When it comes to stability, nature can be amazingly counter-intuitive, as in this case of flotation on the underside of a levitating liquid. First things first: how is this liquid layer levitating? To answer that, consider a simpler system: a pendulum. There are two equilibrium positions for a pendulum: hanging straight down or pointing straight up. We don’t typically observe the latter position because it’s unstable; the slightest disturbance from that perfectly vertical situation will make it fall. But it’s possible to stabilize an inverted pendulum simply by shaking it up and down. The vibration creates a dynamic stability.
The same physics, it turns out, holds for a layer of viscous fluid. With the right vibration, the denser fluid can levitate stably over a layer of air. Inside this vibrating layer, the rules of buoyancy are a little different because the vibration modifies the effects of gravity. As a result, bubbles deep in the liquid layer sink (Image 1). The researchers used this behavior to create their levitating layer (Image 2). The shaking also serves to stabilize objects floating on the underside of the liquid layer, allowing the boat in Image 3 to float upside down! (Image and research credit: B. Apffel et al.; via NYTimes; submitted by multiple sources)