Gene and the Great Meatball Conspiracy
WASHINGTON -- I am on the phone with Nobel laureate Arthur B. McDonald, one of the most renowned physicists in the world. This call became necessary because of a basic failing in modern life: To resolve a question that has been bedeviling me for more than 50 years, I had first tried crowdsourcing it on social media, but that turned into a predictable anarchy of disparate, smug, uninformed and unhelpful speculation.
Clearly, I needed an expert. I found one, and the question intrigued him.
Me: Would it be possible for a sneeze to dislodge a meatball from a plate of spaghetti that is covered with cheese, and that the incident would impart enough force to roll that meatball off the table, onto the floor and out the door?
Arthur: It is possible. It would depend on several factors.
Me: You are familiar with this scenario?
Arthur: Oh, yes. I have nine grandchildren.
Me: OK, good. Last night, I conducted an unsuccessful experiment on this topic. I made spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, and then snorted a big handful of pepper, which did its job. I sneezed violently 16 times, but none of the meatballs budged.
Arthur: Well, there are variables. It would depend on the size of meatball, the height of the mound of spaghetti, the degree of the meatball's precariousness on the top of that mound, and of course the distance from table to door, which would have to be small.
Arthur: In physics we talk about "unstable equilibrium." Any object, say a meatball, can theoretically be perfectly balanced even on the point of a pin, and it would stay there indefinitely if there is no disturbance. On the other hand, even a small disturbance such as a sneeze could dislodge that particular meatball.