Engineering a win in breaking the wishbone

Get the edge at Thanksgiving with tips from biomechanists and a little physics along with some more Thanksgiving science.

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stress analysis on a wishbone (University of Michigan)
Tony Rice
, NASA Ambassador

Cracking the wishbone, or as the NC Museum of Natural Sciences reminds us is properly called furcula (little fork in Latin), is a holiday tradition in many homes.

Barry Belmont and Dr. Rachael Schmedlen of the University of Michigan's Department of Biomedical Engineering studied this bone and came up with

The winning advantage comes from ensuring more stress ends up on your opponent's side than yours.

  1. Choke up on your side of the bone.
Here each side of bone the acts as a class 2 lever (like a wheelbarrow). If your opponent's holds their side at the end and you hold in the middle, their side will break with half the force.
  • Use a firm grip and hold still. Let your opponents do all the pulling, they'll put more stress on their side
  • Starting with a dry bone. Collagen, a protein that provides a framework for calcium to provide strength.  That collagen breaks down as the bone dries.
  • these tips from bio engineers can help you win the wishbone contest every time


    Coming away with the larger piece of the wishbone is all about selecting the stronger side. If you aren't above helping that along, anything that weakens your opponents side will give you an edge.

    • Twist your opponents side a bit as they pull. This bone wasn't designed for torque and will fail with a snap.
    • Weaken your opponent's side by adding a small knife cut ahead of time. More stress will concentrate there as you pull virtually guaranteeing it will break there.

    If you want to make sure nobody wins, cover the wishbone in vinegar in a sealed jar. Three days later, you'll have a rubbery, flexible bone. Vinegar, a mild acid, dissolves away calcium in the bone leaving behind the soft, pliable framework of collagen.

    More Thanksgiving science

    Did you move the turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator a few days ago? The second law of thermodynamics ensures the bird continues to thaw down to the temperature of the refrigerator, not the other way around.

    Grandma's secret to a flakey pie crust also comes from temperature. As water from the butter turns to steam in the oven little pockets are expanded. Working ice cold butter down into no smaller than pea sized pieces makes this happen throughout the crust.

    Granny also probably takes a gentle touch to the dough. Overworking the dough causes gluten to form creating a tough rather than flakey crust. She may have also replaced a bit of the water in the recipe with vodka or bourbon which helps keep gluten from forming. Don't worry, the alcohol cooks out.

    The tryptophan myth

    Turkey contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid our body uses to create serotonin which promotes feelings of well being and relaxation. Serotonin is then concerted to melatonin that controls sleep and waking cycles.  So turkey makes you sleepy right?

    Biology is rarely that straight forward. Turkey isn't actually that high in tryptophan, chicken actually contains more. So why do we get sleepy after a big turkey dinner?

    That post Thanksgiving meal nap is more a result of carbohydrates in stuffing, potatoes, and the North Carolina favorite, yams. All those carbs trigger the release of insulin, which removes other amino acids from the blood that keep tryptophan from crossing the blood-brain barrier and begin their serotonin to melatonin work.

    You body moves diverts energy to digesting that big meal making you feel more tired.


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