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I thought this was better suited here than biology, as the camel is figurative; it could also be a wooden beam.

My question is basically: Could adding an object of negligible weight (such as a straw) on a load bearing object that is at or near its maximum load limit make enough of a difference to actually break it?

Intuitively (although I'm no physicist) I would expect it can't, but at the same time if I think of it logically there definitely is a point at which the object would break, so why would a straw not make the difference?

I'd assume that the straw is placed on the camel with a minimum amount of force, or "magically" appears on it, so acceleration and inertia aren't an issue.

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    $\begingroup$ If the weight is neglegible, then it obviously won't make a difference, since is it then not neglegible anymore. $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @ACuriousMind: Good point. Would/could you suggest a better wording for the question? $\endgroup$
    – George T
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ @George T I think the point is that the question isn't really a question. You're getting confused with a trick of language. A mass is either zero, or non-zero. $\endgroup$
    – Matt
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see the problem, to be straight with you. The comment from ACuriousMind contains a completely logical answer, but if we assume the weight is not negligible, as in the real world, then the beam will break, as it is at its maximum limit, otherwise it won't and the beam isn't, if you follow me. No offence, but this question seems linguistic or philosophical in nature , not physical. $\endgroup$
    – user81619
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ I guess I'm having trouble picturing a table with something heavy on it but stable, suddenly breaking when a feather falls on top. It sounds like something that could only happen in Looney Tunes. $\endgroup$
    – George T
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 12:17

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As long as the straw has non-zero mass, of course is can break the camels back. If that straw doesn't do it, add another one, and another. They all have mass, so it keeps adding up, to grams, kilograms, tons, and eventually to as much as it takes to break the figurative back.

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I guess that your question can be related to Zeno's paradox.

In the story of Zeno, nobody can move. The idea is that in order to get somewhere you first have to make it half the way there. But, then the only way to get half the way there is to first walk one quarter of the way and so on. You see that you need to move an infinite number of steps in order to get anywhere. How is that possible?

One solution of the paradox can be seen in the fact that the series,

$$ \sum_{n=1}^{\infty} \left(\frac{1}{2}\right)^n \, ,$$

converges and is equal to one. A deeper way of understanding this is to go into differential calculus. Integrals are infinite sums of infinitely small elements and give a finite number.

You can think of the straws as infinitesimal mass elements, $dm$. Then the total mass that the Camel must carry is the integral over them,

$$ M= \int_0^M \, dm \, .$$

As we would all guess, if you integrate enough (i.e. if $M$ is large enough), you will break the camel's back.

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