The Fairy-Land of Science Lecture 4 – Part 1

Lecture IV. A Drop Of Water On Its Travels

4 openWe are going to spend an hour to-day in following a drop of water on its travels. If I dip my finger in this basin of water and lift it up again, I bring with it a small glistening drop out of the body of water below, and hold it before you. Tell me, have you any idea where this drop has been? what changes it has undergone, and what work it has been doing during all the long ages that water has lain on the face of the earth? It is a drop now, but it was not so before I lifted it out of the basin; then it was part of a sheet of water, and will be so again if I let it fall. Again, if I were to put this basin on the stove till all the water had boiled away, where would my drop be then? Where would it go? What forms will it take before it reappears in the rain-cloud, the river, or the sparkling dew?

These are questions we are going to try to answer to-day; and first, before we can in the least understand how water travels, we must call to mind what we have learnt about the sunbeams and the air. We must have clearly pictured in our imagination those countless sun-waves which are for ever crossing space, and especially those larger and slower undulations, the dark heat- waves; for it is these, you will remember, which force the air- atoms apart and make the air light, and it is also these which are most busy in sending water on its travels. But not these alone. The sun-waves might shake the water-drops as much as they liked and turn them into invisible vapour, but they could not carry them over the earth if it were not for the winds and currents of that aerial ocean which bears the vapour on its bosom, and wafts it to different regions of the world.

Let us try to understand how these two invisible workers, the sun-waves and the air, deal with the drops of water. I have here a kettle (Fig. 18, p. 76) boiling over a spirit-lamp, and I want you to follow minutely what is going on in it. First, in the flame of the lamp, atoms of the spirit drawn up from below are clashing with the oxygen-atoms in the air. This, as you know, causes heat-waves and light-waves to move rapidly all round the lamp. The light-waves cannot pass through the kettle, but the heat-waves can, and as they enter the water inside they agitate it violently. Quicker, and still more quickly, the particles of water near the bottom of the kettle move to and fro and are shaken apart; and as they become light they rise through the colder water letting another layer come down to be heated in its turn. The motion grows more and more violent, making the water hotter and hotter, till at last the particles of which it is composed fly asunder, and escape as invisible vapour. If this kettle were transparent you would not see any steam above the water, because it is in the form of an invisible gas. But as the steam comes out of the mouth of the kettle you see a cloud. Why is this? Because the vapour is chilled by coming out into the cold air, and its particles are drawn together again into tiny, tiny drops of water, to which Dr. Tyndall has given the suggestive name of water-dust. If you hold a plate over the steam you can catch these tiny drops, though they will run into one another almost as you are catching them.

The clouds you see floating in the sky are made of exactly the same kind of water-dust as the cloud from the kettle, and I wish to show you that this is also really the same as the invisible steam within the kettle. I will do so by an experiment suggested by Dr. Tyndall. Here is another spirit-lamp, which I will hold under the cloud of steam – see! the cloud disappears! As soon as the water-dust is heated the

4 part 1 disappears!

heat-waves scatter it again into invisible particles, which float away into the room. Even without the spirit-lamp, you can convince yourself that water-vapour may be invisible; for close to the mouth of the kettle you will see a short blank space before the cloud begins. In this space there must be steam, but it is still so hot that you cannot see it; and this proves that heat-waves can so shake water apart as to carry it away invisibly right before your eyes.

Now, although we never see any water travelling from our earth up into the skies, we know that it goes there, for it comes down again in rain, and so it must go up invisibly. But where does the heat come from which makes this water invisible? Not from below, as in the case of the kettle, but from above, pouring down from the sun. Wherever the sun-waves touch the rivers, ponds, lakes, seas, or fields of ice and snow upon our earth, they carry off invisible water-vapour. They dart down through the top layers of the water, and shake the water-particles forcibly apart; and in this case the drops fly asunder more easily and before they are so hot, because they are not kept down by a great weight of water above, as in the kettle, but find plenty of room to spread themselves out in the gaps between the air-atoms of the atmosphere.

Can you imagine these water-particles, just above any pond or lake, rising up and getting entangled among the air-atoms? They are very light, much lighter than the atmosphere; and so, when a great many of them are spread about in the air which lies just over the pond, they make it much lighter than the layer of air above, and so help it to rise, while the heavier layer of air comes down ready to take up more vapour.

In this way the sun-waves and the air carry off water everyday, and all day long, from the top of lakes, rivers, pools, springs, and seas, and even from the surface of ice and snow. Without any fuss or noise or sign of any kind, the water of our earth is being drawn up invisibly into the sky.

It has been calculated that in the Indian Ocean three-quarters of an inch of water is carried off from the surface of the sea in one day and night; so that as much as 22 feet, or a depth of water about twice the height of an ordinary room, is silently and invisibly lifted up from the whole surface of the ocean in one year. It is true this is one of the hottest parts of the earth, where the sun-waves are most active; but even in our own country many feet of water are drawn up in the summer-time.

What, then, becomes of all this water? Let us follow it as it struggles upwards to the sky. We see it in our imagination first carrying layer after layer of air up with it from the sea till it rises far above our heads and above the highest mountains. But now, call to mind what happens to the air as it recedes from the earth. Do you not remember that the air-atoms are always trying to fly apart, and are only kept pressed together by the weight of air above them? Well, so this water-laden air rises up, its particles, no longer so much pressed together, begin to separate, and as all work requires an expenditure of heat, the air becomes colder, and then you know at once what must happen to the invisible vapour, — it will form into tiny water-drops, like the steam from the kettle. And so, as the air rises and becomes colder, the vapour gathers into the visible masses, and we can see it hanging in the sky, and call it clouds. When these clouds are highest they are about ten miles from the earth, but when they are made of heavy drops and hang low down, they sometimes come within a mile of the ground.

Look up at the clouds as you go home, and think that the water of which they are made has all been drawn up invisibly through the air. Not, however, necessarily here in London, for we have already seen that air travels as wind all over the world, rushing in to fill spaces made by rising air wherever they occur, and so these clouds may be made of vapour collected in the Mediterranean, or in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of America, or even, if the wind is from the north, of chilly particles gathered from the surface of Greenland ice and snow, and brought here by the moving currents of air. Only, of one thing we may be sure, that they come from the water of our earth.

Sometimes, if the air is warm, these water-particles may travel a long way without ever forming into clouds; and on a hot, cloudless day the air is often very full of invisible vapour. Then, if a cold wind comes sweeping along, high up in the sky, and chills this vapour, it forms into great bodies of water-dust clouds, and the sky is overcast. At other times clouds hang lazily in a bright sky, and these show us that

4 part 1 At other timesjust where they are (as in Fig. 19) the air is cold and turns the invisible vapour rising from the ground into visible water-dust, so that exactly in those spaces we see it as clouds. Such clouds form often on warm, still summer’s day, and they are shaped like masses of wool, ending in a straight line below. They are not merely hanging in the sky, they are really resting upon a tall column of invisible vapour which stretches right up from the earth; and that straight line under the clouds marks the place where the air becomes cold enough to turn this

And now, suppose that while these or any other kind of clouds are overhead, there comes along either a very cold wind, or a wind full of vapour. As it passes through the clouds, it makes them very full of water, for, if it chills them, it makes the water- dust draw more closely together; or, if it brings a new load of water-dust, the air is fuller than it can hold. In either case a number of water-particles are set free, and our fairy force “cohesion” seizes upon them at once and forms them into large water-drops. Then they are much heavier than the air, and so they can float no longer, but down they come to the earth in a shower of rain.

There are other ways in which the air may be chilled, and rain made to fall, as, for example, when a wind laden with moisture strikes against the cold tops of mountains. Thus the Khasia Hills in India which face the Bay of Bengal, chill the air which crosses them on its way from the Indian Ocean. The wet winds are driven up the sides of the hills, the air expands, and the vapour is chilled, and forming into drops, falls in torrents of rain. Sir J. Hooker tells us that as much as 500 inches of rain fell in these hills in nine months. That is to say, if you could measure off all the ground over which the rain fell, and spread the whole nine months’ rain over it, it would make a lake 500 inches, or more than 40 feet deep! You will not be surprised that the country on the other side of these hills gets hardly any rain, for all the water has been taken out of the air before it comes there. Again for example in England, the wind comes to Cumberland and Westmorland over the Atlantic, full of vapour, and as it strikes against the Pennine Hills it shakes off its watery load; so that the lake district is the most rainy in England, with the exception perhaps of Wales, where the high mountains have the same effect.

In this way, from different causes, the water of which the sun has robbed our rivers and seas, comes back to us, after it has travelled to various parts of the world, floating on the bosom of the air. But it does not always fall straight back into the rivers and seas again, a large part of it falls on the land, and has to trickle down slopes and into the earth, in order to get back to its natural home, and it is often caught on its way before it can reach the great waters.

Go to Lecture 4-Part 2 here.