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Monday, December 18, 2006

Important questions tackled by physics

While many people, including many economists, scratch their heads about some of the research in which economists engage, economists are not alone in researching the obscure and mundane.

How about this paper (sub req'd), which is only one contribution to a small but growing literature, from the European Journal of Physics:
We investigate the dynamics of toast tumbling from a table to the floor. Popular opinion is that the final state is usually butter-side down, and constitutes prima facie evidence of Murphy's Law ('If it can go wrong, it will'). The orthodox view, in contrast, is that the phenomenon is essentially random, with a 50/50 split of possible outcomes. We show that toast does indeed have an inherent tendency to land butter-side down for a wide range of conditions. Furthermore, we show that this outcome is ultimately ascribable to the values of the fundamental constants. As such, this manifestation of Murphy's Law appears to be an ineluctable feature of our universe.

Yep, physics tackles the long-running assertion that a falling piece of toast tends to land butter down. I am sure there is room for the physical analysis of this problem - coefficients of friction and so forth. However, the physicists are not prepared to answer the more pressing issue: How does the butter up/butter down outcome affect the the validity of the 5 second rule? For this, we might need some economists, as well as philosophers, epidemiologists, and public health policy wonks.

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