(Alex Fine for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)

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: Okay, 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.

Me: Precariousness?

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.

Me: So that gets the meatball onto the table. What about out the door?

Arthur: See, that’s where the height of the spaghetti mound comes in. The entire question hinges on how much momentum the meatball obtains as it rolls down. If the mound is very tall, the force of gravity could transform the meatball’s potential energy into sufficient kinetic energy. It is a distinct possibility.

Me: But it might have to be a very tall pile of pasta, like 15 feet?

Arthur: It might.

Me: How about the cheese? Might that add too much friction?


Me: Professor?

Arthur: I’m thinking! Yes, the cheese would probably slow the progress down the side of the spaghetti, but at the same time it would pick up some mass from the cheese, which would add to its momentum, since momentum is mass times velocity. The question of which would be the larger factor I can’t and won’t speculate on.

Okay, so we’ve gotten the meatball out the door. I had one more question, and for that a physicist was of no use at all. That is why I phoned Bruce Kirchoff of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Bruce is one of America’s most decorated botanists.

Me: So if the meatball rolls out the door onto dirt and becomes “mush,” might it indeed grow to become a meatball tree, with sauce, as the lesser-known fourth and fifth couplets of the song suggest?

Bruce: No. I wish I could make it poetically true, but meat doesn’t grow on trees. A meatball is just animal muscle and some flour. There is nothing to germinate a seed. I suppose you could have a tiny possibility that the meatball had a seed in it, maybe from some spice, and it would germinate into a plant, and some of these plants have reddish spherical flowers, like this globe onion I am looking at from St. Petersburg, Russia. But that would be an onion, not a meatball. Also you would have to really undercook the meatball so the seed stayed alive, and as a man of science I don’t recommend that.

Me: Has this been the greatest interview of your life?

Bruce: No.

That’s it. We’ve been deceiving our children for at least 50 years. Join us next week when we examine whether an old woman who swallows a fly will keep ingesting larger animals until she dies.

Email Gene Weingarten at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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