Prince Rupert’s Drop – Exploding Glass

By Anupum Pant

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What is it?

At first, a Prince Rupert’s Drop is an interesting yet harmless looking drop of glass with a long tail. It looks like a tadpole: [image]

It is no different from an annoyed person who refuses to let out his resentment – A slightest something might make him explode suddenly, but it isn’t easy to make him let it out. Confused? Read on…

Now, think of a glass drop that has immense amounts of potential energy stored inside it – It explodes (actually implodes) when the tail is disturbed, but it is impossible to hit it hard with a hammer and break it.

How?

A Prince Rupert’s Drop is formed when a drop of molten glass is suddenly dropped into a water bath. This quick cooling, solidifies the surface fast, while the inner part remains molten. Now, glass formed on the surface, being a poor conductor of heat doesn’t allow the inner part to cool quickly. When the inner part starts cooling, it tries to shrink and pulls the surface towards it. As a result, great amount of potential energy gets stored inside, in the form of stresses (stresses are seen using a polarized filter). This stored energy gets released when the tail is disturbed – It explodes into very tiny pieces of glass.

Toughened glass – a stronger variety of glass used in several places – also uses a similar technique to make strengthened glass.

On Wikipedia, a user asked about the possibility of utilizing the energy released from this explosion, being used to fire a bullet from a barrel. An interesting possibility, I must say.

The Name

Prince Rupert of Rhine did not discover the drops, but played a role in bringing them to Britain. He gave them to King Charles II, who in turn delivered them to the Royal Society for scientific study. Prince Rupert’s Drop was a widely known phenomenon among the educated during the 17th century – far more than now.

Watch it being explained better

Probably the best demonstration of this glass drop exploding is right here on the internet. Couple of months back, a YouTuber, Destin (Channel: SmarterEveryDay) posted a video demonstrating the physics behind it. He recorded  the progression of the explosive fracture using a hi-speed camera (at more than 100,000 frames per second) and calculated the speed of the fracture travelling through its tail (~ 1.5 miles per second). I’ve attached it below for you to watch.

Longest Continuously Running Experiment – 83 Years and Counting

By Anupum Pant

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An experiment so slow that a professor overseeing it, died without having seen the results for half a century! The Pitch Drop experiment, started by Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in the year 1930, is the probably slowest science experiment and also holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest continuously running experiment ever.

What is the experiment?

It is an experiment designed to measure the flow of a solid looking piece (image) which is actually an extremely viscous liquid (actually a Viscoelastic Polymer) with a viscosity of approximately 230 billion times that of water. The name used for this class of extremely viscous liquids is, Pitch – Bitumen, Asphalt, Resin and Rosin are a few examples (not Glass). These things are so viscous that you can strike them with a hammer and see them shatter into sharp flakes (like glass), but it flows. The experiment is explained in detail, in the first few minutes of this radio show attached below. (the second half is pretty interesting too, but that is for some other day)

Other unbelievable materials previously covered in this series – Aerogels and Superhydrophobic surfaces.

Side note: The overseer of this experiment, Prof. John Mainstone actually lived through the drops of pitch falling three times, but unfortunately missed watching it happen every time (for 3 times in 50 years). In all, 8 drops have fallen since 1930.

  1. 1979 – He missed it because he wasn’t in the laboratory for the weekend.
  2. 1988 – Missed it because he went out for a tea break.
  3. 2000 – A camera was installed as a precautionary measure, the equipment malfunctioned; missed again!

He recently died waiting to see it in action. Since then, three web cameras have been installed as a fool proof measure to record the extremely rare event. You can watch it happening online here, although you might have to wait for several years to see it happening. (To confirm the live stream, look at that clock in in it and confirm with time here). There is also a time-lapse from 28th April 2012 – 10th April 2013 compressed into a 10-second-long video of the drop forming, embedded below.

A parallel experiment running at Trinity College, Dublin also wasn’t able to capture the rare scientific event on camera in spite of several drops falling since the commissioning of the experiment (1944). Finally, after 70 years of patient wait, on July 11, 2013 it was recorded on camera.

Why is a Metal Plate “Colder” Than a Plastic Plate?

by Anupum Pant

No, it isn’t!

What is Cold?

According to the dictionary, a body at a relatively lower temperature, especially when it is compared to the temperature of a human body is described as a colder one. So, any object below the normal human body temperature – about 37 degrees Celsius – is a cold thing. But wait a minute!

When you touch an object, what does it tell you about the temperature of the object? Can you really judge if it is a cold one or a hot one? Unfortunately, our bodies aren’t thermometers, we are not so smart when it comes to judging the temperature. Consider the following case.

A book and a steel plate kept in the same environment for a long time attain the same temperature eventually (it is called thermal equilibrium). This can be checked by using a thermometer on both the objects. But, when people are asked to touch a metal plate and a book, they find the former to be much cooler. You can try this out yourself by touching different materials around you. You’ll see how some things ‘feel colder’ while the others feel warmer. A YouTube channel Vertasium conducted a social experiment to record this on camera. See the video below:

There is no cold – only heat

So, in the video, ice melts faster, if kept on steel plate than on a plastic plate, even when the steel plate ‘feels colder’. Common sense dictates that the colder thing is supposed to sustain the ice block for a longer time, just like your refrigerator does. So why does the opposite happen?

A better way to understand this ‘contradiction’ (not really a contradiction) can be this:

According to thermodynamics, simply put, everything has heat in it. So, even a cold ice block has some amount of heat stored in it (say, around 273.15 Kelvin or 0 degree Celsius). When one object comes in contact with other object, it loses or gains heat till their temperatures get equal or till they attain ‘thermal equilibrium’. Which object loses heat and which one gains it, is decided by their relative temperatures. In case of ice and steel, ice has a lower temperature than steel (assuming it isn’t already freezing out there). Therefore, here, ice gains heat from steel till they attain the same temperature and ice melts.

Side note: The ice is also in contact with a relatively ‘hotter’ atmosphere. Hence, it gains heat from there also. In this case, we are only concerned about the steel and ice interaction.

Why does it melt faster on steel?

There is a particular property which depends on the kind of material and is called thermal conductivity. This is the parameter which decides which objects lose heat quicker and which ones do it slower.

Here, for instance, steel has a higher thermal conductivity than plastic. Hence, the steel plate gives away heat to the ice block faster than a plastic block does. As a result, ice melts faster on a steel plate than on a plastic one.

Incidentally, this effect can also be used to explain why one plate feels colder than the other, in our hands. Think of it like this, the ice is replaced by our hand. So, a steel plate, due to its better thermal conductivity, draws heat faster from our hand than a plastic plate. This makes us feel that the steel plate is colder than the plastic one.

As checked by a thermometer, both the plates have the same temperature, our bodies are only fooled into believing that the thing we feel is temperature; it isn’t. None of the plates is actually colder than the other (according to the dictionary – see first paragraph). We don’t feel the temperature. What we feel is actually the rate of heat being drawn away from our hand. Faster an object draws heat, the colder it feels.