Physics culture.

Levers. Versatility. Design.  And how physics and culture meld into one in a pair of chopsticks.


1-Minute NomNom

A pair of chopsticks might very well be the one eating utensil to rule them all. Just take a look at the video above, and we see how this very simple tool has become so much a part of culture, taking on not only many values but also many uses.

A pair of chopsticks grips but doesn't crush food - 17 different types of sushi being held up in a row with wooden chopsticks isolated on white.
One reason why it has become so could be its simple design – just two sticks! – that gives it tremendous versatility. Most people would have had the experience of using a pair of chopsticks to eat, and that is something we are all familiar with.  But chefs and cooks can also use a pair of chopsticks when they are preparing and cooking dishes.

A pair of chopsticks can be used to prepare food too, such as tossing a saladFor example, chopsticks can be used to mix food in a pot. They can be used to toss a salad. They can be used to flip pieces of meat to make sure both sides are evenly cooked. They can also be used to serve food. And if you look at the 48th second of the video, they are even used to beat an egg!

Another reason could be the types of food and rice eaten by the cultures who use chopsticks. For example, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, “when resources became scarce, around 400 BC, crafty chefs figured out how to conserve fuel by cutting food into small pieces so it would cook more quickly.” These small pieces are of course ideal for picking up with a pair of chopsticks.

variety of rice grains on art canvas - three seeds from each kind including white and brown rice, long grain, arborio, black forbidden, and wildIn addition,

“… in Asia, the majority of rice is either a short or medium grain variety often with starches that are particularly gummy or clumpy. As such, it sticks together and is quite easily picked up by chopsticks. In comparison, many Westerners eat long grain rice… [which] is much fluffier and the individual grains are more distinct and for the unpracticed hand, difficult to eat with chopsticks.” (Source: Today I Found Out)

(find out more about the science behind different grains of rice in the 1-Minute NomNoms “Be rice to me!” and “Su-shi told us we should stick together.“)

Besides its simple design, a pair of chopsticks’ versatility also comes from it being a class-3 lever. Like all class-3 levers, the force on the food we pick up is lower than the force/effort we apply on the chopsticks. This ensures we can grip, but not crush, the food we pick up (read all about the science of a pair of chopsticks in the 1-Minute NomNom “Pick up artist“).

Chopsticks were thus easy to make, easy to control, and easy to adapt for different uses. Is it any surprise then that after they were invented in China 5000 years ago, their use has spread, first to Asia and then to the rest of the world? There is even a classic Sesame Street video on it (set to the music of the other “Chopsticks”)!


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Like this? We too are a blend of science and culture, so like me to discover more. All you need is a minute a day to explore the world’s marvels through the phenomenon of food!

photos: in order – depositiphotos/robteklenyvavsha; PixelsAway

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