Reader Questions

Reader Question: Non-Coalescing Droplets

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Reader ancientavian asks:

I’ve often noticed that, when water splashes (especially as with raindrops or other forms of spray), often it appears that small droplets of water skitter off on top of the larger surface before rejoining the main body. Is this an actual phenomenon, or an optical illusion? What causes it?

That’s a great observation, and it’s a real-world example of some of the physics we’ve talked about before. When a drop hits a pool, it rebounds in a little pillar called a Worthington jet and often ejects a smaller droplet. This droplet, thanks to its lower inertia, can bounce off the surface. If we slow things way down and look closely at that drop, we’ll see that it can even sit briefly on the surface before all the air beneath it drains away and it coalesces with the pool below. But that kind of coalescence cascade typically happens in microseconds, far too fast for the human eye.

But it is possible outside the lab to find instances where this effect lasts long enough for the eye to catch. Take a look at this video. Here Destin of Smarter Every Day captures some great footage of water droplets skittering across a pool. They last long enough to be visible to the naked eye. What’s happening here is the same as the situation we described before, except that the water surface is essentially vibrating! The impacts of all the multitude of droplets create ripples that undulate the water’s surface continuously. As a result, air gets injected beneath the droplets and they skate along above the surface for longer than they would if the water were still. (Video credit: SuperSloMoVideos)

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