# Solving a 300 year old geology problem using kitchen materials

##### Dec 16, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- 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.

Provided by University of Toronto

## Related Stories

#### Vibrant mix of marine life found at extreme ocean depths, analysis reveals

Feb 22, 2013

The first scientific examinations of data recorded during a record-setting expedition have yielded new insights about the diversity of creatures that live and thrive in the cold, dark, and highly pressurized habitats of the ...

#### Oscillating 'plug' of magma causes tremors that forecast volcanic eruptions

Feb 23, 2011

University of British Columbia geophysicists are offering a new explanation for seismic tremors accompanying volcanic eruptions that could advance forecasting of explosive eruptions such as recent events at ...

#### Planet Imager will enable telescopes to image extrasolar planets directly

Sep 29, 2009

The best way to observe objects in solar systems is simply to look -- but distortions caused by Earth's atmosphere drown out much of the spectacle of space. To address this problem, Berkeley astronomer James ...

#### Cloudy with a chance of pebble showers: Simulation suggests rocky exoplanet has bizarre atmosphere

Sep 29, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- So accustomed are we to the sunshine, rain, fog and snow of our home planet that we find it next to impossible to imagine a different atmosphere and other forms of precipitation.

#### Mega eruption of Yellowstone's southern twin

Mar 28, 2006

North America isn't the only continent that's experienced super-colossal volcanic eruptions in the recent geologic past. The massive explosion of the almost unknown Vilama Caldera in Argentina appears to have ...

## Recommended for you

#### Sensitive detection method may help impede illicit nuclear trafficking

19 hours ago

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the greatest danger to nuclear security comes from terrorists acquiring sufficient quantities of plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) to construct ...

#### Beam on target: CEBAF accelerator achieves 12 GeV commissioning milestone

Apr 14, 2014

Late on April 1, the crown jewel of the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility ("Jefferson Lab") sparkled its way into a new era. Following an upgrade of the Continuous Electron ...

#### Device turns flat surface into spherical antenna

Apr 14, 2014

By depositing an array of tiny, metallic, U-shaped structures onto a dielectric material, a team of researchers in China has created a new artificial surface that can bend and focus electromagnetic waves ...

#### New technique takes cues from astronomy and ophthalmology to sharpen microscope images

Apr 13, 2014

The complexity of biology can befuddle even the most sophisticated light microscopes. Biological samples bend light in unpredictable ways, returning difficult-to-interpret information to the microscope and ...

#### How 'frustrated' magnets escape magnetic deadlock at low temperatures

Apr 11, 2014

Magnetism in a material arises from how its electrons behave, which is influenced by the material's structure and the way that atoms and magnetic 'spins' of electrons are ordered within it. Frustrated magnets ...

#### How CERN's discovery of exotic particles may affect astrophysics

Apr 11, 2014

You may have heard that CERN announced the discovery of a strange particle known as Z(4430). A paper summarizing the results has been published on the physics arxiv, which is a repository for preprint (not ...

##### BaldNerd
4.2 / 5 (5) Dec 16, 2008
Here is how the columns were formed at Devil's Tower, Wyoming in the US: http://www.gerhar...ower.jpg
##### earls
3.7 / 5 (6) Dec 16, 2008
Haha, dumb ass scientists and their kitchen experiments... Scared of going out in the field to find some super huge bear bones. When will they learn?!

In all seriousness though, their experiment was fantastic, and the results are quite amazing for being so accurate.
##### COCO
not rated yet Dec 17, 2008
well done I had no idea there was any research done in Toronto or Canada - quaint work - good work chaps.

## More news stories

#### Sensitive detection method may help impede illicit nuclear trafficking

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the greatest danger to nuclear security comes from terrorists acquiring sufficient quantities of plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) to construct ...

#### CERN: World-record current in a superconductor

In the framework of the High-Luminosity LHC project, experts from the CERN Superconductors team recently obtained a world-record current of 20 kA at 24 K in an electrical transmission line consisting of two ...

#### How CERN's discovery of exotic particles may affect astrophysics

You may have heard that CERN announced the discovery of a strange particle known as Z(4430). A paper summarizing the results has been published on the physics arxiv, which is a repository for preprint (not ...

#### Glasses strong as steel: A fast way to find the best

Scientists at Yale University have devised a dramatically faster way of identifying and characterizing complex alloys known as bulk metallic glasses (BMGs), a versatile type of pliable glass that's stronger than steel.

#### Scientists gain new insight into mysterious electronic phenomenon

(Phys.org) —For more than a quarter of a century, high-temperature superconductors – materials that can transmit electric current without any resistance – have perplexed scientists who seek to understand ...

#### ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

#### First direct observations of excitons in motion achieved

A quasiparticle called an exciton—responsible for the transfer of energy within devices such as solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductor circuits—has been understood theoretically for decades. But exciton movement within ...

#### Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

#### Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...

#### New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins

(Phys.org) —Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed ...