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The surface layer of liquids has a thin elastic “skin” called surface tension. You can see surface tension at work when you see a drop of water – it creates a little “bead” of water, like a little dome. Surface tension is what makes the dome shape – the water doesn’t flatten out. See the drops of water on that leaf? Water is made up of two kinds of atoms, hydrogen and oxygen. The name for the water molecule is H20. The water molecule has 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. Water molecules are attracted to each other because hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms are attracted to each other and hug close together really tight. They hug so close together they don’t want to touch other molecules around them. In the picture, you can see that the water drops have formed into balls so that they are touching the smallest amount of leaf possible.
Try this to see surface tension at work:
What You Need:
- dish soap
Fill the bowl with water. Sprinkle some pepper on top of the water – see how it just sits there on top of the water? The pepper is resting on that thin “skin” of surface tension. You can also try this with toothpicks – the toothpicks will also just sit on top of the water resting on the thin “skin” of surface tension.
No put a few drops of dish soap in the water with the pepper. What happens? Soap molecules are different than water molecules. Soap molecules DON’T stick together and they DON’T stick to the water molecule. One part of the soap molecule is attracted to water and the other part wants to push water away – that’s what makes the pepper, or the toothpicks, scatter. The soap breaks the surface tension that water has, it breaks those bonds between the water molecules.
Here are some books and websites to help you explore more about surface tension:
- TryScience: Pepper Scatter
- Exploratorium: Sticky Water
- Nye Labs: Penny Droplets
- Science Experiments that Fly and and Move: Surface Magic (pages 6-7)
Words to Know:
Surface Tension - The film that forms on the surface of liquids caused by the attraction of the particles in the surface.
Cohesion – The attraction between like molecules; to stick together.