This item appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, May-June 1996.

Eggs à la Dumb

William J. Bennetta

The 3 April issue of Education Week carried an item, headlined "Balanced Between Seasons," that consisted of a big picture and a caption. The picture showed some youngsters who were manipulating eggs, and the caption said:

According to Chinese folklore, an egg will balance on one end on the vernal equinox. Students from Midtown West School in New York City successfully put ancient wisdom -- and practical physics -- to the test with the help of Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 60th Street in Manhattan.

It was a fake. The unfortunate students shown in the photo had been exploited in a publicity event staged on 20 March by New York City's park rangers. The event had nothing to do with physics or with "wisdom" or with any kind of test, and its only connection to "Chinese folklore" was artificial and twisted. The students had functioned, unwittingly, in the propagation of a New York City superstition.

The superstition in question can be traced to China, but the Chinese do not claim that "an egg will balance on one end on the vernal equinox." They believe that balancing an egg is especially easy on a day called Li Chun, which they consider to be the first day of spring. Li Chun comes in early February, about six weeks before the equinox.

The connection between eggs and the equinox was invented not in China but in Manhattan, after a magazine article (printed in 1945) introduced Americans to the Chinese notion that eggs behave oddly when spring arrives. This notion was quickly taken up by some gullible New Yorkers, who gave it an Occidental spin. They dumped Li Chun and substituted the vernal equinox -- perhaps because the equinox is regarded in the West as the beginning of spring, or perhaps because the equinox has special significance in Western astrology and sorcery.

Needless to say, the magic worked just as well in March as in February, because credulity and self-deception operate every day of the year. Just as the superstitious Chinese had convinced themselves that eggs would stand up on Li Chun, the superstitious New Yorkers convinced themselves that eggs would stand up on the equinox -- and they confirmed their belief by staging equinoctial egg-balancing ceremonies. But they never produced any evidence to suggest that eggs balanced more readily on the equinox than on any other day, so the ceremonies merely showed that the New Yorkers were adept at nourishing delusions.

Those delusions still persist, as Education Week has shown in its bogus report about the stunt at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. That event, I have learned, was concocted by Bram Gunther, acting director of the Urban Park Rangers unit in the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. When I spoke with Gunther by telephone, on 26 April, I asked him what his purpose had been. He replied, "We were after fun and publicity for the Rangers." He said that the results of the students' efforts were "almost unanimous" and that "almost all the kids got their eggs to balance."

How thrilling!

But in response to some further questions, Gunther admitted that the students hadn't tried to balance eggs on any day but the equinox, so they had no basis for judging whether the equinox had anything to do with the results that they obtained.

The exploiting of unsuspecting youngsters for the sake of a cheap stunt is always deplorable, and it is worse if the stunt leads the youngsters to embrace superstition and nonsense. I hope that the directors of the Midtown West School will not again make their students available for such an event. I also hope that the editors of Education Week will stop promoting silliness and will stop presenting dumb antics as "physics."

Readers who would like to learn more about equinoctial egg shenanigans should read Martin Gardner's excellent article "The Great Egg-Balancing Mystery" in the May-June issue of Skeptical Inquirer. That article is the source of the historical information that I have given here.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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