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What A Slinky Knows and What That Means to Our Drought Response

By   /  April 1, 2013  /  Comments Off on What A Slinky Knows and What That Means to Our Drought Response

What can a slinky tell us about how to survive drought? RadioLab explains why a slinky can “hover” and we explain how to combine that information with the Hydro-illogical cycle to plan for and get through dry spells and drought.

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Here's a link to the RadioLab podcast AND a GREAT video showing the slinky effect in action (with a scientist explaining how it works.) It even has a written summary in case you don't have 14 minutes to listen to the podcast.

Here’s a link to the RadioLab podcast AND a GREAT video showing the slinky effect in action (with a scientist explaining how it works.) It even has a written summary in case you don’t have 14 minutes to listen to the podcast. And notice the goat on the earth and the parachuting cows in the RadioLab header.  They must be on our side!

We all know about gravity and how it keeps things firmly attached to the earth.  And we’ve all experienced what happens when we’re climbing over a fence and somehow manage to trip and fall.  When that happens to us, we wish we could hover for a moment so we could get our feet under us before gravity yanks us to the ground.  But physics doesn’t provide for hovering.

Or does it?  Last September, RadioLab posted a podcast about “What A Slinky Knows” describing what happens when you drop a slinky.  Here’s the experiment instructions from their blog post if you have a slinky and would like to try this at home:

1) Dangle a Slinky above the ground as though you were holding a fish by the tip of its tail.

2) Let it extend to its full length.

3) Let go.

For a fraction of a second, something amazing happens: the bottom of slinky hovers in midair, seeming to defy the laws of physics, while the top collapses toward it.

This isn’t a result of any magical properties the slinky has.  The bottom just floats there because it hasn’t gotten the information yet.  As scientists explain, each collapsing ring of the slinky is a wave of information communicating to the next ring below “We’re falling!” until it reaches the bottom ring which then falls to the ground.  According to the scientists on the podcast, Steve Strogatz and Neil deGrasse Tyson “Information flows have a lot to do with how our physical world works” We can even imagine ourselves as the bottom of the slinky, making new choices as new information waves hit us.

Hydro-illogical cycleThis got me to thinking about the “Hydro-Illogical Cycle” that I found recently on the National Drought Mitigation Center’s website.  They commissioned an artist to draw it for them to illustrate our response to drought as described by I.R. Tannehill in 1947 in his book Drought: Its Causes and Effects:

We welcome the first clear day after a rainy spell. Rainless days continue for a time and we are pleased to have a long spell of such fine weather. It keeps on and we are a little worried. A few days more and we are really in trouble. The first rainless day in a spell of fine weather contributes as much to the drought as the last, but no one knows how serious it will be until the last dry day is gone and the rains have come again.

When it comes to drought, we’re a little like the bottom of the slinky.  We don’t even know that the rings are collapsing above us until suddenly, there we are in the middle of a drought.  Fortunately we have more power over our own future than the slinky does.  Even if we don’t know if the drought is coming, or if the end is in sight, we can change our behavior to protect the land and our businesses.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring how we can respond to drought and its potential. We’ll share stories from farmers and ranchers who are in the process of making it through, and provide information on how you can prepare for drought or help yourself out if you’re in it.  We’d also love to hear from you about your problems, solutions and concerns so that we can find the information you need to address them.  Last but not least, we’d love to hear about mistakes.  We all love success stories, but often we can learn at least as much, if not more, from things that didn’t go right.  If we can learn from someone else’s mistakes, we’ll all be ahead of the game.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

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