Transcript for Sonic Sidebar - Cow Tipping

Anne Strainchamps: To The Best of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio and if there's one thing we know, here in America's dairy land, it's cows. So as long as we're talking about lies that last, have you ever tried to tip a cow?

Jake Swearingen: So the idea, the popular conception of cow tipping is that, on a semi-regular basis young men, usually drunk, go out into the countryside, find a dairy cow and sneak up on it. The cow is sleeping while standing on it's feet and the young men, sometimes just one, sometimes it's a couple, run up and and just give it a good old shove and down the cow goes. And it's a great laugh for everybody. And I think if you quiz a room of people who maybe grew up in more suburban or urban areas and said, "is cow tipping real?" Most people would say, "yeah, oh yeah."

Strainchamps: That's Jake Swearingen of Modern Farmer magazine and he says the truth is, no one can tip a cow. He told Charles Monroe-Kane he has physics and even Youtube to back him up.

Swearingen: In 2005, there was a student at the University of British Columbia named Tracy Boechler who did the, basically the rough equation of what it would take to tip a cow. That equation was later refined by Dr. Margo Lillie and they published a small paper on it and that paper, sort of, blew up. It was published in numerous newspapers, I think maybe much Dr. Margo Lillie's regret. Talking to her you get the sense that, you know, she's a very serious doctor of zoology and somehow cow tipping has become what she's most known for. But they basically run through what the physics would require to tip a cow and they're daunting to say the least.

Charles Monroe-Kane: You know, there's this joke I was remembering how a guy walks into a bar, tries to pick up a woman and she says, you know, "get away from me, you have a one-in-a-million chance for me to ever go out with you," and he's like, "yeah, I got a chance!"

Swearingen: "So you're saying there's a chance."

Monroe-Kane: But I look at it, I think to myself, "well, certain, you know, conditions, if you got your physics right." But you're saying not in a real world conditions.

Swearingen: So, let's say that you wanted to tip a cow. And let's also, sort of, posit that you exist in a universe where there's the platonic ideal of the typical cow. The creator of this universe has decided, "you know what, cows actually should go over on their side as much as possible." So to do that, you would create a cow that is basically a rigid, rectangular body. Think of basically, like, a refrigerator that stands at about 4 1/2 feet tall or 1.5 meters, weighs about 682 kilograms, that's about 1500 pounds, and is completely un-reactive. As you start pushing against it, it will not do anything. Even if you take all that into account you're gonna need 1360 Newtons of force. So, once Dr. Margo Lillie really started to take all that into account, her equation showed that five very strong people could possibly do it, and really it's more like six people of average strength, could tip a cow. But here's the real problem, is that you need to generate all this force. And you generate force, you know the equation for force is force equals mass times acceleration. And, so even if you have these six people you can't, ideally you're not gonna all be able to increase your own mass, you know, at will. I can't increase my own body weight at will without a lot of time at the gym or, you know, various other methods. The only thing that you can change is your acceleration. So you not only have to get five or six people to come up on a cow that's awake, that's reactive, that's going to be bracing itself, that's going to be try moving away from you, but you have to come at it very, very quickly. So you need to increase that amount of acceleration. How much again just adds a whole other layer of complexity. And the final part that she points out is that, so imagine, again, that a cow is sort of this refrigerator that you're trying to push over. And you have a refrigerator and you want to tip it over on it's side. You don't push straight across. You don't push at 180 degrees relative to the, you know, the plane of the Earth. You actually have to push upward a little bit so you need to get six people that also, probably like, go to the gym and do a lot of squats, that have a lot of ability to, sort of, generate upward thrust as well. So all of that put together just creates this, sort of, situation where it's really, really, really, really difficult, even with six people moving in concert, to get a cow over onto it's side. Monroe-Kane: Well there you go, the physics has spoken. Now did you think this was real before you started this? Be honest. Swearingen: I really, I really highly doubted it was real. I grew up in Oklahoma, you know, I had been around cows. I understood how large they were but I still, you never know, you know?

Monroe-Kane: You never know.

Swearingen: Human beings are, we're really ingenious creatures, you know, we went to the moon, you know?

Monroe-Kane: Yeah, we're stupid and smart. That's a great mix.

Swearingen: Exactly. I didn't want to discount the idea that maybe somewhere out there, like, it had happened, even if on the face of it it seemed highly unlikely.

Monroe-Kane: Now your strongest argument, in my opinion, is the YouTube phenomena argument. Can you tell us that?

Swearingen: Sure. You know, when I first started writing this article, one of the things, the first things that I did, honestly, was just go on to YouTube and start looking around to see if there was any sort of example of cow tipping. YouTube, to my mind, is sort of, it is the clearing house of human stupidity. You can go and find, literally, thousands of videos of kids taking the cinnamon challenge where they put a teaspoon of cinnamon in their mouth and they end up gagging and, you know, throwing up. Kids jumping off roofs onto trampoline, you know, so many examples of people lighting fireworks indoors. It's just, sort of, non-stop stupidity because that gets attention on the internet and I think cow tipping is a really stupid thing and yet there's not a single example of it. And so, to my mind, that's sort of the final nail in the coffin of the idea of cow tipping being a actual thing beyond a rural legend.

Monroe-Kane: Well thank you very, very much and hopefully this will stop people from trying to go tip cows all across the country.

Swearingen: Yeah, I cannot emphasize enough it is a really dumb and dangerous thing to even attempt to do and even if you go attempt it the cow's gonna stay upright and you're gonna end up in the mud.

[music] I am cow, hear me moo I weigh twice as much as you And I look good on the Barbeque Yogurt, curd cream, cheese, and butters made from liquid from my udders I am cow, I am cow Hear me moo

Strainchamps: Charles Monroe-Kane talked with Jake Swearingen of Modern Farmer magazine.

Comments for this interview

Now there's some solid (David Morrison, 10/23/2014 - 5:31pm)

Now there's some solid midwestern public radio investigative reporting.

(I kid because I love.)

Cows Sleep Lying Down (Warren Tighe, 09/07/2014 - 10:42pm)

The segment about cow tipping failed in multiple ways. It failed to explain that cows sleep lying down, not standing - perhaps the core reason the myth persists. And it erroneously claims that two people (young men) can't tip over a disabled (sleeping) cow. If a cow was really asleep while standing, and magically remained so, it could certainly be tipped over by two strong men. But if its awake, the issue then has nothing to do with mass and forces, but everything to do with the cow walking away, moving its legs and body to avoid falling over if you do try to push it over. attaching the attackers, etc. A very poor segment, that ironically extends one myth (that cows sleep standing) and adds another (that a disabled cow couldn't be tipped over).

cow tipping (john dooley, 02/27/2014 - 5:26pm)

I listened to this on WITF today and the guest's attempt at discussing the physics of cow tipping included this nonsense:
"And you generate force, you know the equation for force is force equals mass times acceleration. And, so even if you have these six people you can't, ideally you're not gonna all be able to increase your own mass"
Dr. Lillie's equation is correct, but it's the cow's mass in the formula, not the people, and if you can get the cow to accelerate at even 1/1000 g, you can still tip the (sleeping) cow. You wouldn't generate force by accelerating, but by flexing your muscles.