R.A.J. Matthews: Tumbling Toast, Murphy’s Law And The Fundamental Constants

Dropped toast

In what follows we model the tumbling toast problem as an example of a rigid, rough, homogeneous rectangular lamina, mass m, side 2a, falling from a rigid platform set a height h above the ground. We consider the dynamics of the toast from an initial state where its centre of gravity overhangs the table by a distance δ0

Robert A.J. Matthews published this seminal bit of applied physics in 1995. The journal reference is European Journal of Physics 16(4): 172-6, and you can access the full paper at ResearchGate, here. For his efforts, he was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 1996.

Matthews was the first (but by no means the last) to use mathematical physics to explore the popular claim that “dropped toast always lands butter-side down”. The usual “explanation” invoked for this perceived rule is Murphy’s Law—“If anything can go wrong, it will”—but Matthews sought to show that there were sound physical principles underlying the phenomenon.

He starts by dismissing the common physical explanations offered to account for this, principally airy claims relating to off-centre mass or aerodynamics effects created by the butter. He also dismisses those experiments that have claimed to disprove the rule—it’s unsurprising that buttered toast hurled randomly into the air* shows no particular preference for the side on which it alights, but this hardly reproduces the normal process by which toast falls.

Matthews starts with a static rectangle of toast, as described in the quotation at the head of this post. When its centre of mass moves beyond the edge of the table, it begins to tip over under the force of gravity. With any angle of tipping beyond zero (horizontal), gravity also produces a force that tries to slide the toast farther over the edge of the table. This is initially opposed by friction with the table edge, but eventually translates into a sliding motion. Gravity continues to accelerate the rate of rotation until the combination of sliding and rotation lifts the trailing part of the toast away from the table edge. Thereafter, the toast falls freely, and now rotates at a constant rate (neglecting air friction) until it hits the ground. If the toast rotates more than 90º but less than 270º on its way to the ground, it will strike butter-side down. Matthews appears to ignore the <90º regime during his initial analysis, presumably because toast falling from table height is observed to always rotate farther than that before hitting the floor.

In the quotation at the head of this post, Matthews sets the half-length of the toast to a, and the length by which the centre of gravity overhangs the edge of the table to δ. From these he defines an “overhang parameter”, η, equal to δ/a. The critical overhang parameter at which the tipping toast loses contact with the table edge is η0, and the tipping angle at which this occurs is φ. With g representing the acceleration due to gravity, he derives an equation for the constant angular velocity of the free-falling toast, ω0:

\omega _{0}^{2}=\left ( \frac{6g}{a} \right )\left ( \frac{\eta _{0}}{1+3\eta _{0}^{2}} \right )sin\phi 

The time, τ, it takes the toast to fall to the floor under gravity can be estimated using an approximation of the total distance it falls:

\tau =\sqrt{\frac{2(h-2a)}{g}}

And if the toast is to successfully rotate through “butter-side down” and into “butter-side up” during this time then:

\omega_{0}\tau > 270^{\circ }-\phi 

So that’s the story. Toast tips, slides, rotates free of the table edge, and then falls with a constant rate of rotation until it hits the floor after some elapsed time determined by the height from which it falls. If it rotates fast enough, or falls from high enough, it will manage to land butter-side up. But there will be a critical range of rotation rates and heights which will carry the toast into a butter-side-down impact.

The overhang parameter η0 is critical—if the toast has high enough friction with the table edge it will maintain contact with the edge for longer, allowing its rotational velocity to build up more before it falls free, maximizing the chance of a butter-side-up impact. Matthews derives a rather splendid formula for the minimum value of η0 which will generate sufficient rotational velocity for a butter-side-up landing.

\eta _{0}> \frac{2(h/a-2)\left ( 1-\sqrt{1-\frac{\pi ^4}{12(h/a-2)}} \right )}{\pi ^{2}}

(I’ve somewhat rearranged the equations in his paper, here, but the above is equivalent to those he provides.) For a table height h = 75cm and half-length of toast slice a = 5cm, it turns out that η0 has to be greater than 0.06.

Experiments involving bread, toast and kitchen Contiboard ensue, and Matthews finds that toast has a characteristic η0 of just 0.015, with untoasted bread only a little higher at 0.02. In his words:

This implies that laminae with either composition do not have sufficient angular rotation to land butter-side up following free-fall from a table-top. In other words, the material properties of slices of toast and bread and their size relative to the height of the typical table are such that, in the absence of any rebound phenomena, they lead to a distinct bias towards a butter-side down landing.

In fact, we can work out the minimum table height above which falling toast will have time to rotate far enough to land butter-side-up:

\frac{h}{a}=2+\frac{\pi ^{2}\left ( 1+3\eta _{0}^{2} \right )}{12\eta _{0}}

Plugging in the previously derived numbers yields an inconvenient minimum height of three metres.

Matthews then explores the effect of the horizontal velocity with which the toast departs the table edge—if fired over the edge with sufficient speed, the toast would have little time to start tipping over, would gain correspondingly little rotational velocity, and might stay relatively horizontal all the way to the floor. (That is, it would stay in the <90º rotation regime.) He concludes that the normal range of speeds with which toast is nudged off tables or tipped off plates is insufficiently high to prevent the butter-side-down landing.

Finally, there’s a section dealing with the fundamental constants of nature. In it, he builds on a paper by William H. Press, “Man’s size in terms of the fundamental constants” (American Journal of Physics, 48(8): 597-8), which you can find as a pdf here. Distilling down a more detailed argument, Matthews concludes that the upper height limit, LH, for humans is constrained by the ratio of the strengths of the electromagnetic force (which holds our bodies together) and the gravitational force (which breaks us if we fall from too great a height). If we got much taller than LH, we’d frequently sustain disabling or life-threatening injuries from simple trips and falls. After pushing around some equations, he concludes that:

L_{H}<\sim 50\times \left ( {\alpha /\alpha _{G}} \right )^{1/4}\alpha _{0}

Where α is the electromagnetic fine structure constant, αG the gravitational coupling constant for protons, and α0 the Bohr radius. These arguments are at best order-of-magnitude estimates, but Matthews plugs in the numbers and finds a surprisingly reasonable maximum figure of three metres for LH.

Matthews concludes that the frictional properties of toast set a limit on its rotation rate when falling from an edge, while the basic constants of the Universe set a limit on how tall humans are, which in turn sets a limit (about half LH) on how high useful tables are.

Our principal conclusion is a surprising one, given the apparently quotidian nature of the original phenomenon: all human-like organisms are destined to experience the ‘tumbling toast’ manifestation of Murphy’s Law because of the values of the fundamental constants of the universe. As such, we have probably confirmed the suspicions of many regarding the innate cussedness of the universe.

What to do? Reducing the size of the toast to match the scale of our tables is one solution, but the required size of ~2.5cm squares is (as Matthews remarks) “unsatisfactory”. He proposes instead the counterintuitive solution of speeding the toast on its way, to limit its opportunity to build up rotational velocity—flick it briskly over the edge, or snatch the supporting plate away, backwards and downwards.

So now you know.

* The BBC’s QED strand conducted just such an experiment in 1991.
Matthews’ work provoked a flurry of additional publications investigating the problem of tumbling toast. Analysis of video suggested that the free-falling toast rotates faster than Matthews predicted, probably because he had neglected the kinetic friction that occurs during the sliding phase. For more on the topic, take a look at the following:
Bacon ME, Heald G, James M. “A closer look at tumbling toast” American Journal of Physics (2001) 69(1): 38-43
Borghi R. “On the tumbling toast problem” European Journal of Physics (2012) 33: 1407-20

2 thoughts on “R.A.J. Matthews: Tumbling Toast, Murphy’s Law And The Fundamental Constants”

  1. Sir, do you have an explaination as to why I haven’t bought new socks in nearly a decade, yet seem to have exactly 12 black socks that don’t match each other, Four of which I don’t recognize?

  2. Socks are the best evidence we have of the Many Worlds interpretation of QM, since they quite clearly seem to be able to slip back and forth between parallel universes.

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