Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pretty Physics Picture of the Week: Supersonic Splash

There's something very elegant about these images. It's just a disc being pulled rapidly down into water, but the space left behind looks so pretty. The researchers who took the pictures weren't out to make art. They were studying what happens when an object rapidly plunges into a fluid. It turns out that the void left behind collapses and pushes out a supersonic jet of air.

If you want to learn more about the science of the supersonic splash, it's worth looking over an explanation by University of Maryland physicist Dan Lathrop in the APS online publication Physics. Dan knows lots about the topic. I used to work across the hall from his lab where he did related experiments. Instead of dropping things into water, he had a huge pool that was mounted on an apparatus that bounced it up and down, creating waves that would collide to create jets of water that shot straight up in nearly unbelievable liquid spikes.

Of course, you can forget about the science and just appreciate the fleeting and elegant lines in the images instead. Or better yet, watch a movie of the splash in an article by Lisa Grossman at Science News. That's all I feel like doing at the moment - after all, sometimes it's nice to relax and enjoy the beauty of physics, and to leave the worrying about the calculus and data crunching for another day.

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