- In January 1919 a rickety storage tank of molasses split open, releasing an enormous wave of viscous fluid onto the streets of Boston's North End. Many people and animals were engulfed by syrup from which they could not escape without help.
- Because they are so tiny, bacteria and other microbes struggle to move through water and various other fluids as we would struggle in molasses. Most microorganisms solve this problem with powerful, whiplike tails or many minuscule hairs that flap like oars.
- Some microbes, however, have baffled scientists for years by swimming without obvious external appendages. Recently researchers have begun to solve some of these mysteries, revealing such adaptations as intricate protein motors and slime-thinning enzymes.
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On January 15, 1919, just as Martin Clougherty was waking from a nap, a towering wall of syrup slammed into his bedroom and swept him into the middle of the street. Battered but conscious, he managed to stand in the chest-deep mire flowing past him and wipe great globs of gunk from his eyes. Here and there the splintered remains of his house drifted on a sea of thick, amber fluid. Heaving himself onto a raft of passing debris—his bed frame—he spied a hand just above the muck. He grabbed it and pulled, eventually lifting a gasping woman onto the raft: his sister, Teresa.
Less than 30 yards from the Cloughertys' home, a rickety, five-story-high storage tank of molasses filled to near capacity had split open, releasing more than two million gallons of syrup onto the streets of Boston's North End. A wave 25 feet high and 160 feet wide at its peak demolished buildings, crushed freight cars and tore the Engine 31 firehouse from its foundation. The second floor of the firehouse collapsed onto the first, trapping several firefighters and a stonecutter in a narrow crawl space. The burly men tried to tread molasses as they would water, but every kick required enormous effort. One firefighter drowned from exhaustion. Ultimately the disaster killed 21 people and injured 150 others, many of whom were engulfed by the ooze and could not escape without assistance, as Stephen Puleo describes in detail in his book Dark Tide (Beacon Press, 2003).
This article was originally published with the title How to Swim in Molasses.