The case of the disappearing teaspoons

NPR recently ran a story on missing teaspoons at a scientific institute in Australia. Spoons were vanishing at an alarming rate, and it became a question of some urgency to determine what was happening.

We’ve all heard the jokes about how washing machines send socks into another dimension. But honestly, this is just one step away from the archaic folk notion of spontaneous generation. As you recall, that’s the theory where rotting meat spontaneously turns into maggots, piles of dirty rags become mice, and valued local stores turn into Starbucks. But spontaneous generation just doesn’t happen, and neither does the spontaneous disintegration of teaspoons. Filling in as the modern versions of Redi and Spallanzani are Megan S C Lim, et al of the Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Research, Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Their paper is titled The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute.

From the paper, we read

In January 2004 the authors found their tearoom bereft of teaspoons. Although a flunky (MSCL) was rapidly dispatched to purchase a new batch, these replacements in turn disappeared within a few months. Exasperated by our consequent inability to stir in our sugar and to accurately dispense instant coffee, we decided to respond in time honoured epidemiologists’ fashion and measure the phenomenon.

Truth be told, however, this study addresses the rate and circumstances under which the spoons disappear, and it fails to address the root causes. Sadly, it concludes “People have no control over teaspoon migration; escape to a spoonoid planet and resistentialism are equally plausible explanations.” Maybe Starbucks do arise magically from overripe storefronts.

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