You know that bit in Ghostbusters when Bill Murray yanks at a tablecloth in the ballroom and jokes that “the flowers are still standing”? While his version of the trick may not have been entirely successful, others have made entire careers off of the ability to pull cloth away without disturbing the contents covering it (including this guy, who is incredibly naked when he does it). How do they do it? The answer, as usual, is science.
How to Win at Everything is a show on National Geographic TV that explores the physics and psychology behind a variety of weird and wild stuff, and recently posted a clip on its website about the science behind the tablecloth pull. The show called upon tablecloth pulling expert Matt Ricardo, who shows what happens when you pull the cloth at the middle, and then again at the edges.
Newton’s first law of inertia states that objects tend to resist movement, and in the case of the tablecloth pull, that resistance comes from friction from the object as well as the bunched up cloth. When pulling from the middle, friction is reduced because the cloth stays smooth, and everything stays put. When pulling from the edges, though, well… hope you have a broom handy.