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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In the annals of science, groundbreaking research sometimes goes unrecognized, at least initially. So it was with a study that was first published in the British Medical Journal in 2005 and that is only now getting the attention it deserves.

T: silverware that disappears from the workplace. In particular, they looked at what happens to one of the smaller and more vulnerable members of the silverware family. Their paper is called "The Case of the Disappearing Teaspoons: Longitudinal Cohort Study of the Displacement of Teaspoons in an Australian Research Institute".

One of the authors, Dr. Campbell Aitken, joins us now on the line from his home in Melbourne, Australia. And Dr. Aitken, since it's early, do you happen to have a teaspoon there in your cup of tea?

CAMPBELL AITKEN: Look, I'm not having tea or coffee at the moment, Michele. I'm trying to finish my breakfast, but no teaspoons in sight, I'm afraid.

NORRIS: Well, let's get to the issue of teaspoon disappearance in the workplace. Why did you decide to take on this topic?

AITKEN: Well, it was born out of genuine frustration with the lack of teaspoons in my workplace. We were all sitting around wondering why they kept disappearing, so we thought, well, one thing epidemiologists are good at are measuring phenomena, so we set up a study to try and work out what was happening to them within the institute.

NORRIS: So how did you solve this mystery? How did you actually conduct the study?

AITKEN: Well, it's a very simple design. We just numbered 70 teaspoons discretely on their undersides and distributed them around the institute. Our building has about eight tearooms, and every week we checked to see - perhaps it was every fortnight. I can't remember. It was a while ago now. Every two weeks, we checked to see which spoons were in which tea room or somewhere else in the building.

We looked on people's desks and in bins and on floors and just kept a record of, you know, which numbered teaspoons had got to which position.

NORRIS: And what conclusions did you reach?

AITKEN: Well, after five months of doing this, we'd lost 54 of 70, so that's 80 percent. That means lost altogether. We couldn't see them anywhere in the institute.

NORRIS: So just poof - just disappeared. Just like that.

AITKEN: Well, as far as we could tell, yes.

NORRIS: What did that tell you?

AITKEN: Well, we think it says something rather sad about human nature, really, that the communal property is just not as highly valued as individual property.

NORRIS: Well, Dr. Aitken, I know that this was done almost in jest, but are there practical implications for this research?

AITKEN: Well, we did try and extrapolate our findings to the entire workforce of the city of Melbourne, and we calculated that about 18 million teaspoons are going missing in Melbourne each year. Now that - 18 million teaspoons weighs about 360 tons, which is about the same as four adult blue whales. If you laid those spoons end to end, they'd cover nearly 3,000 kilometers, which is the length - as long as the entire coastline of Mozambique.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AITKEN: Practically speaking, this is a lot of teaspoons.

NORRIS: Well Dr. Aitken, thank you so much for, I guess, solving one of the great mysteries of the world. All the best to you.

AITKEN: Thank you very much. You, too, Michele.

NORRIS: That was Dr. Campbell Aitken. He's a senior research officer at the Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne, Australia. He was talking with us about a study he co-authored, entitled, "The Case of the Disappearing Teaspoons".

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