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April 3, 2008

Solving a Sticky Problem

Posted: 12:14 PM ET

It seems there's virtually no dilemma plaguing humanity that hasn't been studied by some scientist, somewhere.

A torn poster in Serbia-Montenegro illustrates the "wallpaper problem." Source: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

Case in point: You know how, when you try to tear down old wallpaper, or pull a label off something, it invariably peels on a diagonal line instead of coming off straight, so you end up with a point still stuck to the surface?

Well, apparently that really bothered a team of scientists from MIT, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, and the Universidad de Santiago, Chile.

"This shape is really robust, so there must be something fundamental going on that gives rise to these shapes," said Pedro Reis, a mathematics instructor at MIT.

Now, the researchers have explained the physics of what they call "the wallpaper problem," according to a press release from MIT.

The team analyzed how the stiffness and toughness of a material being pulled off a surface interacts with the strength of the adhesive holding it in place.

The scientists say energy builds up along the line where the strip of wallpaper (or whatever) is peeling from the wall, and one way for the energy to be released is for the strip to become narrower – so it does.

The team also came up with a way to predict the angle at which a given piece of wallpaper will tear.

The scientists say the same thing happens when you peel a tomato or a grape. It's not clear whether any of the researchers actually sat around peeling grapes.

The research could actually have practical applications in industries where the properties of sticky films are important.

The study was published in the journal "Nature Materials."

–Kate King, Writer,

Filed under: Materials • Physics

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Jeff   April 4th, 2008 9:27 am ET

If the writer felt this story didn't warrant a genuine article, the writer should have sought out a subject that did.

Articles like this are the reason I visit less and less.

TAyLoR   April 4th, 2008 1:20 pm ET

Ok seriously Jeff, I think that Kate did a splendid job with the task at hand. I mean honestly, who wants to write about this? I thought she added a funny tone to it.


Beary   April 5th, 2008 4:25 pm ET

Interesting article. Keep them coming, Kate.

Never mind Jeff and the like – if they aren't interested they don't have to read stories like this. In fact they don't even have to come to

California Boy   April 7th, 2008 4:17 am ET

what is the point of this article? shouldn't people know how to peel stuff off without tearing it? ... is it that hard?

Tim   April 8th, 2008 11:05 pm ET

Two words...Un-du.

Florida Woman   April 9th, 2008 9:55 pm ET

Public radio aired a piece about this study. They said the best suggestion is to 'go slow'. I agree that the above article promises information but just doesn't deliver.

Mr. Spock   April 10th, 2008 5:54 am ET

Can we do an article on how fast paint dries. Or how fast grass grows?

Dave   April 15th, 2008 1:34 pm ET

An interesting article, Kate. Some of these comments show a shalow/narrow interest in science.

I understood why water running down a vertical sheet of glass will break into ripples. The forces in the increasing surface area absorbing the drop in potential energy.

Now I know why wallpaper tears the way it does. Thanks!

Jordan   April 16th, 2008 1:13 am ET

As a physicist, I enjoy articles like this. The same principle of least action that governs so much, even applies to wallpaper. facinating! Keep 'em coming!

Tearing of thin adhesive sheets | Fracture | |   December 20th, 2012 4:05 pm ET

[...] press coverage  of our article on tearing of adhesive sheet [A16]: MIT Homepage, CNN, MSNBC, NanoWerk, Science Daily, Eurekalert, Physorg, Yahoo News, Live Science, Ars [...]

Online press coverage  on tearing of adhesive sheet | Press Coverage | |   December 21st, 2012 8:21 pm ET

[...] press coverage  of our article on tearing of adhesive sheet [A16]: MIT Homepage, CNN, MSNBC, NanoWerk, Science Daily, Eurekalert, Physorg, Yahoo News, Live Science, Ars [...]

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