Pilot-Wave Hydrodynamics: Walking Drops

This post is a collaborative series with FYP on pilot-wave hydrodynamics. Previous entries: 1) Introduction; 2) Chladni patterns; 3) Faraday instability

If you place a small droplet atop a vibrating pool, it will happily bounce like a kid on a trampoline. On the surface, this seems quite counterintuitive: why doesn’t the droplet coalesce with the pool? The answer: there’s a thin layer of air trapped between the droplet and the pool. If that air were squeezed out, the droplet would coalesce. But it takes a finite amount of time to drain that air layer away, even with the weight of the droplet bearing down on it. Before that drainage can happen, the vibration of the pool sends the droplet aloft again, refreshing the air layer beneath it. The droplet falls, gets caught on its air cushion, and then sent bouncing again before the air can squeeze out. If nothing disturbs the droplet, it can bounce almost indefinitely.


Droplets don’t always bounce in place, though. When forced with the right frequency and acceleration, a bouncing droplet can transition to walking. In this state, the droplet falls and strikes the pool such that it interacts with the ripple from its previous bounce. That sends the droplet aloft again but with a horizontal velocity component in addition to its vertical one. In this state, the droplet can wander about its container in a way that depends on its history or “memory” in the form of waves from its previous bounces. And this is where things start to get a bit weird – as in quantum weirdness – because now our walker consists of both a particle (droplet) and wave (ripples). The similarities between quantum behaviors and the walking droplets, the collective behavior of which is commonly referred to as “pilot-wave hydrodynamics,” are rather remarkable. In the next couple posts, we’ll take a look at some important quantum mechanical experiments and their hydrodynamic counterparts.

(Image credit: D. Harris et al., source)

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