Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rapunzel Week: The Physics of Hair Climbing

From: Fairy Tale Physics: Myths and Legends Explained by Stephanie Peatling in Sydney for National Geographic News:

Poor Rapunzel. Not only did she get locked up in a tall tower, but she literally risked her neck by allowing a prince to climb up her hair.

Such dilemmas had long bothered Sue Stocklmayer, director of the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Stocklmayer resolved to do something about it, so she and fellow CPAS staff member Mike Gore, a retired professor, channeled their frustrations over fairy tale physics into a traveling science show.

Rapunzel's conundrum is one of the highlights of the show.

"We ask how it is that Rapunzel didn't lose her skull, given the weight of what she's [supporting]," Stocklmayer said.

"You might notice some of the enlightened [storybook] artists have cottoned on to this and show her wrapping her hair around something, like a bedpost, first.

"A small object"—such as a cooped-up princess—"can bear a lot of weight if the connecting device [her hair] is wrapped around something."

The prince is then technically hanging on to the bedpost rather than Rapunzel's scalp.

"So long as Rapunzel wraps her hair first, then the prince and she are Ok," Stocklmayer said. "So in her case, yes, it could happen."
Shameless plug: You can read more about Rapunzel on the SurLaLune website or in my book, Rapunzel and Other Maiden in the Tower Tales From Around the World.


  1. An intriquing theme, no doubt! Preparing for my rehearsals of "Rapunzel" last year I had found this information in THE SCIENCE OF FAIRY TALES -

    "On average one strand of hair can support about three and one-half ounces, or about the weight of two candy bars. Each strand of dark hair is generally thicker, and therefore stronger, than blond hair.
    But, alas, Rapunzel must make do with blond locks. Given that blondes generally have about 140,000 hairs on their heads, her hair should easily support the weight of many, many princes. However, there is more to this story...
    .. Nathan Harshman, Assistant Professor of Physics at American University in Washington, DC, suggests Rapunzel would be safer and more secure if she tied her hair around something before lowering it. “The whole idea is that you can use the friction of the hair against itself in the knot, and whatever it is tied around will support the weight of the prince.” That is a much better idea than making Rapunzel’s scalp the anchor point."

  2. This they feel a need to investigate? What about water making a man's eyes grow back? How's THAT work, scientifically speaking? Fairy tales are a form of fantasy. That means that they can ignore the rules of physics for the sake of story. It's a fun exercise, but if you're letting it inhibit your enjoyment of the tale, you're approaching this the wrong way.