumably intelligent -organisms do to avoid

toast landing butter-side down?

[IJ Bootie Rand FeUs I 1991 QED: Murphy's Law

Building tables of the �3 m heigbt demanded by (London, BBC)

(24) is clearly impracticable. Reducing the size of [21 Bootie R 1995 personal conununication

toast is dynamically equivalent, but the reqnired [3J Press W H 1980 Am. J. Phys. 48 597-8

reduction in size (down to squares �2.Scm across) [41 Davies pew 1982 The ACCidental Universe

is also unsatisfactory. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 44-9

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