World Wide Words logo


Photographs show vibrating heaps of tiny brass balls forming themselves into patterns; fascinating, but hardly the stuff of fundamental science, one might think. But some deceptively simple experiments at the University of Texas at Austin may have discovered a completely new phenomenon, which may just be the basic building block of all patterns everywhere. The experiments are reminiscent of those school science projects in which we dusted sand on to a metal plate, made it vibrate using a bow and observed the patterns formed, which go by the name of Chladni figures. The researchers realised that these figures say more about the vibrations in the plate than in the sand and created an experimental setup — using a shallow layer of those brass balls in a vacuum — that minimised outside effects. When they vibrated the plate at a critical amplitude, they found that the balls spontaneously formed a localised vibrating column which lasted indefinitely. They named this self-sustaining state the oscillon, by analogy with its closest large-scale analogy, the soliton, which is a localised wave that maintains its integrity as it moves (bores on rivers are solitons). Nobody quite knows what to make of oscillons at the moment: they clearly have connections with the mathematical theory of chaos and may give insights into the way atoms organise and interact.

Page created 9 Aug. 1997

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.

Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select a site and click Go!

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL:
Last modified: 9 August 1997.