Neutral Buoyance: Fail Slowly

An activity I enjoy doing in Engineering merit badge is the neutral buoyancy contest.  Scouts receive a collection of wires, cork pieces, and washers and attempt to create a device that’s neutrally buoyant, failing that, one that falls the slowest.  Today’s youth are quite clever but sometimes fail to grasp how the challenge works, like when I said the device must be free-floating and can’t touch the container, one kid thought that making a wire hook on the side was “free floating” or another that made a compression pin that held the device fast against the sides of the container.

Groups would drops their devices in the test column and watch in wonder thinking they’d reached neutral buoyancy as the downward force of gravity and upward force of Brownian motion and a density difference cancelled out.  “Terry, come quick while it’s balanced!”  If it’s neutrally buoyant now, it should be neutrally buoyant 10 seconds from now.  The containers slowly grew cloudy from many unwashed hands and the children learned the importance of contaminating ones test environment.  These budding astrologers were also quick to blame the pseudoscientific ,from air bubbles stuck to the side of containers to my mere presence one kid saying “you did that” followed by the angry glare.  I’m not sure if there were commenting on my carriage or my ownership of an anti-physics gun.

The winning group fell 14 inches in 30 seconds and proved that kids could be competative about anything as the gaggle of winning 12-year olds went over to older kids and started chanting “In your face!  In your face!”  I imagine Nobel laureats have a similar ritual.