Regarding cow tipping [November 16], your friend Robin tells lies. If a sleeping cow could be tipped over by some tanked-up frat rat, she could be tipped over by the wind. Mother Nature is not so easily outsmarted. Cows weigh from less than a thousand pounds to around two thousand pounds, and they have a low center of gravity. Tipping a cow would be like toppling a low-built piece of concrete statuary. It would not be a tip-and-run situation; it would be a challenge, and old Bossy is not going to just stand there and cooperate. Methinks Robin made up the whole story so you wouldn’t know he and his fellow frat rats really were looking for the sheep. –Marty Murphy, Chicago

You have been misinformed about the fabled practice of cow tipping. I spent a year working on a dairy farm where I participated in countless 3:30 AM milkings and observed over 300 sleeping cows a day. Cows sleep lying down, not standing up. –Mitchell Bellman, Montreal, Quebec

Despite popular belief, horses do not go into a deep sleep standing up like cows. Horses go into something of a catnap in which they lock their knees, bow their heads, and leave their eyes open. In order to really sleep, they must do so lying down. For this reason and the fact that they have exceptional hearing, it is almost impossible to sneak up on a horse. It is also dangerous because some will turn and kick before they run. So please tell your readers not to try “horse tipping.” –Terese Hernandez, Chicago

People such as myself who are always out there on the front lines of science learn to expect stuff like this. On the one hand, you have profound theoretical and philosophical reasons cow tipping is impossible; on the other, somebody who claims to have seen it done. No doubt my colleagues at Fermilab have similar problems looking for quarks.

I checked back with Robin (who is female, incidentally); she sticks with her story. To review: One night after a boozy party at Albion College in Michigan in either the fall of 1980 or the spring of 1981, Robin drove with a carload of other kids out to a field where a bunch of sleeping cows were standing. Whilst she and the others watched from behind a fence (guesstimated distance: the width of a football field), two freshman boys crept up on a likely cow and gave it a shove, as a consequence whereof the cow tipped over. Kind of limited entertainment value, but one gathers that at Albion it’s either that or watch the milk curdle.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, knowledgeable people I checked with (a couple of farmers, an animal-science expert) claim cow tipping can’t happen. Apart from their sheer size (1,200 pounds is typical), cows do not fall into a deep sleep while standing the way horses do (more on this below); rather, they simply doze while chewing their cud. They are easily startled, making it difficult to sneak up on them.

Robin believes the two freshman boys were reasonably stealthy in sneaking up on the cow in question, which may not have been full grown. She admits that given the darkness and the distance, it’s conceivable there was some furtive funny business–tripping the cow with a rope or some such thing. But she can recall no definite evidence that this occurred and has no doubt that the cow did fall over.

Robin has forgotten who her fellow tippers were, making her story impossible to corroborate, but she gives every sign of sincerity. Either she hallucinated the whole thing or cow tipping is possible under some conditions. I invite further reports, pardon the expression, from the field.

Given the inconclusive state of the cow tipping debate, I am pleased to make the following definite statement regarding Ms. Hernandez’s claim about horses’ sleeping habits: it’s wrong, you ignorant sack of slime. Horses routinely fall into deep sleep while standing up–which is not to say they can’t be startled awake. Some can go many days without lying down, though most recline for at least a short time each day. One researcher (Winchester, 1943) has claimed that horses use less energy while standing than lying down–for one thing, it’s easier to breathe. Sounds good to me, bro. Next case.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.