Radioactive decay of teaspoons in the workplace

Written by: Captain Skellett // January 30th, 2011 // Just for Fun, Recent Research, The Realm of Bizzare

missing teaspoonsHave you ever noticed a mysterious loss of teaspoons at your workplace? Maybe it’s not teaspoons, but some other cutlery item. At my old work it was forks, which dwindled even when I bought new replacement ones. At the Australian National University neither spoon nor fork were safe, causing some students to eat salad with two knives as chopsticks.

The same thing was happening at the Burnett Institute in Australia. Teaspoons were critically low, no matter how many new ones bought. Clearly it was time for science.

“Exasperated by our consequent inability to stir in our sugar and to accurately dispense instant coffee, we decided to respond in time honoured epidemiologists’ fashion and measure the phenomenon,” they said in the paper.

They numbered 70 teaspoons and placed them in tearooms around the institute. Lo and behold, they started to disappear. Every week they counted the remaining teaspoons, probably with a lot of suppressed giggling and delight.

After five months, 56 out of 70 teaspoons disappeared, that’s 80%. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days.

Teaspoons in communal tearooms disappeared faster than those in tearooms specifically for certain projects. Expensive teaspoons disappeared no faster than cheap ones.

According to the study, “at this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons.” The cost? About $100. Extrapolate that to the workforce of Melbourne, some 2.4 million people, and you’re looking at quite a wad of cash.

Stapler sugarAnd it’s not just economic loss, it’s also workplace satisfaction. “Teaspoon displacement and loss leads to the use of forks, knives, and staplers to measure out coffee and sugar,” the study suggested. Staplers? You know it’s a bad day in the office when you’re measuring sugar with a stapler. Indeed, nobody in the office said they were “highly satisfied” with the number of teaspoons in a survey they conducted at the end of the study. Yes, they even did a survey.

But why are teaspoons such hot property?

The study gives a few possible theories. Perhaps there are so many teaspoons, people don’t think it will matter if they take one home. Over time the small acts of thievery add up until there are no teaspoons left.

Alternatively, and I can say this no better than the authors, “Somewhere in the cosmos, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, walking treeoids, and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, a planet is entirely given over to spoon life-forms. Unattended spoons make their way to this planet, slipping away through space to a world where they enjoy a uniquely spoonoid lifestyle, responding to highly spoon oriented stimuli, and generally leading the spoon equivalent of the good life.”

Their final theory is les choses sont contre nous “things are against us.” “Resistentialism is the belief that inanimate objects have a natural antipathy towards humans, and therefore it is not people who control things but things that increasingly control people,” says the study. Think of all the time you spend cleaning, buying, repairing, using and selling things. Do items really control our lives, sending us on some materialistic goose chase for reasons we cannot yet understand? I can only assume Yes.

I want to hear from anyone who has experienced this phenomenon, be it spoons, forks or knives. What goes missing in your workplace, and why do they constantly disappear. And what is the spoon equivalent of the good life?

ResearchBlogging.orgLim, M. (2005). The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute BMJ, 331 (7531), 1498-1500 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1498

Massive hat tip to James at Disease Prone, who said my posts had slowed down and suggested this paper.

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google


22 Responses to “Radioactive decay of teaspoons in the workplace”

  1. Happens in my house too! I hate making porridge because it works best with two teaspoons, one to stir and one to add sugar and finding enough teaspoons half-asleep is just too difficult 😉

    Who would take them from your HOUSE? The Planet-of-spoons theory is looking better than ever.

    mark Reply:


    a half asleep tea-spoon, never have I seen such a thing!

  2. James says:

    I’m glad you used it! Such a great paper isnt it 🙂

    Only the best paper I’ve ever read! And I just found “A Woman’s History of Vaginal Orgasm is Discernible from Her Walk” so that’s saying something (blog version here.)

  3. Anthea Fleming says:

    Can teaspoons be a larval form, whose disappearance results from metamorphosis into some other cutlery or metal objects?
    It is well known that paper-clips are the larval form of wire coat-hangers.

    I could well imagine teaspoons as juvenile tablespoons, which become serving spoons after ten years.

  4. Namita says:

    What about pens captain skellett? I’ve never seen a workplace with enough pens!

  5. Pete Buxton says:

    Isn’t this the theory in’ the Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy’? The white mice were really in control, so the experiements on them gave the results the white mice wanted not the real results humans were searching for.

    Aye, I like to believe this is true.

    Merri Reply:

    @Captain Skellett,
    Yes, except I think it was biros that had their own planet.

    As for me, the cutlery may disappear, but the crockery all gravitates to the sink. If anyone’s looking for cups I think they’ve all arrived, in a (ill-) used condition, in our sink.

  6. Coragyps says:

    There’s a Baal Shem Tov story that supports the “teaspoons maturing into serving spoons” theory, so it’s been going on for a few centuries now.

    Cheap ballpoint pens disappeared from the Halliburton central research center at an astonishing rate back when I was there. But the company apparently had them programmed to go dry within a few hours of arriving at my house…..

    Cheap bastards!

  7. Liisa says:

    I wondered about the same thing just last week while eating soup with a fork. Our office, once so abundant in spoons, was totally devoid of them (I don’t count the pathetic specimen in red plastic). Then the boss refused to stir her coffee with a stapler and went to buy some.

  8. Blackbird says:

    Marker pens and scissors disapear from or lab constantly. Last week a marker pen I had hidden near where I normally use it disapeared. And they are labeled with my name. We have one teaspoon in our coffee room. It is so dirty that nobody wants to take it home I guess!

  9. The planet of the spoons theory is also from Hitch-Hikers guide to the Galaxy. All of the used biros (pens) in the universe end up on their own planet. Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president, is suggested as having found this planet, as most of his funds come from his second-hand pen business.

    I wonder if we could harness the teleportive energy of the disappearing spoons.

  10. Antsan says:

    Strange, I haven’t ever experienced this phenomenon. Maybe something’s wrong with me?

  11. Mark says:

    We had a toaster go missing at work, the culprit turned out to be someone who had an aversion to the smell of toast in the work place, the new toaster was chained to the bench!

    Your story shocks and concerns me.

  12. John Black says:

    This disappearing spoon thing also happened in the tearoom in the Laboratory Block Yorkhill Hospital Glasgow UK. Intrigued by what was happening I repeated the Australian experiment with very similar results. I extended the experiment to include a search of the waste bins each day. Eureka! People in a hurry or being lazy were disposing of the spoons along with yoghurt pots instead of washing them. Result?

    @John Black, Win! Excellent detective work, I was gunning for the alternate spooniverse myself.

  13. Sam Bailey says:

    The boss just sent the following email:
    Hi Folks,

    There is now only 1 teaspoon left in the back tearoom. If you are collecting them for prosperity, have them in your office or hidden in your underpants ….. could you please return them so that others can have the privilege of using them.

    Your cooperation would be tremendous.

    So yes this is common, second such message we have had in 4mths.
    Hadn’t thought of yoghurt pots John Black – good work!
    In the past I just go down to the local Vinnies and buy up all their second hand ones….works for a while….especially if you leave the 20c price tag on.

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