From the Tour de France to NASCAR, competitors and fans know that speed is only part of the equation. Strategy -- and the ability to use elements like aerodynamic drafting, which makes it easier to follow closely behind a leader than to be out in front -- is also critical.
But in some cases, drafting happens in reverse: It's the leader of a pack who experiences reduced drag, while the followers encounter more resistance -- and have to expend more energy to keep up.
In research published in the Nov. 7 issue of Physical Review Letters (Vol. 101: No. 194502), Cornell fourth-year physics graduate student Leif Ristroph and New York University researcher Jun Zhang used a simple tabletop experiment to show that two or more flexible objects in a flow -- flags flapping in the wind, for example -- experience drag very differently than rigid objects in a similar flow.
The findings could help biologists understand a variety of phenomena, including why animals like fish and birds travel in groups.
"It's counterintuitive," said Ristroph. "People who have studied schooling fish and flocking birds always postulate that they flock because the ones downstream can save energy, and the guy who's at the front has to work harder. Here's a case where that gets turned on its head."
To test the effects of a flowing fluid on flexible objects, Ristroph created a thin film of soapy water -- the beginning of a giant soap bubble -- stretched between two fishing lines and constantly refreshed with a flow of water from the top. Into the membrane, he inserted pieces of thin rubber (the flags) -- attached to perpendicular wire "flagpoles."
To measure the forces on the flags as water flowed past them, Ristroph attached small mirrors -- actually microscope cover slips -- to the far ends of the "flagpoles." As the flags flapped in the flow, the slightly flexible poles moved correspondingly -- and by shining a laser light on the mirrors
|Contact: Blaine Friedlander|
Cornell University Communications