The Cheerios Effect

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The breakfast table’s probably the last place you'd expect to find cool physics, but

there is some awesome science happening right here, and youve probably seen lots of times

without even realizing it.

Ever notice how cereal tends to stick together in the middle of the bowl?

Or it clumps to the edges.

That makes it easy to eat, but why does it happen?

We see this same clumpage with other objects too: paper clips, thumb tacks, even bubbles

in a beverage will snap together.

Maybe youve noticed this, but scientists didn’t fully understand what was going on

until 2005, when a pair of mathematicians decided to hit the lab, it hthe kitchen, and

hit the books.

What they found is cool.

I’m super cereal.

Check this out.

Breakfast cereal is less dense than water (and milk is mostly water).

It’s buoyant, it weighs less than the milk it displaces.

That force of buoyancy pushes up on each ring, until it matches the downward force of gravity.

This interaction holds the Cheerios at the surface of the liquid, like little toasty

rafts drifting together on top of a sea of cereal milk (mmmm cereal milk).

It's a really complicated way of saying cereal floats.

But look closely at where the cereal meets the liquid.

It’s curved up.

The same thing happens at the edge of the container, thanks to the meniscus effect.

Water molecules are stickytheyre attracted to each other, but theyre even more attracted

to the edges of your bowl or glass, or to the edge of the cereal itself.

Thatadhesionforms a U-shape wherever the liquid meets an edge.

A buoyant object will always be pushed up the liquid to the highest point on a meniscus.

That’s what makes them stick to the edge, and what causes the cheerios to become cheeri-amigos.

Any two nearby Os are pushed to a high point between them, and clumps are pushed towards

the overall highest point in the bowl, around the edge.

Let’s try something denser.

I don’t recommend eating paperclips, but toss them in water and they sink.

Place them carefully though, and you can get them to float.

Theyre too dense to be buoyant, they float because of surface tension.

Water molecules like to stick to each other so much, they can behave like a membrane that’s

strong enough to hold up tiny things.

Let’s try it with these thumbtacks.

Like the paper clips, you can see theyre pushing that membrane dow, just not hard enough

to break through.

If I place another one nearby, watch what happens.

Theyre attracted to each other, just like the Cheerios.

But the water around each one is curving down.

Instead of climbing up the water like cereal did, they fall into each other’s sinkhole.

We can mess this scenario up just by adding soap.

The chemical properties of soap lower the surface tension of water, so anything relying

on surface tension to stay afloat will sink.

But buoyant objects don’t rely on surface tension, so they continue surfing the meniscus.

The first time I did this, I wondered if the tacks were being pulled together by static

attraction on the plastic coating or something.

So I put in just the plastic bit to see.

But instead of being pulled toward the tacks, something strange happenedthey repelled

each other.

The same thing happens with Cheerios and a paper clip.

That’s because light, floaty objects run away from the low points caused by the heavy

objects.

A buoyant object will always repel something held up by surface tension’s stretchy membrane.

Just to be clear, you should never put thumbtacks in your cereal.

But this is what would happen if you did.

All of this made me wonder: What could happen if we could reverse the direction of water's

meniscus?

I coated this glass with a hydrophobic coating that does just that.

When I put thumbtacks on top of the water in here, they floated to the edge instead

of the center.

And that buoyant object did the opposite, it floated to the middle.

So that’s cool and all, but does the physics of cereal clumping actually matter in the

real world?

It does if youre a tiny insect.

Take water striders,.

These pond skaters are nature’s Cheerios.

They float so well that even a load 15 times their body weight won’t make them sink.

They can even jump on water.

Tiny hairs on their legs trap air bubbles and increase their buoyancy.

Theyre basically wearing swim floaties on their feet.

Other aquatic insects like water treaders exploit surface tension, just like thumbtacks

and paper clips.

But they get in trouble when it’s time to get out.

Gravity is pushing them into the depressions under their feet, but theyve come up with

a clever way to climb the meniscus.

A running start doesn’t work.

But by arching their bodies and lifting their front and back ends, the bugs curve the water

up, and are pulled to the edge just like the Cheerios were.

Theyre carried uphill by a physics-powered water escalator.

That’s pretty cool.

If you can find science like this at breakfast, imagine what else you might see the rest of

day.

Try this for yourself, and see what other floating objects you can get to attract or

repel.

Leave a comment and let me know what you find.

And if you see any cool physics in everyday life I should check out in a future video,

let me know.

Stay curious.

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