Surface Tension

I’m not a scientist by any stretch, although I do enjoy learning about the odder things in science. I do, however, remember various things from science classes I took in high school — for example, the concept of surface tension.

My favorite demonstration of surface tension was one in which you filled a glass to the rim with water, and then you slowly and carefully put pennies into the water, one at a time. When you got to eye level with the rim of the glass, you could see that the water was rising higher than the rim until it seemed unthinkable that it wasn’t spilling over the side. Eventually, the surface tension was compromised (if I remember correctly this was due to the area of the exposed surface being greater than the strength of something or other), and the water would suddenly spill out all over.

I think the tension in me is more like that of a latex balloon.

If a latex balloon is extremely full of air and stretched to its limit, sometimes it takes barely a whisper and the balloon will burst. But if the balloon is not stretched to its limit, you can squeeze it and watch the balloon stretch elsewhere.

I’ve messed around with balloons (boredom’ll do that to ya) and discovered something that I find interesting, primarily because I don’t know how to explain it scientifically. I’m sure some of you out there understand it completely. But when you squeeze a balloon, the air moves to the other parts of the balloon that are not being directly squeezed, which of course stretches them out… but eventually, just when you think that the stretched part of the balloon has to be at its breaking point, if you apply additional squeezing to that part, the balloon often doesn’t break. Instead, the air forces its way through the compressed parts of the balloon until it finds yet another area it can stretch out.

You might be having trouble imagining this. I’ll try to give some imagery in the explanation here. Hold up your left hand in front of you, palm out like you’re giving someone a high five. Now picture putting a small balloon into that hand, with the “top” of the balloon pointing in the same direction as your thumb. If you squeeze, the top of the balloon will suddenly swell up, as you’ve forced all the air in that direction. Now imagine reaching out with your right hand and squeezing that part. A good percentage of the time, the balloon won’t break, but instead the air will rush through the tiny little passageway back through your left hand, and the bottom of the balloon will swell out to the left.

That’s more like the way I’m tense right now. I feel pressure from multiple places, but so far, I’ve always got someplace to shift things so that I don’t break. I won’t spill out all over the place like with water and pennies; instead, I’ll find new directions in which I can stretch and grow.

Of course, if I were to be cynical about it, I guess I’d point out that in the water-and-pennies experiment, only some of the water spills. In the balloon experiment, everything eventually blows up.

Personally, I think that’s hyperextending a metaphor. Stick with the “stretch and grow” part. We’ll be fine.

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