Saturday, April 1, 2017

A fascinating thermodynamics demonstration: the drinking bird

I am currently helping teach a second year undergraduate course Thermodynamics and Condensed Matter Physics. For the first time I am helping out in some of the lab sessions. Two of the experiments are based on the drinking bird.

This illustrates two important topics: heat engines and liquid-vapour equilibria.

Here are a few observations fo in random order.

* I still find it fascinating to watch. Why isn't it a perpetual motion machine?

* Several more surprising things are:
a. it operates on such a small temperature difference,
b. that there is a temperature difference between the head and bulb,
c. it is so sensitive to perturbations such as warming with your fingers or changes in humidity.

* It took me quite a while to understand what is going on, which makes me wonder about the students doing the lab. How much are they following the recipe and saying the mantra...

* I try to encourage the students to think critically and scientifically about what is going on, asking some basic questions, such as "How do you know the head is cooler than the bulb? What experiment can you do right now to test your hypothesis? How can you test whether evaporative cooling is responsible for cooling the head?" Such an approach is briefly described in this old paper.

* Understanding and approximately quantifying the temperature of the head involves the concept of humidity, wet-bulb temperature and a psychometric chart. Again I find this challenging.

* This lab is a great example of how you don't necessarily need a lot of money and fancy equipment to teach a lot of important science and skills.

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