A Surprising Slurp

A 7th-8th century sandstone statue of Ganesha in the Museum of Cham Scupture
A 7th-8th century sandstone statue of Ganesha in the Museum of Cham Scupture

On an early September morning in 1995, an unusual discovery was made at a Hindu temple in south New Delhi. As a worshiper brought a spoonful of milk to the trunk of Ganesha, the milk disappeared! It appeared that the statue of the elephant-headed deity had drank the offering from the spoon. Instantly it was considered a sort of miracle and news began to spread. Before noon, reports rolled in from around India that other statues of Ganesha were drinking milk as well. Soon began a story of how connected our world had already become by the mid-1990s.

By afternoon, temples around the world were reporting the same phenomenon (including the Ganesh Temple in New York City). The news of this oddity was broadcast on the BBC, CNN, the New York Times, and others. With the news spreading fast, temples began seeing an influx of visitors carrying milk. Major temples actually saw gridlocked traffic surrounding them due to the sudden rush to see the drinking statues. Lines to enter the temples reached distances of up to a mile. Milk sales in New Delhi jumped by an astonishing 30% that day! Before the day was over, most of the statues across the globe stopped drinking milk. So what was all of this about?

A traffic jam in Delhi Photo by NOMAD
A traffic jam in Delhi
Photo by NOMAD

Earlier in the day, Ross McDowall (a researcher from India’s Ministry of Science and Technology) made a milk offering with food dye. By doing this he was able to discern that the milk was disappearing via capillary action. Because the surface tension of the milk (touching the statue’s cracks and crevices) is stronger than the force of gravity keeping it in a spoon, the milk flowed upwards! On reaching the statue itself, the milk spread out and flowed across the front; thin enough that it wouldn’t be noticed.

Capillary action of water moving up a brick. Photo by Han-Kwang Nienhuys
Capillary action of water moving up a brick.
Photo by Han-Kwang Nienhuys

Due to the fast spreading news of this phenomenon, the crowds of people actually caused the statues to stop drinking milk. With more and more offerings, the milk eventually blocked the capillary pathways. With no pathways to grab onto, the milk remained in the spoons. A far reaching story like this can have far reaching effects (some have called this story an instance of mass hysteria). One shop in England actually reported selling 25,000 pints of milk that day. Although the story slowly faded after that day, it remains a prime example of how, in a modern era, one person’s discovery can affect millions in an instant.

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