Tom Burns: An eggy celebration of spring

Tom Burns - Stargazing

Both the first day of spring, called the vernal equinox, and Easter have now passed. If your family is like mine, you’ll almost surely find a few remnants of both celebrations hanging around in your refrigerator. The egg is, after all, both a symbol of the new life that springtime embodies and an integral part of our Easter celebration.

Spring is also a time to ask profound questions, and I can’t think of a greater issue than one that has perplexed humans since the dawn of human intelligence. Can we balance an egg on its end on or near the vernal equinox?

Well, of course we can. Before you accuse your neighborhood astronomy columnist of being a hard-boiled purveyor of scrambled mythological insanity, read on, skeptical reader.

The egg has always been a tasty symbol of springtime. Contained within the egg is the promise of new life and rebirth. Christians give their children eggs on Easter, a springtime celebration that has obvious ties to death and rebirth.

We mark the first day of spring by purely astronomical means. Earth orbits the sun once a year. We have seasons in the first place because our planet’s axis of rotation is tilted about 23 degrees with respect to the path of its orbit. On the summer solstice, the first day of summer, the northern part of Earth’s axis is pointed toward the sun. As a result, the northern hemisphere leans in toward the sun. The sun’s rays hit our hemisphere more directly, from straight above us, so to speak. On the first day of winter, the winter solstice, our hemisphere is pointed away from the sun. The sun’s rays hit us at a more glancing angle, and colder weather results. The entire process is reversed for the southern hemisphere, of course.

The vernal equinox happens halfway between the two solstices. Earth’s axis is pointed perpendicularly to the sun. Egg-balancing aficionados believe that the tilt of the axis somehow balances out the sun’s gravity, and ovoid madness sweeps the planet. Similar astronomical conditions exist at the autumnal equinox, of course, but the first day of fall apparently doesn’t generate the same eggy enthusiasm as the vernal variety.

Any astronerd will tell you that vernal egg magic is a bunch of hoo-ha. Earth spins on its axis. Your gravitational orientation with the sun is constantly changing. Also, the moon exerts far more gravitational force on planet Earth, and it’s up there moving around like crazy according to a completely different cycle than Earth’s revolution around the sun.

Eggs are problematic to balance for two reasons. They must rest on a single point on their surface. It’s simply difficult for the amateur ovum balancer to find the eggs-act gravitational centerline of the ovoid. Also, the yolk of an egg is much denser than the clear part, and the yolk sits high in the egg. The high center of gravity makes the egg want to fall over. Try balancing an ice pick and you’ll see what I mean.

Still, with a little patience you should be able to balance an egg on March 21, 2017. In fact, you should be able to do it on any day of the year if you know the tricks of the trade. The main trick, which I have poached from various old magic books, is to try a whole mess of eggs. Eventually, you’ll find one that balances better than the rest. Take a careful look at the “magic” egg. You’ll see little bumps on the bottom in just the right places help the egg stand upright.

You can significantly increase your apparent ability by shaking the egg repeatedly before you start. You’ll spread the yolk out within the egg and lower its center of gravity, making egg balancing a relative breeze. (Hold the egg firmly but not too tightly. You don’t want to get egg on your face.)

Don’t follow the common advice and use a leftover hard-boiled Easter egg. It spoils the springtime magic if you can’t crack the egg after you’ve performed the trick.

Old myths die hard. If you know people who still believe in the gravitational magic of the vernal equinox, tell them that the yolks on them.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.