This blog-post is written by Mark Rosin and Olivia Koski with the help of Enrico Fonda, a fluid dynamics researcher who worked with us to develop the Oobleck Olympics, a mathematics-themed obstacle course at the National Math Festival. 

Target practice using giant, doughnut-shaped smoke-rings fired from a 55 gallon vortex cannons. (Credit: National Math Festival)

Target practice using giant, doughnut-shaped smoke-rings fired from a 55 gallon vortex cannon. (Credit: National Math Festival)

You have three minutes to aim and fire a giant vortex canon, wobble an Oobleck membrane, pressurize in two containers – identically, and create a spherical soap film.

Ready… Steady… Go!

On April 18th hundreds of adults and kids gathered for the inaugural Oobleck Olympics in Washington DC. The competition was part of the first National Math festival, organized by Guerilla Science and developed by scientists from NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, and NYU Physics. Throughout the course of the day, over twenty-thousand people came through to attend the festival at the Smithsonian’s Haupt Garden, and other museums.

Our aim. To give everyone a physical, and brutally competitive first contact with that well known and widely supported sport – mathematical athletics.

Commentator Frank Todaro can barely contain his excitement (Credit: Victoria Louise).

Commentator Frank Todaro can barely contain his excitement as the race begins. (Credit: Victoria Louise).

The Oobleck Olympic pitted teams of three against each other in a highly challenging four-stage race. The exciting, and at times heartbreaking, action was supervised by two star referees Tommy Fabien and Tyler Chi Do, while a crack commentary team of James ‘the Professor’ Hedberg, Frank Todaro and Rob Shapiro provided scientific explanations and light, comic relief.

Vortex in a Bottle obstacle: Other examples of vortocies include tornadoes, hurricanes, the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, or going to the toilet. (Credit: National Math Festival)

Vortex in a Bottle obstacle: Other examples of vortices include tornadoes, hurricanes, the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, and flushing the toilet. (Credit: Victoria Louise.)

The competitors obstacle of initiation was the Vortex in a Bottle. The goal: to empty a massive jug as quickly as possible. Sore losers and failed contenders found that simply inverting a jug leads to a creeping glug-glug pour, as air bubbles slow the flow. The path to victory lay in some hip-shaking butt-busting motion to spin the jug and create a vortex. The hole in the middle of the whirlpool – a small version of the Maelström described by Poe – balances the pressure between inside and out, allowing for silky smooth flow!

Oobleck is a mixture of cornstarch and water. Like ketchup it sometimes acts like a liquid, and sometimes acts like solid. You can run on it, but if you walk, you sink!

Oobleck is a mixture of cornstarch and water. Like ketchup it sometimes acts like a liquid, and sometimes acts like solid. And, it loves to dance to bass. (Credit: Louise Victoria.)

Also up for contention was the titular Oobleck Dance Off where oobleck,  that gooey substance that Dr Seuss declares “won’t look like rain, won’t look like snow”, could not make up its mind how to behave. Competitors raced to pick the perfect songs from a soundtrack of the ages to make the Oobleck dance on the surface of a speaker. (Oobleck is a funny substance, you can run on it, but if you walk, you sink!)

As the second placers were quick to find out, classical, smooth jazz, classic rock, or even the kickdrum of pumping house music did not cut the mustard. The path to victory lay in clocking that oobleck is a basshead, with a sweet tooth for sustained low frequencies. The winners were the ones to play a bit of deep techno, a track of bassy hip-hop or some dubstep. They waited for the drop, the oobleck went nuts and they progressed, to victory.

Victory in the Oobleck Olympics is often a cause of national celebration.

Victory in the Oobleck Olympics is often a cause of national celebration. (Credit: Louise Victoria.)

The first team to complete the course grabbed the winning flag. They were rewarded with deserved bragging rights and the admiration of the cheering crowd. Every participant, winner or loser, left with good memories, some understanding of mathematical athletics and an enhanced curiosity about science of fluids.

Credits: Demonstrations built and operated by mechanical engineering students Thomas Fabian, James Forbes, Tyler Chi Do from the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering supervised by Enrico Fonda from NYU Physics, in collaboration with students Stephen Johnston, Himanshu Dedge from the STAML laboratory at Georgia Tech lead by Prof. Devesh Ranjan.

Vortex cannons directly inspired from design by Daniel Zimmerman of the Nonlinear Dynamics Lab at the University of Maryland lead by Prof. Daniel Lathrop.