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February 02 Issue

The truth about the watched pot boiling
Jeff M. Hardison
Firefighters are saying that cooks should not ignore pots, which hold liquid being heated to boil.

I had this great thought while I was cooking the most muffonious member of a four-pack of Thomas’ English Muffins. As I looked into the toaster slots, I saw the muffin becoming golden brown. I popped it up. You see, my grand plan for the morning of March 5, 2002, was to slather both sides of the muffin with plain cream cheese and black cherry Polander All Fruit (it’s really like jelly but that company is touchy about the comparison). Before the slathering, there had to be some toasting.
As I popped up the muffin, which of course had been cut in two before insertion into the toaster, I wondered. (Yes, I am great and wonderful; so, it is only natural that I am full of wonder.) I wondered what would have happened if I had let the muffin cook until the toaster sprang the muffin out of the slots on its own. That is when the proverbial old saying dawned upon me, “A watched pot never boils.” I had decided long ago that physics demands water to boil at a certain temperature (100 degrees Celsius at sea level). Time (never, is the time in the case of this proverb) is not a factor if a person gets water to that temperature. Watching the pot does not prevent the water in the pot from boiling.

There has been some discussion about the impact of observation upon experiments. For instance, in his abstract titled Quantum decay: A watched pot boils quicker, Peter W. Milonni wrote, “The quantum Zeno effect is the idea that the decay of an unstable quantum state - such as a radioactive atom - can be stopped by frequently repeated observations.

It is now suggested that the exact opposite effect may be more common.” Nonetheless, while Milonni is arguing that a watched pot may boil more quickly, I am going to reveal the truth of from whence comes the saying, “A watched pot never boils.” The traditional translation of the saying is that there is value in having patience. Waiting for the liquid in a pot to come to boil can seem interminable. Depending on the truth of the theory about observation speeding up atomic activity, literally, boiling takes the same amount of time whether the pot is watched or not.

The proverb has been traced back to Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Mary Barton' (1848), and is first cited in the United States in 'Puzzle of the Pepper Tree' (1933) by S. Palmer, and from Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman, according to one website. Some people say the phrase has nothing to do with boiling over.

By the way, when I was watching the muffin cook and I was thinking about the old saying, I extrapolated that a watched muffin will brown. In fact, an unwatched muffin may burn.
To confirm my thoughts about burning muffins, and pots boiling over versus pots never boiling, I looked at a northern U.S. fire department.
“A watched pot never boils over,” according to a writer who posted the following on a Peabody, Massachusetts Fire Department website. “Fully 73 percent of the 2,085 fires studied occurred when cooks left the room while food was on the range or in the oven, according to a 10-city study on the behavioral causes of household cooking fires conducted by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) and the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM). Unattended cooking was the leading cause of such fires, the study found.” Firefighters are saying that cooks should not ignore pots, which hold liquid being heated to boil.

While Titelman, Palmer, Gaskell and others may say “A watched pot never boils,” it is my contention that this very proverb became popular after a mistake in a radio transmission during WWII.
It was customary during radio communications back then, to end all statements by saying the word “over,” so that the listener would know when he or she could transmit their reply to the previous speaker. Luckily, I discovered a taped radio transmission from 1944, when a B-52 was taking off for an eight-hour training mission. The text of that conversation follows.

“This is Captain Kenneth Daltry in B-52 Echo-Echo calling base Tango. Over.”
“Roger Daltry. This is Tango. Over.”
“Roger Tango. We have a crewman on board who says he may have left some eggs boiling at the base. He was planning on coloring them for Easter. He wants to give the colored eggs to orphans and street urchins later. Over.”
“Roger Daltry. Which crewman? Who? Over.”
“Roger Tango. His name is Townsend Moon.
“Roger Daltry. Is this the Townshend Moon who lived over near Miami? Over.”
“Roger Tango. That’s him. They nicknamed him the Moon over Miami. He likes to dance, remember? Over.”
“Roger Daltry. What is that dance he likes to do? Over”
“Roger Tango. Tango. He likes to tango over and over. Over.”
“Roger Daltry. Very good. He is clearly identified so that we know this is no bogus radio transmission from the enemy. Over”
“Roger Tango. Can someone there turn off the burner below the boiling pot of water? Over.”
“Roger Daltry. There is a guy here named Bill Will who can do this. Over.”
“Roger Tango. So, Bill Will will do this? Over.”
“Roger Daltry. Yes. Will said to let you know that if Moon over Miami had watched over his own eggs there would be no fire hazard. As Will says, ‘A watched pot never boils over.’ Over.”
“Roger Tango. Will pass on Will’s words to Moon. While Will will do this, I hope he doesn’t have to do his job over, given the urgency of his doing this boiling pot job now. Over.”
“Roger Daltry. Will will do, and he will not have to do his current job over. Over.”
“Roger Tango. Over and out.”
“Roger Daltry. Over and out.”
Somehow, when Capt. Daltry passed on Bill Will’s famous words, he forgot that the first “over” was part of the quote.
Hence, the phrase, “A watched pot never boils” came into being rather than the correct version, which is “A watched pot never boils over.”

© Professor 'Shaggy Dog' Jeff Hardison 2002

St. Petersburg, Florida, U.S.A.

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