Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Why Do Diet Coke and Mentos React?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Combine Diet Coke and Mentos, and the result is explosive—Diet Coke shoots out of the bottle like a miniature, sticky Old Faithful. The reaction is so intense, you can make a rocket propelled by the resulting geyser. But what's the science behind this reaction?

In June 2008, Dr. Tonya Coffey of Appalachian State University and her physics students published a paper on the phenomenon in the American Journal of Physics. They were inspired by a 2006 MythBusters episode that, according to the paper, "did a wonderful job of identifying the basic ingredients in this reaction ... [but] did not sufficiently explain why those ingredients affect the explosion, nor did they provide direct proof of the roughness of the Mentos—a tall order for an hour-long television program." Coffey and her students decided to dig deeper.

It's All About Texture

Coffey and company discovered that the ingredients in the Mentos and Diet Coke and, more importantly, the structure of the Mentos, allow carbon dioxide bubbles to form extremely rapidly. When this happens fast enough, you get a nice Diet Coke fountain. (It’s not just Diet Coke and Mentos that react; other carbonated beverages will also readily respond to the addition of Mentos.)

Each Mentos candy has thousands of small pores on its surface which disrupt the polar attractions between water molecules, creating thousands of ideal nucleation sites for the gas molecules to congregate. In non-science speak, this porous surface creates a lot of bubble growth sites, allowing the carbon dioxide bubbles to rapidly form on the surface of the Mentos. (If you use a smooth surfaced Mentos candy, you won’t get nearly same the reaction.) The buoyancy of the bubbles and their growth will eventually cause the bubbles to leave the nucleation site and rise to the surface of the soda. Bubbles will continue to form on the porous surface and the process will repeat, creating a nice, foamy geyser.

In addition to that, the gum arabic and gelatin ingredients of the Mentos, combined with the potassium benzoate, sugar or (potentially) aspartame in diet sodas, also help in this process. In these cases, the ingredients end up lowering the surface tension of the liquid, allowing for even more rapid bubble growth on the porous surface of the Mentos—higher surface tension would make it a more difficult environment for bubbles to form. (Compounds like gum arabic that lower surface tension are called “surfactants”).

Diet sodas produce a bigger reaction than non-diet sodas because aspartame lowers the surface tension of the liquid much more than sugar or corn syrup will. You can also increase the effect by adding more surfactants to the soda when you add the Mentos, like adding a mixture of dishwasher soap and water.

Size Matters

Another factor that contributes to the size of the geyser is how rapidly the object causing the foaming sinks in the soda. The faster it sinks, the faster the reaction can happen, and a faster reaction creates a bigger geyser; a slower reaction may release the same amount of foam overall, but will also create a much smaller geyser. This is another reason Mentos works so much better than other similar confectioneries: The candies are fairly dense objects and tend to sink rapidly in the soda. If you crush the Mentos, so it doesn’t sink much at all, you won’t get a very dramatic reaction.

The temperature of the soda also factors into geyser size. Gases are less soluble in liquids with a higher temperature, so the warmer your soda is, the bigger your Mentos-induced geyser will be. This is because the gases want to escape the liquid, so when you drop the Mentos in, the reaction happens faster.

What Doesn't Work

While caffeine is often cited as something that will increase the explosive reaction with the soda, this is not actually the case, at least not given the relatively small amount of caffeine found in the typical 2-liter bottle of soda generally used for these sorts of Diet Coke and Mentos reactions.

You’ll also sometimes read that the acidity of the soda is a major factor in the resulting geyser. This is not the case either. In fact, the level of acidity in the Coke before and after the Mentos geyser does not change, negating the possibility of an acid-based reaction—though you can make such an acid-based reaction using baking soda.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

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Who Started Casual Fridays?
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For employees at the mercy of an office thermostat, Casual Fridays provide some much-needed relief during frigid winters and the scorching months of summer. Though many offices are beginning to loosen their dress codes permanently, plenty of employees still cling to this one day a week when wearing shorts won't raise any eyebrows and that T-shirt won't result in an email from HR. But Casual Friday didn't begin just as a cure for discomfort in the workplace; there was also money to be made. 

In the 1960s, Bill Foster, president of The Hawaiian Fashion Guild, plotted to find a way to sell more of the colorfully designed Aloha shirts to their residents with the launch of "Operation Liberation," which gave two shirts to every member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and the Hawaii Senate. The purpose of this campaign was to persuade the politicians to allow government workers to wear the lightweight shirts not only to beat the heat in the summer months, but also to support the state’s garment industry. The custom took off in 1966 and was given a familiar name, "Aloha Friday."

Technology giant Hewlett-Packard claims to have sparked the spread of casual wear in the workplace around the same time in the San Francisco Bay area. Called "Blue Sky Days," this Friday custom wasn't just limited to clothing: HP's founders—Bill Hewlett and David Packard—wanted people to take these days to think of more creative ideas and initiatives outside of their normal routine. This idea soon caught on throughout Silicon Valley and, eventually, into other industries.

However, the spread of this casual trend on the mainland resulted in haphazard, sometimes sloppy attire in the workplace. To help clarify the issue, and to promote his own brand, Rick Miller of Dockers stepped in with an ingenious marketing plan. In 1992, he sent an eight-page “Guide To Casual Business Wear” to approximately 25,000 human resource managers to distribute to their employees. This kickstarted the Dockers brand by popularizing the khaki pant and redefining what is acceptable attire in the workplace.

Now, many nations adopt a Casual Friday approach for similar reasons. In 2005, Japan implemented a Cool Biz policy that granted a summer dress code during hot weather months, in exchange for a more moderate temperature in office buildings. This meant offices were saving energy by keeping their temperature at no less than 82.4°F, but workers could breathe a bit easier in business casual tops and sneakers.

Blame the fashion industry, the unbearable heat, or simply an evolving cultural attitude. The likes of Bill Foster’s Aloha Friday and Rick Miller’s “Guide To Casual Business Wear” gave employees permission to dress for comfort on the job—for at least one coveted day of the week.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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