News from the world of maths: The secret of spin is child's play

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The secret of spin is child's play

This week, researchers from the University of Cambridge will be arriving at the Summer Science Exhibition of the Royal Society armed not with the latest in cutting-edge lab technology, but an assortment of simple toys.

But while many of these playthings may look like Christmas stocking-fillers purchased from the gift shop at a museum, their behaviour is helping scholars to understand the evolution of weather patterns and the magnetohydrodynamics of spinning stars and planets. They include spinning eggs that rise against gravity, objects that spontaneously reverse their sense of spin and discs that roll at an accelerating rate before coming to a standstill. In each case, their behaviour has been baffling some of the sharpest scientific minds for years.

"Understanding the behaviour of spinning toys can teach us a lot about some of the fundamental principles of dynamics," Dr Tadashi Tokieda, College lecturer at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, explained. "The toys themselves are very simple, but the way in which they behave is so strange that they have intrigued anyone who has studied mechanics at graduate level. One of the things we hope to point out is that some of the most important experiments can take place not in the lab, but in daily life. Good scientists take toys seriously."

One example of a toy that seems to defy the laws of physics is the "rattleback" - a small, symmetrical canoe-shaped object that spins smoothly in one direction, but when spun the other way rattles and reverses its motion. Its mysterious behaviour was this year explained in a paper by Professor Keith Moffatt FRS, also at Cambridge University, and Dr Tokieda, as being a subtle effect of what is known as chirality – the result of the object's skewed mass distribution.

The behaviour of this toy could offer insight into a bigger problem. Every million years or so, the Earth's magnetic field reverses, causing the planet's magnetic north and magnetic south to interchange. Scientists are still at a loss as to what causes this, but the rattleback toy mimics certain fluid dynamical processes in the Earth's liquid core that are responsible for the excitation of its magnetic field.

"In the case of each toy that will be on display, mathematics, coupled with computation and high-speed photography, and above all simple, imaginative experiments that everyone can do, is helping us to explain their surprising and behaviour," Dr Tokieda added.

The Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition is held annually at the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science. The event is free and open to the public. This year, 23 interactive exhibits will be on show presenting the best in UK science, engineering and technology. During the four days, more than 4,000 people are expected to explore the exhibition. The event will run from Monday 2 to Thursday 5 July. Other maths on display at the exhibition include sound waves, extreme pressure and optical illusions.

More on maths at the Summer Science Exhibition.
More on strange spin, chirality and the Earth's magnetic field on Plus.

posted by Plus @ 11:16 AM

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