CLOSE

15 Mesmerizing Science GIFs, Explained

In 1987, Steve Wilhite gave the world an image format that would forever change the Internet: the GIF. Here are 15 science experiment GIFs—and what's going on in each.

1. BLUE MAGNETIC PUTTY

11 - A Blue Magnetic Putty Swallowing A Metal Sphere.gif

You’ve probably played with thinking putty at least once in your life. If you haven’t, what you need to know is that it has viscoelastic properties, so you can pour it like a liquid but also bounce it like a solid. It’s also a dilatant fluid, meaning it will thicken increasingly with applied shear stress. Magnetic putty is the same substance, only this time, an iron oxide powder is added. The iron oxide will make the entire substance react to magnetic forces. Now all you need is a magnet, like the sphere above, and your putty will act like it has a mind of its own. Check out how you can make it yourself.

2. HUMAN LOOP

2 - Damian Walters Runs The Human Loop.gif

We’ve seen people on skateboards and motorcycles loop the loop many times. Damian Walter is the first human to do it on foot. To run it without falling, you need to reach the right speed; then, centrifugal forces will keep you locked on the track. Note how his shoulder line stays dead center of the loop. For this particular one, Damian needed to accelerate up to 8.65 mph in the highest point to be able to gain enough inertia as to rotate his body and legs around his head fast enough, so when gravity finally wins, he’s already feet down on the track. The full video is part of a Pepsi promotional campaign.

3. QUANTUM LOCKING

13 - Quantum Locking.gif

The edge of the table is a magnet and the puck is a regular wafer coated with a half micrometer (around one-hundredth the width of a hair) veneer of superconductor. Superconductors conduct electrical currents with zero resistance when cooled to extreme temperature (which is why the puck is frosted). The levitation is possible thanks to quantum locking (also known as flux pinning). Superconductors have zero electrical resistance, and they always want to expel magnetic fields from themselves. In this GIF, because the superconductor layer around the wafer is so thin, some magnetic field gets "trapped" inside it. The superconductor can’t move the magnetic field without breaking the superconducting state, so the trapped bits of magnetic field just stay there, locking the puck in a hovering position in midair. And because the track is a circle with the same magnetic field throughout, the puck can travel around without ever breaking the lock. If you want to see something really cool, the puck does the exact same thing even when flipped upside down

4. ORBITS OF EARTH AND VENUS

1 - Earth and Venus' Orbits Over 8 Years.gif

Venus’ orbit around the Sun takes 224.7 Earth days. At first it just seems like a random number, but when scaled in time, we see that both planets interlock their orbits in a 13:8 ratio (Venus: Earth, respectively)—so for every eight years on Earth, Venus cycles around the Sun roughly 13 times. When we trace the two orbits for that time and draw a line between them each week, we see they draw a beautiful 5-fold symmetrical pattern. If we map each point when the two planets align with the Sun and run imaginary lines, we see a near-perfect 5-pointed star. Here's more about this phenomenon, and here's a very cool simulation.

5. SLINKY FALLING IN SLOW MOTION

15 - A Slinky Falling In Slow Motion.gif

The slinky is simply a spring. When a spring is stretched, tension tries to pull it back together towards a collapsed state. The spring’s tension is occurring mostly symmetrically, so it pulls all ends towards the center. When dropped vertically, the bottom end is trying to fall down, but tension acts in the opposite direction, so the bottom of the spring remains stationary. Meanwhile, the top end is collapsing with G (9.81 m/s2) and spring tension. It's not until the rest of the spring hits the bottom of the spring, eliminating the tension that had counteracted gravity, that the slinky finally collapses and falls to the ground. Here is the Veritasium video this GIF is from, which explains it in more detail.

6. TOUCH-ME-NOT SEED POT EXPLODING

70 - Touch Me Not.gif

Some plants have figured out astonishing ways to reproduce, including the jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), also known as the spotted touch-me-not. When the seeds mature enough to start a new generation, their pods develop a nastic response and explode, dispersing the seeds in the environment. When the time comes, the cells of the seed pod accumulate and store mechanical energy based on their hydration level. Any external stimuli then overloads the system, and the walls separate and quickly coil up on themselves, transferring energy to the seeds and launching them outwards. This study from the Journal of Experimental Biology explores how this mechanism works.

7. PINE CONE OPENING

71 - Pine Cone Opening.gif

When it’s dry outside, pine cones open up to disperse seed. When it’s damp, it’s no longer a favorable condition, so they close to protect them. Pine cones are the most common example of a hygromorph, which changes shape based on humidity levels. The cells inside the cone are dead, and the triggered response is completely automatic. When they’re dry, a small section of the outer layer of the scale near the mid-rib shrinks, pulling the whole scale back and opening it up. When it’s damp, the moisture causes the layer to expand in such a way that it closes the cone. Here is a detailed study on the subject.

8. WATER TRANSFER PRINTING

62 - Water Transfer Printing.gif

Water printing, a.k.a. hydrographics, is a fast and efficient method to coat an object. The hydrographic film is first placed on the surface of a tank with water. The film itself is soluble in water, so after a short time, it dissolves, leaving the ink calmly floating on the surface. The item is carefully dipped inside as to accurately transfer the texture and details of the film. A swirling motion disperses the ink to ensure the texture stays perfectly printed. The object then needs to dry and get a clear coat finish, just like any other printing process. Here's a Q&A about water printing.

9. ANTS ACTING AS A FLUID OR A SOLID

65 - Ants Act As Both Fluid Or Solid.gif

Ants, being the social bunch they are, figure out that by grouping and acting like a single body, they can counteract external forces very effectively and, as a group, adapt to a variety of situations. By latching themselves to each other, they can create a single solid mass that’s elastic and springy in nature. This, for example, allows them to endure a big push, which would otherwise throw off a single ant. When they need to be more flexible with their surroundings, they simply move around within the body of ants and it allows them to act as a fluid and easily overcome obstacles. Take a look at this great production by the New York Times.

10. DIVERS UPSIDE DOWN UNDER THE ICE

57 - Divers Fishing Under The Ice.gif

When you notice that the air bubbles “fall down,” you’ll realize these divers are actually walking upside down on the underside of the ice on a frozen lake. This becomes possible when they inflate their gear with air, which increases their buoyancy and makes them go up. A little fine tuning, and they can simulate gravity upside down. They can do that as long as they have air in their bottles, because the water pressure around them is supporting their entire bodies from all sides. Watch the original video.

11. WATERMELON EXPLODED BY RUBBER BANDS54 - Exploding A Watermelon With Rubber Bands.gif

The watermelon’s outer wall is usually pretty rigid and durable. Slowly wrapping rubber bands around it gently increases external pressure, which is squeezing the interior of the watermelon onto either side of the rubber band, increasing the pressure on those other areas. Notice also how they go along the short side, which is weaker than the longer one. At around 500 rubber bands, the external pressure eventually forces the watermelon to distribute so much internal pressure to the upper and lower shells that it cracks the outer wall (notice how the first crack appears at the very top, and that’s quickly followed by a crack a couple inches above the rubber bands. Those were weak points). And without watermelon inside, the wall is much easier for the rubber bands to break. After they’ve gone through the wall, the flesh of the fruit provides little resistance, so they snap and transfer all the force to the melon from the inside, which makes it explode outwards. Here is the original video from the Slo Mo Guys.

12. LUNAR PHASES ASSEMBLED

33 - Lunar Phases Assembled.gif

One full revolution of the Moon around the Earth takes about 29.53 days. In this time it goes through several phases, all of which are characterized by the portion of the Moon that’s visible to the Earth. In the new moon phase, the Moon stands between our planet and the Sun. Since the Sun is the only major source of light in the Solar System, the moon is in shadow. (That faint brightness on the moon around this time is because of earthshine—sunlight reflecting off the Earth onto the moon.) At the opposite end of this cycle, the “Full Moon” phase, the Moon is on the opposite side of the Earth, illuminated by the Sun, and thus we see the entire side of the Moon that always faces us (thanks to tidal locking). Here's some good reading material on lunar phases.

13. GLASS FRACTURING AT 10 MILLION FPS

34 - Glass Fracturing At 10 Million Frames Per Second.gif

Glass is a peculiar material. It’s incredibly durable to compression, to the point where to shatter a cube of one cubic centimeter, you’d require a load of 10 tons. Regardless, the average tensile strength of glass is very low, making it amazingly weak against fast and focused blows. Scientists have yet to discover exactly how glass shatters on an atomic level, but at least we can enjoy these beautiful fractals while we're waiting for them to figure it out. Here are some theories about how glass breaks.

14. NON-NEWTONIAN FLUIDS

47 - Non-newtonian fluid.gif

Unlike regular fluids, non-Newtonian fluids change their behavior based on your interaction with them. For example, when one type of non-Newtonian fluid is introduced to high stress, like a fast hit, its viscosity increases, and it thickens up to act like a solid. This is because the particles inside a non-Newtonian fluid are many times larger than in a regular fluid. When exposed to an action that would result in a very fast deformation, they simply don’t have the time to move around and reshape their form, so they resist. When approached gradually, the non-Newtonian fluid will act as expected. Quicksand is a natural example of this phenomenon. Here's an in-depth further read, and a very entertaining video.

15. GLADIATOR SPIDER HUNTING

37 - The Gladiator Spider Preying On A Insect.gif

Most spiders spend their time weaving great networks of webs to trap any unfortunate visitor. Rather than take the passive approach, the gladiator spider has inverted the process and leads a rather active hunting life. It carefully weaves a quadratic net, which is very elastic, and although not very sticky, it does well to entangle whiskers, bristles, and hairs. When it’s ready, the gladiator spider waits for the perfect moment. Its eyes are very developed and allow it to spot prey in near darkness. After it’s close enough, the spider pounces downward while extending the net, trapping the insect. Watch the full video here.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
arrow
Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios