To Stir, Or Not To Stir

In my physics undergrad, we had one prof who seemed a bit strange. Actually, being only a bit strange seems something of an accomplishment for a physics professor, as most of them ran the gamut from odd to unintelligibly bizarre. But the one I’m talking about here was a younger guy who taught us about thermodynamics.

He was odd in a number of ways, but one sticks out in my memory: one day, in class, he said he couldn’t understand why anyone would ever stir a hot cup of tea, because stirring adds energy, which would only make the liquid hotter. He also said that people switched from wooden spoons to metal ones for the sole reason that they conducted heat out of hot liquids, allowing them to cool down more quickly.

That is patently absurd. We use metal spoons because they make a pleasant 'tinking' sound when you stir.

Both of these comments were strange because they seemed to betray a pretty deep misunderstanding of the physical world – something that would cause problems for, say, a physics professor.

Luckily for us, Randall Munroe of xkcd fame has tackled the issue of stirring hot drinks in his latest instalment of What If: Stirring Tea. The question asked:

‘I was absentmindedly stirring a cup of hot tea, when I got to thinking, “aren’t I actually adding kinetic energy into this cup?” I know that stirring does help to cool down the tea, but what if I were to stir it faster? Would I be able to boil a cup of water by stirring?’

Read the whole thing here!