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Experiments Based on Commonly Held but Seldom Tested Beliefs

Part I. A Saucepan under Observation Never Reaches a Phase Transition

By Dr. Iva P. Aitchdee

In this first experiment I tested that oft repeated bit of kitchen lore- "a watched pot never boils". The assumption is made that this statement refers to a common kitchen pot on an ordinary stove filled with a liquid typically used for cooking.

To perform this experiment I took a small saucepan, filled it with ordinary tap water, and placed it on the stove. Then I pulled up a chair and sat down to faithfully watch. Soon the water began to boil, and after a substantial amount of time it had all changed to its gaseous state, but true to the old maxim the pot itself remained intact.

After the excitement with the water boiling away was over I soon grew tired of watching the pot. "Never" is a rather stiff requirement, and I was not looking forward to sitting in the kitchen of my apartment forever in order to prove that this age old theory was, in fact, true.

To solve this little problem I looked up the boiling point of both aluminum and steel, the materials that were listed on the bottom of the pot. Both were far below the temperature that my stove could reach. Therefore, due to the laws of thermodynamics that state, simply, that things can't get any hotter than you heat them up to be, a watched pot will never boil.

But the statement "a watched pot never boils" inferres that an unwatched pot will boil. To prove this is much more difficult. It involves a sort of Pot Uncertainty Principle. As soon as one checks to see if the pot has boiled, the pot becomes a watched pot and can not, therefore, be boiling. The only way to prove that an unwatched pot boils would be to leave the pot on the stove unwatched, and then return later to find it gone. If this occurs it can only be assumed that the pot has boiled away, for what else could account for its dissapearance?

This second experiment was performed succesfully shortly after the first was completed. Once again I filled a pot with water and set it on the stove, but this time I left the apartment to go shopping all morning. When I returned home I found the pot was gone. The stove was also off, much to my surprise. I later inquired of my roommate and found out that she had turned the stove off as soon as she realized that there was nothing really on it, and that if I kept trying to burn down the apartment like that she was going to be sure I got evicted.

So it seems logical to conclude that the pot boiled away and my roommate found the stove without anything on it before turning off the gas. However, the next evening I found what looked like the very same pot that had boiled sitting up in the cupboard, minus the deposits left on the inside from all the water that had boiled in it. At first this seemed to cast doubt on the results of my experiment, but I soon realized that the pot in the cupboard could very well be a virtual pot that had been forced into real existance by the departure of the first pot from this universe, in accordance with the conservation law that states that the amount of cupboard space you have is never more than exactly the amount of cupboard space you need. By boiling the pot I had put the kitchen out of balance, so a virtual pot condensed out of the vaccum to fill the extra cupboard space. The absence of the water deposits seemed to prove it.

So it is true that a watched pot never boils, and there is some good evidence that unwatched pots do boil, even though the latter phenomenon can never be observed directly.

My next experiment will be to test the more modern theory that the probability that a piece of jelly toast will land jelly side down is directly proportional to the expensiveness of the carpet on the floor below it.

Dr. Iva P. Aitchdee is the leading scientist at the Shipley Center for Immaterial Science and president of the Hoffman Foundation for Hypothetical Research.

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Last Update August 2007
Copyright 2007 by Rebecca J. Carlson

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