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Scientists Finally Solve Age-Old Lollipop Question

Feb 11, 2015 07:56 AM EST
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We all remember those commercials with the cartoon owl asking: "How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?" And before he could reach that chewy center, he would get overeager and chomp the whole thing after just two licks, leaving us guessing. Now, scientists have finally solved this age-old lollipop question.

The answer, it turns out, is quite a bit more than Mr. Owl's estimate of three.

According to mathematicians at New York University, it would take... 1,000 licks to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop. Meaning, for those patient enough it would take that many painstaking licks to make it through one centimeter of candy, which is approximately half the length of one Tootsie Pop.

The study was actually conducted to explore the process by which materials are shaped and ultimately dissolved by surrounding water currents. Answering the longstanding lollipop question was just a fun bonus.

"We used these results to figure out in general how fluids dissolve materials, and we realized that that is basically what you're doing when you're enjoying a lollipop," applied mathematics professor Leif Ristroph told ABC News.

"Using that model, we can take an object of any size and kind of a typical flow speed that would be determined by how fast you lick candy, and then determine how long it would take for that to dissolve all the material away," he explained.

The research team came up with their number by immersing the hard candy in water currents and watching it dissolve.

"How flowing fluids generate unique shapes through erosion or dissolution is complex and fascinating," Ristroph said in a news release.

They found the water currents eroded the lollipops in unique ways, sculpting the candy into a consistent shape that persists before eventually disappearing completely. This is regardless of the candy's initial form and the fluid flow rate.

Unfortunately, the researchers could not test the theory themselves, likely because their tongues would quickly tire.

"We started to test it, and it's hard. Resisting the temptation to just bite into one is tough," Ristroph told ABC.

But on a more serious note, Ristroph and his colleagues hope their results have potential implications in the pharmaceutical industry and the field of geology. The same fluid dynamics could help scientists better understand the erosion process of landscape and landforms, for instance.

The new study was published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.