All general physics textbooks include a chapter regarding hydrostatics. Archimedes’ and Pascal’s principles are commonly covered, but surface tension is merely named. Few people knows that surface tension contributes to the buoyancy of any object, with more or less relevance.1 I think that including surface tension in general physics courses is important to understand all phenomena regarding hydrostatics, and this is why every year, before starting the lesson regarding hydrostatics, I pose a question to the students: Can 1 kg of iron float on water? Usually, some of them answer instinctively, saying, “no, that is not possible.” Others, knowing that I am used to showing them physics “tricks” in the classroom, remain thoughtful. Anyway, it is a question that would be answered negatively by around 90% of questioned people. However, as I will show, there are at least two ways to make 1 kg of iron float. When we think about 1 kg of iron or other metal, we often think about it as a compact cubic-shaped block. In that case, the answer is no, since the weight overcomes the other forces, such as the buoyancy force, among others.2–5
The necessary thickness of the iron boat is t = ∼4 mm, and, in this way, the kilogram of iron will float.
Finally, since it is difficult to manage 1 kg of iron, we may perform a didactic experiment using aluminum foil. First, we cut a circular piece of foil and fill a basin with water. As we may observe in Fig. 3(a), the piece of aluminum remains on the surface of the water. We have measured the radius and mass of the piece of aluminum, resulting in r = 6.5 cm and m = 0.45 g, respectively. Then the surface tension, obtained with Eq. (1), and the weight are F = 2.96 × 10−2 N and w = 4.4 × 10−3 N, respectively. As the surface tension is higher than the weight, the foil floats. Having a closer look at Fig. 3(a), we observe the effect of the surface tension in the light shadows and reflections around the aluminum piece. Next, we may decrease the surface tension of water by adding liquid soap. Thus, the aluminum piece does not float but falls to the bottom of the basin [Fig. 3(b)]. Finally, making a shell with it, we can make it float again [Fig. 3(c)]. This time, it floats because of the buoyancy force, since the surface tension is negligible.
Here, I have answered the question, can 1 kg of iron float on water? It is a question that cannot be answered without some knowledge about hydrostatics. I show that there are at least two ways to achieve it: one by using the surface tension of water and the other by using the buoyancy force or Archimedes’ theorem. In both cases, the kilogram of iron surprisingly floats. Finally, we prove it experimentally by using aluminum foil. This exercise and experimental demonstration could be interesting as examples of both phenomena in introductory physics courses at all levels.
I thank my son Ahren and my daugther Nell for their help with the experiments. This work has been partially supported by Gobierno de Aragón-Fondo Social Europeo (Grupo de Tecnologías Ópticas Láser, E44_23R) and Universidad de Zaragoza (PRAUZ_23_4628 and PRAUZ_23_4652).
Francisco Jose Torcal-Milla is an associate professor of physics in the Applied Physics Department of the University of Zaragoza (Spain). His areas of research include optics and applied physics. He is also passionate about teaching and classroom experimentation.