5 Scientific Explanations Behind Everyday Nuisances
In an era where our gadgets exceed the science fiction of just 20 years ago, it's amazing how many everyday annoyances have never gotten fixed. Nobody has invented tangle-proof wires, or smooth-pouring ketchup, or good-smelling bus passengers. You can't get too mad at science for not solving these problems. It's not like they haven't tried. It's just way more complicated than it sounds to fix things like ...
Wires That Get Tangled in Storage
You stuff your headphones into your pocket, take them out half an hour later and curse as you try to untie a knot that looks like it was impossible to have formed on its own, like you have tiny knot-tying elves in your pockets trying to screw with you.
We don't care what Dr. Jonas says. It's the elves, dammit!
It's the same with your computer cables, and the Christmas lights in your attic, and your garden hose. In fact, everything in your home that is capable of twisting into a knot seems to be involved in a giant conspiracy against your sanity. And it always pisses you off, because there's no reason for it -- why would a bunch of wire that was in a nice loop when you stored it suddenly be a tangled mess later?
Don't think that science has just been asleep at the wheel on this one; there is an entire mathematical discipline that specializes in how seemingly random tangles form. Knot theory is in fact one of the more popular pastimes among the mathematically well-endowed, and it focuses entirely on the "How the hell do things get tangled?" dilemma.
"I don't see how my nudity helps this experiment in any way."
And here's what they have found out: It is a near-mathematical certainty that a wire/string/hose/etc. of any length will knot in storage. To put it simply (and it gets infinitely complicated), there is only one way for a cable to be straight, but a massive number of ways it can get tangled. Scientists have found literally hundreds of separate, unique types of individual knot, or "prime knots," and they can be combined in infinite ways. You could go your whole life and never see the same knot twice.
So any time you have a bunch of long, flexible objects (or, in the garden hose scenario, one really long object in multiple loops), the objects link in a number of places. When there's enough contact points, and the objects are long and slim enough, the chances for these objects not getting into one of those trillions of knot states is downright astronomical. The more contact points, the more possible knotted states.
At some point, it's just easier to use a bowie knife and buy a shitload of cords.
So even a little motion -- jostling the box of Christmas lights when you move it, a change in temperature causing your garden hose to shrink a tiny bit -- makes those states catastrophically accumulate, often within seconds. Put the headphones in your backpack, walk across campus, boom: You have descended into knot hell.
Can It Be Fixed?
Yes and no.
The actual knotting will happen no matter what. Sure, the crucial element is motion, so restricting that by neatly arranging the cables and securing them with, say, cable clips will do the trick. But if you are the kind of person who considers that an option, chances are your cables are neatly arranged and alphabetized already.
Which is widely considered an early warning sign of sociopathy.
If the movement can't be restricted, like with those headphone cables, you can either muster up the patience and technique to roll them up neatly or, failing that, just bury them at the bottom of the bag under something heavy and hope for the best.
Hard-Boiled Eggs That Are Impossible to Peel
You've probably noticed that hard-boiled eggs tend to come in two varieties: the ones that can be easily, perfectly peeled in three seconds flat, and those that will have you removing the shell in painstaking fragments for minutes, and the end result looks like you subcontracted a rabid beaver to do the job for you. What's up with that? Did you screw up the freaking boiling of an egg? Are you the worst cook in the world? Or maybe there are ... two sorts of hens? Angry and happy hens? Constipated and ...?
"And there goes my appetite."
Yeah, let's not take that theory any further. Do you have anything, science?
Of course it does! There are people who actually research these things for a living, and this is what they've found: It's all about freshness. And no, it's not "fresher is better."
The fresher the egg, the more acidic the egg white is. Since the acid levels directly determine how tightly stuck the shell is to the egg white, this means that the freshest eggs are also the most difficult to peel. With time, the acid slowly decays and the contents shrink a little, leaving more space between the egg shell and the solid cooked white and easing the peeling process.
Which leads us to the problem behind the problem: Older eggs are the only ones that are easy to peel, so you can just let them sit -- but you want your eggs now. It's an egg emergency!
"This hangover won't unhangover itself."
Can It Be Fixed?
It can. Awesomely.
All you need is the lung capacity of a professional athlete, and you can just blow that egg right out of its shell. Literally -- you peel a bit of shell off of each end, put your mouth up to it and blow incredibly hard. It should shove the egg right out the other end:
Well, that, or you can just artificially increase the pH of the water you boil the egg in by adding a little baking soda, which lowers the egg's acidity. But if you watched that egg-blowing video, we can't think of a single reason why anyone would want to peel eggs in any other way ever again.
Fresh Fruit That Rots Within Hours
You buy some fruit, and you stick it in that drawer in the refrigerator where you keep your fruit (or the basket on the counter, whatever). The next day, you go to grab one of your fresh new strawberries, only to find that they're already dark and squishy. Damn that grocery store for selling you this trick fruit that looks perfect on the shelf, but self-destructs the next day! Why hasn't somebody filed a class action over this bullshit?
Fear of the mighty Tom Thumb cartel?
Well, it's actually not the grocery store's fault.
When you put your brand new fruit in your fruit holder, was the fruit you bought last week still sitting in there? Of course it was, you might still eat that shit! You don't just throw away money. Well, have you ever heard a grumpy old grandmotherly type say, "One bad apple spoils the bunch"? There's science behind that.
Grandma: 1, Science: Probably much more.
The second a fruit is picked, the flow of a hormone that represses ripening stops and the fruit becomes extremely sensitive to another chemical called ethylene. It speeds up the process that breaks down the fruit's cell walls, making it squishy and vulnerable to germs and fungus. If a fruit also happens to be damaged -- a "bad apple," if you will -- it starts to produce ethylene in spades. Enough, in fact, to spare -- it will infect any other fruit in the vicinity.
Because of this, the damaged fruit is basically a plague carrier -- and therefore pretty goddamn bad news for the healthy, fresh fruit stuck in the same bag or basket.
Now this is fit only for the daiquiri of a pauper.
Can It Be Fixed?
Keep fresh fruit and old fruit separate. Other than that, there's not much that can be done to stop the phenomenon. That doesn't mean science isn't trying, though.
Meet the Water Shade:
Coming soon to an embarrassingly wealthy person near you.
What looks like a particularly tasteless fruit tray/plastic cover combo is actually a complicated concept device custom made to inhibit the rotting process by keeping oxygen -- which is vital to the rotting process -- away from the fruit. What looks like the cover is actually a 360-degree waterfall that cloaks the fruit bowl under a constant thin stream of running water, complete with a motion detector that turns off the water whenever a hand approaches. It's just a concept, but we sign off. Especially since it seems like that's a small modification away from being able to have instant chocolate-covered fruit at any moment.
Salt That Clumps in the Shaker
Clumped-up salt is a common nuisance and a gateway to many an awkward situation, as anyone who has been walked in on while hammering the salt shaker with an ice pick can attest to. It's one of those things that just seem to happen no matter what -- you store the stuff in a closed container in the darkness of your spice rack, yet the next time you fancy a dash on your fries, you can count on having to spend some time spice-punching the rock-hard formation that has somehow grown out of the grains.
But it's not as if you can do anything about it. That's just how salt works, right?
You're a cold bastard, salt.
The problem is that your salt acts as a magnet -- for water. Table salt, also known as sodium chloride, is strongly hygroscopic. This means it constantly attracts water molecules from the air and soaks them up. This, in turn, helps glue the salt crystals together, until they're too big to pass through the holes at the top of the container. Salt's constant attempt to Voltronize itself is by no means limited to rainy weather, either -- although high humidity does increase the clumping.
Can It Be Fixed?
You might have been to a restaurant or diner somewhere that showed you the answer. They were the ones whose salt shakers contained those little, uncomfortably maggotlike brownish bits. They are actually grains of uncooked rice.
Well, some of them are maggots.
Much like that guy at the bar who skulks around downing every unguarded drink he can find, the rice literally steals all the moisture the salt can muster and soaks it up in its starchy inner matrix. Now slightly soggy, the rice lies content in the knowledge that it has once again completely ruined salt's shit ... until it dries up to the exact same state it was before and starts all over again.
The only problem is that the rice grains need to be periodically replaced, lest they soak up too much to handle their task. Wait, what's that? Science already came up with a ridiculously convoluted, multichambered shaker that does precisely that? Never mind.
"Yes, this absolutely was the best use of our time."
Splattering Tomato Sauce and Stubborn Ketchup Bottles
So you have invited your date over for dinner in your home. And if you are a guy, you are almost certainly making spaghetti.
The house is filled with the appetizing aroma of your cooking. Everything is neat and clean. You've even remembered to stow away your bedroom chains and the gimp mask. There's nothing that could possibly go wrong. That is, until you check on the tomato sauce, innocently bub-bub-bubbling on the stove. When the doorbell rings, you open the door for your date, covered in red stains, looking like you just used your microwave to explode a cat.
"I swear I'm not a shitty cook, I just murder animals!"
One wardrobe emergency moment later, you settle down to eat and grab a ketchup bottle, because you are eating fries with your spaghetti for the purposes of this narrative. And yes, you still buy the glass ketchup bottles and not those plastic squeeze bottles, because you're a man with class. You tilt it over, and absolutely nothing happens. You start spanking the bottle angrily, and after about 25 swats, the damn thing suddenly unclumps half of its contents on your plate, spray-bathing you in tomato all over again.
The good news: It's not your fault. The bad news: The freaking tomatoes are throwing themselves at you.
"And soon we'll be taking your women and despoiling your land."
Tomatoes have a number of interesting properties, seemingly custom made to mess with the poor soul attempting to cook with them. In the case of spaghetti sauce splatters, the main culprits are cohesion and viscoelasticity.
Today's Cracked was brought to you by the letters "C" and "V," and by drugs like "all of them."
When the hot metal of the pot meets the sauce, gassy bubbles form and push upward -- it's the same as when you put any liquid on heat. But the molecules in tomato pulp are designed to mess with this phenomenon in the worst possible fashion: They stick together way harder than most other liquids (cohesion) and resist deformation (viscoelasticity). This means that the gas has to work like a bastard to push through, and a whole bunch of sauce hitches a ride to the surface from it.
When the bubble actually manages to make it to the surface, it's a freaking cruise missile compared to the BB guns of regular bubbles, exploding all over the stove top, making you feel like the incompetent cook in an infomercial they show before demonstrating the gadget meant to solve the problem.
"Act now, and we'll throw in a jar of cheap wine!"
As for ketchup, the trick physics is playing on you is thixotropy. This is when a substance is a gel when sitting still, but becomes a fluid when in motion. Often without warning. People tend to prefer ketchup pretty thick, after all. So the manufacturers add thickening agents such as corn starch into the mix, creating a thick glue that will remain a near solid until it is shaken in just the right way. Then the molecules rearrange themselves into a fluid and drown your french fries.
So it goes.
Can It Be Fixed?
As for the sauce, constant, quick stirring can provide an outlet for the gas bubbles, but seeing as tomato sauce is thick as hell and takes a fair amount of time to make, this means investing in some serious elbow grease. And while some swear that oiling the edge of the pot can totally prevent the splattering phenomenon, science would say otherwise -- the bubbles have to go somewhere.
Smooth ketchup distribution remains an equally demanding task -- even the squeeze bottles become a spurting, farting mess when they're less than half full. While there is no shortage of tips and how-tos on the subject, they tend to range from useless common sense stuff ("Do it carefully") to mad scientist levels of lunacy that involve bendy straws, manual dexterity and an uncanny immunity to the public scorn of fellow diners.
Or just keep a shitload of these in your pocket at all times.
Baer would like to thank K. Montagne and Corey Reidy for their help with this article. Her blog can be found here.
For more things we have the answers to, check out 6 Ways Your Body Loves to Screw You (Explained by Science) and 6 Things That Annoy You Every Day (Explained by Science).
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