The surface tension of words

The other day, we played with water. Oh, we play with water all the time. In the bath, in the shower, with the hose in the garden, and we’ve even been known to dance in the rain. This time though, we played with water in a much more intentional way. We set out to learn everything we could about drops of water. Our materials were simple: a piece of waxed paper, an eye dropper, a magnifying glass or two, and of course a glass of water.

I don’t know why we decided to go about it in quite this way, or what prompted it, but somehow it just felt like the right thing to do on a rainy afternoon. To my great surprise, an activity I thought would occupy K and B for maybe ten minutes turned into over an hour of experimentation and questions and discussions. They already knew quite a lot about water, though they weren’t sure why what they knew was, in fact, true. They were quite certain that they were right, but it was a complete mystery as to why they were right, and so they explored drops of water with a strange sort of intensity.

They told me water has a sort of skin on it that holds it together. They told me that water drops have to get to a certain size before they are strong enough to break free of the eye dropper. They told me that the skin that holds water together lets you move the entire drop of water around on a sheet of wax paper or another similarly smooth surface, but that other more absorbent surfaces, like newspaper, wouldn’t work. They told me that water droplets always like to form into a circle. A semi-sphere, in fact. They told me that if you oh so carefully drew all the little water droplets into one central location, they would merge together into a new, larger semi-sphere of water. And they told me that if that single large semi-sphere of water got large enough, it no longer needed to be a perfect semi-sphere in either height or perimeter.

In the end, they knew more precisely what they already knew about water, and they could perform specific experiments to show me what they knew, but they still didn’t know why the water was behaving the way it did. Or rather, they had a pretty good idea why, they just didn’t have the proper label for the phenomenon.

Surface tension. That was the vocabulary they were missing. And, like a giant finger pulling all those little drops of water together into a larger, irregularly shaped liquid blob, learning the vocabulary allowed them to cement together all the things they had learned into one clearly defined blob labeled “what I know about water.”

The power of words, judiciously applied, never fails to impress me.


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