The term may be unfamiliar, but we all have a sense for viscosity. We often think of it colloquially as the “thickness” of a fluid. It’s the property that makes honey pour so differently from water. Fluid dynamicists – scientists and engineers who study how liquids and gases move – tend to think of viscosity in terms of a fluid’s resistance to flowing or changing its shape.
Why do so many fluids behave counterintuitively? Many substances in our lives – like oobleck, slime, or Silly Putty – don’t quite behave the way we expect a fluid to, despite some fluid-like properties. These substances fall into a special category: non-Newtonian fluids. Scientifically, this term is a bit of a catch-all for any substances that have a complicated relationship between their apparent viscosity and the force applied to them.
Surface tension is a somewhat peculiar force. Its effects are all around us, from bubbles and droplets to cleaning our dishes. Surface tension is an important force in our daily lives. But what is it really? Since it tends to act at the scale of millimeters or smaller, we don’t always notice it. It’s critical, however, for many creatures smaller than us, from water-walking insects to star-nosed moles that sniff out food underwater. So what is surface tension and where does it come from?