Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a three-part book club discussion of Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life.
I suspected early on that this chapter may not be my favorite. It began with a condiment I’ll normally go to great lengths to evade (probably outpaced only by mayonnaise). By the time the word gloop oozed into the text for the first of too many appearances, I was happy to be reading via Kindle. When the references to slime and the m-word (that slick trail which-shall-not-be-named along which a snail pulls itself) came into focus, it was good to be able to say like, Marlon Perkins on Wild Kingdom, that I was watching from the safety of my desk behind the glass screen. Let’s all let Jim, our trusty assistant, take the risk of contact with various slow-moving substances.
My fraught relationship with ketchup stems at least in part from the issues Helen Czerksi discusses in chapter 4 of Storm in a Teacup: the stuff doesn’t come out of the bottle. And that would be fine if not for the fact that most folks aren’t inclined to let it go at that. They keep trying. They shake the bottle. They whack the bottom of the bottle with their palm. They slide a knife up inside the neck as though there’s a ketchup plug needing to be punched through. And when they succeed, ketchup splatters. On the food that was its intended target, sure. But also on the rest of the food on the plate, the plate where there was no food, the table the plate is sitting on, and after a particularly vigorous fight with the ketchup, on everyone else’s plate and maybe even in their water glasses.
Czerski explains the reason ketchup clutches the sides of the bottle like a child’s fingers wrap around the doorway leading into the dentist’s office is viscosity, a word that is so much more elegant than gloop, even if it means to come to the same end. Ketchup is made to be thick, she says, in part to keep the spices that give it whatever flavor it lays claim to from settling to the bottom. It’s also to ensure the coating applied to fries and other foods eaten with ketchup is thick, and not runny.
So when ketchup—which is otherwise “mostly sieved tomatoes, jazzed up by vinegar and spices”—is bottled, a tiny percentage of its content is composed of xanthan gum. This substance is a handful of molecules “made up of a chain of linked sugars.” Before you get excited over how delightful that sounds, keep in mind xanthan gum has its origins in bacteria, and get yourself back behind the protective Kindle screen. These bacteria-raised chains get themselves “slightly tangled up with similar chains” and together they keep the ketchup believing it’s a solid and staying firmly in place. Shake it up really fast, the molecules untangle and ketchup (which is apparently easily persuaded) starts to believe it’s a liquid again, and it goes rushing out of the bottle. The trick, I guess, if you want to use ketchup, is to “hold the bottle at an angle and tap the neck.” Then, only the ketchup in the neck behaves like it’s a liquid, and the amount that comes out is controlled.
All that to say, Czerski tell us, “Time is important in the physical world, because the speed at which things happen matters. If you do something at twice the speed, sometimes you get the same result in half the time. But quite often you get a different result.” Time is also a factor in controlling the speed of the flow of a thing, as one might try to with a dam, or even with something as small as a cup of tea.
Many of us, Czerski included, relish a break for afternoon tea. I am more fond of the rituals surrounding tea than I am of the tea itself (though I am indeed fond of the tea as well). This makes speed-tea consumption unappealing to me. Give me the chance to feel the leaves between my fingers while the kettle heats up, let me hold the tea basket under my nose and breathe in a little bit. It’s not the same as pulling a tea bag from my backpack and dispensing hot water from a carafe over it in a paper cup. Czerski, however, keeps wanting to juxtapose the words “tea” and “brisk,” and I find myself cheering at the conundrum she faces when trying to walk briskly back to her office after steeping her afternoon tea in an oversized mug. It’s the sloshing that slows her down, every brisk step compounding the problem.
On the scientific side of things, we have this:
If you put water in a mug, sit the mug on a flat surface, and give it a bit of a push, the water will start to slosh from side to side. What’s happening is that as you shove it, the mug moves but the water initially gets left behind, so it piles up against the side of the mug you’ve pushed. Then you have a mug that has higher water on one side than the other, so gravity pulls the higher water down, and the water on the other side is pushed upward. In an instant the surface is flat again, but the water has no reason to stop moving. It just carries on going up the other side. Gravity is tugging on it as it goes, but it takes a while to stop the water completely. By the time it’s stopped, the water level is higher on the second side than the first, and then the cycles starts all over again. If the mug is sitting on a flat surface, the sloshing from one side to the other will eventually die away, and equilibrium will be reached. But if you’re walking, things are different. The cycle is where the problem lies.
On the unscientific, soul-care side of things, the sloshing isn’t the problem so much as it is an indicator of the problem. We, along with Dr. Czerski, would do well to ask of ourselves that we sometimes move at the speed of tea.
First Line Starters Writing Prompt
Sometimes we encourage writers to use a “found” sentence, phrase or word as a “poem starter.” This week’s reading in Storm in a Teacup is full of interesting lines and phrases. For our writing prompt this week, choose a line from the reading and use it to start a poem or a short vignette. Since we’re talking about how “the speed at which things happen matters,” you might even try a piece of flash fiction.
If you don’t have the book, here are some lines and phrases you might choose from:
Ancient oak skeleton
Polished brass bed pans
Coffee, pigeons and tall buildings
One fat, happy snail
It’s just stuck to its slime
The ones that water can hardly touch
This is also why flailing around in quicksand is such a terrible idea
Persuaded a pigeon to walk on a treadmill
You never see your eyes move
This rock is granite
While the volcano was wearing away
We live in the middle of the time scales
Share your First Line poem, vignette or flash fiction piece with us in the comments.
Join us as we read Storm in a Teacup together on the following schedule:
October 18: Announcement Post
November 1: Ch. 1-3: Rocket Post & The Ideal Gas Law
November 8: Ch. 4-6: Slowing to the Speed of Tea
November 15: Ch. 7-9: Spoons Spirals and Sputnik, When Opposites Attract, and A Sense of Perspective
Photo by Arielle, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.