The film is Cool Hand Luke. Our hero is Paul Newman. The task is to undertake the most marvellously mad, mind numbingly pointless bet in movie history: to eat fifty eggs in one hour, without throwing up. But can it be done, or is it yet another case of Hollywood Science?
Could you eat fifty eggs? Could anyone? Our backyard biologists Jonathan Hare and Robert Llewellyn are determined to find out.
The first step, find out the amount of space the eggs would take up, then see if a person’s stomach can hold that much.
So let’s use some simple calculations. If the radius of an egg is about 2.5cm and the volume of an ellipse is:
volume of 50 eggs =
(where m is metres), fifty eggs will be approximately 0.003 metres cubed or 3 litres when chewed.
Can the human stomach hold this many eggs?
And what happens to the eggs as they pass through the digestive system?
When we smell food, our mouth responds by producing saliva, and as we eat, the saliva lubricates our food and begins the process of digestion.
The average amount of saliva we can produce in one go is 300ml, and once this saliva has been used up, food becomes dry and difficult to chew and swallow.
Once Paul Newman has eaten a number of eggs, thus using up all of his available saliva, he would have to wait (so he can produce more) or drink something to help the eggs go down. Once chewed and swallowed, food passes down the oesophagus and into the stomach.
The stomach is a J-shaped organ with very active muscles, which expand and contract depending on the amount of food present.
It’s 25cm long and a trained stomach is capable of holding up to 4 litres of food. When the stomach is empty it contains about 1 litre of liquid.
So Paul Newman’s 3 litres of eggs should just about fit into a very large stomach. But most people’s stomachs could not hold this much.
Once full, the stomach’s nerves sense that it has become stretched and its muscles begin to work so that the food and enzymes mix together.
The gastric gland secretes pepsin, an enzyme that breaks down protein, and hydrochloric acid which kills bacteria.The gastric gland also secretes mucus that protects the walls of the stomach from the acid.
Once broken down the food is a semi-fluid mass which enters the small intestine, and it is here that most of the digestion takes place. At this stage, only the protein has begun to be digested.
Only small amounts of food are released into the 6.5m long small intestine at a time. This means that most of the eggs will remain in the stomach for longer than three and a half hours.
Here, enzymes from the pancreas break down the sugars, fats and the proteins that were not tackled in the stomach.
Towards the end of the small intestine, the tube is lined with millions of cillia, tiny blood rich projections that give the small intestine a huge surface area, ready to absorb the broken down eggs.
Now the eggs move into the large intestine. All of the broken down components of the eggs have passed through the walls of the small intestine into the bloodstream. What remains are the insoluble parts, like roughage and water. The large intestine itself doesn’t contribute to digestion, but bacteria that live there create vitamin K and some of the B vitamins.
The eggs will spend up the 24 hours in the large intestine where most of the water is absorbed. The last of the eggs pass out of the anus about 36 hours after being eaten.
Not only will Paul Newman be bunged up for 36 hours after eating his eggs, the amount of hydrogen sulphide gas (stink gas) he would produce would be awful.
So after all of this, what is the likelihood of Paul Newman eating 50 eggs? Not great. He would run out of saliva, and chances are his stomach would not be trained to take four litres of food.