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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Incredible Kinetic “Sculptures” Use the Science of … Hair Dryers?

By Phil Plait

It’s been a long time since I’ve used a hair dryer—a chamois is more useful these days—but even when I had thick, luxurious auburn hair (and I did) it never would have occurred to me to use hair dryers like artist Antoine Terrieux did. He created pretty amazing kinetic artwork using a series of dryers … and some pretty interesting physics.

Watch this video and be delighted!

These displays were at La Maison des Jonglages in La Courneuve, just outside of Paris. They all rely on the physics of fluid flow in one way or another, of course, but also exploit other phenomena.

The first sequence, with the vinyl record (hipster art?), uses the dryers to force air under the record. That pushes the disc up, but at the same time it’s also gyroscopically precessing, wobbling as it spins. A precessing object means its spin axis is changing; look at the hole in the middle of the record and imagine the spindle going through it. As the record moves that spindle would point in a different direction, moving around in a circle. The Earth does this too!

Left to its own, friction would cause the record to slowly flop down and stop. But the air forced under the record by the dryers adds energy to it, and is set up to balance the loss from friction. On and on it goes.

Next: The ball floating above the air dryer looks like magic! What keeps it from blowing away?

The Bernoulli effect. The air dryer is blowing a tilted column of air that is lower density than the air around it. The denser air tries to flow in to that column, providing a force keeping the ball constrained, like it’s in an invisible net. If it tries to fall out the air pushes it back in. I’ve tried this at home, and it’s hard to find the right angle and balance point, but it can be done.

I love the next one, with the string blowing up and falling down over the line of dryers. The string falls, momentum brings it down into the stream, and it blows back up again. It’s up against a wall, so that the air flowing upward creates a version of the Bernoulli effect that keeps the string from blowing away. Still, I bet this was hard to set up!

The vortex next is very cool. Note that the dryer is pointing up, so it’s drawing air out of the chamber. At the bottom is probably a small fan above a fog maker, spinning the air as it rises (although the hair dryer itself may provide enough spin, like water spinning as it falls down the drain). You can make these at home, too.

The next is my favorite of all. It’s another variation on the levitating ball, but this time the dryers are tilted, acting together to create (what I think is) a rotating column of low density air. The paper airplane floats along, pushed by the air, flying around, and held in place by the higher pressure air outside the column. Very, very clever.

The last one is just funny. I wonder how he waterproofed the hair dryer? I’ll note that there was no “WARNING – ELECTROCUTION HAZARD” sticker on it. Good thing this installation wasn’t in America.

Pretty cool. And all of this reminded me of another video I just saw, where these effects were put to even more elegant use:

Wow. It’s like that floating plastic bag scene from American Beauty but far more graceful and without all the stoner wisdom.

The wisdom here is obvious enough, but bears repeating: There is great science in art, and there is great art in science.

Tip o’ the curlers to Dan Vergano and Physics Today.

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