Phenomena

The Magic* Cork

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*Spoiler alert: it’s not magic. It’s science!

Just what makes this dropped cork float beneath the surface? Just like a normal cork, it’s buoyancy! But this seemingly straightforward video is hiding a few key elements. Firstly, the cork has been modified; it has a metal sphere inside it so that its effective density is higher than that of water.

Secondly, that liquid is not pure water; notice the hazy swirls near the bottom of the flask when the cork drops in? This is tap water that’s had a layer of salt dissolving in the bottom of it for the last day. That creates a density gradient with denser, salty water at the bottom and lighter, fresh water at the top. In fluid dynamics, we’d say the fluid is stably stratified; “stratified” meaning that there are distinct layers (strata) of different density and “stably” because the heavier ones are at the bottom.

When the cork is dropped in, it settles at the fluid layer that matches its density. Because the surrounding fluid is stably stratified, poking the cork makes it bounce slightly but return to its initial height. Our atmosphere behaves just like this when it’s stably stratified. If you displace a parcel of air, it will oscillate up and down before settling back to equilibrium. In fact, the cork and the air even bounce at the same frequency! (Video and submission credit: F. Croccolo)

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