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The egg standing myth is like an extremely contagious virus. It is everywhere, all over the world. It's easily transmitted; unlike the organic variety, this virus can spread infectiously through the web and television. And, like most viruses, its history is difficult to trace. I spent a long time on the web trying to nail down its origin, with no luck.

Then I tried the web search engine www.google.com. All the other search engines were no help when I searched on words like "egg standing equinox" (frustratingly, most returned my own webpage about it). Google however gave me a long list of sites, and in one I struck gold. At The Textbook League's website is an article by William J. Bennetta which referenced an article in the wonderfully rational magazine Skeptical Inquirer written by Martin Gardner. Gardner is a renowned skeptic, and I grew up reading his books on puzzles and brain teasers. It was quite a joy to find that he was the linchpin in my search.

As you may know, most urban legends in America like this one have origins that are lost in the murky history of repeated tellings. It's usually impossible to trace the origin to even a specific century, let alone a date. However, in this case, we can find a traceable and very specific origin: Life magazine.

As reported by Gardner in the Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 1996, page 8), the legend was born with an article penned by Annalee Jacoby in the March 19, 1945 issue of Life magazine. Ms. Jacoby was on assignment in China at that time, when she witnessed a peculiar Chinese ritual. In China, the first day of spring is called Li Chun, and they reckon it to be roughly six weeks before the vernal equinox. As loyal Bad Astronomy readers already know, in most countries, the equinoxes and solstices do not mark the beginning of seasons; America is odd in that we say that Spring begins on the equinox. Since a season is three months long, these other countries believe the actual first day of spring is six weeks before the equinox.

According to Chinese legend, it is easier to stand an egg on end on what they call the first day of spring (which, remember, is in early February). The Chinese legend, unfortunately, has an uncertain origin, though it is propagated through old books about Chinese rituals. Ms. Jacoby was in the capital city of Chunking on Li Chun when a crowd of people came to balance eggs. It must have been quite a sight, and so she wrote about it for Life.

Evidently, the United Press picked up the story and promptly sent it out over the wire. At that moment, a legend was born.

What's funny about this is that Ms. Jacoby evidently reported that the event occurred on the first day of spring, but it was never said (or else it was conveniently forgotten) that the first day of spring in China is a month and half before the first day of spring as recognized by Americans! The legend now states that you can only stand an egg on end at the equinox, yet the legend started because the Chinese were standing them up six weeks earlier. Ironically, the very basis of this legend is wrong!

And yet the legend persists, and the virus infects more of the populace. The biggest blooming of the virus happened on March 20, 1983, when Donna Henes, a self-proclaimed "artist and ritual-maker", got a hundred people in New York City to publicly stand eggs up at the vernal equinox. This event was covered by the New Yorker magazine, and the article was published in the April 4, 1983 issue. At 11:39 p.m. (the exact time of the equinox), Ms. Henes stood an egg up and announced "Spring is here."

"Everyone in the crowd, us included, got busy balancing eggs, the New t; Yorker effused. "Honest to God, it works." The unnamed New Yorker reporter was not so convinced, however, as to believe the legend completely. They tested it themselves and failed to get an egg to stand up later that week. The reporter admits it may have been psychological. "The trouble may have been that we didn't want the egg to balance- that we wished to see Donna Henes to be proved right."

More irony can be found here: the reporter actually went out and asked several physicists about the legend. Not one could give an explanation as to why an egg would balance easier (or solely) on the equinox. Of course not: there is no reason! However, I find it faintly troubling that one of those physicists said that water swirls down the washbasin drain one way in the northern hemisphere and the other way in the southern hemisphere This is also Bad Astronomy! The Coriolis Effect, which governs the spins of hurricanes, doesn't work on such a small scale as a bathtub or a toilet. I fear for that particular physicist's reputation, though in the New Yorker article, no names were given. I'm not surprised.

And on it goes. A year doesn't go by that I don't see something on the news about the legend, with the newscasters claiming it as fact. Ms. Henes went on to more balancing rituals too. The year after the above demonstration, more than 5000 people showed up at the World Trade Center to participate in an egg balancing. Even the New York Times was duped; a few years later, in an editorial on March 19, 1988, the headline "It's Spring, Go Balance an Egg" appeared. Two days later, the Times ran a picture of people standing eggs up, again at the World Trade Center.

With such a source as the New York Times, one might think my own humble efforts are in vain. Maybe so, but I hope not. Every year my egg standing page gets hundreds and thousands of hits around the equinox, so the word is spreading that way at least. I've been quoted on the news about it, and I sometimes talk on the radio, too. I may be bucking the odds, but I can dream that someday this virus will be stamped out, and Good Astronomy will prevail.



©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

This page last modified Saturday, 05-Mar-2011 18:03:18 UTC


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