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Larmes Bataviques 19 May 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Life, Philosophy, Physics.

During my recent reading of an Australian classic, Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, I was introduced to a marvelously interesting, well, thing.  The Larmes Bataviques (lit. the Batavian Tears) or the Prince Rupert’s Drop, has something so strong yet so fragile about it, that it has become my first blog entry.  They were supposedly first discovered in the Netherlands in the mid-1600.

Imagine a drop of glass.  Any type of glass, it can be see-through or opaque, coloured or not.  The drop is shaped like a tadpole, with a head and a long, sometimes twisting, tail.  The interesting part of this utterly useless, but rather pretty, thing, is that it is made of glass, but should you exert force on the thick, head-like part of the drop, you will not be able to break it.  You can hit it with a hammer, and it will not break.  It is as if the glass has become stronger than steel, with its own mind, its own will.

But were you to nick the tail, even a little, or break it, the entire drop will explode, and disintegrate into so many pieces that you would be left with a substance more akin to sugar than to glass.  What a marvelously romantic notion.  A strong, powerful body, with a tail that provides its achilles heal.

The physics behind larmes bataviques (thank you Wikipedia) is rather simple:

[Larmes bataviques] are created by dripping hot molten glass into cold water. The glass cools into a tadpole-shaped droplet with a long, thin, tail. The water rapidly cools the molten glass on the outside of the drop, while the inner portion of the drop remains significantly hotter. When the glass on the inside eventually cools, it contracts inside the already-solid outer part. This contraction sets up very large compressive stresses on the surface, while the interior of the glass is placed under tension.

The very high residual stress within the drop gives rise to unusual qualities, such as the ability to withstand a blow from a hammer on the bulbous end without breaking, while the drops will disintegrate explosively if the tail end is even slightly damaged.

I am excited to report that the romanticism of such a fleeting and fragile contraption is not lost on the poets, either;

And that which makes their Fame ring louder,
With much adoe they shew’d the King
To make glasse Buttons turn to powder,
If off the[m] their tayles you doe but wring.
How this was donne by soe small Force
Did cost the Colledg a Month’s discourse.

The latter is the 10th verse of the Ballad of Grimsham College by Dorothy Stimson.  And although I am no fanatic of poetry, the above did capture the marvel of the teardrops.

From the (probably) accidental invention of the batavian tear in the Netherlands, to the inclusion of them in a famous and acclaimed Australian novel on the other side of the globe, how could I but be charmed?


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