Research

Clogging, In Hourglasses and Crowds

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Hourglasses are pretty common, but you’ve probably never given much thought to the way they flow. An hourglass designer has to carefully select the sizing of the neck and the grains. Choosing a neck that’s too small relative to the grain size will result in frequent clogs but choosing too large a neck will make setting the timing difficult. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter whether the hourglass is filled with air or with water–the same principle holds.

Where this knowledge becomes especially useful, though, is when dealing with crowds. We’ve all experienced the frustration of being in a large crowd trying to fit through a small exit. Paradoxically, the fastest way to get a large number of particles (or sheep or people) through a narrow opening is to slow each individual down. This can either be done by instructing everyone to slow down or by forcing that same result by placing an obstacle immediately before the exit. The reduction in speed reduces clogging, which means everyone gets through faster! (Video credit: A. Marin et al.)

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