In The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics (page 50) I mention that a four-legged table provides an example of an ill-posed problem. If we take a table having four legs of equal length lying on a flat surface and shorten one leg by an arbitrarily small amount then the weight supported by that leg will jump from one quarter of the total weight to zero.

A table with one leg shorter than the others wobbles, as may one sitting on an uneven floor, and how to cure wobbly tables has been the subject of a number of papers over the years. The tongue-in cheek article

Hanspeter Kraft, The Wobbly Garden Table, Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry 1, 95-96, 2001

describes how an engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician would go about solving the problem. The engineer would invent an adjustable leg. The physicist would submit a research proposal to tackle the more general problem of “the stability of multiply-legged objects on rough surfaces”. The mathematician would construct an argument based on the intermediate value theorem to show that stability can be restored with a suitable rotation of no more than 90 degrees. This argument has been discussed by several authors, but turning it into a mathematically precise statement with appropriate assumptions on the table and the ground on which it rests is not easy.

The two most recent contributions to this topic that I am aware of are

A. Martin, On the Stability of Four-Legged Tables, Physics Letters A, 360, 495-500, 2007

Bill Baritompa, Rainer Löwen, Burkard Polster, and Marty Ross, Mathematical Table Turning Revisited, arXiv:math/0511490v1, 17 pp., 2008

In the latter paper it is shown that if the ground on which a rectangular table rests slopes by less than 35.36 degrees and the legs of the table are at least half as long as its diagonals then the rotation trick works.

For more insight into this problem you may like to watch the video below in which Matthias Kreck explains the problem with the aid of some excellent animations.

My local pub has a very irregular tiled floor, which introduces pesky discontinuities to the problem. This has resulted in some very upsetting beer-spilling incidents. I’ve found the only solution is to seek the round three-legged tables, but this post makes me wonder if there is a better way.