U of T scientists solve mystery of Giant's Causeway with kitchen materials

December 15, 2008

TORONTO, ON - Physicists at the University of Toronto have cracked the mystery behind the strange and uncannily well-ordered hexagonal columns found at such popular tourist sites as Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway and California's Devil's Postpile, using water, corn starch, and a heat lamp.

"The size of the columns, which varies from site to site between a few inches and a few yards, is primarily determined by the speed at which lava from a volcanic eruption cools," says U of T physics professor Stephen Morris, who supervised the thesis project of PhD student Lucas Goehring. Cooling lava sometimes forms strange column-shaped formations with a remarkable degree of order. The most famous of these hexagonal columns are found at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, where they are said to be the work of Finn MacCool, an Irish giant.

Using a combination of field observation, experiments and mathematical theory provided by Harvard University professor L. Mahadevan, they have solved the problem of what decides the size of the columns. The key to understanding the size of the columns was to reproduce the phenomenon in the lab. Using a mixture of water and corn starch - which cracks as it dries out and forms very similar columns - they carefully controlled the drying process, and established a relationship between the size of the columns and speed with which the drying front moved.

Goehring also visited several sites around the world and measured certain markings on the sides of lava columns, which were used to deduce the speed with which they formed as the lava cooled. "Putting all of these pieces together showed that the columns are formed by the same process in starch as in lava," says Morris. "We identified the special ratio of speed, column size and diffusion rate that is the same for all cases, finding that the slower the cooling process, the larger the resulting columns would be."

Their results allow for the deduction of the cooling rate that produces these structures and the comparison of different sites. They also enable the prediction of the shapes of other fracture networks such as drying mud, cracking paint or the patterns of fracture in permafrost. "It's always a delight to be able to think about a beautiful natural system and even nicer to solve an ancient problem with such a simple experiment," says Morris.
The findings appear in the Dec. 16 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Details of the project with photos and movie demos can be found at www.physics.utoronto.ca/nonlinear/PNASpress/PNASpress.html. The project was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


Stephen Morris
Department of Physics
Faculty of Arts and Science

Sean Bettam
Faculty of Arts and Science

University of Toronto

Related Water Articles from Brightsurf:

Transport of water to mars' upper atmosphere dominates planet's water loss to space
Instead of its scarce atmospheric water being confined in Mars' lower atmosphere, a new study finds evidence that water on Mars is directly transported to the upper atmosphere, where it is converted to atomic hydrogen that escapes to space.

Water striders learn from experience how to jump up safely from water surface
Water striders jump upwards from the water surface without breaking it.

'Pregnancy test for water' delivers fast, easy results on water quality
A new platform technology can assess water safety and quality with just a single drop and a few minutes.

Something in the water
Between 2015 and 2016, Brazil suffered from an epidemic outbreak of the Zika virus, whose infections occurred throughout the country states.

Researchers create new tools to monitor water quality, measure water insecurity
A wife-husband team will present both high-tech and low-tech solutions for improving water security at this year's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Seattle on Sunday, Feb.

The shape of water: What water molecules look like on the surface of materials
Water is a familiar substance that is present virtually everywhere.

Water, water everywhere -- and it's weirder than you think
Researchers at The University of Tokyo show that liquid water has 2 distinct molecular arrangements: tetrahedral and non-tetrahedral.

What's in your water?
Mixing drinking water with chlorine, the United States' most common method of disinfecting drinking water, creates previously unidentified toxic byproducts, says Carsten Prasse from Johns Hopkins University and his collaborators from the University of California, Berkeley and Switzerland.

How we transport water in our bodies inspires new water filtration method
A multidisciplinary group of engineers and scientists has discovered a new method for water filtration that could have implications for a variety of technologies, such as desalination plants, breathable and protective fabrics, and carbon capture in gas separations.

Source water key to bacterial water safety in remote Northern Australia
In the wet-dry topics of Australia, drinking water in remote communities is often sourced from groundwater bores.

Read More: Water News and Water Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.