Category: physics

Inside each of us is a remarkable and constant…

Inside each of us is a remarkable and constant flow, driven by a muscle that’s always at work. As blood circulates through our bodies, it goes through a surprisingly varied journey. In the heart, as seen above, blood flow is very unsteady and quite turbulent, due to the beating pulse of the heart. As valves open and close and the muscle walls constrict and relax, the rushing blood moves in eddy-filled spurts. In the outer reaches of our capillaries, however, the nature of the flow is quite different. Thanks to smaller vessel sizes and other factors, capillary blood flow is much steadier and more laminar. Viscosity becomes more important, as do the non-Newtonian properties of components in our blood. (Image credit: mushin111/YouTube, source; via Science; submitted by Gary N.)

The triple point of water

The triple point of water

In the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, women…

In the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, women have a tradition of water music, accompanying their singing with a percussive use of water. This video explores the physics behind this music. Performers use three basic motions – a slap, a plunge, and a plow – that each have distinctive acoustics thanks to the interaction of hand, water, and air. High pitches come from the initial impact on the water, whereas lower pitches come mostly from the collapse of the air cavity in the hand’s wake. By altering the rhythms and patterns of these three building blocks, the musicians create a rich harmony to accompany their singing. (Video credit: R. Hurd et al.)

Recently, NASA Goddard released a visualizatio…

Recently, NASA Goddard released a visualization of aerosols in the Atlantic region. The simulation uses real data from satellite imagery taken between August and October 2017 to seed a simulation of atmospheric physics. The color scales in the visualization show concentrations of three major aerosol particles: smoke (gray), sea salt (blue), and dust (brown). One of the interesting outcomes of the simulation is a visualization of the fall Atlantic hurricane season. The high winds from hurricanes help pick up sea salt from the ocean surface and throw it high in the atmosphere, making the hurricanes visible here. Fires in the western United States provide most of the smoke aerosols, whereas dust comes mostly from the Sahara. Tiny aerosol particles serve as a major nucleation source for water droplets, affecting both cloud formation and rainfall. With simulations like these, scientists hope to better understand how aerosols move in the atmosphere and how they affect our weather. (Image credit: NASA Goddard Research Center, source; submitted by Paul vdB)

Many insects are known to quest underwater, bu…

Many insects are known to quest underwater, but few are as adept at it as the alkali fly. This species has taken common attributes among flies – being covered in tiny hairs and a waxy layer – and really upped the ante. Their extra hairiness and extra waxiness make them extremely difficult to get wet, even in the excessively salty and alkaline waters of California’s Mono Lake, which are enough to defeat all but algae, brine shrimp, bacteria, and alkali flies. 

Staying dry is a challenge, but only one of many this insect tackles. The combination of hair and wax over the insect makes it superhydrophobic, coating it in a silvery layer of air as it crawls below the surface. All that air is buoyant, so to walk underwater, the fly has to exert forces up to 18 times its body weight just to keep from popping back up to the surface. 

The shimmering bubble also helps the fly breathe. Insect respiratory systems use openings all over the exoskeleton to exchange oxygen with the ambient atmosphere via diffusion. While diffusion of oxygen does still happen underwater, it’s a much slower process there. The air sheath around the fly creates a large surface area for oxygen to diffuse, which helps counter the lower diffusion rate. Inside the sheath, the fly breathes as it normally does. (Image and research credit: F. van Breugel and M. Dickinson; via Gizmodo; submitted by @1307phaezr)



For humans, swimming is relatively easy. Kick …

For humans, swimming is relatively easy. Kick your legs, wheel your arms, and you’ll move forward. But for microswimmers, swimming can be more complicated. For them, the world is a viscous place, and the rules that we swim by can’t help them get around. In a highly viscous world, flows are reversible. Kick one limb down and you might move forward, but when you pull the limb up, you’ll be sucked right back to where you started. So microswimmers must use asymmetry in their swimming. In other words, their recovery stroke cannot be the mirror-image of their power stroke. A new study suggests that simple elastic spheres could make good microswimmers through cyclic inflation and deflation. When the sphere deflates, it buckles, making a shape unlike its inflating one. This difference in shape change is enough to propel the sphere a little with each cycle. Right now the test system is a macroscale one, but the researchers hope to continue miniaturizing. (Image and research credit: A. Djellouli et al.; via APS Physics; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

Earlier this fall, I attempted my first corn m…

Earlier this fall, I attempted my first corn maze. It didn’t work out very well. Early on I unknowingly cut through an area meant to be impassable and thus ended up missing the majority of the maze. Soap, as it turns out, is a much better maze-solver, taking nary a false turn as it heads inexorably to the exit. The secret to soap’s maze-solving prowess is the Marangoni effect

Soap has a lower surface tension than the milk that makes up the maze, which causes an imbalance in the forces at the surface of the liquid. That imbalance causes a flow in the direction of higher surface tension; in other words, it tends to pull the soap molecules in the direction of the highest milk concentration. But that explains why the soap moves, not how it knows the right path to take. It turns out that there’s another factor at work. Balancing gravitational forces and surface tension forces shows that the soap tends to spread toward the path with the largest surface area ahead. That’s the maze exit, so Marangoni forces pull the soap right to the way out! (Video credit: F. Temprano-Coleto et al.)


Sand and water make a remarkable team when it …

Sand and water make a remarkable team when it comes to building. But the substrate – the surface you build on – makes a big difference as well. Take a syringe of wet sand and drip it onto a waterproof surface (bottom right), and you’ll get a wet heap that flows like a viscous liquid. Drop the same wet sand onto a surface covered in dry sand (bottom left), and the drops pile up into a tower. Watch the sand drop tower closely, and you’ll see how new drops first glisten with moisture and then lose their shine. The excess water in each drop is being drawn downward and into the surrounding sand through capillary action. This lets the sand grains settle against one another instead of sliding past, giving the sand pile the strength to hold its weight upright. (Video and image credit:

amàco et al.)


Volcanic eruptions produce some of the largest…

Volcanic eruptions produce some of the largest flows on Earth. These towering ash clouds were imaged from orbit in May 2017 as an eruption began on Alaska’s Bogoslof Island. The clouds are a beautiful example of a turbulent flow. Turbulence is characterized by its many length scales. Some features in the plume are tens or hundreds of meters across, yet there are also coherent motions down at the centimeter or millimeter scale. In a turbulent flow, energy cascades from these very large scales down to the smallest ones, where viscosity is significant enough to dissipate it. This is part of the challenge of modeling turbulence; to fully describe it, you have to capture what happens at every scale. (Image credit: DigitalGlobe, via Apollo Mapping; submitted by Mark S.)