An ancient shell game: balancing eggs to celebrate the spring
By Scott Morris
What are you doing on March 20, at 10:52 PM EST? We'll be trying to balance eggs on their ends, and so will Donna Henes, who will also celebrate her twelfth annual observance of the vernal equinox––the moment when the sun crosses the equator and ushers in spring for the Northern Hemisphere. At that precise moment day and night are of equal length all over the earth. Then and only then, the legend goes, you can balance an egg on its fat end.
"I don't know why it works," Henes told us, "but it does. Maybe it's because for a time surrounding the exact moment of the equinox, the sun is directly over the equator, and the earth is balanced within the universe."
It's a phenomenon that has both delighted and mystified people since antiquity. Someone in China discovered it thousands of years ago. According to an ancient Chinese book, Know What Heaven Knows, on the day called Li Chun ("spring begins"), winter ends. And for a few minutes just before and just after the seasons change, eggs will stand on end.
In 1945 a report appeared in Life about how everyone in Chungking, China was relieving the tensions of war by trying to balance eggs on the first day of spring. Walter Rundle of the United Press decided to try it for himself. The skeptical journalist was amazed to discover that he was able to stand several eggs, and he wrote a story about the event.
The news got back to China the next day that Albert Einstein, after reading Rundle’s story, had been dubious, calling egg balancing "a Chinese trick." Because the legend holds that eggs will stand for only two hours each year, however, there seemed to be little to do about it.
The controversy heightened as some Americans claimed that it was an old magic trick: Shake an egg until the yolk breaks and it will stand on end. Or you could do it the way Christopher Columbus supposedly did it, by cracking the bottom of the shell slightly. But Rundle was offended by the suggestion that someone had pulled a trick on him, and the local Chinese press––resentful of Einstein's slight––launched an attack on the hard-boiled scientist.
At the next weekly press conference held in Chungking, Chinese authorities discussed postwar planning, currency stabilization, and the Communist problem, then moved out to the yard to stand up eggs. Several people, including Wong Wen Hao, head of the Chinese War Production Board and minister of economic affairs, were successful. The plan had been to spell out the phrase NUTS TO EINSTEIN in eggs. The Life correspondent reported, however, that "there were some who thought this undignified." The demonstration was canceled.
This event did not take place during the equinox, so by balancing eggs at all, these Chinese officials were demonstrating an inconsistency in the lore. Even so, the legend continues to have a strong appeal.
Most likely, time of the year has nothing to do with it. Indeed, we expect that you can balance eggs on any day. But mindful of the legend, you try harder when you do it on the first moment of spring. You are more patient, perhaps more in tune with your muscles, and able to make the fine adjustments necessary to find the balancing point. Yet we have tried it and successfully balanced eggs on glass in December.
We called James Randi, the magician and archskeptic, for his opinion. "It doesn't seem to occur to people to try it on other days," Randi says. "The fact is, you can balance an egg today or a week from next Tuesday. All it depends on are the qualifications of the egg, the nature of the surface, and perhaps the sobriety of the balancer."
Games expert and science journalist Martin Gardner adds that the surface of the egg itself is critical. If you sandpaper the bottom of an egg to eliminate all the small bumps, for instance, you can try forever and never balance the egg on a Formica surface. So doctoring an egg can certainly affect its ability to stand.
On the other hand, David Eisendrath, a contributing editor at Modern Photography who is a consultant in scientific and technical photography, is a believer, "I'm under the impression that it does work better just before or after the equinox," he says. "For many years my wife has balanced a dozen or more eggs on our front porch. She has also done them on a plate and on a sheet of glass. I have no valid excuse or serious explanation for it: day-night cycles, sun pull, moon pull, tides. I don't know. If I tried today, I could stand maybe one or two eggs. But on the first day of spring I might be able to do two dozen."
A local expert, Dr. Wang, a graduate of the Munich Technological Institute, offered his own theory back in 1945: Egg balancing was all a matter of cold weather and liquidity. In the cold, an egg contracts and lowers its center of gravity, he explained. He predicted that on the hottest summer day, an egg would stand if first chilled in a refrigerator. "This particular experiment," he noted, “will have to be done in America, where there are refrigerators."
Well, the experiment has been conducted: "I first thought I would have to use organic eggs at room temperature," Donna Henes says. "But that's not the case at all. I've had friends tell me that you can use any eggs, even ones that have come right out of the fridge. They don't even have to be room temperature."
For the last 11 years Henes has been celebrating the vernal equinox by balancing exactly 360 eggs––the symbolic division of the circle. In 1984 the critical moment occurred during the lunch hour, and Henes gathered her biggest crowd ever––about 5,000 people––at the plaza of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Henes describes herself as an "artist and ritual maker" committed to international harmony. In 1983 she held her ceremony at Ralph Bunche Park, across the street from the United Nations. A reporter who covered the event for The New Yorker (April 4, 1983) was able to balance an egg in about 15 seconds. Fascinated, he went back to the same place a week later to see if he could do it again. He tried for 20 minutes before giving up. He might have tried again in six months because the balancing feat also works, Henes says, on the fall equinox (September 21).
But spring is when Henes chooses to celebrate the event, which she calls Eggs on End: Standing on Ceremony. Springtime seems an appropriate choice: The egg is a symbol of fertility and rebirth. Indeed, celebration of the first day of spring dates back to the pagan worship of Eastre, goddess of spring. "The events and rituals I create are sort of like silly science lessons or nondirected play––certainly more 'kindergard' than avant-garde," she says.
Well, we plan to try it March 20, at 10:52 PM EST, just as the sun crosses the equator. In Los Angeles it will occur at 7:52. We invite our readers to participate in this shell game as well.
We will also try it on Li Chun––February 4––the first clay of spring according to the Chinese calendar. This is the one little problem with the ancient tradition––for all these years eggs have been balancing in China about a month and a half before the vernal equinox. But we'll put that discrepancy out of our minds as we contemplate the unity of the universe and try to balance our eggs on March 20.