Woman's Plight to Free Fused Bowls Leaves Internet Gripped

Earlier this week, a Twitter user stacked one ceramic bowl on top of another. What followed was one of the most gripping social media journeys of recent times.

On June 6, Chi Nguyen, a New York-based artist, logged on to Twitter to ask her followers for help with a predicament: While washing her dishes a couple of days earlier, one of her bowls had gotten stuck inside another one, and it had bothered her ever since.

"Why am I so invested?" she wrote. "I've tried to fix this for two days, and I cannot give up now."

Until then Nguyen had tried all sorts of things to get her beloved bowls apart. Soapy water, hot water, cold water, oil, a microwave, even WD-40. Nothing was working.

Soon her attempts became more abstract. Nguyen placed the bowls in a freezer, hit them with a rubber mallet, tried to pry them apart with thin objects—but nothing was working.

Soon Nguyen's plight had attracted a lot of attention. Her original tweet attracted tens of thousands of likes and thousands more replies and retweets. Some people gave advice, while others joked.

"Have you tried politely asking the smaller bowl to leave?" wrote one user. "Why are we blaming the small bowl?" retorted another. "Why not ask the bigger bowl to let go?" It didn't matter to the bowls, they were resolutely staying where they were.

By June 7, Nguyen had tried twisting the bowls, turning them upside down overnight, and putting them in the dishwasher. She tried the diplomatic route, making passive-aggressive comments to both bowls. The attempts had taken their toll on the smaller bowl, which was left with a chip on its rim.

On June 8, Nguyen sent waves through Twitter by announcing that the bowls had been separated. "OMG WE DID IT," she wrote, posting a photo of the independent bowls. The straw that broke the camel's back, or, in this case, separated a couple of bowls, was banging them on a carpet.

By Thursday afternoon Nguyen's original tweet had gained 150,000 likes and counting, and news of their separation had spread.

So what happened? Could the smaller bowl have forced the air out of the larger one, creating a vacuum between the two that was hard to break?

Chris Howard, a professor of materials physics at University College London, told Newsweek there was a lot to consider.

First, the bowls are ceramic and therefore hard to deform. This would make a vacuum hard to maintain, and it's why engineers will sometimes use rubber o-rings if they want to create one artificially.

However, Nguyen was washing up, meaning the bowls were wet. "Water is a very 'sticky' molecule so a thin film could form the [vacuum] seal we're after," Howard told Newsweek.

"Also, the water was presumably hot and then cooled while the poster finished some more washing up. The pressure above hot water is higher than that of cold water—the water molecules that are in the gas phase have more energy the higher the temperature.

"Therefore, my guess is that when the bowls cooled, some of the small amount of hot water vapour left between them condensed into cold water, lowering the pressure between the bowls. The relative vacuum compared with the air pressure outside is held by the 'seal' of the film of water where the bowls touch."

Tom Hayward, a senior lecturer in materials physics at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., also weighed in. He told Newsweek the idea of a vacuum seal is "reasonable" and that a water seal to contain it would be possible. Jotting down a quick calculation—making lots of assumptions as to the gap between the bowls and their shapes—he suggested the force necessary to separate them would have needed to be roughly 500 newtons. This is equivalent to lifting 50 kg.

"The other possibility that occurs to me is that the two bowls may have had different coefficients of thermal expansion," he said. "When the bowls went in the hot water they expanded by different degrees—the outer one by more than the inner—and then they squeezed together as they cooled and contracted back to their initial shapes. Friction between two surfaces scales with the force pushing them together and so that could make things hard to separate." Again, this is a rough assumption.

In the end, we don't know exactly what caused the bowls to fuse. The bottom line is to be mindful when washing up, because physics is full of surprises.

Stacked bowls
A file photo of bowls stacked on top of each other. A Twitter user's dishwashing predicament turned into a viral sensation this week. samsonovs/Getty