The first floor of the WonderLab has a whimsical, eclectic appearance with bright colors, exhibits of all shapes and sizes and kids running everywhere. Even with all this bustle and activity my eye is naturally drawn to the shimmery display in the back of the room. There sits, in all its glory, one of WonderLab’s most popular exhibits, the Bed of Nails.
Beds of nails can be traced back to east Asian mysticism, often in the fakir tradition. A fakir is person who is self sufficient and has devoted their life to God. This was originally a sufi muslim concept, but has also been used to refer to people in the hindu and buddhist traditions and is often accompanied by asceticism, which requires individuals to abstain from sensual pleasure. A bed of nails could have been used as part of this tradition.
About the Exhibit
The Bed of Nails, though often associated with stunts and mysticism, is completely based in — you guessed it — science! Truthfully, although a bed of nails may not be the most comfortable spot to get a night’s sleep, it’s not particularly dangerous. In fact, the most dangerous thing about a bed of nails is getting on and off of it. But do not worry! At WonderLab we have you covered. After you approach the exhibit climb up on the table, put your head on the head rest and press the button. As you lie there the nails raise up out of the table. As long as you lay still you’ll be perfectly fine! Release the button and the nails are lowered back into the table. Voila! Off you jump. No problem. But if you’re still nervous, you’re not alone. When Ellen DeGeneres tried one on her show, she seemed nervous too!
Physics aka How it Works
It all comes down to physics, or more specifically pressure. The formula for pressure is force divided by area. So, if you’ve ever used a nail you know that when you use a hammer (force) to drive one nail (small area) into a piece of wood it goes right into it, because the pressure is very high. However, when gravity forces your entire body down on 5,000 nails the force is dispersed over a large area, creating a smaller amount of pressure.
The reason it’s dangerous to get on and off of a bed of nails is because when you sit up or put a hand down to steady yourself the force is dispersed over a much smaller area, making the pressure must greater. This could cause the nails to break the skin.
Guinness World Records
There are a number of Guinness World Records associated with beds of nails. Just recently, in December of 2017 a group broke the record for the for Most Layered Bed of Nails Sandwich with 8 layers! In 2011, an Australian man had twenty motorcycles drive over him in two minutes, while laying on a bed of nails, to break a world record. The next year, a different Australian man broke the record for heaviest concrete block break on a bed of nails when he had 15 blocks weighing 1708 lbs and 8 oz broken on his stomach while laying on a bed of nails.
So is a bed of nails dangerous? Not really, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it out at home. Instead come visit WonderLab and use the Bed of Nails. While you’re at it go ahead and check out some of our other exhibits that teach physical science of physicals, like the exhibit right next to the bed of nails: The Pulley Chairs!
About the Writer: Abby Bainbridge is studying journalism with a concentration in public relations, as a member of IU’s class of 2021. She is a writing and content development intern in the marketing department at WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology. She was completely shocked by the number of world records involving beds of nails and wouldn’t shut up about it to the other interns.