Scientists at Utah State University’s Splash Lab claim to have perfected the skipping stone. Inspired by popular toys like the Water Bouncing Ball, the researchers began experimenting with different shapes and materials to find out what gives some objects greater skipping potential. They found that the ultimate skipping material isn’t stone at all, but spherical silicone rubber.
For the study that was published in Nature Communications, the team—in collaboration with Brown University and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center—used high-speed cameras to record the ways different materials interact with water. They discovered that elastic materials like rubber can skip further than more rigid ones because of the way the materials deform when they come into contact with the surface of water. More pliant materials, like spherical rubber balls, stayed closer to the surface of the water, conserving the most momentum, Discover explains. By the end of their research, they had not only developed the ultimate spherical silicone rubber “skipping stone,” but were also able to predict how many skips would occur with a given material and shape.
According to Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tadd Truscott, the study's findings could do more than improve a fun day of skipping stones at the beach. Understanding the way elastic objects interact with water may help with the development of objects like U.S. Navy inflatable boats, wakeboards, and water skis.
But though the study has serious implications, its inspiration was lighthearted. “Our approach was playful at first,” Truscott said. “My son and nephew wanted to see the impact of the elastic spheres in slow motion, so that was also part of the initial motivation. We simply wondered why these toys skip so well. In general, I have always found that childish curiosity often leads to profound discovery.” Check out the ultimate skipping stone in action below.