Recently there has been a lot of buzz about the physics of ponytails. An article published this week Physical Review Letters used statistical physics to show mathematically what every girl with a bad hair day already knows; the shape of a hanging ponytail. We here at Buzz headquarters wanted to see if our ponytails were doing what math says they should be.
Hair is complicated. It is bouncy, elastic, curly, straight, thick and thin. Most people know that it also has a tendency to stick out in many unfortunate directions. Using statistical methods, Goldstein et al derive a simple equation that takes all this into account yet very accurately describes the shape of a ponytail. In their experiments they used switches of hair from International Hair Importers & Products. I can't imagine the look on accounting's face when they saw that on the company card! Though their equation very accurately describes their disembodied "switches" we were wondering how they would stack up to some hair that was still attached to a head. We have one straight, long, ponytail, a curl, long, ponytail and a short, thick, ponytail. Oh yeah, and one, um, non-traditional ponytail.
Our first ponytail has a total length of 11'' or 28 cm. The one dimensionless parameter mentioned in the paper is the "Rapunzel Number" which is the length in cm divided by 5cm. This ponytail has a Rapunzel Number of 5.6. According to the team's predictions, at 10cm, the ponytail should have a radius of a little over 3cm and at 15cm it should have a radius of a little over 4cm. In the first case, at 10cm this ponytail has a radius of close to 3.2cm. Ok, so far so good. At 15 cm it is about 3.9cm. Wow, closer than I would have thought! Now on to a short, thick ponytail.
Before I start this analysis, by looking at this ponytail I thought there was no way it could agree with the predictions. It looks too different from the previous one. This ponytail is 12 cm long with a Rapunzel Number of 2.5. At 5cm it should have a radius of a little under 2cm. Turns out it is a whopping 4.5cm. More than twice that predicted. This may be due to a fly away hair or the fact that the hair is a bit layered. Moving on to 10 cm and a predicted 3 cm. It is actually 5cm. It seems that for short, thick hair their predictions and/or assumptions begin to break down.
Now for a long, curly ponytail. This ponytail tops out at 35.5 cm and a Rapunzel Number of 7.1! Since there is so much hair, we can do three measurements on this one! At 10cm the predicted radius is again roughly 3cm. Its off by almost 2cm at 5cm. For 20cm we should get a 5cm radius but instead we find its 9cm, almost a factor of 2 off. For 25 cm we should get a radius of just under 6 cm. Again, we are way off with a radius of around 10cm.
Here is our "non-traditional" ponytail. Since Goldstein et al included gravity in their calculations, lets see what happens with it working in the wrong direction. The Rapunzel Number here is only 0.9. I don't have much to measure here, so looking only at 2.5 cm, we get a radius of 1 cm which is, well, just about dead on.