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The Straight Dope


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Everyone is familiar with Teflon, that nonstick surface no self-respecting housewife can do without. If'n it works so well slippin' and slidin' yer flapjacks, how do they get it to stick to the pan in the first place?

--Richard Lavine, via the Internet

A favorite question of smart-aleck drive-time radio hosts, and to tell you the truth it gave (and gives) the folks who make Teflon pans some trouble too. Teflon, known to science as polytetrafluoroethylene, is a pain to work with because it's nonsticky in all directions, the pan side (the bottom) as well as the food side (the top). Teflon is a fluorinated polymer, a polymer being a passel of identical building-block molecules linked together to make a long chain--the stuff of most plastics. Fluorine, due to certain electrochemical properties you'll thank me for not explaining now, bonds so tightly with the carbon in Teflon that it's virtually impossible for other substances, e.g., scrambled egg bits, to get a chemical-type grip or, for that matter, for Teflon to get a grip on anything else. In addition, the finished Teflon surface is extremely smooth, giving said egg bits little chance to get a mechanical-type grip.

So how do they get Teflon to stick to the pan? They spray it on, then bake it at high heat, causing the Teflon to flow into micro-scratches on the pan's surface and get a reasonably secure mechanical grip. Reasonably secure today, that is. You may recall that the nonstick surface on early Teflon cookware was easy to chip off and required the use of special utensils. Better preparation of the pan surface has minimized that problem, but you can still ruin Teflon by subjecting it to extremely high heat. This causes the bonds between some of the carbon atoms to break, giving other stuff a chance to bond thereto.

Scientists continue to search for something better, and recent reports say they may have succeeded. Dow Chemical researcher Donald Schmidt has come up with another fluorinated polymer that can be used like paint and cured with moderate (as opposed to high) heat. Even better, you wind up with a coating that's nonsticky on only one side, presumably the outside. The only drawback: Schmidt's coating won't withstand heat. That doesn't matter if you're trying to make, say, graffiti-proof wall tile, but don't look for Schmidtlon-coated frying pans anytime soon.

A friend and I are having an, uh, open exchange of views on the topic of John Tyler. My friend said, "The United States never had a president named Tyler," and pulled out some reference that said Tyler had no constitutional authority to assume the presidency when William Henry Harrison died but was only the vice president performing the duties of the president. I pulled out the Encyclopaedia Britannica, where John Tyler is listed as "10th president of the United States." My friend, and at this point I am using the term loosely, disputes this but has agreed to abide by Cecil's opinion, which is hereby requested. NB: There is a fairly expensive meal riding on providing the correct information. Not that you need any incentive.

--Fania, via the Internet

Of course not. But while Cecil's soul hungers only for knowledge, his body wouldn't mind a nice steak. Your friend is being a toad. Tyler was the first vice president to assume the powers of the presidency upon the death of the incumbent. There was some question at the time whether he was president or merely acting president, the Constitution being ambiguous on this point. Tyler's detractors in fact referred to him as "His Accidency." What practical consequence the matter had is debatable, but in the interest of clarity both houses of Congress passed resolutions declaring that Tyler was president, period. That settled things for all but a few nitpickers, of whom your friend regrettably is one. When do we eat?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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