Murphy’s Law and Tumbling Toast


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Murphy’s Law and Tumbling Toast
If a piece of toast falls off your breakfast plate, is it more likely to land with the buttered side down? According to Murphy’s Law (the assumption that if anything can go wrong, it will), the answer is “Yes.” Most scientists would argue that by the law of probability, the toast is equally likely to land butter-side up or butter-side down. Robert Matthews, science correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, disagrees. He claims that when toast falls off a plate that is being carried at a “typical height,” the toast has just enough time to rotate once (landing butter-side down) before it lands. To test his claim, Mr. Matthews has arranged for 150,000 students in Great Britain to carry out the experiment with tumbling toast.
Why is it that the piece of toast you are eating as you read this will land butter side down if it falls from your grasp?
What about that queue in the supermarket you joined, which now seems to be going so much more slowly than every other one?
Or that place you chose to go to for a day out but is inconveniently wedged in the fold of the road atlas, making it almost impossible to follow the route you need to take?
Ever wondered about such things? So has Robert Matthews. But whereas the rest of us tend to keep on wondering, or put it down to Murphy's Law, the visiting fellow at Aston University has used the appliance of science to come up with some answers. Employing the laws of physics and some applied mathematics, Robert Matthews has provided some scientific proof for a whole array of urban myths.
It has exasperated some of his sniffier colleagues in the scientific community and prompted mutterings of discontent that he is trivializing scientific research. Yet Robert, who has worked with the Neural Computing Research Group at Birmingham since 1993, is not one to worry about such criticism.
In case you were wondering, here's Robert's scientific theory for the toast, queue and atlas conundrums. 'I did some simple math, which basically showed what happens is that when toast slips off a table it breaks into a natural spin,' he explained. 'You can calculate the spin rate and it proves there is not always enough momentum for it to spin right round and land butter side up. 'With a road atlas there is an awkward zone, either in the middle of the page or right on the edge. An atlas page represents an area that is quite thin but is also quite long and represents at least 50 per cent of the land. Therefore, there is good chance it will fall within the awkward zone.
'When we join a supermarket queue we only really acknowledge three queues - our own and the ones either side. The chance of random delays, such as problems with the bar code equipment or even someone fumbling with change, means there is always going to be a one in three chance that your queue will move more quickly or slowly than the ones either side.'
Simple solutions to questions that have been asked and answered with a bemused scratch of the head for years. Robert took his own cue from a letter that appeared in a scientific magazine asking why a pencil would spin when it fell from a table. He sought to answer the question using scientific methods and then applied the answer to the buttered toast question. Far from trivializing science research, he maintains it enhances research.
'I wrote a small paper on the buttered toast question and it created an enormous amount of interest,' he added.
'It cast light on the idea that science does not just have to be about discovering how the universe is created or what happens inside particle accelerators.
'The laws of physics apply to everyday life, but that tends to get lost.'
At the end of last year Robert took his research into urban myths on to a new level after being approached by a butter manufacturer. He managed to involve some 1,000 school pupils across the UK in an experiment looking at the buttered toast question. After analyzing the 28,000 times the experiment was conducted, he found that the toast landed butter side down 62 per cent of the time.

'Previously, such questions were dismissed by scientists because it was believed we tended to remember only the times when things go wrong,' he said. 'So we only remember when the toast lands butter side down or when our queue is the slowest in the supermarket. 'But this shows it is not always a case of a 50-50 chance, or remembering the bad times.'
Robert also hopes that the wider scientific world will start to accept that such research is valid and not simply theoretical. 'This shows science is relevant to everyday life, although some scientists still dismiss it as being too silly to get involved in,' he said. 'But the history of science is littered with similar, seemingly trivial moments that led to hugely important discoveries.
'Newton's discovery of gravity after being hit on the head by an apple is the prime example.
'Nature does not understand the meaning of the word trivial. So rotating toast is the same as rotating galaxies in nature.' Robert said the problem was that, although his research showed how science was relevant and could inject a more fun element to the subject, school and college science was still too staid. Robert has also been investigating 'breakthrough syndrome', looking into the phenomenon of so-called major medical breakthroughs that are announced and yet ten or 15 years down the line are having no discernable impact. 'What I have been trying to do is develop mathematical techniques that allows us to compare the evidence from these studies claiming a breakthrough with existing studies,' he said.
'This gives us the full picture and allows us to see just how significant a breakthrough it is.'
Robert Matthews enjoys applying science to such questions and coming up with answers. So take the brazil nut question. Just why do brazil nuts seemingly defy the laws of gravity and rise to the top of cereal packets?
Questions to answer:
1) Why would Robert Matthews use over 150,000 students to test his hypothesis that the toast will land butter-side down?
2) Would it make a difference whether the table the toast is being dropped from is 3 feet, 4 feet, or 5 feet in height from the floor? Explain your answer.
3) Would Robert’s results have been different if he used different bread? Different sample size?
4) What sample size (number of participants) would be acceptable to use in this experiment to get similar results like 62% of the time landing butter side down that would still convince people, scientists, etc?
5) As last question posed in article, why do you think that brazil nuts rise to the top of a cereal box?

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Murphy’s Law and Tumbling Toast