Cool Hand Luke
Boiled Eggs: how many can you eat in one hour?

Note: these articles have been published in InfoChem, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.
Many are based on the two BBC OU TV series - Hollywood Science

"To eat 50 boiled eggs in one hour - no throwing up!", that was the crazy stunt our bored prisoner Luke (Paul Newman) attempted in the film Cool Hand Luke. There have been all sorts of eating records including bazaar ones such as eating a whole car bit by bit over a year or so! My nephew reckons he could eat 50 cream eggs in one hour! But seriously could you really eat 50 boiled eggs in an hour?

The first problem is simply a matter of stomach volume. 50 boiled eggs will occupy about 3 litres. Now a normal stomach is about 1 - 1.5 litres before you have eaten anything, so the first problem is that it is very unlikely that a normal stomach could contain all that egg material. However some large people may also have larger than average stomachs so strictly speaking the volume problem is not impossible. In the film we see Luke exercising, running around trying to get fit for the challenge but to be honest it looks more like he's tightening up his tummy rather than stretching it!

If you have ever tried eating just a couple of boiled eggs you quickly notice that your mouth dries up. We produce saliva to help brake down the food prior to it entering the stomach where digestion starts. We can only produce a limited amount of saliva (100 ml or so) before we need a rest (if you don't believe me try eating 10 dry crackers one after the other!).

Once the food has been partly broken up in the mouth and mixed with the saliva it moves down to the stomach. The stomach is rather like a grinder it uses muscles and the enzyme pepsin to brake down foods (acid is also present, which provide the correct chemical environment for the enzyme to work and also to help kill off any bugs).

In this egg eating challenge you might reason that the stomach processes would move some of the egg mass onto the intestine as soon as possible to make way for more eggs. Unfortunately, after only an hour we wouldn't expect a very large fraction of the egg material to have moved along into the intestine. It will however eventually do so and then the bacteria present in the intestine will feed on the proteins in the food producing among other things gases like hydrogen sulphide - which smells of rotten egg

It's not difficult to imagine the problems his fellow prisoners will have sharing a cell (or worse a bottom bunk!) but to be honest gases are not his main problem because I don't think most people could keep down 10 to 20 eggs let alone 50 eggs one after the other in just an hour.

How teachers can use these articles in a lesson

Why Hollywood Science

Open University Hollywood Science web site

Call for clips - do you have a film clip that needs investigating?

Jonathan would like to thank Robert Llewellyn, Gill Watson and Harry Kroto (Vega Trust), all the BBC teams, The Royal Society of Chemistry and all at the Open University.


Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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