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Sherbet Lemons:
What Makes Them Sticky?


Q
  Kate:  

You know when you buy sherbet lemons, and the man weighs them out for you and then puts them in a little white paper bag? Well, when they come out of the jar they're all dry and nice and not sticky, they fall like little snowflakes into your bag, completely seperate from one another and easy to pick up without (a) getting your fingers all messy and (b) sticking to the bag in a most annoying fashion. However, after just 5 minutes in the bag they're stuck like shit to a blanket and covered in an irritating layer of goo. Why is this Mike? Surely it's dryer in a paper bag (paper being quite a dry thing), than in a mouldy old plastic jar? Why Mike? Why?



A
  Mike:  

It's because sweet shops are often inhabited by invisible sherbet lemon spitting gnomes who spend their lives hanging around in sweet shops and waiting for the opportunity to spit on sherbet lemons. When the sherbet lemons are sealed up in the jar they cannot spit on them and they get really irritated and mope about in a sulk. Whenever someone buys any sherbet lemons they get all excited and start jumping about like frantic gibbons on acid with St. Vitus Dance, and the follow the customer out of the shop, climb into the bag and start spitting on the sherbet lemons. Then when they're out of phlegm they make their way back to the shop nice and contented and wait for the next sherbet lemon purchase.

This can easily be tested by sending someone in before you to buy some sherbet lemons and then slipping in the shop to buy your sherbet lemons before the gnomes sneak back. You will find that your sherbet lemons will remain dry.



    Mike:  

The Boring Answer:

The action you are witnessing is known as "deliquescence" which is a substance's ability to dissolve and become liquid by absorbing moisture from the air.

Sorry. I know the gnome answer was better but, hey, would I really lie to you?

You may be interested to know that the word "deliquescence" is derived from "delicatessen" since early delicatessens (which were based in and subsquently named after Delhi) used to sell exclusively sherbet lemons because they were the poshest thing around in those days.

Incidentally, my colleague Joel has emailed a couple of possible sources with your sherbet lemon query who may be able to come up with another answer. I shall keep you informed.



    Joel:  

(forwarded from Jon Cruse)

Humidity.

When the sherbet lemons are put into the jar they are done so in a low humidity environment and therefore the air in the jar is "dry". Whenever the jar is opened only a small amount of air is displaced and so the large volume of sherbet lemons easily absorbs the minute amount of humidity introduced into the jar without changing their physical state. When the small quantity of sherbet lemons is put into a bag and then carried in a warm pocket the status quo is altered so that a small volume of sherbet lemons is exposed to a high level of humidity at an ambient temperature which makes the sugar susceptible to the absorbtion of water. Hence the sherbet lemons stay dry in the jar and become damp in the pocket.

Jx

N.B. If you've ever had the last quarter of sherbet lemons from a jar you will have noticed that they are already stuck together. The same applies if the jar top has not been screwed back on securely.



    Kate:  

Yeah, but... well... loads of people like sherbet lemons, don't they? So the shop keeper must have to keep on opening his jar quite a lot throughout the day. And he *always* takes the ones from the top, doesn't he? I mean, you never see him having to prize off a whole layer of sticky ones in order for him to get to the nice dry seperate ones, do you? And quite often I've been the last person to buy sherbet lemons from a jar, and I haven't noticed them being any stickier. And in the shop, the sweets are quite often left in the window, occasionally at the mercy of an english summer, and when you buy them and put them in your pocket they are in a nice dark quiet place, away from sunlight aren't they? And there are fewer of them, so there's less sugar to go sticky. Unless you're a bit of a lardy. And I always fold my little bag over at the top to stop the nasty air molecules from invading my sweets, but they still get sticky.

I'm sorry Mike, but I'm afraid I find even the gnome explanation more convincing than this. Deliquescence? Sounds French to me. Don't try and fob me off with your fancy french explanations. And I mean... air? Air is dry, isn't it? Everyone knows that! Why should something dry make a dry thing wet? I'm hardly about to fall for that now, am I?

And I never, ever get my bag of sherbet lemons out in the rain.

Come on, I thought you knew stuff.



    Mike:  

Air certainly is NOT dry. There is always a certain amount of humidity in it. Anyway, I wasn't too impressed with that answer. I think the gnomes have it.

I mean, come on, it's flawless isn't it?



    Kate:  

Yes, your gnome answer is certainly without holes. However, I must take issue with your theory that air is not dry. I mean, what comes out of a hair dryer then? If air was wet, then surely hair dryers would only aggravate the wetness of the hair. And how does washing dry on a washing line? The breeze blows it dry, that's how! If you have a cup of water lying about for long enough it will evaporate. This is caused by the dryness in the air eating the water. And some third world countries experience droughts, when it hasn't rayned for a while and there is too much dryness in the air as a result. Air is not moist, Mike! It's the driest thing you can get. Imagine the driest your hands ever feel... it's when you've just got out of the bath and the air has taken away the water, isn't it? If air was wet, even slightly wet, your hands would feel clammy, not the driest things ever. No, I'm sorry Mike. I think you're wrong on this one.



    Mike:  

What do you think clouds are made of?



    Kate:  

Fluff?



    Mike:  

Right,

Hair dryers do indeed dry wet hair by blowing air onto it. And when they do they take the water from the hair which is evaporated and becomes part of the air, thus adding to its humidity or moisture content. It doesn't actually matter if the air already has moisture in it prior to the blowing. So long as the air has a lower moisture content than the wet hair (which is generally the case) it will still dry the hair. Obviously the drier the air, the more efficient will be its hair drying ability. This is why the air is heated, because when you heat air it drives out some of its moisture and it becomes drier. If air has a particularly large moisture content it will form clouds which is what happens on cool days and usually quite high up in the sky where it's even cooler. Have you noticed how on hot sunny days you don't get so many clouds? This is also why it's better to dry clothes on a nice hot sunny day than a cold miserable clammy one.

And sure, a cup of water WILL evaporate. But where do you think the water goes to? It goes into the air - it becomes PART of the air. Sometimes on weather forecasts they will give the humidity - this is nothing more than the amount of water in the air! Air is NOT the driest thing you can get. OK its water content is normally pretty damn small but it is not 100% dry.



    Mike:  

Annanutherthing...

Where do you think condensation on windows comes from?



    Kate:  

Condensation on windows, I always thought, comes from it being colder outside than inside. When you wash a wine glass in very cold water and then immediately afterwards in very cold water, the glass often breaks. This is because inflicting very hotness and very coldness on glass simultaneously is perilous to glass - sort of like an allergy. Weather never gets as cold as very cold water, nor does it get as hot as very hot water. Therefore, the window doesn't actually break, it just runs a bit.

When you dry your hair with a hair dryer, the water doesn't go into the air! It dissolves in the heat of the hair dryer. It evaporates, Mike. This means it disappears. It does not become moisture in the air. It does not become anything in the air. It becomes nothing. The dryness in the hair dryer's air makes the wetness of the hair go away. I agree with you about hot air being drier than cold air though. This makes sense. Cold air is damper because it is partially made of ice, and ice is, as we all know, made of water. I accept this. But warm air - even temporate air - is most certainly dry.

The reason why you don't get so many clouds on hot days is because it is the clouds that block out the sun. It's hotter because there are fewer clouds. It's not that there are fewer clouds because it's hotter! When it's cloudy the sun can't get out to give us warmth. It's trapped behind the clouds. Just as a fire wouldn't give out much heat if it was lit underneath a big old pile of cotton wool (clouds are inflammable, though), neither can the sun when it's behind the clouds. When there are no clouds then it's hotter because the sun can get out. Whether you get clouds depends on the earth's position. Just as you can only see an eclipse every hundred years or so, you can only see clouds when the earth passes them. We probably go past the same cloud only once or twice in our lifetime. The cloud I am looking at now will be seen by people in Basingstoke next Tuesday.

The cup of water thing you suggested is a bit far fetched, isn't it? I mean, how does water 'go' into the air? And even if it *could* 'go' into the air, surely we'd notice if a big wet puddle came flying towards us out of nowhere!

If air is wet, as you suggest, then perhaps we are indeed all fish, living beneath the waves?

And my sherbet lemons are still sticking together.



    Mike:  

I've never heard such a pile of piffle in all my life. Stop trying to understand science, you really don't have the knack. Go back to being a girl and leave all this stuff to those of us that can cope with it. This is boys' stuff and you just ain't got what it takes. I suggest you stick to reading Canadian poetry, watching Brookside and take up knitting cute little socks for your forthcoming offspring. Never, ever, bombard me such gibberish again. It's people like you that held back the technologies that we enjoy today. If you had your way we'd be burning witches at the stake and wandering around covered in shit. There'd be no internet and you'd have no email. Hmmm, maybe that's not a bad thing. With any luck you'd be the first up against the stake frantically blowing at the flames dancing around your feet. I bet you'd wish the air was wet then!



    Kate:  

But how could the air possibly be wet if there was a fire burning in the middle of it? And surely if I blew on the flames that would make it worse, because air is so DRY and fire likes stuff that's DRY.

Honestly Mike. I used to think you were intelligent. You don't know shit, do you?

PS. Sorry to split hairs, but we wouldn't be all be 'wandering around covered in shit'. Shit is actually quite moist, and would just slide off. And when the DRY air got to it, it would harden, and wandering around would no longer be possible. We could sit still and be covered in shit, or we could wander around not covered in shit any more because all the shit has fallen off. Otherwise, it just wouldn't work.



    Mike:  

If you go back to your first message on this subject you described sherbet lemons which have been in the bag for five minutes as being "stuck like shit to a blanket". Now you're saying that shit is quite moist and just slides off. It seems to me that it's you who doesn't know shit. I suggest you get your shit sorted out because although you talk a lot of it you don't appear to understand it.



    Kate:  

If you had been paying attention you would notice that, yes, I did indeed make a comparison between sherbet lemons being stuck together and shit being stuck to a blanket BUT my original point was that the sticking together of sherbet lemons did not seem to have any coherent reason behind it. I was addressing the fact that, despite the inarguable fact that sherbet lemons DO stick together when placed in a paper bag, there is no significant reason for them to do so. Therefore, by comparing sherbet lemons sticking together in a paper bag with shit sticking to a blanket I was cleverly and subtly trying to draw your attention to the impossibility of the former by illustrating the more obvious impossibilty of the latter.

Furthermore, and please forgive me if this sounds a little pedantic, I must point out that there is a significant difference between the sticking of shit to a blanket and the sticking of shit to a person. When shit sticks to a blanket, it does so (generally speaking) indoors. Now, as we have established, there is a lot more air outdoors than there is in. Air makes things dry. Now, people are, unless they are afflicted with an extreme disability restricting any form of movement, significantly more mobile than blankets. People, unlike blankets, have legs with which to walk around on, and most people occasionally leave their houses and go outside sometimes. If there is more air outside, and if air is the driest thing there is, then the shit is more likely to dry much more quickly on a person than on a blanket. This is due to the person going outside more than the blanket does, and therefore being exposed to a greater level of dry air.



    Mike:  

I really can't take any more of this rubbish. Please leave me alone.



    Kate:  

I will only leave you alone when you admit that you're wrong and I'm right. Air is dry. It is the driest thing in the world. It is not wet unless it's raining. Admit this and I'll drop it. Failure to admit this could result in a great many more irritating emails.

And you also have to admit that you don't know why sherbet lemons get sticky in a bag but not a jar.



    Mike:  

Right ... Joel's second source has come back with a result. She is an M.Sc. in Chemistry, is the head of department at Lister School in Plaistow and lives on a boat. This makes her eminently qualified to answer such a question.

Hello Joel! It is called deliquescence, when a substance absorbs moisture from the air and eventually dissolves in it. The moisture in the air is absorbed by the sweet. There is limited air in the jar and the sugar coating on the sweets is enough to absorb that without dissolving. But paper allows the air through, including the water molecules in the air, so the sugar is not enough to protect it. Anyhow that's my educated theory and I am sticking to it. Try leaving some of them in a jar with the lid off and some others in a jar with the lid on to test it out. Nice to hear from you, Love Ginger

OK, I reckon that sorts it out once and for all. I cock a snook at you. In fact I cock the biggest snook at you that's ever been cocked. And until I receive a humble, grovelling apology from you I shall continue to cock snooks at you. Be prepared to be snooked out. Here comes the first one:

Na-naa-na-naa-naaaaa!



    Kate:  

Naaa. Still not buying it.

This theory still relies on air being wet, and I just refuse to believe that's true. I think I've more than proved this with my shit theories.

She's obviously a clever lady, and she might well live on a boat, but I really don't think she knows what she's talking about. I mean, she lives on a boat. Of course her sherbet lemons are damp.

K



    Mike:  

OK, Knowall. If clouds are made of fluff, where does rain come from?



    Kate:  

Rain comes from the sky, silly!


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