Math 312 - Applied Math handout # 2

Why are those drops on the spider’s web so evenly spaced?
Have you ever noticed beads of sticky substance regularly placed along the threads of a spider’s web? That substance is the “glue” that spiders use to keep the unfortunate insects that get caught in their webs from seeking pastures new. This ‘pearling’ phenomenon arises, as Philip Ball has noted in The Self-Made Tapestry, not because the spider has painstakingly designed it so; rather it is a consequence of the instability of cylindrical columns of liquid to undulations along its surface. The basic idea behind all this is that given any small ‘waviness’ on the surface, the surface tension of the liquid acts to accentuate this curvature, and the result is that each undulation is pulled into a ‘blob’ isolated from its companions. They are strung out like pearls and the unwitting insects are caught, to be captured by the sticky blobs and eaten at a later date. It is interesting to note that the spider only lays down the sticky substance on the spiral threads; the radial ones, constructed first, are not sticky, so that the spider can move rapidly from the perimeter to the center when lunch arrives. This instability was studied by Lord Rayleigh at the end of the nineteenth century, and for that reason it is sometimes referred to as the Rayleigh instability. It should not be confused with another phenomenon, the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, which is associated with adjacent fluids of different densities in a gravitational field. An interesting feature of many fluid-dynamical (and other) instabilities is that while it may occur (as here) for all wavelengths of undulation (or a least a continuous subset), there is usually a particular wavelength  (or equivalently, a wavenumber k  2/) that is the most unstable. This means that wave-like perturbations with this wavelength depart from the cylindrical form (in this instance) most rapidly in time. It is this critical wavelength  c that determines the size and separation of the droplets along the spider thread. It is essentially this same instability that is responsible for the break-up into droplets of a thin non-turbulent stream of water issuing from a tap (see figure 1(a)), although the presence of gravity does tend to accelerate the instability by ‘tearing’ the droplets away from the stream. Melting fuse wire (as in the old-time fuses) is subject to the same effects. Ball explains clearly how such pattern-forming processes may be initiated by abruptly-occurring instabilities: “Generally an instability sets in when some critical parameter is surpassed...Two common aspects of pattern-forming instabilities are that they involve symmetry-breaking...and that they have a characteristic wavelength, so that the features of the pattern have a specific size.” In the present case, the symmetry that is broken is the cylindrical symmetry of the liquid about the axis of the thread.

Fig.1(a): The “pearling” phenomenon To discuss this instability in mathematical terms, consider a cylinder of liquid (or soap film) of radius a, and ignore gravitational forces; the fact that the figure is drawn vertically is of no significance. Let the axis of symmetry be the x-axis, and denote the radial direction by r. Now we allow the column to be perturbed by a small periodic or undulatory disturbance of wavelength  (wavenumber k), so that its radius r is deformed as a function of axial position x in the following manner: r  a  b cos 2x   a  b cos kx, b â a. (1)

Fig.1(b): Notation for equation (1) The strong inequality b â a means that the disturbance is really small; it changes the ambient radius a by only a small relative amount (this essentially reduces our problem to a linear one as we shall see shortly). The curvature at any point is associated with a pressure, compensating differences in surface tension. Referring to the diagram of the now-corrugated cylinder (figure 1(b)), note that this system is stable (i.e. the uniform cylindrical shape is restored) if the pressure at points like A is greater than the pressure at points like B. This is because the pressure will tend to be equalized, and this will induce the opposite curvature at these points, restoring the column towards its original non-perturbed shape. For any given point on the liquid surface, the maximum possible radial extension under this perturbation is R 1  a  b; in the perpendicular direction (parallel to the axis of symmetry) the radius of curvature (as any calculus book will demonstrate) is R2  1  dr dx
2 3/2 

d2r dx 2




For sufficiently small initial deformations we may assume that |dr/dx| â 1, so R2 d2r dx 2



From the form of the perturbation, it follows that

d 2 r  k 2 b cos kx dx 2

k 2 b,


so at the point of greatest extension (e.g. A), the maximum pressure above the external (atmospheric) pressure is  1  1 R1 R2  1  k2b . ab (5)

Similarly at points like B, the minimum pressure difference above the external is  1 a b k2b . (6)

Therefore the pressure difference between points like A and B is  1 ab 1 a b  2k 2 b   2k 2 b 2b a2 b2 2b k 2 1 a2 , (7)

since by hypothesis b â a. This pressure difference is positive when ka  1, or 2a   c  . From our earlier discussion this corresponds to a stable situation; any disturbance with    c tends to damp out. On the other hand, if    c , the critical wavelength, then the cylindrical column becomes unstable, causing the sticky thread to fragment into well-defined drops. Thus instability occurs if the wavelength is too large or the column is too narrow, according to the above criterion. It must be pointed out that this analysis is only sufficient to describe the onset of instability; a detailed study of the subsequent instability (for which we have only employed the waving of hands) requires a fully nonlinear analysis. It is interesting to note that this instability can be induced in a narrow stream of water flowing from a tap by placing a vibrating tuning fork close to the stream; if the frequency is low enough, then the corresponding corrugations induced on the surface of the stream will break up into droplets. And this is often what is seen on freshly-constructed spider webs!

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