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Eur. J. Ptlys. 16 (1995) 172-176.

Printed in the UK 172

Tumbling toast, Murphy's Law and

the fundamental constants

Robert A J MaHhews
Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Aston, Birmingham B4 7ET UKt

Received 20 February 1995, in final form 31 March 1995

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,

1, Introduction Similarly, the aerodynamic effect of the thin Jayer

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

friction between the lamina and the table edge.

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
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

and thus a lower limit on the critical overhang

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 �
0 dO/o112

were made by measuring the angle of the platform at

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
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

velocities above about plane n(�100) atoms thick, so that

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.
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)
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)

121) plate off which toast is sliding should be moved

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
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