Viscous Fingers

Take a viscous fluid, like laundry detergent, and sandwich it between two plates of glass. Fluid dynamicists call this set-up a Hele-Shaw cell. If you then inject a less viscous fluid, like air, between the plates–or if you try to pry them apart–you’ll see a distinctive pattern of dendritic fingers form. This viscous fingering, also known as the Saffman-Taylor instability, occurs because the interface between the two fluids is unstable. Invert the problem, though–inject a more viscous fluid into a less viscous one–and no special shapes will form because the interface will remain stable. (Image credit: Random Walk Studios, source)

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