Cartesian Divers

Ron Perkinsby: Ron Perkins

Cartesian Divers are one of the oldest and most interesting toys you can build at home.  While they are easy to construct, there is a lot of science behind the workings of this deceivingly simple toy.  A Cartesian Diver is an object whose density changes with pressure.  In fact, most Cartesian divers become denser as pressure is increased.  By constructing a Cartesian Diver carefully, it is possible to make a diver that floats in water at atmospheric pressure, and sinks when the pressure is increased.

Water has a density of about 1 gram/ml.  Objects that have a density of less than 1 gram/ml float, while objects with a density greater than 1 gram/ml sink.  When using sealed divers, as pressure is increased, a Cartesian Diver’s density might increase from about .8 grams/ml to 1.2 grams/ml.  When this happens, the diver sinks in water.  Cartesian Divers often change their density by changing the amount of water they displace (i.e., changing their volume).  When the pressure is increased, the air inside the diver is compressed.  This compressed air takes up less space, and thus displaces less water.  As less water is displaced, the density of the diver appears to increase and the diver sinks.

Making Cartesian Divers


1 Plastic Pipet (PP-222), 1 Ballast Nut (CD-3), Plastic Soda Bottle with Top, Candle, Scissors, Pliers, Water

Optional: cap of a Fizz-Keeper Pump (CD-4), Food Coloring, Aluminum Foil, Hot Melt Glue Gun


1.  With scissors, snip off all but 2 cm of the neck of the pipet.

Graduated Transfer Pipets #222

2.  Screw one ballast nut onto the remaining 2 cm neck of the pipet.

Cartesian Diver3.  Fill the pipet bulb with colored water.  Note that the bulb must float when placed in a cup of water.  Experiment with different amounts of water, making sure that the bulbs still float.  Bulbs that float higher in a cup of water will make divers that are more difficult to sink.

4.  Your Cartesian diver is ready!  Fill a 1 or 2 liter plastic soda bottle almost to the top with water.  Place your diver in the bottle and screw on the Fizz-Keeper pump cap.  Try squeezing the bottle.  Can you make your diver sink?  Now pump the Fizz-Keeper and watch as your diver sinks right to the bottom.  Can you figure out how to get it back up to the top?

5.  Remove the pump cap, pour out your diver, and try varying its buoyancy.  Try filling it with different amounts of water.  Put it back in the bottle, replace the pump cap and try sinking it again.

6.  When you are satisfied with your divers and would like to make it permanent, you can seal it by sealing the open end of the bulb.  This can be done with any waterproof glue, hot glue, or by melting the plastic stem slightly and squeezing it gently with small pliers.

To seal the bulb by melting, first make sure your bulb floats.  Once it is sealed, its starting buoyancy cannot be changed! Make sure there is no water in the neck by holding it upside down and tapping or squeezing it slightly.  Hold the neck about 1-2 inches above a candle flame until it becomes completely transparent (the change is very subtle).  Immediately remove the neck from above the flame and squeeze the end gently with pliers to seal.  Let cool.  Return your diver to the bottle with clean water and it will last for many years.

There are literally hundreds of experiments you can try!  For instance, try crumpling up a piece of aluminum foil into a small ball.  Place this in your bottle.  See if you can sink it by squeezing the bottle… how about pumping it?  Small packets of soy sauce have also been known to work!

Use more pipets and vary their densities.  Try numbering your divers and see if you can make them sink in order.  Note that your divers are not yet sealed, and so they can be adjusted as many times as you like (colored water will leak out of them until they are sealed).

Educational Innovations carries a full line of Cartesian Diver materials, including Bob Becker’s DVD that demonstrates and discusses a plethora of fascinating diver designs.  Bob Becker, an award winning high school chemistry teacher, is a pioneer in the field of Cartesian divers.  This DVD includes DVD-ROM which contains additional resources such as project guides and templates.

Pocket Sound Blaster

Norman Barstowby: Norman Barstow

Frequency, Wavelength and Pitch:

Sound is a tone you hear as the result of regular, evenly spaced waves of air molecules. The most noticeable difference is that some tones sound higher or lower than others. These differences are caused by variations in spacing between the waves; the closer the waves are, the higher the tone sounds. The spacing of the waves – the distance from the high point of one wave to high point of the next one – is the wavelength.

All sound waves travel at about the same speed in a given medium. So, waves with a longer wavelength don’t arrive (at your ear, for example) as often (frequently) as the shorter waves. This aspect of a sound – how often a wave peak goes by – is called frequency by scientists and engineers.

The word that musicians use for frequency is pitch. The shorter the wavelength is, the higher the frequency, and subsequently the higher the pitch of the sound. In other words, short waves sound high; long waves sound low.

The Pocket Sound Blaster

Many instruments produce sound by vibrating a column of air inside a tube, e.g. flute, trumpet, and saxophone.   A sound wave is created by a vibrating object. The actual frequency at which an object will vibrate is determined by a variety of factors including the object’s size, the material the object is made from, and the medium in which the sound wave is vibrating.

Since frequency = speed/wavelength, an alteration in either speed or wavelength will result in an alteration of the natural frequency.

When you blow into the side hole of the Pocket Sound Blaster, (SNG-600) the Pocket Sound Blasterrubber diaphragm vibrates as air pressure repeatedly increases and then is released.  The vibration then resonates through the chamber and exits through the Pocket Sound Blasteropen end of the tube.

Activity #1:

As you blow into the hole of the Sound Blaster, lightly touch the diaphragm to see whether the sound changes.  Does the pitch get higher or lower? Drummers can change the tension on their drum-heads to change the pitch.

Activity # 2:  Slide Trombone

As you blow into the hole of the Sound Blaster, insert your other hand’s thumb and move it in and out. Notice any change in pitch?  For longer tubes, use a cork on the end of a barbecue skewer or thin wooden dowel to change the column of air and to make your own ‘trombone’.

Activity #3: Length of the tube (column of air)Pocket Sound Blaster

Use cardboard tubes (toilet paper, paper towels, mailing tubes) of varying lengths to make the Pocket Sound Blaster tube longer. You’ll have to taper the ends of the cardboard tubes to make them fit the outside diameter of the Pocket Sound Blaster.

Pocket Sound BlasterShorter is Higher — Longer is Lower:   Change the length of this vibrating column of air by varying the length of a tube.  Because the Pocket Sound Blaster is short, it produces a higher pitch or frequency.  This happens because sound waves can travel, or vibrate, a shorter distance faster than a longer distance.

Activity # 4:

Since the Pocket Sound Blaster tube is approximately 3″ long, make a series of card board tubes in 3 inch increments (3”, 6”, 9”, 12” etc.) to see how this affects the tone.

Activity #5:

The diaphragm of the Pocket Sound Blaster is held on by the plastic ring. Gently Pocket Sound Blasterremove the ring and explore with other diaphragm material:  wax paper, parchment paper, zip bag plastic, other balloons, latex or Nitrile glove material, etc. What changes do you discover?

Activity #6: Sound Energy

Can the sound from the Pocket Sound Blaster perform work?

  1. Try to blow out a birthday candle with the Pocket Sound Blaster.
  2. Put some confetti or puffed rice cereal in the tube and blow through the side hole. What happens?
  3. Hold the Sound Blaster so the rubber end is upright.  Place some puffed rice on the latex and blow.  Observe the movement of the puffed rice due to the vibration of the surface.

The Toroidal Vortex

Ellen Lewisby: Ellen Lewis

A Toroidal Vortex is whirling air or liquid in the shape of a doughnut.  Vortices are created in nature by many things including dolphins, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and whirlpools.  They can be created around the wings of an airplane, in the wake of a boat, or in a rocket blast.  Now you can make Toroidal Vortices in your classroom with the Zero Launcher and the Air Zooka.  Use these products to discuss friction, pressure, the Bernoulli Effect, or the Coanda Effect.

Activity 1: A Simple Toroidal Vortex

Create a simple Toroidal Vortex with a droplet of food coloring and a tall glass of water.  Start by holding the dropper about 3 cm above the water’s surface.  Squeeze a single drop of food coloring straight down into the glass.  You will be amazed to see how the friction between the water and the food coloring will create the doughnut shaped rings! Read the rest of this entry »