Economists sitting around a table in a restaurant might think about how to order optimally given the constraints of time and income, how to efficiently arrange the tables to reduce costs, whether tips create the proper service incentives, the costs and benefits of a "no substitutions" policy on the menu, when self-serve dominates table service, or they may drift off to topics such as froth in real estate markets. Physicists think of other things. As they sit around the table talking over coffee, they worry about the frothy dimensions of string theory, and how to stop wobbly tables from spilling the froth from their coffee into their laps:
SciAm Observations: Not the Table of the Elements: People sometimes ask me, what is the value of particle physics? Why should we pay to build these huge accelerator installations? What practical benefit comes from it? And now I can tell them this: physicists have solved the wobbly table problem.
Do you always get the wobbly table at restaurants and cafes? Don't despair. A physicist has proved that, within reasonable limits, it is always possible to rotate the table to a position where all four legs stand solidly on the ground. Andre Martin was moved to study the problem because he was fed up with the wobbly tables at CERN ... in Geneva ... where he works on abstruse problems in high-energy physics. Anyone who drinks a cup of coffee on the terrace of the CERN cafeteria ... discovers that the tables usually have only three feet resting on the ground, so that the slightest touch spills your drink. Time after time, Martin would find himself rotating the table to look for a stable position. "I've always been able to find one," he says. "People are sometimes amazed that it works." More than ten years ago, Martin decided to see if he could find some proof that a stable state always exists. He believed that he'd found one ... in 1998, but ... discovered that ... it wasn't completely correct. Now Martin believes he has a more watertight case, and this time he has gone public. "I had the feeling that mathematicians were interested," he explains.
Nobel Committee, are you listening? This could qualify for either Physics or Peace, given all the aggravation this problem has caused.