How Many Licks? Science Determines The Owl Lied

There are many major quandaries in life, and way too many minor puzzlers. One of the latter is, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?” Scientists may have finally found the answer. Drum roll please …

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About 2,500 licks.

A team of mathematicians from New York University and Florida State University published a study in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, and they determined that a typical lollipop requires about 1,000 licks. However, a regular-size Tootsie Pop (not the minis) needs more than twice that effort.

This quirky story actually is a by-product of a more serious search: investigating the effects of dissolving materials within a fluid flow. How does flowing liquid dissolve and shrink various materials? This has ramifications for such things as geological shifts in the environment, and the dissolving of pills in pharmaceutical settings.

Technology students study “materials science,” focused on the relationship between the structure and properties of various materials. Chemists, engineers, those who develop construction materials, pharmacists and others are concerned with this, and the candy study is a lighthearted method of delving into a more important concern.

Tootsie Roll Industries?began in 1896 with the humble but tasty Tootsie Roll. They claim that the number of licks it takes to arrive at the center of the round treat “depends on a variety of factors such as the size of your mouth, the amount of saliva. etc.” This is based upon common sense and empirical evidence that has been observed over generations. Perhaps other factors also come into play, such as air temperature, what foods you have eaten previously, and so on. And does it matter which flavor you choose, between grape, cherry, orange, or another?

And how about those Charms lollipops I slobbered over as a little kid? How many licks does it take to polish off one of those?

Many of you will recall the Wise Owl (he wore a mortarboard cap, so you knew he was smart) of the cartoon advertisement that ran on TV. He licked the Tootsie Pop once, twice, thrice…and then bit into it. Cheater or wisenheimer?

Science, meet candy. Candy, meet world issues.

Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013), all published by Avotaynu. She is a lifelong New Yorker, a veteran public school teacher, writer and photographer. Bird lover as well.