Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back For Your Water
The other day I decide to make myself a nice, relaxing cup of tea. Crazy, I know. I'm spontaneous like that.
I filled a glass mug up with water, stuck it in the microwave for two minutes (my standard tea-making, water-hottening unit of time), and then busied myself with other tasks.
In response to the beeping sometime later, I walked over and opened the door to the over. I was surprised to see that the water was completely undisturbed, as if it had not been warmed at all. Thinking that perhaps I had accidentally set the microwave for "1:00" instead of "2:00," I reached out and tapped the side of the glass with my finger, to see how hot it was.
And then: FWOOOSH! The whole thing blew up.
Not the mug itself, just the contents. When jostled, the water went from looking like the placid surface of a calm lake to one filled with 4,000 piranhas and a cow. The water in the mug bubbled frenziedly for a fraction of a second, and then geysered upwards DIRECTLY INTO MY FACE OH GOD THE BURNING!!
Well, no. Actually, it mostly hit the ceiling of the microwave, though some slopped over onto my hand and a few drops assailed my cheekbones. Still, I did what any red-blooded American male would do in this situation: shrieked like a 11 year-old girl at a Fall Out Boy concert and flung myself backwards as if a rabid stoat had just attached itself to my windpipe.
As this took place, Squiggle was behind me, standing at his child-sized table and serenity coloring. I barreled backwards into him and we both crashed into the cupboards, our heads making cheerful coconut-clonking noises as they collided with wood, whereupon one or more of us burst into tears.
The Queen, meanwhile, was ten feet away, folding clothes on the kitchen table. She turned around when she heard me scream, missing the part where the scalding water flew directly into my eyebones and instead only seeing me do my impression of a bowling ball, with our toddler playing the role of Pin #6.
"Oh for Pete's sake," she said, surveying the aftermath. "What happened this time?"
Fortunately, I had an explanation at the ready. I knew exactly what had happened.
You see, a few years ago I took it upon myself to debunk every urban legend that I received via email, be it about Bill Gates and his plan to give $200 to every person who forwarded his message, the $250 Neiman-Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe, or the dying kid in Albuquerque wanted everyone to send him a postcard. As self-appointed killjoy, I would track down the appropriate page on Snopes, reply to all, and piss in the collective punch bowl ("Actually, signing this petition is a waste of your time. There is no such proposal to slash the funding of Sesame Street, as this URL makes clear ...")
But I was unable to refute one such email--about exploding, microwaved water--because, according to Snopes, it was true.
So while The Queen soothed Squiggle ("don't cry, it was just one of your father's ... 'episodes' ..."), I quickly pulled up the Snopes page on our laptop to justify my seemingly maniacal behavior. This is our Standard Crisis Operation Procedure, by the way: she looks after the well-being of our child, I frantically scramble to absolve myself of blame.
A few click-click-clicks from Snopes and I wound up on the University of Minnesota website, which had this to say about the phenomenon:
Overheating of water in a cup can result in superheated water (past its boiling temperature) without appearing to boil. Superheating occurs if water is heated in a container that does not assist the formation of bubbles, which is a visual sign of boiling. Glass containers are the most likely to superheat water because their surfaces have few or no defects. The presence of slight defects, dirt, or other impurities usually help the water boil because bubbles will form on these imperfections.When I showed the exculpatory evidence to The Queen though, she zeroed in on this passage:
Water can "explode" ... However, it takes near perfect conditions to bring this about, and is not something the average hot beverage drinker who would otherwise now be eying his microwave with trepidation need fear. Odds are, you'll go through life without ever viewing this phenomenon first-hand."Hey, that's terrific," she said, turning to me. "You coulda won us the lottery. But nooooooooo, you gotta blow your one-chance-in-a-million luck on exploding water."
Anyway, you'll be glad to hear that the only lasting effects of The Incident were a small burn on my right hand, a few slight red marks on my face, and a crippling fear of tea. Thankfully, the greyhound has graciously offered to become my new soothing drink of choice.
Posted on July 10, 2007 to Storytelling
I was amazed one day when one of my best friends, a person who I thought would know better, forwarded the Neiman-Marcus $250 cookie recipe hoax to me. I took no pleasure in copying and pasting the necessary debunking information and dutifully replying to all on the "sent to" list.
Okay, I lie. I laughed like Renfield the entire time.
I am glad to see I'm not the only one who responds to email hoaxes with bitchy snopes links. People don't even send them to my anymore. Even my mother in law finally quit it.
That post was really really funny.
My preferred method of dealing with chain emails is replying with "UNSUBSCRIBE". Works pretty well.
Snopes is great. One of my college professors likes to email all of us assignments, hand outs, and picture or story that are in some way relevant to our classes. Generally these later items are things like the picture of python cut open to reveal a man inside, or the one with a moose harnessed up to haul wood (picture is false, although moose have been harnessed). I immediately rush to Snopes, find out if it's true or not, and then email him back to tell him he's been passing on junk. So far, I've gotten three A's and a B in his classes.
As for the water thing....you can now use this as an excuse to not wash out your mugs. The left on beverage particles will help water boil properly.
First your ass pops a yoga ball and you throw your kid across the room, now this. Who are you, Physics Baby Hurty Man?
To prevent this from happening in future and to soothe your paranoid mind, keep a supply of chopsticks nearby. Stick one in the mug of water before heating. It'll have enough imperfections to make the water boil properly.
"...shrieked like a 11 year-old girl at an Fall Out Boy concert"
Nearly blew rum out my nose on that one
Well, I've had an experience sort of like this, but instead of super-heating, it was super-freezing. It was winter, and I was cleaning out my car and stuff. Now the temperature had been in the teens all week, and I hadn't gotten out of the house either. So while I was cleaning, I found some water bottles. Now, they were still liquid, which I thought was strange, but I was like "hey, cold water!" So I lift it up and tip it over, and none of the water is coming out. Turns out, all of the water in my car was super-frozen, so once I shook or disturbed it, it would instantly turn to ice. So, now I'm just cold and thirsty. But for the other 10 water bottles I managed to find, I sure had fun chucking them at things and watching the crystals form.
The Pretender Queen is wrong. This has happened to me twice.
Might I suggest:
Takes about two minutes, and I dunno maybe it's me, but somehow I think boiling the water in a tea kettle tastes better than microwaving it. Microwaves water seems somehow flat.
Dude, save the Queen some heartache and get a nuker with carousel in it. That'll keep the water from sitting still since they're so wobbly.
Problem solved. And maybe then your luck will surface instead on your next lottery ticket purchase.
This has happened to me half a dozen times when I used to use the microwave at my old job with no carousel... I recall that the cup I used was ceramic but very smooth; I think Snopes is underestimating the odds.
Well, I guess that's what you get for make tea The American Way. Boil water in a kettle, pour *while still boiling* onto tea. Enjoy.
I can still remember the first time I ordered tea in America, and being given a glass of vaguely hot water and a teabag, and thinking: are you serious?
This happened to me once. I heated water in a mug (I think it was quite a new mug, which might mean it had few imperfections) and when I took it out of the microwave, I put a teaspoon in it. Whoosh.
Now I heat water in a fume cupboard and handle it using robot arms. Safety first!
These posts are exactly why I keep returning to your blog. Excellent hilarious writing that you can almost imagine happening in front of your eyes.
"a calm lake to one filled with 4,000 piranhas and a cow" - perfect
I have little sympathy. That is a totally improper way to make tea. Boil the water in a kettle. (Yes - I'm English - I ca;t help it).
Well, for all your trouble, that was one of THE most funny narratives I've read in a long time.
How many right hands do you have?
American here - and a huge fan of my electric kettle.
I work in a lab, and this is why we use boiling Chips.
Also isn't Snopes great? No one sends me those kind of emails anymore.
take comfort in the fact that this event confirms the high-quality of your dishwashing!
If nothing else, there's that to comfort you and your burnt face spots.
If it makes you feel any better, I knew exactly what was going to happen to the water because I had also read about the phenomenon. But long before Snopes - as a kid I had a book all about weird scientific stuff.
If you had only used a dirty glass... but don't worry, 1-in-a-million chances have a 1-in-a-million chance of being something that's actually good or useful.
I think the greyhound is a wonderful alternate. Much safer. Well, at least the first two.
a friend of mine actually invented the micro kettle for solving this exact problem. you use the cap with any cup and it has a little boiling chip hanging down into the water.
Heh.. when that happened to me, it scared the crap out of me. Fortunately I wasn't injured. Now I boil the water on the stovetop when I can.
I rarely get those urban legend letters anymore, after I sent back snotty snopes debunking responses, and made sure to hit "reply to all".
My co-workers now think I'm nuts, as I sat here and laughed out loud through the entire post.
The mineral content of your water may be low.
Were you using distilled or filtered water?
It's ridiculous to suggest this is rare or requires perfect conditions. Those perfect conditions are easily replicated by new ceramic or glass (proper microwavable glass, that is!) vessels.
I concur with the chopstick thing and I keep one in the fork drawer just for the occasions where I'm boiling water the fast way. By the way, if you're boiling lots of water, say a quart or thereabouts, you can still superheat it if you have just a chopstick in there-- stir the boiling water and you'll see that some of the water is begging to release steam but just hasn't convected its way over to the chopstick yet.
Also, if you're a tea-drinker, or at least someone who has a lot of uses for hot water, forget these stovetop kettles and go electric, as suggested above (with the store link)-- they can boil water with staggering rapidity. Just don't catch yourself boiling water over and over-- it'll taste "flat" as you've boiled out all the dissolved air.
I never thought tea was that relaxing either.
I'm with all the folk amazed that you don't have a kettle and see that as normal. How do you drink / cook quickly / generally live?
This happened to me once, but I took the cup out and stirred instant coffee into it (shut up, it was for my 80-year old grandma who PREFERED instant...). The coffee and water burbled up like a volcano for at least 15 seconds, emptying about 1/2 the cup. It happened in the mountains of Colorado, so we always assumed altitude was to blame.
Seattle is sea level, so you are truly extraordinary, Matt!
I have one mug in particular that has done this to me three times, and it is exactly the same way each time: the coffee leaps lazily up over the edge in one arc and lands directly on my hand. I never win the lottery, either.
Oh God... Thanks a lot... Here I am trying to mind my business in a public library, innocently using their wireless... And I'm struggling very, very, very hard not to burst into ridiculously loud laughter and cause a scene. I managed to get through it with only semi-crazy-sounding muffled laughing, but... Yeah. Much too hilarious to be reading in quiet places...
Matt, I just checked your story on Snopes, and they declared it REAL PHOTO, INACCURATE DESCRIPTION.
Apparently the real story is that you were trying to melt some of your ice in your Super Big Gulp, and the hot water within the straw jetted out as you grabbed the weakened walls of the waxed paper cup.
Nice try though.
My father also experienced this bit of interestingness with a microwaved jug of water. Except in his case, it almost resulted in the purchase of a new microwave. The water instantly vaporized into superheated steam and blew the door clear off the hinges. Being a science teacher, my dad was intrigued, yet dismayed at this object lesson.
Personally, as an Englishman, the scariest part of the article was the following:
I filled a glass mug up with water, stuck it in the microwave for two minutes
You microwaved the water to make tea! That's. Just. Wrong!
Ok, you my get it to boiling (as proved), but water just under boiling should be poured over the tea bag, not dunked in the water. No wonder you all prefer coffee and you were prepared to chuck the stuff into the harbour. Heathens.
Same situation happens, occasionally, when microwaving rubbing alcohol. Peace.
You're drinking greyhounds? How do you do that, with one of those BlendTec blenders? In case you don't recognize the name, they are the folks who do those "will it blend?" videos, though I don't think they've ever tried to blend a dog. They did recently successfully blend an iPhone, though.
That's hilarious! Keep up the good work!
Its actually fairly easy to do this if you try, it works best with distiled water (but its not required). Just put the water in a cup (anything works, but glass works best), then boil it once it gets to a good boil turn off the microwave, don't touch anything but wait 30 seconds, this process will remove excess gas in the water and it will fill the tiny imperfections in the cup with water (where before they had air with helped facilitate boiling). Now turn the microwave back on and set it for 5 minutes and wait, now it will start to boil but it will remain at a very low boil, this boil is not enough to release the heat and it will superheat, eventually it will get so hot that it will explode and it will be a much bigger explosion then what you had from 2 minutes, when i did this half the cup of water had hit to roof of the microwave
Nice writeup. Happened to me once when trying to disinfect a baby bottle. Man did it scare me. Always wanted to try and replicate my superheated water. Guess I need to have another baby.
My wife had this happen to her just some five days ago, although she was boiling the water in a steel kettle. She was re-boiling some already hot water for disinfection purposes, although it didn't start boiling. It only gave out vapour and after a while it blew up straight out the kettle. It was lucky she wasn't too near at the time. As I was in the bedroom reading bedtime stories for our boy I didn't see what happened but I heard the 'whoosh' sound and her screams.
It scared the heck out of us.
- Jaro -
I learned the hard way that this works with sake too. Lucky I rocked the microwave a little when I hit the 'open' button, causing the liquid to shift and explode.
With Sake it almost completely evaporates.
They say you should prevents this by putting a chopstick or something in there to give the bubbles a place to form, but I'm thinking it's more interesting to live life on the edge.
Stirring, tapping, and adding granules of things like cocoa, sugar, etc. -- all can have this upsetting effect. I'm surprised you didn't know about it before. This is not that unheard of.
The phenominon of exploding water appeared once on a UK consumer affairs show.
It was explained that the reaction is caused due to the microwave method of heating the inside of an object, while leaving the outside relatively untouched.
It's apparently then the hot inner water is mixed with the cold outer water that things get horrific.
I'm unfortunately unable to explain the reaction in greater detail than that. I'm very sorry, but it took enough effort just to dredge this old memory up from the dark recesses of my brain.
"It was explained that the reaction is caused due to the microwave method of heating the inside of an object, while leaving the outside relatively untouched."
That's just dead wrong ... have you ever used a microwave? Not uncommon for the OUTSIDE of your heated food to reach thermonuclear temperatures while the inside is still cold.
That was a myth that was purported when microwaves (or "radar ranges" as they were called then) first hit the market over 30 years ago.
Microwaves heat from the outside in ... just like all other conventional forms of heating ... they just do it more quickly.
One of the ways this myth gets perpetrated though is through the heating of sugary filled pastries. Foods high in fat and/or sugar are heated more quickly by microwave energy. Therefore, your jelly donut can have the filling reach sun-surface temperatures while the outer pastry still feels cool. There are two factors at work here ...
1. The outer pastry is a poor conductor of heat, so it doesn't FEEL all that hot ... kinda like how walking on coals works.
2. The inner filling is full of fat and sugar, and reacted more to the microwave energy. It also has a higher liquid content which is a GOOD conductor of heat. Ouch.
If your jelly donut had been frozen before you nuked it. You'd have a pleasantly warm outer pastry, a layer of super-hot jelly "mantle", and a tooth shatteringly frozen core of jelly (assuming you nuked it just long enough to not conduct the heat to the middle). Thus proving that the heat energy was conducted from the outside in.
Yeah... whatever happened to "Research Wednesdays" (or was it Thursdays)? I miss that.
Yeah... whatever happened to "Research Wednesdays" (or was it Thursdays)? I miss that.
I make coffee and its exactly 1 minute and 47 seconds for the perfect temperature!
You're that stupid, and you bred.
Now see, I too am "that guy" who gets these ridiculous forwards from people about spontaneously combusting puppies, or Google giving out $100 bills or envelope glue being contaminated with parasites and then I have to go on-line and Google the thing and then reply all usually beginning with "XXXXX, you ignorant slut" and then reference the appropriate web-proof that this is indeed the stupidest thing in the world and thus has made everyone who read it less intelligent. However, this does not detour people from actually sending more in the future, even after I throw in a "DO NOT SEND ME WORTHLESS JUNK LIKE THIS YOU FREAKIN DUD."
I think my responses are probably enjoyed too much by everyone on the list.
Here's my question, do you also have to respond to the myriad of conservative, bible thumpin, Middle Easter hatin, bashin anything that ain't like us messages? If I get another email about how some housewife in New Jersey wrote this email about how we shouldn't care about torturing enemy if it means getting the information we need to win "the war on them terrorists", and completely forget any sort of international law, I may have spontaneously combust myself.
PS: I love the site, you routinely have me cracking upa and forwarding your posts to my friends who don't understand there are great blogs out there. Keep it up, tbw
BreakTheChain.org is also a great place to debunk those horrible "don't wear wool while eating cheese", "don't give your housekey to strangers" type of threatening scare-tactic emails.
I find it interesting that about half the tips in comments are "How to keep water from exploding" and half are "How to increase the explody goodness." Both are good.
Incidentally, I prefer to just open the microwave door a crack, slide a chopstick in, poke the heated water with the chopstick and watch the furious insta-boil. Safe and entertaining.
Can anyone explain why water boiled in a kettle makes a better cup of tea than water boiled in the microwave. Isn't boiled water just boiled water no matter how it is boiled? I'm sure I am going to get clobbered for asking this but since I am a tea drinker I am curious to know.
I had something similar happen when microwaving a bowl of clam chowder. With how heavy it is, a superheated pocket had formed trapped under the surface, and it blew up as soon as I tried to stir it with a spoon.
tsk tsk. It's "take the water to the tea", not "take the tea to the water". But you have been sufficiently reprimanded about the proper procedure for making a relaxing cup of tea.
I love the scopes.com site too. I have tried it to dissuade the well-meaning soul from enlightening me on various risks, but as other commenters have noted, it has little effect.
That's the funniest g**d**m thing I've read in days. Matt, I love this site.
@ Matt K above: that's the first I've heard of super-cooled water (well, first time I've heard of super-heated water too), but that used to happen to me all the time in these Canadian winters--leave a bottle of water in my car over night, go to take a sip the next morning because it's still liquid, and suddenly it freezes solid. Everyone at work thought I was crazy, so I stopped talking about it. If only I'd been smart enough to come up with an explanation, and not just walk around the office acting like I'd just seen the Virgin Mary in the cream cheese on my bagel. Yeesh.
Yeti mom, there are issues with heating water in a microwave (such as overheating) which affect the taste. Similarly, you should always use fresh water, heating water de-oxygenates it, causing a metallic taste.
Try this article for micro vs kettle
I know you poor people have to wait longer with your piddly 110v (we have 240v from the mains in the UK, it's actually faster to boil in the kettle than use the micro) but it is worth it.
Sheesh! Now my co-workers know I'm not hard at work -- the laughter bursting from my cubicle into a quiet gray atmosphere gave it away. Your humor and writing style are excellent!
Other comments are right, you know, about the "bring the water to the tea" bit.
I'd never heard of exploding water or super-frozen water (which I think is more interesting, if less fun to watch). And a great, funny story to boot! Thanks, Mr. Yeti!
This is why, one, I'm not terribly meticulous about cleaning my teacup and, two, I generally prefer to use a device called a hot-shot. It flash boils two cups of water in thirty seconds, takes up very little counter space and makes tea so much faster and easier. I recommend them for everyone.
You can prevent this from happening by placing a small metal teaspoon in the cut before you put it in the Microwave. The surface of the spoon assist the formation of bubbles.
Our microwave has a little sticker on the inside of the door urging you to do so.
Oh my god! That is so funny, I've got tears in my eyes. I'm glad your eyes weren'y REALLY scalded!!
Sorry if I didn't scan through all the comments, But...
There's a simple way, and there's a trivia fact in this.
The water flashes because, it wasn't moved. I noticed many comments to a chopstick allowing bubbles to form.
This flashing is easily stopped by using a microwave with a rotating dish. That's why most microwaves have a rotation device in it nowadays. Many microwaves when they were first developed were just the stationary ones. This caused alot of the burns, and so they learned from it.
What's interesting to note, this flashing of water is related to alot of what happens in nuclear reactors. This is because...water becomes superheated...in which it becomes hotter than it's boiling point without boiling. (which is how reactors work; you can look it up online). Agitation causes it to flash to steam.
This also reminds me (cause of steam) of steam freezing, which is pretty crazy, but can happen, (under rare conditions like the microwave of boiling doom).
Alton Brown had a bit on Good Eats on the Food Network just the other day about the right conditions for water to explode in the microwave. Loved your visual of YOUR experience!!
Putting water in a microwave for tea is weird. Why don't you just warm it up on a stove? It makes much more sense for some reason.
Water is what makes item in a microwave heat. The microwaves vibrate the water molecules at their specific rate, which results in heat (ok, I'm no scientist so I don't know the specific terminology). This vibration heats up the food around the water through conduction. Hence the whole pizza is warmed.
But putting in a full glass of water is too much for the microwaves to handle, and so it often occurs that only the edge of the water is heated, especially if the plate is not turning. So you might have just ended up with a thin layer of superheated water and that, when you moved it, reacted with the cold inner layer of water.
I have not read the comments thus far (too many) and have not bothered to fact-check.
I also work in a lab where this phenomenon is common enough to be an occupational hazard. The formula: laboratory grade glass bottle + distilled water + preferably DepC treated and autoclaved water. Once properly executed, you too can develop a microwave phobia.
I have been informed mains-powered electric kettles are hard to come by in the US (my parents lived in San Jose for 3 years) and, as can be seen from the comments above, the two main options seem to be microwave (btw Thijs, I didn't think you were supposed to put metal in the microwave) or stove-top kettle.
Track down an electric kettle if you can (or care), much easier, put in the water, click it on, wait for it to boil, it'll switch itself off, pour over teabag.
I see many people upthread claiming they have managed to get off somebodies pure bunk-email forwarding list with a snappy reply and a few quotes from/link to Snopes.
My somebody is an out and out Christopath, Conservative, Republican from New Hampshire who thinks, honest to g-d, that pretty much everything out of Dubya's mouth (and presumably Lieberman's) is the gospel truth. Seeing as Snopes, being the cyber-redoubt of rationality, objectivity and common sense, obviously has no effect on this somebody, any suggestions?
(I once forwarded a link to this somebody of an Iraqi artist who offered online visitors the control of a paintball gun with the artist himself in the gun's arc of fire, and sarcastically pitched it as "Your dream come true!"... That shut this person up for about two or three weeks... Help!)
I boil my water in the microwave for a nice, relaxing cup of tea... fresh water, and then I pour it over the tea ball filled with leaves (or the teabag, if I really don't feel like messing around with tea leaves). No problem there, and I'm pretty sure it works at least as well as the mains-powered kettles. And with our well water, I'd be having to vinegar-treat the kettle every week, which gets tiresome. I use a pyrex glass measuring cup in a microwave with a rotating carousel. I wouldn't try it without the carousel, especially not with pyrex.
@Spark, the Snopes method works for regular "gullible spam," but not so well for real nutcases. My suggestion would be to put a spare email address of your own on the MoveOn.org PAC list and start collecting their email alerts, then forward a couple to this individual every time they send you something. Use "reply to" so you have the subject line from the tripe you've just been sent.
Alternatively, make yourself an email filter and get on with your life.
Or is this someone you need to keep lines of communication open with for some reason?
(BTW, I live in NH and hope you don't judge our entire state based on these emails... though I'd have a hard time blaming you for doing so. The rest of our press isn't that great, either.)
Mom told me once that I piss her off when she sends something out and I reply with the Snopes links debunking it. I told her that if she'd take the trouble to check Snopes before she hits Send, I wouldn't piss her off anymore. It apparently worked, now the stuff she sends out starts with "I checked it with Snopes and it's the real thing."
Get yourself a proper whistling kettle. No superheating issues, and it's fun to watch the cats go nuts when the whistle goes.
This was obviously an omen foreshadowing the steam explosion in NYC today.
Besides the MythBusters, you can see Alton Brown tackle this very issue on his MythSmashers episode of Good Eats. (Apparently, he is also a MythBusters fan.)
That was the funniest thing I have read in a long time. I was laughing out loud when you "screamed like a girl" and by the time you were impersonating a bowling ball with your son in the role of pin #6 - I had tears streaming down my face. Then my mascara started to burn my eyes. So. Thanks for that.