Ig Nobel Fluids: Swimming in Syrup

Does a person swim faster in water or syrup? One expects the more viscous syrup would offer a swimmer greater resistance, but, at the same time, it could also provide more to push against. Gettelfinger and Cussler put this to a test experimentally with competitive and recreational swimmers in a pool of water and in one with a fluid measuring roughly twice the viscosity of water. Their results showed no significant change in swimming speed. When you consider that human swimming is highly turbulent, however, the result makes sense. In fluid dynamics, the dimensionless Reynolds number represents a ratio between inertial forces and viscous forces in a flow. The researchers estimate a Reynolds number of a typical human in water at 600,000, meaning that inertial effects far outweigh viscous effects. In this case, doubling the viscosity only reduces the Reynolds number by half, leaving it still well inside the turbulent range. Thus, swimming in syrup has little effect on humans. The Mythbusters also tackled this problem, with similar conclusions. This is a continuation of a series on fluids-related Ig Nobel Prizes. (Photo credit: Mythbusters/Discovery Channel; research credit: B. Gettelfinger and E. L. Cussler, winners of the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry)

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