Month: December 2011

Crushing Can

We are usually unaware of the immense strength of the pressure due to the atmosphere around us, having taken it for granted. This demonstration will utilize atmospheric pressure to crush an aluminum can while introducing concepts such as the relationship between pressure and the amount of gas in a fixed volume.


  1. Empty aluminum drink can
  2. Pair of tongs
  3. Stove or bunsen burner
  4. Tank of water


Heating the Can over a Flame
  1. Put about a teaspoon of water into the drink can and heat it upright over the stove or Bunsen burner.
  2. Prepare a tank of water and place it nearby.
  3. When steam is seen to escape from the drink can, use the pair of tongs to grab the drink can, inverting it and placing it just slightly submerged into the tank so that the mouth of the can is sealed by the water.
  4. You should observe the can being crushed instantaneously.
Crushing the Can

Physics Principles Explained

Two physics principles work in tandem to crush the can. The cooling of the air within the can will reduce the internal pressure of the can as the movement of the air particles will slow down with reduced temperature.

At the same time, the sudden cooling will cause the water vapour in the can that exists at just slightly above 100°C to revert to its liquid state, greatly reducing the amount of gases inside the can.

Water Vapour Condenses Rapidly

As air pressure depends on both the kinetic energies and amount of particles within the system, it is significantly reduced. Atmospheric pressure, being stronger than the internal pressure, will cause the can to implode.

Hanging Forks

This simple demonstration can be done anywhere at home using the following items:

  1. an empty glass
  2. a toothpick
  3. two forks
The video below demonstrates how to do it. When the forks are balanced on the mouth of the glass with the toothpick, the centre of gravity of the forks-and-toothpick system will adjust itself so that it lies vertically below the pivoting point. This is possible because the forks form a V-shape within which the centre of gravity can exist.

Cartesian Diver

Ever wondered how a submarine sinks and floats? The demonstration here can be used to explain the changes in forces involved and is going to impress most people who see it for the first time. It consists of a floating object inside a sealed plastic bottle that sinks when the bottle is given a tight squeeze and floats again when the squeeze is released.

I have seen the Cartesian diver being made with something else, such as a packet of ketchup or a dropper. The method given below works better than those and uses things that are easily available around the house.


  1. A plastic water-bottle
  2. A pen cap
  3. Some modelling clay
  4. Water


  1. The first step is to attach some modelling clay on the tail of the pen cap to serve as weight so that when placed into water, the pen cap floats upright. There has to be just enough weight added so that the pen cap will “just float”. That is, if any more is added, the cap will sink. It takes some time to find the balance and the best way to do so is to test it in a basin of water.
  2. Once the correct weight is attached to the pen cap, place it upright into the filled water bottle and close the cap.
  3. Test it out by giving the bottle a tight squeeze. (If it remains afloat even when you have given it the tightest squeeze, take the pen cap out and add more weight.
  4. If it sinks straightaway, remove some weight. This should not be necessary if we have already carried ou the t test in the basin.)

Physics Principles Explained

There are two ways to explain this demonstration, one for those who cannot be bothered with equations, and the other for those who are keen on delving deeper.

Using the simple idea of density, we can explain that when the bottle is squeezed, some of the water enters the pen cap and compresses the air trapped within. Hence, the collective density of the submerged pen cap, together with its air and water content, increases. (Note that we are not referring to the density of the pen cap alone, which is a constant.) When this density exceeds that of the water around it, the pen cap sinks. The action is reversed when the squeeze is released.

Some would prefer an alternative explanation. This invokes the idea of forces acting on the pen cap, namely, upthrust and weight. Archimedes’ principle, otherwise known as the law of buoyancy, states that the any object that is partially or fully submerged in a fluid (liquid or gas) experiences an upward force known as the upthrust that is equal in magnitude to the weight of the fluid which is displaced. In mathematical terms,

$$U=\rho Vg$$

where $\rho$ is the density of the fluid, V is the volume of the fluid that is displaced and g is the acceleration of free-fall.

This force opposes the weight of the object and the result determines the direction that the object will move.

For the case of the Carteesian diver, upthrust is varied by changing the volume of fluid, V, that is displaced by the air within the pen cap. When the bottle is squeezed, part of the original volume of air is now occupied by the water which enters due to a higher pressure. This means that the volume of fluid displaced decreases, and as a result, upthrust decreases.

Free-Body Diagram