You’ve probably noticed that cereal clumps together in your breakfast bowl, but you may not have given much thought as to why. This tendency for objects at an interface to attract is known as the Cheerios effect, although it happens in more than just cereal, as Joe Hanson from It’s Okay to Be Smart explains. The effect is a combination of buoyancy, gravity, and surface tension acting in concert.
When air, a liquid, and a solid meet, they form a meniscus, the curvature of which depends on characteristics of their interaction. Light, buoyant cereal and the walls of your bowl both have upward-curving menisci. Denser objects, like the tacks shown below, stay at the surface only because surface tension holds them up. Their meniscus curves downward.
Objects with a similar meniscus curvature will attract. For cereal approaching a wall, the light Cheerio is buoyant enough that there’s an upward force on it, but it’s constrained to stay at the interface. It cannot rise, but that buoyancy is enough to let it climb the meniscus at the wall. The two tacks attract one another for similar reasons, except this time their weight helps them fall into one another. Check out the full video to see more examples of this effect in nature! (Video and image credit: It’s Okay to Be Smart; research credit: D. Vella and L. Mahadevan, pdf)