The Cheerios Effect

I don’t buy cereal very often – in fact it’s usually a bit of an impulse buy and it usually takes quite a while for any such products to be completely used up when they do finally reach my house.  That’s been the case for me ever since reading Steinbeck describe breakfast cereals as “tortured grains” in one of his short novels (Cannery Row?  Tortilla Flat? Of Mice and Men?). I never seem able to choke it all down. But I did buy some cereal the other day in one of those idle moments.  I didn’t expect the purchase to be anything more than another failed attempt to consume food before noon.

It turns out modestly more involving than that. Cereal manufacturer General Mills appears to have added a marketing campaign to sell their products called “The Cheerios Effect“.  From the back of the box, I read….

Take two Os and drop them into a bowl of milk…

See what happens? They’re naturally drawn together.

Scientists say the Cheerios Effect is the way small floating objects attract one another. That it has to do with fluid mechanics, surface tension and buoyancy.

 

On the marketing website, General Mills has even provided a link to a Wikipedia page on “The Cheerios Effect” where there is information on fluid mechanics, surface tension, wettability and other physics concepts.  The Wikipedia page will in turn refer you to the Brazil Nut Effect (granular convection) and the Casimir Effect (forces arising from a quantized field).  Nice, a bit of physics the breakfast enthusiast might not have had occasion to read up on.

Unfortunately, General Mills also asserts that “there’s more to it” than a bit of physics.  Apparently connecting physics with breakfast cereal isn’t enough – teaching about or providing motivation to understand the natural world isn’t enough.

Unfortunately, General Mills felt a need to push it further and assert that “we’re all drawn together” and that they “believe nothing could be more natural.”  In an attempt to be all things to all people, the food company’s ad includes something for everyone.  A bit of science, a bit of “belief” and a bit of new-age woo.

It’s really too bad that media and marketers seem to always feel compelled to provide “balance” to science….as though they’ve done the responsible and appropriate thing when they present “anti-vaxxer” perspectives in equal time settings to public health authorities, stack talking-head panels from every major religion to chime in on any given story of the day or indeed assert both “belief” and a kind of new-age, “connectedness” up beside a slice of science on a breakfast cereal advertisement.

Maybe Steinbeck was right – maybe the grains have been tortured.  And, maybe there’s a reason I always have a tough time choking it all down.

 

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