Watching rain drops hit a puddle or lake is remarkably fascinating. Each drop creates a little cavity in the water surface when it impacts. Large, energetic drops will create a crown-shaped splash, like the ones in the upper animation. When the cavity below the surface collapses, the water rebounds into a pillar known as a Worthington jet. Look carefully and you’ll see some of those jets are energetic enough to produce a little satellite droplet that falls back and coalesces. Altogether it’s a beautifully complex process to watch happen over and over again. (Image credit: K. Weiner, source)


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Inside or outside, we encounter a lot of fluid dynamics every day. Here are some examples you might have noticed, especially on a rainy day:

Worthington Jets
After a drop falls into a pool, there’s a column-like jet that pops up after it and sometimes ejects another small drop. This is known to fluid dynamicists as a Worthington jet, but really it’s something we all see regularly, especially if you watch rain falling onto puddles or look really closely at your carbonated drink.

Crown Splash
Like the Worthington jet, crown splashes often follow a drop’s impact into another liquid. But they can also show up when slicing or stomping through puddles!

Free Surface Dynamics
Anytime you have a body of water in contact with a body of air, fluid dynamicists call that a free surface. How the interface between the two fluids shifts and transforms is fascinating and complicated. Waterfalls are a great example of this, but so are ocean waves or even the ripples from tossing a rock into a pond.

Hydrophobic Surfaces
Water-repellent surfaces are called hydrophobic. Water will bead up on the surface and roll off easily. While many manmade surfaces are hydrophobic, like the teflon in your skillet, so are many natural surfaces. Many leaves are hydrophobic because plants want that water to fall to the ground where their roots can soak it up. Keep an eye out as you wash different vegetables and fruits and see which ones are hydrophobic!

Check out all of this week’s posts more examples of fluid dynamics in daily life. (Image credit: S. Reckinger et al., source)

Droplet collisions captured instantaneously create beautiful fluid sculptures that, though common, are too fast for the human eye. Here a bubble was blown onto the surface of the fluid, then a droplet was released to fall into the center of the bubble, bursting it. As that droplet rebounded in a Worthington jet, a second droplet was released and impacted the jet, creating the umbrella-like shape in the center. See Liquid Droplet Art for more photos. (Photo credit: Corrie White and Igor Kliakhandler) #


Reader ancientavian asks:

I’ve often noticed that, when water splashes (especially as with raindrops or other forms of spray), often it appears that small droplets of water skitter off on top of the larger surface before rejoining the main body. Is this an actual phenomenon, or an optical illusion? What causes it?

That’s a great observation, and it’s a real-world example of some of the physics we’ve talked about before. When a drop hits a pool, it rebounds in a little pillar called a Worthington jet and often ejects a smaller droplet. This droplet, thanks to its lower inertia, can bounce off the surface. If we slow things way down and look closely at that drop, we’ll see that it can even sit briefly on the surface before all the air beneath it drains away and it coalesces with the pool below. But that kind of coalescence cascade typically happens in microseconds, far too fast for the human eye. 

But it is possible outside the lab to find instances where this effect lasts long enough for the eye to catch. Take a look at this video. Here Destin of Smarter Every Day captures some great footage of water droplets skittering across a pool. They last long enough to be visible to the naked eye. What’s happening here is the same as the situation we described before, except that the water surface is essentially vibrating! The impacts of all the multitude of droplets create ripples that undulate the water’s surface continuously. As a result, air gets injected beneath the droplets and they skate along above the surface for longer than they would if the water were still. (Video credit: SuperSloMoVideos)


As a droplet impacts a pool, it deforms the surface before rebounding in a Worthington jet and releasing secondary droplets as ejecta. Although we witness this act dozens of times a day, seeing it at 5,000 fps drastically alters one’s perspective.